Intercollegiate sports are big business. To ensure survival, athletic departments must strive to be on solid fiscal ground. The CEO, so to speak, of Brigham Young University's athletics business is President Merrill J. Bateman, who has had extensive background in the corporate world.
An American Fork native, Bateman graduated from the University of Utah with an economics degree and later worked as an executive with the multibillion-dollar Mars Candy Co. from 1971-75. He was the dean of BYU's College of Business and School of Management from 1975-79.Bateman, 63, is a man who understands the bottom line as well as the line of scrimmage. He is a self-described sports fan who participated in athletics as a youth and avidly supported his sons when they played sports. His son-in-law, Greg Pitts, is a former BYU football defensive lineman.
Since Bateman, also a member of The First Quorum of the Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, became BYU's president in January 1996, the athletic department has undergone sweeping changes. Among the landmark events during his tenure include the hiring of a new men's basketball coach; the appointment of a new athletic director; a transformation in the school's colors and logos; the discontinuation of two men's sports and the addition of a women's sport; the groundbreaking of a new baseball/softball facility; the establishment of a Student-Athlete Center; the school's departure from the Western Athletic Conference after a 30-year association; and the formation of the Mountain West Conference.
Bateman, of course, has been a key figure behind all those events.
Following are excerpts from an exclusive interview Bateman recently granted Deseret News sports writer Jeff Call, wherein he addressed the state of BYU's athletic program and a number of salient issues -- football scheduling, Title IX, coaching changes, coaches' salaries and the Honor Code -- affecting "BYU Sports Inc."
Deseret News: Not long after you became president, you said you wanted to see all BYU teams nationally ranked in the top 20. How has BYU done in this endeavor?
Merrill J. Bateman: First of all, we want BYU to be nationally competitive in the sports that we sponsor. That also happens to be one of the goals of the Mountain West Conference now. I was very much aware of the incredible history that BYU has had . . . the solid, well-established, high-level performance of BYU teams over the years. My interest was in supporting that effort and doing what I could to see that it would continue. I believe that sports play a very important role at a university. It gives young people opportunities to show their skills. It helps build an identity for the university to the external community. It helps build community within the university as people rally around good, strong sports teams. I was interested in trying to maintain the history as it went forward at the high level it has been in the past.
One of the very nice things is we continue to climb in the Sears Cup standings, which measures the overall quality of all our programs. I think we were 12th last year, and at the moment we are eighth this year, though we haven't finished the year. We had eight sports in the national top 10 last year. We have a chance to repeat that this year. I'm very pleased with what's happening there. I also recognize that sports will be up and down. That's just going to happen over time. So we need to be a little bit flexible when for one reason or another a sport has a down year or two. But on average, we would hope we are nationally competitive.
Deseret News: What kind of expectations did you have for men's basketball coach Steve Cleveland when you hired him three years ago? Is the program where you thought it would be at this point or has he exceeded your expectations?
Merrill J. Bateman: At the time we hired Steve Cleveland, the media really gave it to us, saying we couldn't afford anyone. The truth of the matter is, we knew Steve Cleveland. We had been watching him for some time. We were aware of his success as a coach. We were also very much aware of his success as a person. He's a man with strong leadership skills and is articulate with the media. We believed that if we had the right leader in place, we would be able to attract many of the young men of very strong character who wanted to play basketball. My guess is that Steve is one or two years ahead of where we thought he would be. At BYU, it takes at least five to six years to build a program. That's partly due to the missionary program we have. You recruit a young man this year, and you really don't get him as a senior for six years down the road. My hope was that in Steve's fifth or sixth year we would become very competitive. We did that in the third year. As we look at his recruiting class, to go with the players he already has, we see it getting better and better.
Deseret News: LaVell Edwards is the only coach in BYU history to have received a multiyear contract. Every other coach is on or has been on a year-to-year contract. Do you see BYU changing the way it deals with coaches in terms of multiyear contracts and paying the type of salaries that will keep successful ones, like Steve Cleveland, here and attract other successful ones in the future?
Merrill J. Bateman: I suspect that we will not keep up with the market value of coaches, seeing how high they are. We do ask a coach to sacrifice when he comes, like we ask almost everyone else who comes here. It's not just coaches. It's faculty and staff who could probably get more pay if they went somewhere else. We're asking for a commitment to the institution as well as we are to their particular sport or assignment here. Having said that, we need to be reasonably competitive. We do need to pay our coaches an amount that allows them to have a reasonable lifestyle, just as we need to pay our faculty and staff in the same manner. That's the way in which we go about negotiating salaries. Salaries are negotiated one-by-one. We don't have some lock-step formula that we use.
We're very pleased with Steve. He's done a very good job here, as all of us know. We're committed to Steve, and we believe Steve is committed to us. We want Steve to stay here. Within reason, we'll work with him to see that that happens. It's a possibility that (multiyear contracts) could happen. It will be in the negotiations with him. The truth of the matter is, everyone has a long-term contract here, if they fulfill their assignment well. I don't know this university ever firing anyone without working it out so it was very fair to them. That's why one of the reasons why a long-term contract is not a big deal to people. They know we'll be fair.
Deseret News: In the first year since the official split of the WAC, it could be argued that the WAC has outperformed the Mountain West Conference in basketball and football. What do you make of that? And do you see the MWC in direct competition with the WAC?
Merrill J. Bateman: Ultimately, we're in competition with every conference. I don't think you can take a few games in football or basketball and assess that one league is stronger than another. If you look at the national rankings, the Mountain West had more ranked teams in both football and basketball. We think the Mountain West will be representative. We hope the WAC is representative. We want the WAC to be strong. We don't have any desire for them to fail. We hope they are successful and competitive like we hope to be.
Deseret News: When the Western Athletic Conference expanded to 16 teams in 1996, a decision that was made before you became president, it caused a significant financial burden on BYU. How did you approach fixing the athletic department's financial woes? How is the athletic department doing financially?
Merrill J. Bateman: The major consideration in leaving the WAC and forming the Mountain West had to do with competition and aligning ourselves with a group of schools where we could build and maintain rivalries, as opposed to the 16-team WAC, which was destroying rivalries that we had tried to build over the previous 25-30 years. We wanted to re-establish a set of schools in a conference that would allow us to maintain strong rivalries. In the end, that's the way you keep fan interest. That was the driving force.
Financially, the 16-team WAC was a challenge. The Mountain West is an improvement on that in a number of ways. We don't have to spend as much on travel, for one thing. We're developing a fan base, and that's helping on the revenue side. It's important for athletics that you have a strong football and basketball program. Over time, we want to develop programs on the women's side that will also attract fans, and that's beginning to happen. That's one of the encouraging things that's happening here. The fan base for women is building. But to maintain the quality of programs and the number of programs we're trying to maintain, you have to have a strong football program and a strong men's basketball program. As we build these programs, we're beginning to see some improvement in the financial area.
Deseret News: BYU has a very ambitious football schedule coming up.
Merrill J. Bateman: We have a very tough football schedule this year, no doubt about it. It's too tough, to be perfectly honest. The reason I say that is that many years ago when I was a professor at the Air Force Academy, I was asked by one of the generals to do a study of Air Force's football schedule because it had Notre Dame, Nebraska, Pittsburgh and Penn State. It was absolutely loaded. One of the things we found was that very strong schools schedule strong teams but also need time between very tough games to heal. And if you schedule four or five tough teams back-to-back, you get decimated over a season. Unfortunately, that's what's happened this year. I think our first five games are very tough. The rest of the conference is tough. It's going to be a tough season all year long. I don't know how it happened. And we do want to schedule strong teams. I think we are a little overboard this year.
Deseret News: What was the thinking behind the decision last fall to add Florida State, in the Pigskin Classic, to what was already a very difficult schedule?
Merrill J. Bateman: It is an honor. We had to weigh it and to be able to start out playing the national champion from last year; the fact they would put BYU in that same league shows what LaVell has done here over many years. You don't turn down those opportunities. LaVell obviously had a say and was involved in that discussion. We have a good team coming back. We are new at quarterback, but there's a lot of talent there. It will be a good game for us, whether we win or lose.
Deseret News: How involved were you in the coaching changes in the football program that were made last winter? There was a feeling out there that the administration was putting pressure on Edwards to make changes to his staff.
Merrill J. Bateman: No, there's no truth to that. At the end of every year, (advancement vice president) Fred (Skousen) and (men's athletic director) Val (Hale) and the coaches evaluate all of our teams to try to determine our weaknesses and find out how we can become stronger. That began happening after the Motor City Bowl. One or two things were said that were probably premature that led to some speculation. I didn't get into it until they brought a report to me some time after that to tell me where things were. LaVell has been here long enough. He's his own man. In the end, he helps us determine where we go with football. And we listen carefully to what he has to say. We have great respect for him.
Deseret News: What was your reaction when longtime offensive coordinator Norm Chow left BYU?
Merrill J. Bateman: It was a surprise when he made his decision to go to North Carolina State. He gave his reasons for doing that. I think he saw an opportunity, both financially but also to continue to build his name. That meant LaVell needed to make some changes here. I think it's good to see Lance (Reynolds) and Robbie (Bosco) and others having a chance to run the offense. We'll see how well they do. You have to give Norm enormous credit. He was calling the plays when we won the national championship. He called the plays throughout his career here. If we won, he called them. If we lost, he called them. I'm pleased that Norm has an opportunity to do what he wants to do, and I'm now pleased that Lance and Robbie have a chance to show what they can do.
Deseret News: What are your thoughts on the demise of the BYU football uniform "bib"?
Merrill J. Bateman: (Laughs.) We were just getting used to it at the end of the season. I didn't diQ't have strong feelings one way or another. It was Nike's suggestion that we try it. They wanted to see if they could differentiate their product from other products, and we were the guinea pig. In the end, the NCAA made the rule you couldn't coulQ't use the bib because they thought it was confusing. What I do know is that people are very pleased with the darker blue color and the logos. And that shows up in terms of all the fans you see wearing BYU clothing. We would hope that over time we'll continue to build the tradition of wearing BYU colors to the games.
At the same time, we would plead with our fans to really represent the standards of the university and its sponsoring church. Church. We don't believe we have to have booing. We strongly encourage our fans to really step up to the mark of having high civility standards and showing good sportsmanship in the stands. We're going to live and eventually die regardless of whether we win or lose. We need to be good sports.
Deseret News: There was controversy last year when a BYU fan jumped onto the field and attacked a Utah cheerleader carrying a U. flag. There was some talk of banning flags of opposing teams at Cougar Stadium. Are we going to see such flags allowed here in the future?
Merrill J. Bateman: Sure, why not? We would hope our fans would stay in the stands. They need to. There's nothing wrong with a University of Utah cheerleader carrying his flag around the stadium. We would hope that they would respect us at their stadium, too, and let us do the same.
Deseret News: Will we see made-for-TV, Monday night basketball games this season at the Marriott Center?
Merrill J. Bateman: I hope not. I don't know. If they do, they'll have to be late. I would hope we don't get caught in that. That's something we'll have to talk to ESPN about. Monday night is not the night we want to play. That is not a good night for us for obvious reasons (the LDS Church encourages its members to set aside Mondays for Family Home Evening). ESPN has a fair amount of authority in the contract. We need to have discussions with the conference and with ESPN about that.
Deseret News: What effect has the creation of the Student-Athlete Center had in helping athletes understand and live the Honor Code?
Merrill J. Bateman: I'm very pleased with the performance of our Student-Athlete Center. I think it's been a great asset to helping some men and women improve their academic performance, and it's also helped them with regard to their citizenship.
It's interesting to me as we look at our student athletes, the percentage of them that violate the honor code is almost identical to the percentage of the student body as a whole. And it's extraordinarily low, between 2-3 percent on average. I'd like to see any organization with 30,000 young people between the ages of 18-25 who have less than 3 percent of their young people violating an honor code that has such very high standards as ours does. It doesn't exist anywhere else that I'm aware of, except at other church schools. What happens is that you wind up with a few high-profile athletes (who make news for violating the honor code).
My major concern when a young person gets into trouble is the young person himself and how the media crucify him. They give him all kinds of publicity that he doesn't want and rake him through the papers and over the radio waves and on the air on TV, talking about his personal problems. As a university, we don't talk about their personal problems. We just don't do that. My first concern is for the young person and his family. Then I get concerned about the university.
One of the things I've learned is that the university goes on. One or two people who come in and violate our standards are not going to ruin the university's reputation. If anything, the fact that we maintain our standards becomes a plus. In fact, I know that across the country BYU is held in very high respect because of the standards we encourage our students to live by and that we try to maintain those standards. Normally, we give a student a second or a third try. It's been interesting to me that in every case with these high-profile athletes, even those who had to leave the university for a time, they all wanted to come back. They didn't see our standards as a negative. They saw them as a positive influence and wanted to come back and have a second try.
Deseret News: Talk about the process that led to dropping wrestling and men's gymnastics.
Merrill J. Bateman: The process began before I arrived, in the early 1990s, when the Office of Civil Rights started working with universities to implement Title IX. There were a large number of universities that began dropping sports well ahead of BYU. What Title IX causes us to do is balance our athletic opportunities among young men and young women according to the level of interest.
From very early days it was apparent that one or two men's sports would need to be discontinued and that a number of women's sports would need to be added. Those decisions were in the works long before Fred and I ever got into our positions. So when I came in as president, it was an education to learn about the plan and see the time frame ahead of us in terms of when we needed to comply and evaluating the different options that we had. We were getting to the end of the timing with the Office of Civil Rights as we formed the Mountain West Conference. In the formation of the conference, the presidents decided there were a certain number of sports all of us would be competitive in. Wrestling and gymnastics were not two of those sports because, for the most part, those sports didn't exist at a number of other institutions. Also, we looked at what was happening to wrestling and gymnastics nationally and saw that fewer and fewer universities were offering these two sports as opportunities for their young men, and over time it was becoming more difficult for us to schedule intercollegiate competition in those two sports without having long distances to travel.
When all the factors were put together and the options examined, it was decided that those two sports would need to be dropped, as unfortunate as that is for the young men in the program and for the young men in high school and junior high school who are in those sports now hoping that they would be able to come to the university on a scholarship and participate. We were very well aware of that. From the day we announced the discontinuance of those sports, we've received considerable pressure to reverse that decision. The decision will not be reversed, not in the near future at least. One of the challenges we have is, what women sports do we add? More than that, if we were to add women's sports and bring back wrestling and gymnastics, we would need to endow a women's sport and a men's sport each time we added. And that's a lot of money.
Deseret News: There are many thoughts and opinions among fans about the role of BYU athletics within the LDS Church framework. It has been said by some BYU officials that BYU sports is a missionary arm of the church. When basketball player Chris Burgess chose to attend Duke over BYU a few years ago, there were some BYU fans who condemned his decision and reasoned that he "must not be a very good member of the church" because he didn't select BYU. How do the Board of Trustees and the administration view BYU sports in terms of furthering the mission of the church?
Merrill J. Bateman: First, the board and the administration recognize that every person has his agency and has the right to choose for themselves. Whether a young person chooses to attend BYU or another school, that is their choice. It's my honest opinion that every board member I know and every university official would respect that. That's the way we want to operate. At the same time, we hope that we will have the quality of program that strong LDS youth will want to be a part of. It's our responsibility to see that our programs are attractive to the point where a very good athlete will want to come here without having to be coerced. We want to have a win-win situation where a young person sees BYU as a competitive place with high standards who wants to come here because of their LDS values and the university has that kind of program to offer. What I do know is if a strong young LDS person comes here and performs at a very high level, they carry the BYU and the church brand with them the rest of their lives. That is seldom true if they happen to go somewhere else. I'm not saying that every great LDS athlete should come to BYU. What I am saying is that they have the right to choose, but we have a responsibility to have a quality program that is attractive for them.
The board is a very wise group that wants to honor people's agency and at the same time, my feeling is they would like BYU athletics to represent the university and the church well.