Incarnate Word Athletics Director Brian Wickstrom has directed the Cardinals department since August of 2017 following leadership tenures at Louisiana Monroe and UC Riverside. Wickstrom served as ADU’s latest ‘Athletic Director in Residence’ to delve into success for UIW on the football field, leveraging wins into dollars and learnings from serving as AD at three distinctly different institutions.
Head Football Coach Eric Morris has talked about being able to sell prospective student-athletes on results instead of just dreams after making the FCS Playoffs in his first season. How do you plan to package up football’s success to do the same with donors and fans? How can football’s move forward be parlayed into benefits for other sport programs? Have you & your leadership team already set goals for ticket sales, donations or any other key metrics between now & kickoff of the 2019 season?
When we hired Coach Morris, we shared a vision of what a successful football program could do for the entire athletics department and our campus. During the interview process, we asked Coach Morris, from a football coach’s perspective, what he thought we needed to help our program have success. We made a list of facility projects, budget enhancement areas, academic needs and other necessary improvements to maximize the student-athlete experience. For example, put down a new Field Turf field, create team meeting rooms, upgrade technology, expand strength and conditioning staff, fill all allowable coaching positions, put in place summer school and fall camp meal program, and created a year-round snack bar. Once we had the list, we were able to go out and educate our current donors, prospects and season ticket holders on what was needed and why.
As the football season progressed, we had different departments on campus, outside of athletics, join the efforts because of the impact the success our football program was having on the entire campus and within the San Antonio community. By the time we won the conference championship in November, we had grown our football season ticket base by 425%, our donor base by 260% (with six-months left in the fiscal year) and sponsorships by 630% to be able to support the new initiatives. With this revenue growth, we were able to give money back to the overall institution budget.
When I spoke to recruits last January, during our three football-recruiting weekends, we made a commitment to several specific improvements for our student-athletes. When the upgrades started being completed (the offering of summer school, providing cost of attendance, and the modernization of the football building), we earned credibility with student-athletes and we gained momentum throughout campus. UIW has been voted one of the best places to work in the San Antonio area, and there are people on campus who have been here for multiple decades. They have been incredibly helpful. Their support, coupled with new fans and donors, have created campus-wide celebrations of football victories.
All of our teams are like a family. UIW President, Dr. Evans and I always talk about winning being contagious. It started last spring with a men’s tennis Southland Conference Championship by new head coach, Jonas Andersson. Men’s swimming and diving won a conference championship. Our first-year baseball coach posted a great turnaround with 45% more wins than 2017. That success has led to new facility projects being funded by major entities in San Antonio. H-E-B, Metropolitan Methodist Hospital, and Frost Bank have stepped up to be part of the new projects. They love being partners with successful programs.
At the conclusion of our last home football game, Coach Morris let the fans know season ticket sales were starting soon for the 2019 season. The season ticket number from the 2017 season to the 2018 season grew tremendously and those fans were instantly engaged and invested in the future success of our football program. We haven’t finished our goals for the 2019 season yet as they pertain to football, but our Cardinals Club annual fund is up by 158%, and we still have six-months of the membership period to go.
One of the dates circled on the calendar, which the entire San Antonio community is excited about, is the football game between UIW and UTSA in the Alamodome on August 31, 2019. That is going to be a fun day for the community!
You’ve pointed to the support of President Evans as a key reason football’s surge this season. What are some specific examples of how a President can help to push a sport program or entire athletic department forward?
Dr. Evans has been a true partner in helping us analyze what the needs are for our football program (and the rest of our 22 sports). He was very instrumental in helping us put a package together for Coach Morris, and has been very supportive of our fundraising efforts for the facility projects and our annual fund. When Dr. Evans spoke on campus a couple of months ago, he talked about the role a successful athletics program can play in raising the profile of the entire institution.
In addition, he accompanies donors on football trips and takes the time to communicate with our head coaches. It helps our coaches feel supported when the president reaches out to them directly, whether that is after big games or just to check in. The proof of a supportive president can be seen when changes occur that enhance the student-athlete experience. Dr. Evans is committed to exactly that.
Your previous stops at UC Riverside & Louisiana Monroe were marked by notable wins on the external side of the department. What rubric do you use to determine the performance of external departmental units upon arrival to a new department and their capacity to produce gains?
As we’ve all seen, in these economic times institutional support is being decreased across the country. My external staff and I make a commitment to the president and the institution that we will not ask for any additional institutional support if we are allowed to keep our self-generated revenue gains. This buys us credibility with the faculty on campus because we are not taking money away from the academic side. It also helps the president when he/she can talk about athletics in a positive light without putting him/her in a difficult position with faculty.
I have been very lucky to have the same great external leader, Richard Duran, with me at three of the institutions during my tenures as AD. Richard is our Deputy AD and he understands how I work, my philosophies and the attitude of rolling up our sleeves and getting things done. I believe past success at UCR and ULM gave me a little bit of credibility at UIW. I do not think everybody on campus understood the speed with which we work in athletics and why it is necessary, but I have received so many nice e-mails, message, phone calls and texts from folks on campus who are proud the UIW brand is growing nationwide.
When I arrive at a new institution, I look at the size of the current donor base, how many alumni the institution has, the market size the program is in, and what the potential growth is on the external side. For example, UIW has 18,000 alums within a 60-minute driving radius. The city of San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States. A lot of competition but also a lot of opportunity to gain support. From there, we develop goals (budgeted goals, achievable goals, and stretch goals). We budget conservatively while expecting to hit our achievable goals, all while focusing on hitting our stretch goals. We go over the goals at our bi-weekly External Relations meeting so everybody on the external side is in the loop. This allows budget growth for the next year; the achievable goals will turn into the new budget goals and the stretch goals become the new achievable goals, thus allowing new stretch goals to be developed.
This process was used for our Annual Fund at UC Riverside and for football season tickets at ULM when we first got there. I also look very closely at what the philosophy of the president is, and at his/her track record of leadership philosophy as it pertains to athletics. I was part of Mike Alden’s first staff when he started at the University of Missouri. I know it is a cliché, but one of the underlying principles I learned working with great administrators under Mike was to outwork everybody. Always look for ways to grow and get better. This has helped our departments grow revenues and has allowed our programs to have success.
In follow-up to #3, what did you learn about yourself during tenures at UCR &ULM? What elements of leadership are you trying to do differently or better than at those two stops? How are you measuring yourself against those objectives?
I believe Chancellor White (my chancellor at UCR) and Dr. Evans (my current president) have leadership styles that mesh well with my style. They allow(ed) me to get creative and be aggressive in growing revenues, as long as I keep them in the loop with what we are working on and illustrate how it can benefit the sport programs, while contributing to the overall campus mission/goals. I want the athletics department staff to feel like they have the ability to think outside the box and help us get better every day. I make sure my president is not caught off guard with any news — whether positive or negative — and I ask the same thing of my staff. I think this is best done by almost over-communicating, but not getting my boss in the weeds. When you run an institution, many areas need attention besides just athletics. Therefore, I do not send an e-mail to my boss about everything going on, but I make sure to communicate significant information. I believe this helps build the trust between an the athletics director and the leader of the campus, which will benefit the university as a whole.