Special Report: Is the UGA Athletic Board a paper Bulldog?

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Running the UGA athletic program is a massive undertaking. The UGA Athletic board holds its spring meetings this week.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND — The morning that Mark Richt was fired, Janet Frick found out via an e-mail, just before a similar one was sent out to the media. When UGA presented plans for the most expensive facility project in recent history, Frick found out the same time as everyone else.

That would all be fine in Frick’s role as a tenured faculty member in psychology. But what sets Frick apart is that she’s also a member of the UGA Athletic Board – and with that comes a perception that members are walking sources of inside knowledge, consulted regularly on what’s about to happen.

What is on tap for the UGA Athletic Board this week?

But that’s not how it works.

“The flow of information is going in one direction, I guess that’s one way to put it,” Frick said with a laugh.

This week in St Simons, at the posh King and Prince resort, the UGA athletic board will meet for its annual spring meeting, which tends to be the most eventful – but not the most surprising, as long as the powers that be have it their way.

UGA President Jere Morehead (tan jacket) calls to order the 2016 end-of-year meeting of the full UGA athletic association board of directors. (AJC / CHIP TOWERS)

There may be a mystery about what the board really does, or doesn’t do, what its role is, and the people who are on it. A major function of the board is to provide perfunctory approval to decisions already made by the athletic director.

Dissent is rare, if nonexistent.

“The board of directors at Apple, they’re there to make it the absolute best company in the world,” said Ryan Scates, a student board member from 2012-13. “The board of directors for Georgia, they’re kind of just there to promote what the president wants to do. Which, you know, at a university might be how it should be.”

The biggest misconception may involve hiring and firing coaches. There is a belief held by many fans that board members have a vote or a say in coaching-related decisions, whether it be hirings and firings, or salaries. If they do, the power is wielded behind the scenes. The board, as it stands now, is merely an advisory board.

“I can count on one hand the amount of times we actually voted. It’s by consensus,” said Tommy Lawhorne, now a non-voting emeritus board member. “Things have settled before we get to the vote, if you will.”

It didn’t always used to be this way. A former board member recalls that the board was more active in matters such as hiring and firing of coaches. In fact this board member said he was in the room when one football coach was let go.

But somewhere along the lines it changed.

In this special report, through interviews, on and off the record, with some current and former members, DawgNation offers a look at the board, its operations and members.

WHO IS ON THE BOARD?

According to the bylaws, the UGA athletic board of directors shall have “general control” over athletics. There are 19 voting members of the board, broken down as follows:

  • The President, who is now Jere Morehead.
  • The provost (Pamela Whitten).
  • The vice president for finance and administration (Ryan Nesbit).
  • The faculty rep for athletics (David Shipley).
  • Six faculty members, three elected by the university council, and three who are appointed by UGA’s president.
  • Seven members “at large” who are elected from what’s referred to as the Nominations Committee (which consists of other board members). Six of these seven at-large members must be alumni.
  • The sitting president of the UGA alumni association.
  • A full-time student who is elected annually.

The appointed and elected members (other than the student rep) serve three-year terms. You can be re-appointed, but serve no more than three terms.

When members join the board, they are provided with two complimentary season tickets for football, and one parking pass, and two complimentary season tickets for other sports upon request. Board members attend three meetings per year, in September, February and May.

Once you serve nine years, you reach emeritus status. But the board can also under “special circumstances” name an emeritus member who has only served four years. Emeritus members are no longer among the voting members but bylaws state they “shall have such privilege and rights as designated” by the board.

Greg McGarity and Jere Morehead with Kirby Smart at the groundbreaking ceremony for the indoor facility last year. (UGA)

The athletics director is not officially a board member. But he sits next to the president at the meetings, and often leads – or guides – the meetings. The AD basically provides the agenda.

Two current student-athletes are on the board – football player Jeb Blazevich is one of them this year – but they don’t have voting power. There is one former scholarship player currently on the board: Jon Stinchcomb, who came in as an at-large member last year.

Lawhorne thinks it’s “helpful” to have former athletes on the board.

“They have a perspective that the president and athletic director don’t have. And sometimes it’s useful,” Lawhorne said.

Former UGA football player Mack Guest was also on the board for years, and is now also an emeritus member. So is Sonny Seiler, the legendary holder of the Uga line. Among current board members, alumni members include Don Leeburn, the son of longtime UGA booster Don Leeburn Jr., and Bill Young, whose son Brandon was a walk-on for the UGA men’s basketball team the past four years.

Why are there so many faculty members on a board for athletics? That was a byproduct of the Jan Kemp scandal, according to faculty members.

“It provides a way of signifying that the academic mission is very important to the work of the athletic association,” Frick said. “That it’s not a side note.”

And by being on the athletic board, these faculty members can be a conduit to other faculty members, combating any misperceptions about student-athletes.

Overall, it’s a way for there to be real oversight by the university administration over the athletics department.

But is that oversight power actually put in use?

A LACK OF DRAMA

It’s very rare for someone to speak out at board meetings. One of the few instances was in September 2011, after the football team’s 0-2 start, when Lawhorne – a former Bulldog player – expressed concern about “the state of our football program.”

But public debate is unusual. There are executive sessions, when the media and other staff are asked to leave, but those are just to be able to discuss personnel matters. Scates, the student rep during the 2012-13 school year, recalls they once found out how much money they would be receiving from the SEC, but since it wasn’t public yet they told the board in executive session. That was about the only time something newsworthy occurred during an actual board meeting, and Scates recalls no meaningful debate between the board and McGarity or then-president Michael Adams.

“It was never a discussion,” Scates said, chuckling. “It was always more of a lecture than a discussion.”

Ryan Scates, right, holding the Governers Cup two years ago. (PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN SCATES)

And a proposal being voted down is exceedingly rare, to the point it could not be recalled by anyone contacted for this story.

Even Lawhorne, the rare person to make news with something he said at a meeting, did most of his work in private. Lawhorne said he has called and written McGarity and Morehead over issues that he wouldn’t want to be aired in public.

Since the president appoints the board, people tend to not speak up, from Scates’ experience. And emeritus board member status also brings prestige, and greater access.

“So everyone on the board is trying not to rock the boat so you can get that emeritus status, which is much more valuable than any Hartman funds donations (which go towards football season tickets) you could ever donate,” Scates said.

In fact, Scates believes the lure of a potential spot on the athletic board becomes is an incentive.

“Being able to get on the athletic board is a powerful carrot,” Scates said. “One reason you have trouble getting people to talk on the record is because in the back of their mind they want to get on that board one day.”

There are smaller committees, including finance and facilities. But even those tend to offer only updates from the administration. Tim Keadle, a former UGA alumni association president and board member from 2013-15, was on the facilities committee, and the location of the indoor facility was the prime subject. Keadle recalled the meetings still mainly being updates, without much need for feedback.

“Greg and Jere and the other ones that are university officials are the ones that are talking about that kind of stuff. And us outside board members are there to listen and question as necessary,” Keadle said. “But we don’t manage the place. We’re not in charge of personnel decisions and the like.”

COMPARING TO OTHER SCHOOLS

UGA is far from the only school to have an athletic board that is basically a rubber stamp.

The University of Florida has an athletics board that approves major projects and coaching contracts. It includes representatives from the state’s board of regents. The meetings also tend to lack drama.

Georgia Tech has a board that is made up of faculty and alumni, as well as a few students, and also tends to approve whatever is put on its plate.

Alabama has an Athletics Committee, which has seven members drawn from the Alabama system’s Board of Trustees, on a rotating biannual basis. This year it’s a mix of businessmen, lawyers and one former athlete.  The Athletics Committee is particularly powerful, as is the Compensation Committee (which approves contracts), reflecting the importance of athletics, especially Alabama football, to the entire Board of Trustees.

South Carolina has a Board of Directors for the entire school, not specific to athletics, that must approve contracts, facilities and other spending projects.

Auburn’s facilities and construction projects have to be approved by the school’s board of trustees. Auburn does have a Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics that also has 19 voting members, including six faculty members, just like UGA. But that committee does not hold as much clout as the school’s overall board.

UGA’s athletic board, on the other hand, has real clout. At least on paper.

IS THIS THE BEST WAY?

Frick has voted on two major facility projects: The $30.2 million indoor facility, and the $63 million west end zone project. She voted yes on both – as did everyone – but she said she didn’t have a chance to give a full review to the proposals. In neither case, she said, was she given a detailed packet ahead of time.

In other words, a major financial expenditure was dropped on their lap, and they were asked to immediately vote on it.

“Do I think these are good, solid proposals? Yes,” Frick said. “It’s not that I’m worried about them per se. I’ve just been surprised that we’ve been asked to vote without being given full, detailed info on what we’re voting on, to think over, to peruse. That was different from what I was expecting. … It would be consistent with what I think a board should be, to be given that type of information – and given some time to digest it prior to taking a vote.”

Janet Frick, a UGA faculty member who is on the UGA Athletic Board as well as the University Council. (UGA PHOTO)

Frick has been on the university council for years. Items have to be posted two weeks in advance and the agenda is posted online.

Does the board asks questions that need to be asked? Would it be better in the long run for the board if there were more back-and-forth?

Keadle, whose background is in the banking industry, isn’t so sure. He pointed out that board members may not have relevant experience.

“None of us sitting on that athletic board understand all the aspects of a Division I major college sports program, what goes into it, how is it financed, the public-private aspects of it,” he said.

And thus they almost always defer to the president and athletics director.

Scates, now a lawyer in the private sector, is among those now critical of how UGA athletics is being run, and is concerned at a lack of a “master plan” both for facilities and for athletics performance in general. He referred to “complacency from the people who are in charge of running athletics.”

And he thinks the lack of real oversight and feedback by the athletic board contributes to that. Since graduating, Scates said he has dealt with boards of directors that are much different than what he experienced at UGA.

“It’s a much more critical environment, there’s a lot more discussion,” he said. “There’s a lot more people who get their feet held to their fire by these board members. In the private sector you’ll see that, but not at the Georgia athletic board. It’s not really there to make Georgia athletics the leanest, meanest machine ever.”

 

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