Season 4 - Episode 419
What goes into coordinating events like football games, commencement ceremonies, basketball games and more at venues like McLane Stadium and the Ferrell Center? As Associate Athletic Director for Event Management and Facilities, Drew Pittman works to coordinate a variety of people and resources into a concerted effort that ensures a safe and fun experience for student athletes and fans. In this Baylor Connections, Pittman examines how he and his team navigated the challenges of COVID-19, and shares a personal story of adoption, as he and his wife, Alyssa, opened their homes and hearts in a unique and meaningful way.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with people shaping our future. Each week, we go in-depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics throughout higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Drew Pittman. Drew serves as associate athletic director for event management and facilities at Baylor. In that role, he handles event management at McLane Stadium and the Ferrell Center, helping coordinate logistics with a variety of teams or organizations ranging from the City of Waco to the event staff that people see at games. Over the past year, he and his colleagues have rapidly adjusted their facilities for attendance limitations and the safety of fans amidst COVID-19. A 2004 Baylor graduate, Pittman joined Baylor athletics in 2005. As we visit, you're actually getting ready for a commencement, among other things taking place here at Baylor. And Drew, we really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us here on the program.
Drew Pittman:Oh, thanks for having me, Derek. I'm excited to be here.
Derek Smith:And I have to say, a personal story going way back here, I actually came, the summer before I came to grad school at Baylor, I came and took a tour of the Castellaw Communication Center and I'm 99.9% sure that the student who gave me that tour at the time was you.
Drew Pittman:It's a good possibility at that timeframe it would have been me.
Derek Smith:Yes, because when I got to know you a little more in your role now, I'm like, wait a minute. I've seen this guy before, and I'm pretty sure it was you. So you basically go back almost to my genesis here at Baylor. So that's always fun. But great to have you on the show here today and let people know a little bit more about what you do, what you and your team have done, some pretty amazing work over the last year especially, and then talk about a personal story as well a little bit later on, as you and your wife, Alyssa, have made adoption a part of your own family journey. But let's start with some of the work you do in facilities and let's take COVID-19 out of the equation for just a moment. To the extent that we're talking about a normal time, what would constitute a "normal week" for you? I know there's different seasons, but are there elements no matter the sport seasons that are the constants in your world that are on your plate?
Drew Pittman:Yeah. I mean, we talk about events. That's our business, that's what we do all the time. So every week, we start on Monday with an event meeting to really go over everything that's happening that week and actually talk about the next week and the following week, and some things that are months and months out. But we do that every Monday morning. That meeting sets the tone for us every week about what's going to be happening. And that includes staff from our office in event management facilities, but also those from both other areas of the athletic department, but also other areas of campus. We coordinate and work with our police department, our housekeeping, our maintenance team, so a good group of people. And that's how every week starts and then it diverges into whatever's next. And so, on a normal week, that's us getting ready for events and hosting events for our teams and trying to make a great atmosphere and a great place to play for our student athletes. And then, special events as well. So like you talked about, we've got commencement coming up and that's a big lift for everybody at the University. And so, we're just a small part of that, but really all that with coordinating and stuff. And so, that's kind of a normal week. What I tell people when they ask about what I do is there aren't a whole lot of normal weeks, because there's always something different going on. So whether that is commencement, which is a little bit out of the normal for us, we don't do that every week, or a national championship parade or something like that. There's all sorts of different stuff that pops up and we work with that stuff too.
Derek Smith:About how many events would you estimate come across through your teams filter in a normal year?
Drew Pittman:We try to count that up at the end of every year, just to see what we've done and compare it against the previous years. And 2020, a little bit different than others in the spring and into the fall even, but I'd say on a normal year, we're somewhere around 200, 225 events. And that really encompasses everything from tennis matches to soccer matches, to baseball games to softball, to across the 19 sports that we have. But then, also including university events and outside events. Not in 2021 or 2020, but we normally have a really robust high school graduation program, where we've got nine or 10 schools graduating here at the Ferrell Center, and runs the gamut as far as all those different events go.
Derek Smith:You even had, jogging my memory, talk about things that you don't necessarily have every year, I mean, I think back to several years ago, what, 2013, the West Memorial. I mean, you hosted the president of the United States, Barack Obama, at the time. And that was, I assume, a good portion of that under your guys' purview.
Drew Pittman:Yeah. We've had some really unique opportunities there to help and serve that community, especially in 2013, and host the president and host our senators and congressional representatives, and obviously, the families there. So that was a really unique one. We've had George W. here for a basketball game or two. Reaching way back, had Barbara Bush speak here. So it really runs the gamut as far as different people that have come and been part of an event here at the Ferrell Center.
Derek Smith:Drew, this is a broad question, because I know there's a lot of orchestration that takes place, but what kind of things go into planning for a home football game? What are the kind of things that when you're up there in the control room that probably most people sitting at the game wouldn't think about going into that?
Drew Pittman:It's complex. Maybe it's not as complex as we always think about it, but it's really a coordination effort more than anything, just making sure that everybody has the information they need and is in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, so at the very end that our student athletes can be successful and have a great experience during whatever competition we're hosting. So football, obviously the most complex for us, just because of the number of fans and workers, vendors, everybody that's involved. So it is an effort, it's really a team effort here. We've got 11 people in this group, in event management and facilities, and everybody pitches in and plays a part of a football game. And really, it's a huge team effort. We're just really lucky that we've got great people here. We've got great people across the athletic department, across the university that are all really supportive, from our parking services on campus to our police department, to all the different groups that are really helpful to us to making those events successful.
Derek Smith:You talk about making sure everything's working in concert, what have you learned about bringing different disparate groups to ... Everyone has a different role, but they're all working together towards the success of the game day event. If there are people who have jobs that rely on orchestrating a lot of people, what's the biggest thing you've learned about, whether it's working with the city, the university, whether it's with Rhino and game day staff, what have you learned about bringing a bunch of disparate groups together in one group?
Drew Pittman:And I don't think this will be a big surprise, but communication, communication, communication. So we probably meet, some people may say we meet too much, but it's really that effort just to make sure that everybody's on the same sheet of music, so to say. We put out a couple of different documents every game week that try to be really encompassing as far as, one's a really long 30, 40 page document that just has all the details in it. And we've got a large distribution group that that goes out to, so there's never an opportunity for somebody to say, "Hey, I didn't know," or "I didn't know where that was supposed to be," or anything like that. But then, we also distill it down to really one page. And that piece of information, we call it the game sheet, and it goes out to everybody that's working that event, whether you're a Rhino employee that's working at a gate, you're in the custodial staff, you're a police officer, you're in concessions. Everybody gets that one piece of information that tries to give everybody answers for that day. So if somebody comes up and asks, "Hey, where's this?" and it has nothing to do with whatever it is that you're really there to do, you've got some tools to be able to answer that. So just getting everybody talking. We have an event meeting, specifically for football, an event management meeting for football that we have on Tuesdays prior to home games. And I really enjoyed it when we were having ... We haven't had it in person obviously in a year. But when we had it in person, we tried to make the meeting really short and concise, because I said, Hey, the value of this meeting is you being in this room and getting to go talk to that person over on the other side of the table that you've got a question for, so that everybody can be on the same page when it gets to that game on Saturday. So we did the same thing this year. We actually booked the meeting for an hour, so we sent out calendar invitations that were an hour. The meeting really only lasts about 25 minutes. And I said to everybody, when we were done with the meeting, I said, "Hey, we're done with the meeting." I said, "You've been on this zoom call. You see everybody's face on here." I said, "What I want you to do is get off the meeting and then pick up the phone and call whoever it is that you would have gone across the room and talked to." And I said, "You've got 35 minutes on your calendar to do that, because we booked this for an hour." And we were really pretty successful trying to engage people that way, and it felt like it worked really well.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, hopefully, we're getting closer to the day that some of those things can be re-instituted as we move further into the summer and the fall. Maybe, I don't know, you guys will know far better than we do when that time will come, as we visit with Drew Pittman. And Drew, let's talk about that, the in-person versus not in-person aspect, and specifically, going back a little over a year ago when this pandemic began and then you move into the summer and are trying to figure out, are we going to be able to have seasons? Are we not? What's it going to look like? Where did you all even begin when it became apparent that this was a thing and you guys had to be ready for about anything?
Drew Pittman:We did a couple things. We really embraced teams and zoom and all these formats really, really early. We were doing a little of it before the pandemic happened. And really, those things helped us a lot, but we tried to be really out there in our industry as much as we could as well. So we started a weekly call with the event managers and game managers in the Big 12 in mid-April of 2020. And we hosted that as a group from Baylor, and we actually still host that call to this day. We only do it every two weeks now, but let folks from around the Big 12 share information, share ideas, bounce questions off each other. And that was just so, so beneficial to all of us here at the University, but also in all the other, at our peer institutions. And so, that was just a, I don't even know. I almost sometimes describe it as magical. It seemed superhuman, what was happening there, because you would have a question and really, we would run it around in this office or on our team's call or whatever, and just not come up with any good ideas. And then we'd be on the call and somebody from the other institution, another institution would have a similar question. And then somebody from a third institution would have a great answer. And so, that really helped all of us across the conference be successful. So just that collaboration both within the university, but also within our conference, and even from some institutions outside of our conference that we would talk to regularly, just I think helped make all of us really successful last year. The second part of the question or the answer is we started every day, and I said this I don't know how many times, but we would work on a project and then things would change radically. And we would say, Hey, whatever we just worked on, we're really actually just going to throw all that away and we're going to start over. And so, I started with our staff members every day and just, we started with that message. Hey, I need you to work really, really hard on this. I also need you to understand that we may throw all this away at the end of the day and tomorrow we may start on something new. And so, we tried just to set a tone of, we need to work and we need to figure these things out, but we don't need to be too disappointed when the circumstances change and we have to go another way. And so, really just starting with that message I think helped a lot of folks get into the mindset of, we got to figure this out. We got to work together and we got to figure this out, but also there's going to be changes. We're going to have to pivot. And then we're going to have to figure out answers to new questions and try to be successful that way as well.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Drew Pittman, associate athletic director for event management and facilities at Baylor. And what stands out to you, you and your team, I think there's really a lot of unsung heroes in your department. But as we talk about you all planning, we're not even talking about physically implementing things, like making sure that fans can stay socially distanced, thinking about lines and egress out of a stadium, all the things that suddenly change when you're talking about trying your best to keep people six feet apart. But as that all relates to planning and implementing, what should people know about your teammates in facilities and event management? You've been there, what, 16 years now, and I think, I've seen the work you all do and it's pretty amazing and often unsung, but even more so in the last year.
Drew Pittman:Yeah. We're extremely lucky to work with this group of people, a wealth of knowledge in this area. I don't know, I've never added together how many years of service we have here together, but we've got just a great team, people that have been around here for a really long time. So Paula Young, who her office is next door to mine, has been at the institution for over 35 years. Just has an amazing amount of knowledge about what's going on, about the people here and everything. Hoot Johnigan, who's now working with softball, was with us through the entire year 2020. And he has been at the University for over 25 years. Martha Maura, administrative assistant, who may work harder than all of us, has been at the university for a really long time. So that wealth of knowledge, that experience that people have just brings a lot to us. But we've got newer employees though who've been here two, three, four, five, six years who pitch in just the same. We actually hired an employee during the pandemic in the fall. And that was just a huge challenge as far as getting people together. But I'd say the thing that people probably don't see is the hours and the work that goes into it, which isn't a surprise to anybody. We've got people that at some points in the year, they see each other, they see me, they see our other coworkers more than they see their family, by far. It's almost like they live here. And they are just extremely dedicated both to our fans, but even moreso probably to our student athletes, and just trying to provide that experience that we want all of them to have. And last couple of years, last few months, I guess, have been, difficult for everybody, a lot of changes and stuff. And so, we're just trying to make that experience for the student athletes special and still get the great competitive environment that they all want to play in.
Derek Smith:Well, and you talk about the last few months, I've been thinking, you talk about them being there so often, often in many cases, what, the first one in and the last one out just about in a lot of cases. I know at Baylor baseball, they were working on plans to where fans could sit and then the capacity was able to increase, thankfully. And so, they adjusted to that and watching all that's been impressive. I'm curious, talking about that specifically, what was it, last month that we increased attendance at spring of outdoor events to 50%. And I'm curious, probably curious because maybe you hear about different ball clubs doing different things, what factors go into helping you make those decisions at the right time?
Drew Pittman:Kenny on the team and the team on campus really spend a lot of time diligently thinking about that and understanding what's going on here? What are our public health authorities in McLennan County think? What do our public health authorities in the state think? What's the guidance, the current guidance from the CDC? And everybody really is, it takes a level care that is just, it's incredible, just the detailed and thoughtful conversations that go into it. And then it changes. And I think everybody's been excited to see us change in a positive direction. That week we changed for spring sports, for baseball, softball, tennis, I think we still had soccer going on at that point in time, was pretty interesting. Because I think we had a baseball game, you may remember on a Wednesday, and I think we started a series with Texas maybe on Friday. And so, I think of our 11 staff members, I think at least 10 of us were out at baseball on Thursday, pulling stickers off of seats and changing markers and stuff like that. But it's a really well thought out program, both within the athletic department and within the institution. And the decisions are, without a doubt, not made on a whim and really, once again, trying to take into account, we want to provide a great experience for everybody, but at the same time, we want to do it safely.
Derek Smith:Yeah. Well, it's certainly been exciting to see a lot of people outdoors, a lot of people enjoy those outdoor sporting events for the first time in a while. And that's good to see with some more events upcoming here soon. As we visit with Drew Pitman here on Baylor Connections, Drew, as we head into the final few minutes, I want to shift gears a little bit, because you and your family really have a great family story. You and your wife, Alissa, a fellow Baylor grad, correct?
Drew Pittman:That's right.
Derek Smith:She's a fellow Baylor grad. You both have a pretty, really incredible story of adoption and expanding your family. I know you have three children, Oleg, Archer and Ellis. And Oleg was the first addition to your family through adoption. And I was wondering if you'd mind just telling us a little bit about your adoption story and a little bit about Oleg and Archer, because it was quite a journey for you and them to all come together.
Drew Pittman:Yeah, absolutely. We did start a little bit less than traditionally. We went from zero kids to one ten-year-old in the course of a day. So it was a little different. We adopted Oleg from Ukraine eight years ago now, a little bit over eight years ago, which is hard to believe that time has just flown by. But Alyssa has always had a heart for adoption. She spent a summer in Nicaragua, volunteering in an orphanage, actually graduated from high school with one of her high school friends. And her family's just always been really supportive. My family's been really supportive of it. So we made that decision over 10 years ago that that's the direction we wanted to do, really pretty soon after we got married. And so, we actually started the process to adopt a little boy from Russia, and then laws and politics changed and Russia closed adoptions to American citizens. And so, we ended up over in Ukraine adopting Oleg. And as you know, a little bit unique, Oleg is a hundred percent blind. He was born blind, and so just a little bit different challenge there as well. But it's just been just the most amazing God-ordained plan and blessing for our family, which is just, it's been so special. And I guess then, three years after we adopted Oleg, if I did my math right, I have to think about this on the fly, but we adopted our second son, Archer. He's 10 now. He was five at the time. And he is just the most energetic, biggest Baylor fan you've ever met. He's not a sibling. If Ukraine's about the size of the state of Texas, they're from El Paso and Beaumont, just about as far apart as you can get in their home country. But it was another great addition to our family. So we went from having no children to having a 10-year-old. Then we ended up with, I guess, a 13-year-old and a five-year-old, and then about two and a half years ago, we had our third son, Ellis. And so, it's been a fun and exciting experience, but adoption's just been such an amazing part of our family story and just is really a unique thing. And just really blessed to be here at Baylor, because it's something that the institution really supports and just makes different resources available, and just has always been really good with us as far as that process goes. I think when we adopted Oleg, all told, we spend about 30 days in Ukraine. I think that was the year we played in the Fiesta Bowl. So I think we flew from Dallas to Ukraine, spent a week there doing the initial proceedings, and then flew from Ukraine back to Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl, spent six or seven days, whatever it was in Phoenix, flew home to Waco. And then I think we were in Waco for about 10 days and then flew back to Ukraine for 20 days. So kind of a whirlwind trip that year.
Derek Smith:Amazing. Absolutely. I think most people, when they hear your story, you kind of put yourself in those shoes and think about, wow, welcoming a 10-year-old into your family, a ten-year-old old who was born blind. And it's a lot to think about and it really stands out to me as something you guys did that's really amazing in taking on something like that. I imagine you guys probably, it's normal to you now, but what stood out to you about, were there any factors in that decision especially that just, like you said, it's a God thing, that stood out to you when you think about welcoming a 10-year-old from another country without eyesight into your family? What made that just the obvious choice for you all?
Drew Pittman:I think part of it was just our acknowledgement that there are just hundreds of thousands of kids, I don't know the exact numbers, millions of kids probably, I guess, around the world that are waiting to be adopted in different countries. And kids that are older traditionally have a lot lower shot of getting a successful, completed adoption. And so, that's what Alyssa had seen when she was in Nicaragua, kids that are five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, and really want a family, really want to be part of a family, but don't have as many opportunities just because of their age. And so, she had explained that to me early on, and we really set our sights on, we didn't necessarily need a baby to be the first thing that happened in our house. And let's just go find a kid that's waiting, that wants a family, that wants to be adopted. And so, Oleg was just the perfect person for us. We actually hosted him through a cultural exchange program and he stayed with us for, I think, six or eight weeks over the course of the summer. And that program is a little unique because it helped us gain some confidence that we could meet his needs and be prepared for that. We had already started the adoption proceedings before that, and then he popped up in this cultural exchange program. So we're like, Hey, let's host him and see if we really can give him what he needs. And it was a wild ride for those six or eight weeks, but it was just so perfect. But I think that's the big thing that a lot of people, when they think of adoption, they just think, Oh, I'm going to go adopt a baby. And while that's an awesome thing as well, there's kids of all ages just waiting to be adopted in these countries. And I'd say, don't be scared. The really big benefit, I can tell you, is I didn't change a diaper until I had my third kid.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Drew Pittman:So when we had Ellis a couple years ago, I was confused as to how that even worked. But it's just a lot of neat experiences. I've got a high school junior that we're looking for college choices and he's visiting different places. And so, it's a neat experience. The other thing I'll say just about, people get worried about, oh, could I adopt a blind kid? I will just tell you, he has never seen a different experience, right? So being blind is his life experience and he understands it. And so, there's no difference to him. So when people ask questions about, how do you do this, or how do you do that? Or how do you make your bed in the morning? He goes, I just make my bed just like you make your bed. I get up and I fold the sheets up. I pull the comforter up, I put the pillows on top. But he's really well-prepared for that. And I think all those kids are, so I tell people when they ask about that part, I say, "Hey, don't be scared of whatever challenges there may be. A, God's going to figure this out with you." But it's a neat ride and we couldn't be luckier to be their parents.
Derek Smith:Well, that's fantastic. I appreciate you sharing that. It really paints a rich picture. I imagine life's a lot of fun, you guys at home with Oleg and Archer and Ellis all interacting, right now?
Drew Pittman:It's a fun time. I think everybody gets a little bit of relief. Oleg goes to school throughout the day, Archer's homeschooled at home with Alyssa, and then Ellis is two and a half. So I go to work, so everybody's probably a little bit ... There's a little more space when there's only three people at the house during the day, and we're all come back at night and it's a party every day.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, Drew, I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing both about your work and both about your adoption story as well. Thank you very much. Thank you so much for joining us on the program today.
Drew Pittman:Yeah, thanks for having me here. Had a great time.
Derek Smith:Thank you. Drew Pittman, associate athletic director for event management and facilities, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.