John Hartwell, Vice President & Athletics Director at Utah State, visits with ADU as Athletic Director in Residence. Hartwell spent a long time developing his career in the south, landing his first job in the Chair as AD at Troy, before moving west and taking over at Utah State. Hartwell addresses the process of adjusting to the staff and lifestyle, while emphasizing Student-Athlete welfare through a series of introspective questions that to help guide all decisions.
“Safety” and “accountability” are two objectives not commonly on the initial roadmap for a new AD. What was your process of implementing both among Student-Athletes, coaches and staff early in your tenure in Logan?
Student-athlete welfare has to be at the core of all we do as athletics administrators and coaches. I remind all of our staff on a regular basis that the only reason we are all employed is to serve our 400 student-athletes. I believe this is a positive reminder to them of “why we do what we do.” If we ever lose sight of that purpose, then we have a tendency to stray from our true responsibilities.
My consistent message to all of our athletics administrators & coaches is that it is our responsibility to ensure that all of our student-athletes have the tools necessary to be successful 1) in the classroom (because they are student-athletes, not athlete-students – academics is Priority #1), 2) on the fields of play, and 3) in the game of life (through life skills training, community involvement, experiential opportunities, etc.). It is important for staff and coaches to know that from time to time difficult decisions have to be made, some of which may draw criticism from others. My philosophy in working through these situations is to ask yourself these four questions:
• Have I been honest?
• Have I been consistent?
• Have I done what is best for Utah State University?
• Have I communicated the decision process to the necessary parties?
If you can answer “Yes” to all of these questions, you know you have done the right thing.
My approach and message to our student-athletes at Utah State is consistent with my messaging to the student-athletes when I was at Troy. There are three things I ask of every student-athlete:
1. Go to class.
2. Compete at the highest level. This applies in all facets of being a student-athlete, including: class, studying, academic support sessions, practice, weight room, rehab in the training room, games, etc.
3. Don’t be stupid. This could be rephrased as “do the right thing”, but I use “don’t be stupid” to get their attention. This relates to the fact that the student-athlete represents himself or herself, their family, their teammates, their fellow student-athletes, and their university at all times, and that they need to act accordingly in all they do.
With the majority of your professional experience in the South, how have you adjusted to life in the mountain time zone? Was there a culture adjustment between you and your staff? If so, how did you prepare for potential differences?
Any time you go into a new situation, regardless of the geographic location, it is important to listen and observe so that you can develop an unbiased opinion of the current state of the program, and what needs to be done moving forward. I am a strong believer in SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, & threats) analysis. I tasked all Head Coaches and all administrative staff to complete a SWOT analysis on both their sport and the department as a whole prior to me meeting with them individually.
This process allowed me to develop an internal pulse on the department, as well as getting to know the coaches and staff better through these one on one meetings. I also engaged some external constituents (donors, University administrators, student-athlete alums) in this exercise to get their perspective as well. I feel like this process of listening and observing prior to making any major changes in processes or personnel helped to greatly diminish anxiety among the staff due to a leadership change.
In terms of cultural differences between the previous institutions I have served (Georgia St., Ole Miss, & Troy) and Utah State, the transition over the past 3+ years has been smooth. I tell people all the time that although it is vastly different from a geographical perspective going from the South to Utah, the common traits of strong family values and general conservative nature are consistent in both regions. Due to there being a strong LDS influence throughout the state of Utah, I did spend a significant amount of time trying to learn more about their beliefs and customs.
Further, how does an “outsider” – like you were to the state – attempt to fully grasp the nuances of key rivalries (ie Utah, BYU)? And, how important is it for leaders to quickly wrap their heads around the nuances of rivalries?
I learned very quickly that the rivalries between Utah State & BYU, Utah State & Utah, and BYU & Utah are as heated and passionate as any I have ever been around. Growing up in Alabama I was exposed to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry that is 365 days a year. Then in my time at Ole Miss, the rivalries with both Mississippi State and LSU were extremely heated. None of those are any more anticipated, passionate, or heated than when we play BYU for the Wagon Wheel. You can be told about it, but until you experience it, you cannot fully understand and appreciate the rivalry.
Utah State hired a new president, Noelle Cockett, in late 2016, a little over a year into your own tenure. How did you approach your first in-depth meeting about expectations, your approach to leadership, etc. with President Cockett? Also, how did your first meeting with President Cockett differ from your first visit with Chancellor Hawkins at Troy?
Dr. Stan Albrecht, the Utah State President that hired me, was very upfront during the hiring process that he would likely retire within 2-3 years of me being hired. So the fact he stepped down 18 months into my tenure as AD did not come out of left field. The selection of Noelle Cockett as President, in January 2017, literally involved her moving across the hall from the Provost’s Office to the President’s Office. This definitely made the transition smoother as I had already established a relationship with her in her role as Provost.
One trait that both Chancellor Jack Hawkins (Troy) and President Stan Albrecht (Utah State) shared was that they both were heavily involved with and well versed in Intercollegiate Athletics at the campus, conference, and NCAA levels. In her role as Provost, President Cockett had not been very involved in Intercollegiate Athletics, so she has leaned on me to help her get better versed in this aspect. This opportunity has allowed us to work closely together and develop a very strong and positive working relationship. I have been very fortunate to work for three very dynamic, diverse, and positive campus heads in my 6+ years as an AD.
Do you have an end-of-day system for processing all the information/decisions/bullet points that cross your desk during the day?
I am “old school” in that I start every day with a “To Do List” that also serves as my daily tracker document in terms of the “who, what, and where” I do for that day. In preparing each day’s to do list, I reference back to the prior day’s list for any carry forward items or action items. Prioritizing your to do items is vital because there are very few days that totally go according to plan. You must be able to overcome unplanned time consuming events during any given day to ensure that the must do items get done. Part of the prioritization process goes back to my response to the first question about putting the student-athlete first in our decision-making processes.