Season 4 - Episode 429
A banner year for Baylor Athletics included the University’s first men’s basketball national championship, record highs in student-athlete graduation and GPA, new coaching hires and more. That success drew national attention, with Mack Rhoades, Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, earning Sports Business Journal’s 2021 Athletics Director of the Year honors. In this Baylor Connections, Rhoades reflects on the impact of the past year, looks ahead to normal operations in the 2021-22 sports season and extolls an Athletics staff that thrived amidst COVID-19’s challenges.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. And today, an amazing year for Baylor athletics. We are visiting with Baylor's vice-president and director of athletics, Mack Rhoades after a season full of highlights, two national titles, six Big 12 titles, a school record 10 teams earning a top 10 national ranking and that's on the field. Off the field, a 94% graduation success rate, the highest in school history, a 3.35 cumulative GPA among all student athletes, that's the highest on record and for Mack Rhoades an incredible honor, he was named the Sports Business Journal 2021 Athletics Director of the Year and he's with us today here on Baylor Connections. Mack, so much going on in Baylor athletics these days. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us.
Mack Rhoades:Thank you, Derek. I appreciate you having me on and I certainly look forward to our conversation and appreciate all that you do for Baylor University.
Derek Smith:Well, thank you very much, and I feel the same about you certainly and a year at Baylor. You think, Mack, about all the headwinds of COVID 19. Survival could have been the goal, but not just survived, Baylor athletics thrived as it has always done, and I know the past year isn't very far in the rear view mirror, but when you think of the last year, are there words that come to mind? Are there images that come to mind about what made this past year so special?
Mack Rhoades:Yeah, words that come to mind, not necessarily all positive words, but you think about uncertainty. That seemed to be a theme throughout, especially the first six months that spring and summer leading up to the fall semester. Perseverance is another one and I certainly think that's a positive word. The grind that our student athletes, that our coaches had to go through and persevere through it all and really excel. The other word is just proud. I'm just so proud of our people. I'm proud of how we navigated it all and we stayed true to our core values. So, maybe the final word is fundamentals. I just think when you're going through crisis, when you're going through uncertainty and make sure you have that foundation and that you really stay close to fundamentals, to your core values.
Derek Smith:When you talk about the idea of building champions for life, and when you talk about one standard, one accord, what were those fundamentals that... All that uncertainty strips things away, what are those things that you immediately fall back on and take a look at, not just you, but your entire staff?
Mack Rhoades:I think never losing focus of our vision, which is, as you know, our why, our purpose, preparing champions for life, staying true to that. All of the blocking and tackling so to speak that goes behind that, and just hey, regardless of what's happening, we're going to continue to not compromise those four pillars, and then I think our people making sure again, that you win with people and that we continued to rely on that. One of the things that I think we're most proud of in terms of Baylor athletics is we didn't have to lay off one person. We were able to stay true, never cut any services to our student athletes, but that whole idea, Derek, everything counts, everything matters, that continued to be one of our mantra and everything we're going to do, we're going to do it at our personal best.
Derek Smith:Well, that's fantastic, and certainly you look at the results of the past year, it really stands out, whether it be championships, women's basketball, acrobatics and tumbling, Big 12 titles, and certainly a recognition for you personally. Congratulations on the Sports Business Journal award, being recognized as the Athletics Director of the Year for 2021. What does that award mean to you?
Mack Rhoades:It's almost a little bit of a feeling of embarrassment because that's not an award that that should be attributed to any one person. It immediately makes me think of just the blessing that I have to work with such great people, special people, talented people. Any personal recognition that I receive is directly tied to all of them, is directly tied to this great institution. We have a plaque on our desk, every single person in this department has a plaque on their desk that says, "There's no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't mind who gets the credit." And, our staff and our student athletes have all bought into that. So, that award is really about... It's more about them and less about me.
Derek Smith:Well, congratulations on that to you and your staff, as we visit with Mack Rhoades here on Baylor Connections and, Mack, we got to think back to just over three months ago Indianapolis, the men's basketball team walked off the floor as national champions. We're a little bit out from that now and I imagine this as an answer that will change at times as time goes on, and it really more fully reveals itself, but the impact of winning the title, of being the defending national champions, from your standpoint, what is that? What do you see that being as we head into a new athletics year?
Mack Rhoades:I think there's several different impacts. I think one internally that what we've talked about, this idea of preparing champions for life and four pillars, we're never going to compromise any one for the other. They're all equally important. This idea that the pillar of athletic success is so important because it gives you a platform, and then when you have that platform, what do you do with that platform? Our responsibility as Christians, our responsibility is as a Christian institution when you think about men's basketball, joy, Jesus, others, yourself, and so I think from an internal perspective, it just solidified the fact that we can be elite, we can win a national championship and be graded in those other areas when we think about athletic success and character formation and spiritual growth, never compromising them. And, then I think externally when you think about the significance of an NCAA men's basketball national championship, I don't know that there is a more celebrated NCAA championship, even when compared to the CFP. And so, I think that the brand of Baylor, the significance that it's had for the Baylor brand throughout the entire country, just the amount of new fans and people that know Baylor, and then all of a sudden they see how our men's basketball, how Scott and our student athletes handle this now attraction to Baylor. And so, those are two ways that I think it's really impacted us internally then nationally.
Derek Smith:Mack, you got to be there in the bubble with them in Indianapolis and see up close that journey. Obviously, most of us were able to celebrate the wins along the way, what they did on the court. Are there any memories that stand out to you, whether they're on the court, off the court from that time that particularly are special to you, or particularly just epitomize what that team and what those values that you just described were all about?
Mack Rhoades:Yeah, I think it's those moments that were within the bubble and some of the team meetings and the conversations that had nothing to do with basketball, but it had to do with life and coaches sharing some of their personal experiences, our student athletes, our young men sharing their experiences, the chapels that we had. And again, just those moments where it wasn't just about the basketball, it's that there was an understanding that it's so much bigger and beyond just the basketball. Those are the moments that I remember most. The confetti coming down and those are fleeting and they only last for seconds, but those conversations, those team meetings, those chapels, those are things that man, make impact for a lifetime. And so, those are the things that I certainly remember, and certainly feel blessed to be a part of.
Derek Smith:From a fan standpoint, obviously it was a different kind of year. We couldn't get 10,000 people in the Ferrell Center. Normally, we would have seen that. We might've seen 50,000 people or more in Indianapolis for the national title game. The year didn't allow that. I saw recently the release of Final Four court products where fans can go to artsmansport.com and get mementos made from actual pieces of the floor, whether it's that, or whether it's other areas, certainly the parade being another example when there was a great outpouring from the community, what does it mean to be able to bring pieces of this to fans to share in knowing that fans couldn't share in it in person the way they normally might have?
Mack Rhoades:Derek, that's a great question, and as you said, it's just a unique year and you couldn't share it the way that maybe you really wanted to be shared, and we've got such great fans. We really do, and we're grateful and thankful for them. And so, whether it was the parade, whether it's the Final Four court products, just being able to provide that connection for our fans, just to make sure that they have a piece, a memory that ties them to this tremendous accomplishment, which by the way, they've been a big part of. And so again, it's a way to connect and hopefully in a way say thank you to them for their tremendous years of support.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections we are visiting with Baylor's vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics, Mack Rhoades, and Mack, shifting gears here, obviously other areas of excitement across the university, we welcomed Nicki Collen to Baylor couple of months ago. She's really hit the ground running since being announced as head coach of the women's basketball team. At her press conference and introduction, you talked a lot about what made her the right fit when she was hired, but let's revisit that if you would, what really stood out to you during the hiring process and what are you excited to see about her leadership here at Baylor?
Mack Rhoades:I think number one, when we enter any type of head coaching search, we list characteristics and first and foremost there's always mission fit. Do they embrace Baylor's Christian values? And so, that was first and foremost, this appreciation, this excitement from her when she talked about it, this genuine excitement, and so that was one. I think the idea of the alignment of preparing champions for life, her calling, this belief that she has a calling to pour into young people to challenge them to be great in everything, again, certainly on the basketball court, but beyond. I talked about just her love for the game, just like this respect and appreciation for the game of basketball and this insatiable appetite of hers to always be on the cutting edge, learn, develop, expand her knowledge of the game and how to coach it. We went through some actual film work and just her ability to understand both sides of the ball, both offensively, defensively. So all of those things, great relationship builder, just felt like she's going to recruit extremely, extremely well. She's going to relate to all different types of people, treat everyone equally and fairly, and just it's all of those things. It was a combination of them, and it was that moment. You're talking to that person and it hits you right between the eyes. This absolutely could be our next head coach.
Derek Smith:Well, as you talked about her, you talked about some of the values, some of the things you're looking for. I'm guessing as you look for a new track and field head coach or as you... After a fantastic interim season, well, Michael Woodson is the a full-time head men's tennis coach, I'm guessing a lot of those qualities are either what you're looking for at track or what you saw in him in tennis?
Mack Rhoades:Yeah, you're exactly right. I think it's pretty consistent. We want great leaders of young people. We really do, and again, that's certainly the craft of coaching and the X's and O's, and all of the technical things, but it's got to be way beyond that, and this idea of everything counts, everything matters, again, that we're going to push our young people to be exceptional, elite in everything, and we think if we do that, then our young people are going to leave Baylor very well-prepared for life, for their life ahead and they've got to put the work in, but so far we have great student athletes and they're putting the work in.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Mack Rhoades and, Mack, you don't have to be a hardcore sports fan to know that there are changes taking place in the world of college athletics. You've been doing this a long time, from your standpoint, have you ever seen a period where so many things are changing or where the industry is experiencing shifts that will impact student athletes and everyone involved?
Mack Rhoades:Yeah, no, I really haven't. Last summer was all about COVID and you thought maybe we were going to get a little bit of a rest this summer, but then the change with the transfer portal and particularly in the sport of football, men's and women's basketball and wrestling and baseball that you can now transfer without sitting out a year. And so, just the impact that that's having immediately in our industry, and then the Austin case in the Supreme Court affirming the decision and then name, image, and likeness. And so, you think about the change, we are in this period of change, more change than has happened in the last 15 years in college athletics. So, now trying to grasp that, and navigate that, and obviously name, image, and likeness started July 1, and I think there's room and place for it. I think it can be a positive. I think it's a mistake if we now try to fight it, but how do we turn it into a positive? Because I do think it can be a positive and certainly at Baylor, we're trying to embrace it. We want our young people to have an appreciation for their name, image, and likeness, have an appreciation for their brand, to treat it seriously, to find ways to maximize it, but do it in a way, Derek, that is within our Baylor brand, where again, it doesn't supersede the Baylor brand. We talk about the men's basketball national championship, and you think about Davey on a lottery pick, and Jared's going to be a first round pick and their name, image, and likeness, their brand is extremely important to them and it should be, and we want them and show them how to maximize that. But, their individual brands never became bigger than the men's basketball brand, the Baylor brand, and I believe that's why we won a national championship. And so, I think there's a way for us to navigate this in a really responsible way, and for it to really be a life learning lesson for our student athletes when they leave Baylor.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Mack Rhoades and, Mack, let's look ahead a little bit. We saw recently the news that as we move towards a fall semester, Baylor's returning to normal operations, including 100% capacity for sports, certainly going to be a lot of fun for fans who weren't able to participate in that last year. As you look ahead, obviously two years ago at this time, this was normal, but 100% capacity is a little different after the last year to everyone. What does that mean? Are there some things that you're looking forward to that fans can look forward to as we return to normal?
Mack Rhoades:Well, I think we're just all looking forward to having energy within the stadium, energy in our arenas. It was hard, it was difficult at 25% capacity. And so, I think the excitement of bringing everybody back together to celebrate, to be family again, I think that's one of the greatest things about football and in a football game day is all the togetherness, all of the events in addition to the football game. And so, bringing back the tailgating and all of those things, I think we're all really, really excited, and it gives us a sense of normalcy. And so, I'm fired up about that, and then look, on the other hand, we were just talking about this, we're not out of the threats of COVID and the Delta variant, and so still we're going to have to be very reverent to it and still be very smart and safe in the way we do all of this, but I'm excited to be back. I know when we think about the fall to walk into McLane Stadium or to the soccer stadium or to Farrell Center, volleyball, and just to have a full slate of fans in the stands is going to be terrific.
Derek Smith:Absolutely and speaking of football, I want to ask, it's been fun watching the news. Coach Dave Aranda and his staff have had a lot of success on the recruiting trail lately. He and any coach who had his first year at the helm of a program last year, certainly last year was a strange year to do that, and it's been interesting seeing articles where he's talking about growing from that first year, what he's learned building towards a 2021. What are some things that have stood out to you as you've interacted with him, watched him and his staff really grow from that first year here in green and gold?
Mack Rhoades:I've had several, many as you can imagine, asked me, why did I hire Coach Aranda? And, one of the things that I talk about is upside, and I just think that he has such tremendous growth potential, and I mentioned this about Nicki, this combination of high intellect and humility, and when you have both of those qualities, I just think that you can continue to grow and learn because you self-reflect, you self-analyze, how do I need to grow? What areas do I need to grow? And, he has grown tremendously as a leader. Not to make excuses, that's just a tough situation to be able to have to come in as a first-year head coach, not have spring ball, any of those things. And so certainly, as a leader, as someone setting the standard and saying, "This is our standard, and we're going to hold you accountable to that," I think he's done a great job the last certainly six months of implementing that. And then, I think the staff changes have been really, really positive, just being around the staff, both on the offensive side and the defensive side, there's this energy, there's this togetherness, this unity and unity is probably the best word I can use to describe it, but I'm excited about it. And, I think we're in a good place when we think about the staff. I think we're in a good place when we think about the culture of the program, and we've got the right leadership within the program in terms of our student athletes, and they have now embraced this is the way we're going to do things and conduct ourselves and been really exciting to see.
Derek Smith:I'm looking forward to see them kick off the season Labor Day weekend, September 4th at Texas State, and then September 11th, their first home game of the year against Texas Southern. As we visit with Mack Rhodes and Mack, as we wind down on the program, my final question for you is something that I know has got to be meaningful to you and meaningful for Baylor fans really whether they know their names or not, everyone in the department. But earlier this year, we saw Jeremiah Dickey was named athletics director at Boise State, he was here at Baylor for the last four years, including the last three as associate vice president for athletics. He's been with you for a long time, and he's not the first a member of one of your staffs to become an athletic director, there's also Wren Baker at the University of North Texas. I know you've been with Jeremiah a long time, so whether you're talking about him or even more broadly, we've talked a lot about coaching trees. Coach Drew has a great coaching tree that we saw with Grant McCasland at UNT with Paul Mills and Oral Roberts in the NCAA tournament this year. Well, what does it mean to you to see guys from your tree if you will, assume these leadership roles at great institutions like UNT and Boise State?
Mack Rhoades:Well one, when you think about Jeremiah particularly, and you mentioned Wren and there's Darren Dunn and some others, but I think that you're just happy for them more than anything because they've earned it. It wasn't given to them. They've earned it and you just know that they're prepared and ready for it, and then I think it's validation of we're doing things the right way, and I think as a leader, the best thing that I can do is one, continue to learn and grow as a leader, and then two, help facilitate the growth of people that I work with in terms of their leadership skills, and if we've got collectively a group of people who are learning, growing, becoming better leaders, we as an organization organically, naturally become better. And so, I'm proud of Jeremiah, I'm proud of all of them. We've got other executive team members. There is no doubt in my mind they're going to be athletic directors if they want. We've got other folks that are in our athletic department that are just beginning their career that they're going to be athletic directors. So, whatever we can do to help best prepare them and just become leaders, we're going to continue to try to do and do that the best we can.
Derek Smith:Well, it's certainly exciting to see that as another hallmark of certainly an exciting year and an exciting time in Baylor athletics. And, I know it's been a very busy stretch for you, and I really appreciate you taking the time to join us today. Thanks so much for sharing your insights really on the last year, and then looking ahead as well.
Mack Rhoades:Well, I appreciate you, Derek, and again, shout out to the Baylor family and it's been a special year and one of the reasons why has been because they have continuous support and to come behind and we couldn't do it without them.
Derek Smith:Absolutely, it's got to be fun to see everyone gathered back together here just a few weeks from now at McLane Stadium and elsewhere as we move into the 2021-2022 season. Thanks so much for joining us. Mack Rhoades, Baylor's vice-president and director of intercollegiate athletics, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.