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Getting Comfortable In The Chair: Jacksonville’s Ricker-Gilbert & Cal State Bakersfield’s Siegfried

Guest Tom Moreland, Purdue; Alex Ricker-Gilbert, Jacksonville; Ziggy Siegfried, Cal State Bakersfield
24:55 min listen
Jacksonville Athletics Director Alex Ricker-Gilbert and Cal State Bakersfield Athletics Director Ziggy Siegfried sit down with Purdue Associate Athletics Director for Strategic Initiatives Tom Moreland to discuss getting comfortable in the AD chair. With similar experiences being promoted to the chair from within, Ricker-Gilbert and Siegfried discuss major decisions, decisions they would handle differently, areas of improvement, advice to first-time athletics directors and more.


1:19 – Walk us through the first major decision you made after stepping into the chair.
6:02 – What was a decision that you would have handled differently early in your tenure?
10:43 – How will you build a search committee the next time you hire a coach? (Siegfried)
11:41 – What is an area you seek to improve at as you continue to sit in the athletics director chair?
15:22 – Are there any disadvantages in being hired internally?
19:44 – What advice would you give to new athletics directors to prepare them for their first time in the chair?


Full Transcript


Tom Moreland: Welcome, everyone. I’m Tom Moreland with Athletic Director U. We’ve got a great topic today, talking about being comfortable in the athletics director chair. And we have our two guests. First, we have Alex Ricker-Gilbert, Director of Athletics at Jacksonville University. Alex, thanks for being here today.


Alex Ricker-Gilbert: Thank you for having me.


TM: Now, we also have Ziggy Siegfried, currently the Director of Athletics at Cal State Bakersfield. Ziggy, thanks for being here.


Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried: Yeah, thank you.


TM: So, Alex, let me start with you. You step into the chair, kind of go through that honeymoon phase; kind of walk us through that first really impactful decision when you realized it was, it was squarely on your shoulders. Walk us through the timeline what that feeling was like.


ARG: Sure. So, a unique situation for me, I sort of had a year-long tryout before I got the job. It was about September, the year before I was named AD in May. And my boss at the time said, “You have a good chance, a good opportunity to be the AD, but the president is going to have to see some things over the course of the next seven to nine months.” And so, we went through that phase and in March or April knew what was going to happen, was told they were going to move in the direction and name me in May. And at that time we were strategizing about what we needed to do at the end of the year with some coaching positions. And so to make a long story short, the first day on the job was May 1st. And on May 2nd at 9 o’clock in the morning, I had to move on from a coach. So the decision, the honeymoon phase was, was short-lived, for sure. As far as making a difficult decision, it was within 12 hours of getting the job. Now I did have a little bit of longer of a honeymoon phase as it relates… related to getting my staff together and trying to organize how I wanted to organize. That was more like six to nine months where I was able to have some more flexibility with personnel resources to get it how I wanted, but as far as difficult decisions, I had about 12 hours.


TM: Alright, so let’s talk about a little bit more. Twelve hours goes by, tell us, you know, what that felt like, the decision is squarely on your shoulders. Obviously, working with institutional leadership and what was going through your head? Were you talking to colleagues, people around the industry, maybe family and mentors? Tell us a bit about that.


ARG: Yes, I was 28. And I had not made any personnel decisions to that point to where I was letting somebody go on my own. Right. So I was thrown right into it. And I knew, probably a week before that I was… we were going to do it. And it really started to hit me on Saturday, and the decision was going to be Monday. And so I put together a whole communication plan. I talked to five, six mentors multiple times over that sort of 48-hour window. Practiced what I was going to say. But it didn’t make it any easier. You know, and from, I remember from 7:30 that morning when I got into the office until 9 o’clock when I had that conversation, it felt like three weeks, you know. That hour and a half felt like three weeks. But, you know, I was, you know, because I practiced, because I spoke to people. Was it, was it easy? No, it was difficult, but, you know, it allowed me to assess how I did it then and assess sort of had the process and continue to adjust because undoubtedly that, that, that type of difficult decision would come around again.


TM: Okay. All right Ziggy, same thing, Cal State University Bakersfield. How long was that time period? And let’s walk through kind of the decision-making process.


ZS: Yeah, so very similar. I came in from the interim AD chair, and actually had a 13-month interview, I would call it.


TM: Mm-hmm.


ZS: So it’s… I was interim AD for 13 months. I really found out about six months in that I had a shot at the position. So I started creating plans on what I would do personnel wise, maybe some possible promotions because I had some really good people on my staff already. And, and, and really as I got… when I got the job, I already had the plan in place. You know, one of the first things I did, I promoted someone to deputy athletic director, which was Dena Freeman-Patton. And so, that was my first major decision that I made, but I really had made that plan long before. So, you know, there was, I think about whether or not there was a honeymoon or not, or maybe I’m still on it, you know, I’ve been there since 2014 in this position, and maybe I feel like I still am on my honeymoon stage because it’s, you know, everything has gone really well. But we’ve had some good, good and bad along the way, good decisions and bad decisions. But overall, it’s gone well.


TM: So let’s, let’s stay on that same track. So, Alex, probably made a decision or two along the way that you look back and reflect on it that maybe you had had done it differently. Just share a little information about that.


ARG: Yeah, I’ll go back, you know, so, so in my opinion, you know, at our level FCS 1AAA, you know, oftentimes we talk about resources or lack thereof. But, but it’s vital that we understand that our most important resource is our, is our human resource. So I’m always thinking about the, you know, my most important decisions, our personnel decisions. Because having your surroundings, your, your kids, your student athletes with the best people possible is our more… most important job in my opinion. And there was a situation, there was a, this year where I probably waited too long to move on from, from a coach. And, you know, it was, it was a time period where our student athletes really weren’t getting what they needed to get from their coach, from their mentor. And I probably should have made the decision to move on and move in a different direction so that they could restart and be happy and be excited about being student athletes at JU. And I prolonged that, and, and I knew, I knew in the back of my mind it probably wasn’t going to get better. And it didn’t. And so, I ultimately made the decision six months probably after I should have. And I, and I don’t want to say I regret that, but I think it could have been done in a way that would have benefited the student athletes earlier and had a greater impact on their experience going forward.


TM: So besides maybe doing it a little earlier, as you reflect on that decision that you maybe would have improved on, is there anything else you would have done differently?


ARG: In that situation, I probably would have collaborated with more of my staff, particularly my senior staff on sort of where they were, where they would have been given the circumstances. I talked to one or two for, you know, relatively small amounts of time concerning the circumstance. But if I had done, if I were to do something differently, I would have picked the brains of my senior staff, my other sport administrators, which is, besides me five in a greater amount of detail than I did.


TM: Okay. So let’s, let’s go from Jacksonville to California.


ZS: Yeah.


TM: The same thing, kind of a decision you reflected on and, you know, what did you learn from it? What would you do differently maybe the next time?


ZS: Definitely, you know, personnel. So hiring very early on in my AD career, I made a decision to hire someone. And just to back up a little bit, when I look to hire someone, you know, I have core values. They have to care about others, care about student athletes. They have to have a strong work ethic, detail-oriented, passionate. And, and then I have some other things I look at. So I went to hire a critical coaching position, and I had my guy, he fit all the categories. The guy fell through. And instead of taking a step back and saying, “You know, I’m going to, let’s reopen this up or let’s take our time a little bit here,” I went ahead and hired who originally the committee, you know, had recommended when I knew deep down that it wasn’t the right decision. So that mistake I learned so much. I learned don’t ever rush a decision that doesn’t fit in your core values. For me it was the hiring core values. And I also learned that at the end of the day, people are going to look at you for the decision that was made, the same people that recommended that individual were the same people kind of giving me a hard time about not moving on. We later did move on from the individual about 12 months in. But the bottom line was, I knew I rushed the decision. And it was, it was good that I got to learn early as an athletic director, and so far I haven’t made that mistake again.


TM: So let’s… a little more on core values. As you’re the athletics director at Bakersfield, how will you build out a committee the next time you’re going through a coaching search? Will you align with core values? What are the things you’re going to look for?


ZS: Well, what I look for is, you know, if it’s a coach, I want that sport administrator involved, usually involve our faculty athletics representative, and then I’ll look for some key administrators. Anyone who’s going to be a part of that committee already has bought in to the core values. But on the front end, I let them know that you’re bringing candidates to me, you know, whether it’s two, whether it’s three, I’m not looking for a recommendation. I’m looking for pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses from each candidate. And then I’ll make the final decision. And I always said that on the front end. So the committee, it’s on me to make sure I give them guidelines for what I’m asking them to do. So that’s, that’s how I pick the committee.


TM: Okay. So, let’s, let’s switch gears a little bit. Alex, you’ve been the AD at Jacksonville since 2016. What’s an area or two that you’re trying to improve on as you sit in athletics director chair?


ARG: Yeah, I think the biggest area that, that I think a lot of challenges ADs are felt with and… or dealt with that I am no different is continuing to not only focus on the needs the athletic department, but understanding sort of the macro level vision of your university president of the board of trustees and putting on a hat where your… where our priorities in athletics at one particular point or one particular instance might not take precedent over what the institution is doing and it usually won’t. And so, the, the, the need for me to educate my staff, I might understand that, but educating my staff on the fact that the institution has an overarching vision and overarching goal, and as an athletic department we need to figure out first how to fit into that before we try to take on or put together our strategic initiatives as a department. So, educating my staff on the overall institutional priorities and letting them know where we sort of fit within that before, before we try to work in what we’re trying to do is something that I’m really continuing to try to grow with as I, as I continue my path as the AD here.


TM: Okay. So, Ziggy, you’ve been at Cal State University Bakersfield since 2014. What are some areas you’re trying to get comfortable with being the athletics director?


ZS: You know, the one for me and it’s a daily grind is the student athlete experience. So where I am, we have limited resources, and we have 16 sports. Out of those 16 sports, I put a lot of the competitive dollars, the scholarships, coaching, stuff like that into a select amount of those sports because the goal is, as men’s basketball is successful, it fuels the success of everything. But what comes with that is when one set of your student athletes is receiving a better opportunity to succeed on the field than the others, it’s tough to reach the highest level possible of student athlete experience. Now, we still give them the same academic support, the same life skill support and all that. But can we give them the best student athlete experience possible while fully funding these sports, and not their sports, and that’s something that, you know, is a daily thought that goes through my mind. But what I’ve decided is we’re building for long-term success. And, you know, we go by what I call the four pillars of success, which is academic excellence, student athlete experience, competitive success and engaging the community. We’re working towards excellence in all four areas. I’ve had to make some decisions that have enhanced the student athlete experience, even discontinuing sports. But the ultimate goal was whoever is a part of our program, whatever student athlete, I want them to have the best experience possible. But we’re not there yet.


TM: Okay, so both of you came up from the inside at your respective institutions. Alex, are there… and there may not be, are there any disadvantages coming up through your institution becoming athletics director?


ARG: Yeah, I think, you know, I don’t know if they’re… I don’t know if the right word is a disadvantage, but challenges in being an internal candidate is, you know, your staff. If… so, I came up through compliance and academics. So they… you are viewed in that lens for a certain amount of time. So for me, it was about two years. I was viewed as the associate AD for compliance and student athlete services. So my relationships within the department were under that sort of microscope. And to grow into a role as an AD, that relationship changes. You know, you’re making higher-level decisions. And sometimes that can strain the relationship that was, if you now are making different-level decisions for a program, for a coach, for a staff member, because their natural reflex or instinct is going to be with how the relationship was professionally in your previous role. And so, making that adjustment for them and for you into a different sort of setting, into a different sort of relationship can be a challenge.


TM: Is there anything specifically that you did to address that, maybe set up meetings to kind of, you know, set the tone and now you’re the athletics director?


ARG: Yep. So, so, my big, you know, Ziggy talked about core values and his pillars. My big focus and sort of what… how I set the tone early was I did individual meetings with all my head coaches, and all my department heads and then I did one group staff meeting. And our focus was on our sort of mission statement, which was we’re going to be student athletes centered. So no matter what we do, our students are going to be at the center of all our decision making. So whether it’s resource related for facilities or nutrition or strength and conditioning or academics, however, we can better enhance the experience for our students. That’s going to be our central focus. And then our coaching staff are going to drive those decisions. They’re with our kids every day. They’re with our kids the most. They are their greatest mentors. They’re their greatest influencers. And so, they’re going to drive those student-centered decisions because they’re with them the most. And then the administrators are going to be there to assist. They are going to be there to assist our student athletes and our coaches to continue, as Ziggy said, to enhance the experience, to make it as good as it possibly can be. And so, that was sort of the tone that I set very early on as AD. And we’ve continued along that trajectory and I think it’s allowed our coaches, our staff to sort of see how we were going to try to be successful into the future.


TM: Okay. Ziggy, you got some great success at your school, as you’ve kind of come up through it. Any disadvantages that you could see or things you had to work through?


ZS: You know, and Alex hit it right, you know, right on and, and what I’ll first say is the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, but the reporting lines, you know, there was a lot of people I oversaw external. Prior to becoming interim AD, there was a lot of people who reported to me that no longer reported to me or maybe didn’t have the same amount of time spent with me to kind of go over some things that was probably the most difficult. For me, that was the biggest disadvantage. And, and what I did to counter that is I actually maintain my duties as head of external and interim AD, I maintain both of those duties. But when I got the permanent job, I knew I had to start transitioning out of that. And, and I did that. It was tough. But I just made sure that each of those individuals knew that I cared about them, and that they were in good hands. And if they ever needed me, I’m still here. I just have a broader area that I have to now oversee.


TM: So here’s kind of how I want to wrap it up. As people are advancing in their careers, and you both being athletics directors now, what would you tell people to do to prepare for that first AD opportunity, as we sit here in DC at a conference?


ARG: Yeah, so I was actually speaking at a panel at NAAC a couple days ago, and this was a conversation that we had in the room as part of the discussion. And what I would do is no matter the area that you’re coming up through, you have to understand as hard as it is, that it’s not all about that area. You know, it’s so easy to get focused on what you do every day that as you continue to grow, you have to take a… you have to take a step back and realize that in order for the department to be successful, every area has to… has their place in the department. And so, to be able to take a macro level view of the department, all while staying in your lane and, and doing your job is so important. Because if you’re able to see the bigger picture, and do your job, chances are you’re going to be able to navigate into different roles better. And in addition to that, as hard as we work, it’s still so important for you, as somebody that’s trying to grow in the business to get out and try to understand other areas. You know, to go meet with other department heads if you have a basketball game and you’re in compliance or you’re in fundraising, volunteer at that game in marketing or promotions. Or if you’re in student athlete services and your development staff is having a benefits gala or an event fundraiser, ask your external person, if you, how you can help. Because taking that extra step, making that extra effort is going to go a long way for you in building social capital, but also understanding that bigger picture that I alluded to.


TM: Okay, Ziggy, what would you tell some rising administrators to kind of look at to be prepared?


ZS: Yeah, I think there’s a few things. I think first, know the budget. Understand, if you can understand where the money is coming from, where the money’s going, I think you can be extremely powerful when you become AD. So for me, that was critical for me is understanding every aspect of the budget. Secondly, you know, look in, working with your AD and, and basically, when he or she makes a critical decision, you know, take a step back. Do you agree with that decision? Do you agree, disagree? Always support that person. But look at it. And if you disagree with it, find out why you disagreed, and try to look at it from his or her lens. I think that’s important because there’s a lot of decisions that we make from a macro level that some people don’t understand initially, but when they go through the steps and try to put themselves in your shoes, they may be, understand it a little better. So spend as much time as possible with your AD. Be loyal, but also look at the decisions he or she’s making.


And then finally, you know, a critical part for me beyond the budget, and beyond looking at the AD is get to know and get close with as many people as possible, whether it’s on the campus side, or in the department, most likely one of those individuals is going to be the person that recommends you for that AD job. Could be a janitor, it could be the provost. It could be, you know, a senior associate AD. It could be an entry-level type person. But somehow, if you have those relationships with those individuals, long term, they’re going to help you get to where you want to go, which is the AD seat.


ARG: And just one last thing to add to what Ziggy said. And we were benefit… we benefited from this, but you never know when you’re being evaluated. Right? You don’t… you never know who’s watching. And you have to live that every day from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night. You’re wearing your logo. And so, whether it’s you talking to somebody across campus, you interacting with a parent, you interacting with a student athlete, you don’t know how impactful that conversation could be. And so, always carry yourself in a way that you’re looking for your next job, not, not your current job. So that’s something that I took with me and I try to share with others is that every day on the job is a, is a tryout, is an evaluation. You can’t forget that.


TM: One of the first things I learned, first job Arizona State University, one of the key members of the Fiesta Bowl, he said, “Every day is an interview. If you operate, every day you’re being interviewed,” law of success. Ziggy, Alex, thanks for doing this. This is great.


ARG: Thank you.


ZS: Thank you.


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