ORONO — There are plenty of weighty issues awaiting Karlton Creech, the new University of Maine athletic director.
Creech, who assumed his duties in Orono on Feb. 10, has extensive experience in fundraising from his days at North Carolina and North Carolina State.
Other aspects of his job — upgrading facilities, hiring and supervising coaches — will be new to him.
But first he’s trying to fit in at his new university, and that starts with a quick immersion into hockey. The good news for Maine? The Black Bears men’s team is 3-0 in games Creech has attended, including a sweep last weekend of Merrimack. And Creech showed during an exclusive interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram at his office a week ago Friday, that he’s already familiar with the star players.
Asked for a prediction for that night’s game, he didn’t hesitate to proclaim a big victory for the Black Bears. Naturally. But who will score the winning goal, Creech was asked. Again, no hesitation: “Devin Shore,” he answered, referencing the team’s leading scorer.
Maine did win that night, but only 2-1, and Ryan Lomberg scored both goals. Creech, 41, and his wife, Staci, were all smiles at the postgame interview session, soaking up the atmosphere at their new home.
In a 26-minute conversation, Creech was candid about what he knows — and what he has yet to discover — about his new role. He spoke about Maine’s facilities, its strong hockey tradition, its moribund men’s basketball program, a scandal currently enveloping his former employer, North Carolina, and more.
MST: What were some of your childhood memories of sports? Were you a big sports fan growing up?
KC: Absolutely. When you grow up in a town like Chapel Hill, you’re just infused with college athletics and the pageantry and the excitement of all of it. My parents actually didn’t work in the university at all, but we went to games growing up and had season football tickets. And back then the basketball team played in Carmichael Auditorium, which was a really small arena and so tickets were at a premium back in the Michael Jordan days and all that. And so I didn’t get to many basketball games until they moved into the Smith Center in ’86. But yeah, it was just a big part of growing up in a college town, a lot like it is here. And so a lot of my fond memories growing up are around a football Saturday or a basketball game. And so I think that’s why, I wasn’t quite good enough to play sports in college, but just always was with me. And it was kind of a big reason why I chose a career in it.
MST: You said you wanted to be an engineer originally. So a career in sports, when did that formulate?
KC: So I graduated (from North Carolina State), I didn’t end up with an engineering degree, I ended up with a political science degree. I had one of those â€˜aha’ moments kind of in a basement lab one night working on some programming and I said, “No, I’m not going to be an engineer.” So I graduated with a political science degree. And I actually had a friend when I graduated, a guy who was working at the Carolina ticket office. He was a couple of years older than me. So I was just looking for a job and he called me and said, “Hey, we’ve got an internship. Why don’t you apply for this internship?” And so I did. And I had met Staci, Staci was on the golf team at Carolina and so we had been dating a little bit. So that interested me, staying around the athletic department, staying around her. And so I got the job and 18 years later I’m an athletic director. I’m proud of, I just kind of worked my way up. I didn’t have a big pedigree as an athlete or an insider helping me. So I just kind of took opportunities as they came to me and made the most of them, and just tried to work hard and do my best.
MST: What experiences have you had that have prepared you for this step, this career now?
KC: I think in 18 years most of that experience has been in fundraising and development, capital project management, things like that. But when you work in athletics, especially at two big programs like North Carolina and N.C. State, you see everything. And so I’ve been exposed to a lot of things at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics. And so I’ve also had the privilege of working for great people. Working for Bubba Cunningham at North Carolina as the AD, Dick Baddour before him. And then at North Carolina State, I worked for Bobby Purcell, who is the executive director of the Wolfpack Club, and Bobby’s like the godfather of college fundraising. He’s just a legend in the business and so I’ve been fortunate to work for great people and they’ve taught me a lot. And so I think I come prepared. My learning curve at Maine will mainly be about Maine. What’s unique about this place, what are the traditions and the legends and all those things that make this place unique? And so that’s why I’m going to start doing a lot of touring and learning and listening. But the nuts and bolts of college athletics are pretty similar wherever you go.
MST: Have you seen all the facilities here at Maine and what are your initial impressions?
KC: I have. I think probably like anywhere, we’ve got some real strengths and we’ve got some places where we need to improve. I think my first two times in the Cross Insurance Center (in Bangor), it’s just a fabulous facility. As far as quality it’s as good as any place I’ve been. I think it’s the right size. We’ve got to get some strategies to increase the attendance there. I think it’s a challenge to get students to go 10 miles down the road on a Wednesday night to go to a basketball game. But that’s where we’ve got to engage the greater Bangor community to get some better attendance there. Actually the women’s game Sunday night was really pretty good. They had a good crowd there. Alfond is an iconic college hockey arena, and so I think that’s a venue where we’re just going to try to look for continual improvement and make sure we keep it that. Football’s a solid facility. I think down the road there’s probably some things we can do there. The Memorial Gym, which we’re in, and the New Balance field house renovations, which are ongoing, the field house is now open. They’re currently in this building working, and so that’s going to be a great improvement. So overall we’re pretty solid. Mahaney Diamond’s a good baseball field, the softball complex. I don’t think there are any glaring places that we have to fix immediately.
MST: How much experience have you had hiring and supervising coaches?
KC: I supervised a couple of coaches at North Carolina. The golf coaches, they’re pretty low-maintenance. So I haven’t had direct experience hiring or firing a coach. I was, as chief of staff at North Carolina, involved in some hirings, so I have that experience. I feel very confident that I have a great network of sitting ADs. Actually I was just talking to one of them about an hour ago about his experience. So I feel like I have the resources and the network at my disposal to make good decisions and to be able to do that, even though I haven’t done it yet. But I think the management of coaches is a little bit different than managing other people, but it’s not that different. It’s having a relationship, having goals, agreed-upon goals, and we’re either meeting them or not. So I think it’s not too far off from my experience in managing other people. I oversaw the whole human resources division at Carolina, so that was 250 full-time employees. So I’ve got the human resources side of it, I’ve got that side of it. But we’ll see. I’m sure the first time either one of those things happens for me, it will be a new experience.
MST: How important is the men’s hockey program to the overall athletic department, just budgetary-wise. It’s kind of the face, isn’t it?
KC: It is. I would say, from what I know to date, it probably has been the premier program at the University of Maine with the two national championships in the ’90s. And so they have had a history of competing at the highest level, and so I think that’s (Coach) Red’s (Gendron’s) goal is to get them back there. From that aspect, it is the marquee program, or has been. History shows that. So it’s important that we fill Alfond and provide the kids the support, and the community an outlet to come and experience great college sports. It’s important. I’m grateful that we have Red (Gendron) on board and that things seem to be heading in the right direction.
MST: The men’s basketball program is obviously on the flip side. How concerned are you about that?
KC: I am supportive of (Coach) Ted (Woodward) and the guys. I went to the game Wednesday night. We didn’t have a great crowd. There weren’t a lot of people there. Wednesday nights are probably tough in general. But that’s a sport where I think we have a great opportunity. When you look at the America East, I think it’s one of those conferences obviously that’s an automatic qualifier. So if you win it, you get on the big stage. It’s great for your program and for the institution. And so from that aspect, men’s basketball is an area of opportunity for us. And so I think we’ve got to be aware of that. I haven’t done any coaching evaluations yet. I’m going to evaluate every program at the end of every season, with each coach, based on a number of factors, wins and losses being one of them, but only one of them. And so it’s going to be about, how are the kids doing in school, what’s our community engagement look like, how are we doing from an NCAA compliance standpoint? All those things are going to contribute to the evaluation of every program at the end of every season. And so I haven’t gotten there yet.
MST: Your former school, North Carolina, is going through some trouble right now with allegations of academic fraud in the athletic department. How cognizant were you of that whole situation as it was happening?
KC: As it was happening, not at all. I was in the development office at that time. We called it the Rams Club, the development arm of athletics. I would have had no reason to know about it when it was happening. Obviously when it came to light with the NCAA investigation and actually started with an extra benefits investigation of a couple of football players, and then as they dug deeper found the academic stuff and went from there. Then I guess two years ago, when I transitioned into an athletic administration role, it had all kind of already happened and we were in the middle of investigation and follow-up. Most of that was managed by the university. After it had all happened, athletics kind of gets taken out and the university takes over.
MST: Did it come up on your job interview? When you met with the search committee and so on, did they ask you about it?
KC: It did not. I don’t think anybody asked me on my interview. I’m trying to remember. I talked to so many people those couple days. But I was questioned about it before I got here last week. I did a couple of interviews about it when the CNN story (that 60 percent of North Carolina’s football and basketball players read at a fourth- to eighth-grade level) broke right before the NCAA convention. I got a couple of calls, media requests, on that. So I did those. Beyond that, I think President (Paul) Ferguson and I might have had a conversation after the interview about it, where he kind of asked me a similar question, “Where were you when all that happened?” My answer was the same, I was in the development arm, external.
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or [email protected]Twitter: MarkEmmertPPH