This past Monday I made my way up to the Blacklands to arrange an interview with A&M-Commerce AD Ryan Ivey. What I did not expect to happen did, and he had an open hour to speak. I got into contact with his administrative assistant and she went back to his office and just told me to come right on in. I was pleasantly surprised and meeting him in person for the first time, he could not have been nicer or more professional. He agreed to an interview and had even been told about this blog, which was a pleasant surprise. So here is the conversation between myself and Ryan Ivey:
PLN: “First question, why Texas A&M-Commerce?”
AD Ivey: “Well, as far me coming here, it was first an opportunity to become an athletic director. I mean, when I got into this business, intercollegiate athletics, my ultimate goal was to become an athletic director. But why I chose here, it was the tremendous potential this University has for growth. I think it has the ability for a ton of growth. I think that the past history of success and tradition that this place has had overall, as an athletic department, not just Football, but Basketball has been successful, Women’s Basketball has had success, of course Track and Field has had a lot of success, Men’s and Women’s Golf has also had a lot of success, and even going back to programs like Tennis, so we have had a lot of success athletically, it just has not been recent, and I saw that. The location was also a factor, being right by the DFW Metroplex, and also being near Eastern Texas and the overall region, there are a lot of quality student athletes that come out of East Texas and we wanted to be a part of that. The department had really fallen on hard times, and we felt coming in, that we could make an immediate impact, come right in, make an immediate impact, change a few things, and then being able to hire a head Football coach. That is something most Athletic Directors do not get to do from a longevity standpoint, or where they are in their career and where they go and what they do. That opportunity was very intriguing to me and to have the chance to hire a coach in my way and time, and have that chance to hire a guy that we did in Coach Carthel, was very intriguing.”
PLN: “As an athletic program, writ large, you mention the tradition. When you first arrived here, what did you do to start reviving those traditions, and what were some of the basic things you did, and what things spawned off of them?”
AD Ivey:” I think the first thing that we did is that we listened. I think it was going out and having our town hall meetings and to reach out to those who are invested in this program. There were a lot of hurt feelings, no doubt about it. There were a lot of people who were upset, they had opinions as to why this place was not as successful as it had been, and it was my job to listen and figure those things out, and connect the dots, if you will. The first thing we had to do was to listen. I feel that once we did that, that most people wanted the same things, and they just wanted this school to be successful again and had a lot of good ideas on paper. So this gave us the chance to listen to them, figure some things out, and start doing them. Engaging our fans is something we have to do. We have to engage our fans. We got stories back into the Dallas Morning News, and started Marketing our programs. Being able to show people, and show this community, and engage with them was the first step to this. Previously, we had a lot of coaching staffs that did not live in the immediate area, and that was a priority. I live in Commerce with my wife and my boys, Coach Carthel and his wife live in Commerce, just about every person we have on staff lives here in town. That shows the town that we are committed to them and we want their commitment back. So, things like that, I mean, they were not things we planned, it just kind of happened, and I think it has worked out well. I think also, that changing the culture from one that was accepting mediocrity to one that does not, was also a part of that. We had a general student-athlete meeting, I told them that we expected them to go to class, to be good students, to be good citizens in this community and to others, and to win. I told them if they came here to lose, then the door is right there. We did not come here to lose, you come here to win. Having that expectation and setting that tone, and I told them all this, I want them to leave Commerce with a degree in one hand, and a championship ring on the other, and I mean that, I truly do. I don’t see one good reason why we cannot win a Championship in every sport at least once every four years, and that is what I expect from the coaches and players. I believe that comes from the tradition that it has been done, and where we are now, and just changing that culture that it is not OK to be mediocre. I don’t care what you are doing, if you are a compliance person, be the best compliance person you can be. If you are an academic, be the best academic you can be, if you are a business person, be the best business person you can be. Taking those thoughts and permeating them into the department and the school as well, by reaching out to the various academic departments, and coming together and creating a culture of collaboration, and I believe that was something that was very lacking when I first got here.”
PLN:” One of the things that I noticed when I was a student here, and even in my grad school days, was that there was a difference between the ETSU alums and the TAMU-Commerce students and grads. Ever since we changed our name, the athletic and the academic prestige seemed to have been decreasing. Using this as an example, the last really good Football team we had was in 1995, when were still playing as ETSU. When you arrived due to President Jones and his leadership, and Coach Carthel came right behind you, good things started to happen that was making news and putting Commerce back on the map. The new innovative field, the revival of the Football program, and then our University is named the best Education and Teaching School in the entire State of Texas. As an AD, and not trying to create a jock/non-jock schism, I would imagine that all of the athletic attention makes you very happy, but seeing both athletics and academics making headlines does as well.”
AD Ivey: Absolutely, because in order for us to attract quality student-athletes, we have to have a quality education. At the end of the day, they are student athletes. At this level, it is about getting them an education. Our student athletes have the opportunity to come here, to go to class, to learn, to get better as people and citizens. We talk about that, and like now, with Football recruiting, one of the first things I talk about when I talk to these recruits is not wins and losses. I talk about how these coaches are here to make them better men. That when you leave here, you will be good husband, that you will be a good father, and that you will be a productive member of society. That is what is important to us. That when our student athletes come back as husbands and wives, and when they come back with their children, they are proud of what the campus is doing, and what they did when they were here. Not that they won a ton of games and championships, and of course we want that, but what we want are teachers, people who are wanting the opportunity to make a difference, and that is something I expect everyone in this department, coach or athlete to embrace. A lot of collegiate student athletes are first generation college students, and for them to graduate college, and change the course of their own family history, is huge. That is a huge responsibility that we have, and having a University like ours, that has a reputation as an outstanding academic institution just adds that much more to it.”
PLN: “Going back to what I asked about why you came to Commerce, and you mentioned the geography part in your answer. I have spoken with people who went to conference rivals like West TAMU, Midwestern, and Tarleton and places like that, the biggest knock that I get is that Commerce is “in the middle of nowhere.” That is not exactly the most informed thing to say for a couple of reasons, and I think you would agree. One, that we are designated as part of the greater Dallas area, and that this is not a one horse school, but it is a school that averages over 10,000 students and has been here for 110 years. Like you said, just 30 minutes to the east of us, you are getting into East Texas where you have the very good athletic programs all over, and not just Football, but overall programs like Gilmer, Van, Longview, Atlanta, Winnsboro, and the Tyler metro area is 2 hours the southeast. Is it becoming easier to sell the town of Commerce and the school as well, than when you first got here?”
AD Ivey: Well, I don’t know that it has gotten any easier or any harder, I think it is probably about the same. The knock on Commerce is that there is just not anything to do, it’s just a small town with nothing to do. But as I tell our student athletes when they come in on recruiting trips, I tell them I expect them to be a full-time student, and a full-time athlete. There is not a whole lot of time outside of that to do a whole lot. You know, they have study hall, they have to know how to manage their time, which is very important. For example, going to SMU, you are living in the middle of Dallas, but there is not much you can really do as a student athlete anyway, so we combat that thought with those facts. I think the City of Commerce is embracing the entire culture of what we are trying to build here, from an institution on down. I think the continued positive changes to the school, and I am saying this only having been here a year, but there has been a lot that has just happened in the past year, like the new campus housing and the expansion to the student center. I think the way the campus, the way it continues to build and change, and the city sees that, and they are really embracing the school, and who we are, and that it is OK to be Commerce. I tell people that all of the time, it is OK to be who you are. We are who we are and let’s be the best that we can certainly be. I am certainly not knocking any other towns in the league, but there is not a whole lot to do in Kingsville, Texas. I just came from Stephenville this past weekend as we played them in Basketball, and they are just like us, 30 minutes off the beaten trail. Canyon, I mean there is more there and you have Amarillo just up the road, but you have all that wind. I have not been out to Portales, New Mexico or Lawton, Oklahoma, but probably the best town in our league is San Angelo, and let’s be honest, they are out in the middle of nowhere as well. My thought on this is that native Texans, don’t really see it. I am an outsider, not from here, but this state is vast and so different from the rest of the country that it does not really affect anyone being in the middle of nowhere nor does is really bother anybody here in Texas. It is just part of who they are. Texans are by their own nature, independent people, and for someone to be out in the middle of nowhere is no big deal, and that is what we sell. We have to sell our campus, which is a beautiful campus. We have to sell that we are successful, and that even though our town is not very big, the people here care about our students and that it is a great place to be. Selling that, I do not believe we will have any problems.”
PLN: Switching gears, the first one being about something a lot of us, myself included, really want to discuss, which is the facilities. Prior to you coming here, there had been some changes. We restored the visitor section at Memorial and built a new Football facility, but one thing that many people who commented on here, and also I have spoken with, is that we would really like to see is a “tradition on display”, in the sense of “We have 24 football conference championships, and we have had a lot of good teams, but we want to show there are about 8 or 9 really good teams that have been here, and here are some guys that have made it in the NFL and other pro leagues that came through this school and won championships.” In the long run, what would you like to do show and put the tradition on display?”
AD Ivey: “Well, we are looking at lot of facility enhancements right now. The first thing we are looking to move forward on is a new academic and athletic center. It will be about 200,000 dollars in terms of the cost of the project. We are going to renovate the weight training facility, that is about another 200,000 dollars. We are going to add a Softball facility for the new program, and then we are going to work on our sports medicine facility. So right now, aside from the softball facility, those are the three main areas that affect everyone that we are looking at. However, within that plan, whether it is the Fieldhouse, Memorial Stadium, or the Soccer Field, we are going to be looking at doing a lot of branding. When we talk about branding, we are talking about the new logo and the things we have there, but I am in the process of working with ADVENT,which is a company that really focuses on facility enhancements, like hall of fame type displays. Not just plaques, but like a digital hall of fame display. We are looking at revamping the “trophy case area”, if you will. We really do not have a place where we proudly display our history and our heritage. In Football, we are looking at displaying the things we have done, the conference championships, the bowl appearances and wins, the guys who have been in the NFL. We have even spoken about doing a ring of honor type set-up. Something that will recognize those outstanding individuals who have been a part of building this tradition. Also, putting things in the locker rooms that really highlight our history and our past, and looking at all of our facilities and taking ideas and doing some of those things. You know, those things are on the horizon. It takes money and time, but one thing I really think that we really miss a lot out on is right here in the Fieldhouse. That is where I am really focusing on doing the digital hall of fame display and we are working with a group called 1157 Design that uses the entrance of the Fieldhouse to draw attention to the trophy cases. For example, one will be Soccer’s display case, one will be Football, one Men’s Basketball and so on. We want to have a great looking display that when people come in, they will want to look at it. I think one of our biggest problems, and you alluded to it with your question, is that our facilities are very sterile in nature. They are very institutional looking, whether it is just the white paint, or those type of things, we have to do things in such a way that if for whatever reason we cannot have a multi-million dollar facility, that we can show this type of progress to recruits because it is very important to recruits when you show them these things. They see that, and they see that they have the opportunity to be a part of this. One thing we are seriously looking at is taking some budgeted funds and saying “Ok, we have 50,000 dollars set aside each year for facility enhancements.” You know, we are not going to be able to do this overnight, but every year, have something to show progress. Like if you go to the game basketball court right now, you see those new logo banners. It gives us a lot of color and of course gives us some branding opportunities and people see that and it is a new thing. People want to see new, whether it is new win screens or new signing or whatever it may be, something that really promotes what we are tying to do.”
PLN: “Expanding on the Fieldhouse, the enhancements to Memorial have been duly noted and well-recognized, with a new field and a section of the stadium that is brand new, and then upgrades and renovations to the home side. However, with the Fieldhouse, the knock on it from both people inside and outside of the program, is not necessarily the age, and not even the design because you have a lot of people who grew up in and around the game of Basketball, like myself, who love the design, who love the arch, who really appreciate the old school field house look. It creates a sense of nostalgia that a lot of us really hold to. In regards to the appearance though, would you rather enhance the overall look and facade of the building, or would you rather possibly, and I emphasize possibly, have a massive renovation or new facility in the long-term?”
AD Ivey: “The University has a master plan that calls for a brand new special events center, if you will, that will include a new gym and those type of things. Now, is that needed? From a graduation standpoint, yes it is. We do not have the room in the Fieldhouse anymore. We are having 4 or 5 graduation ceremonies every semester, and they just keep getting bigger, so yes, it is needed from that standpoint. I will be very honest with you, I do not want to see the Fieldhouse destroyed or taken apart or anything like that. I think it is a great building. I think some of the things you have mentioned, like the nostalgia, provides a great home court advantage when people are in packed in here. I think the problem within the Fieldhouse, and I have said this to many people, we have poor space planning, very poor space planning. We have over 40,000 square feet of wood floor out there, and we decided to put the game court in the middle of all of it. I mean, what sense does that make? So, we are actually thinking about moving the court. We are going to redo the court when Basketball season ends. Our plan is to have a brand new court, because that is the original wood court that has been sanded and taken down to the point that it cannot be taken down anymore. So we are going to tear it out and redo it, so if we are going to do that, lets start to take a look at what it would take to maybe move it. If we were to move it to one end or the other, bring the bleachers down, possible create a horseshoe look with the seating, and have a small 6 to 7 row section of bleachers coming out of the ends right there, that would create that intimate environment for basketball. You would still have all of this other space to use how you needed to, whether you want other courts or whatever. It is just that the Fieldhouse is so vast, so we have to do a much better job of space planning. I am telling you, there very few facilities like this left and to me, that creates an advantage for us. You being a former player, you understand the importance about having depth perception when shooting the Basketball, that really creates a home court advantage. I do believe that we can do a much better job of from a space planning stand point.”
PLN: “You are also aware that the UIL Class AAA Region II Championships are played here. When making these enhancements, is it really important to you, although I know your main concern is about the student athletes here, do you have a desire to pull high school playoff games and post season tournaments here and when people come here for whatever the event may be, think, “Wow, this place just gets better and better every year.” Whether it is a high school Football playoff game, or the Region II Track and Field Championships, do you have those in mind when doing these enhancements?”
AD Ivey:” I think it is not at the forefront of our process, but it does come into play. How does this affect UIL? I think anytime you look at changing anything you think about the UIL, but anytime you are enhancing a facility, it is going to enhance their facility and their experience as well. Having outside facility usage is good for us. It is good for campus, it is good for the town, for recruiting and of course for revenue, I mean let’s call a spade a spade, it is a good revenue opportunity, but in order to have those outside events, our facilities have to be quality places. This is a central location, and like I said, our location gives us an advantage. They have to have these events somewhere, so why not here? I believe if we give them quality facilities to use and a good experience, they will continue to come back.”
PLN:” Last question, and it involves the Football program. When Coach Guy Morriss resigned as Head Football Coach, he asked to stay on. As an observer of many coaching changes, they seem to always involve a level of acrimony, regardless of it being a matter of the Coach being fired, resigning or being replaced. With Coach Morriss staying here, with him helping you out, how invaluable has he been in helping you make the transition here and also how has he helped Coach Carthel assimilate and show him what he had to work with coming in?”
AD Ivey: “I think anytime you have a resource like Coach Morriss and the things he has been able to do over his career, I think it certainly helps. He has been a help to me mainly by just telling me how things were in the past, what he had to work with, what he would have liked to see change, and if he had to do it over again, what would he have done? I will give him this, he has been nothing but supportive of everything we have done, and really, that is a tough spot to be in. To stay on, to really want to help out, but yet knowing when we talk about culture change in the Football program, that kind of directly reflects on him. It is certainly not that he is or was a bad coach nor a bad person, but I tell people this all of the time, sometimes it just does not fit. It just does not work out, and it does not make you a bad person, or a bad coach, or a bad administrator, but it just is what it is. Not everyone can fit with every program, it just does not work that way. He has been helpful in that aspect as well by saying, “this did not work for me, this is what we tried, we tried to build it like a bigger town program, we tried not to spread out our scholarship dollars, and so on.” So, we have taken those things that he has told us, and said OK, this has not worked in the past, so what can we do to change that? Also, he has shown us what has worked in the past and how we can continue on certain things that he has been able to do and just having that resource there, with his knowledge and abilities, just to bounce ideas off of, and I think it has been great.”
PLN: “Wrapping up, so far the sports programs have all had successful seasons overall. One thing that both my Dad and Uncle told me when they came here in their college days was that game days in whatever sport was being played, Commerce residents turned out and supported those teams. I have two younger brothers, one is a Texas A&M graduate, and speaking to friends of his and knowing some about the culture down there, I get the vibe that people in the Bryan/College Station area, even those with no affiliation to the University, are strong Aggie supporters. My other brother is a graduate of Texas Tech, and like us, they are somewhat of an island that is kind of out there. There are a lot of people in Lubbock who never went to Tech or even college for that matter, but because they are an outpost, these two towns really feel like they are Aggies and Red Raiders, even with no direct University affiliation. 20, 30, 40 years ago, Commerce residents had that feeling they were Lions as well. Do you see that attitude starting to resurrect itself?”
AD Ivey:” I think so. I mean winning helps, of course. I think you as a young person see that today there are so many entertainment options. We have to find a way to create our events as an entertainment destination, whether it is having the bounce houses for the kids, or having an area during basketball games where people can come in and have a sit down meal and not just nachos and hot dogs, but have a chance where they can come and fellowship with one another and become closer as a community. Increasing and enhancing our tailgating atmosphere that we have during football, all of that is very important, as is having our student athletes being involved in the community as well. One of the goals we had as a department is 2,000 community service hours, and that is something that shows this community that we are going to give back. We have a program right now with Commerce ISD where our athletes go over there with pen-pals, mentor ship, lunches and really engaging with those kids. It has been great for them, but it has been just great and beneficial, if not more so for our student athletes. Those are the things that when you start to get involved, the community is going to rally around you. They want to rally around you, but you have to give them a reason to. It all goes back to this, that if we show our support for the community, that community will show its support to us. That is why it was very important when I first got here was to reach out to them. I could have easily come in here and said “OK, this what we are going to the for the next year, 3 years, 5 years,” and shoved it down people’s throat. I could have done that, and it would have been my right to do that as an athletic director, but it was important to me that we get community feedback. I did not grow up here, I was not involved with anything in this area, and so it is important for me to get their input and to always listen to those in the community. When you do that, people tend to wrap their arms around you. I met some people this season that had never been to a Football game before, but they came this year. They see that we are trying and trying to make a difference, and I think that people see that.”
PLN: Mr. Ivey, it has been a pleasure to speak with you and get to know you. As an alum and someone who speaks on behalf of a lot of other alums and supporters, we cannot say how thankful we are for what you, President Jones, and Coach Carthel have done to revive overall athletic program. In Football, 7-5 is pretty good, but we all know that we are better than that….
AD Ivey: Absolutely!
PLN: We are looking forward to the future, and I can tell you that not only the students, but the alums and people affiliated with the university are very excited about what is going on, and we see this as not as a flash in the wind, but as something long-term. Our only hope is that TCU does not snatch you up as their next AD or something like that.
AD Ivey: Well, I appreciate you coming in and talking, and if you have anything I can do for you or any suggestions, please let me know!
Tomorrow I will give the back story and some other stuff AD Ivey and I spoke about and just getting to know the guy himself. Much thanks to him for taking time out of his day to help a young blogger. #WeAreLions