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An Interview with Joseph R. Castiglione, a Division I Director of Athletics

In the summer of 2012, I emailed the secretary of Joseph Castiglione, the Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Programs and the Director of Athletics at the University of Oklahoma. I had taken a class with Castiglione the previous semester and was hoping he would make time to sit down with me and talk more in-depth about some of the academic challenges facing college sports.

Image from Soonersports.com

The secretary responding quickly and politely, asking if late summer would work. I said it would. I did not hear back for another 8 months and was able to sit down with Castiglione in February 2013. We talked for over an hour and our conversation moved through a wide variety of topics: establishing a psychological resource center solely for student-athletes, the rise in online classes, the perception of corruption in college sports.

Leaving the interview, I was struck by Castiglione’s honesty and conviction. He was transparent with the challenges facing college sports and continually emphasized that all decisions made in the athletic department would resonant with the core values and mission statement adopted by the department; that student-athletes were the reason for the athletic department; that creating an environment for the student-athletes’ academic success was a number one priority.

Castiglione came to OU in 1998 from the University of Missouri.  In the time since his arrival, OU has notched seven national titles and 49 conference titles.  Two years after his arrival, the football team won the national championship, their first in 15 years.  He has overseen the renovation and construction of numerous facilities and lead successful fundraising campaigns, campaigns that allow OU athletic to operate a self-sustaining $93 million annual budget and operate in the black for the past 14 years, a feat rarely seen in the current athletic landscape. For his efforts, the Bobby Dodd Foundation named him Athletics Director of the Year in 2004. In 2003, he was inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators Hall of Fame. In June 2001, he received the General Robert R. Neyland Athletic Director Award for lifetime achievement from the All-American Football Foundation. The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics named him Central Region AD of the Year in 2000.

But more important than these awards, and the reason I include him in my dissertation, is his commitment to academics. Under his tenure, the cumulative student-athlete GPA has risen from the mid-2’s to 3.03. Likewise, graduation rates have increased. Roughly a decade into the job, Castiglione went back to school and received his master’s in Education from OU in 2007. With his graduate degree in hand, Castiglione is now an adjunct professor in the Department of English where every fall he teaches a graduate seminar titled “Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics,” a class I had the opportunity to take in 2012.

Below is my complete interview transcript with Joseph Castiglione. My questions are in bold.

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What was the climate like in the athletic department prior to your arrival in 1997?

You find a program with a great deal of tradition and areas of success within the program, but as a whole it was a department that needed strong leadership, reestablishment of the right culture, certainly an intentional approach to defining the vision or mission. And then the set of core values that was going to guide the decisions that we made. Wouldn’t know how to grade the level of morale, but it wasn’t conducive to the long term vision we had for the program. Found a lot of various areas were operating in their own little silos, if you will, very poor communication between people. That sort of was the internal piece. The department was dealing with a great deal of financial stress. Had incurred significant operating debt and just wasn’t on good footing financially. Facilities were in very bad shape. The facilities in many cases were allowed to lapse into disrepair and or be insufficient for what the team needed. As an example, we had started a women’s soccer program but there hadn’t been any place to compete on campus. So we were basically utilizing some fields run by the Norman parks and recreation department for our varsity program. You could probably say that because of its great tradition and overall support, the program still had a huge fighting chance to get it turned around.

Thinking about academic services. What did that look like when you came here and what were some changes you quickly made?

That actually was one of the stronger parts of the department and that came from some directives put in place in the early part of the decade coming out of an NCAA investigation dealing with some of the issues the campus faced. But there had been noticeable steps taken to strengthen the academic services part of the department. When I got here and started learning about what we were doing all we did was try to strengthen what had been done. Certainly we evaluated everything that had taken place. We looked at graduation rates and the success of student athletes as compared to the rest of campus. Surprisingly, the graduation rates of student-athletes was significantly higher than that of the campus. The graduation rates have gone up incrementally since that time, but the graduation rates of the student on campus have improved dramatically.  Some years we are mirroring what is going on on campus but largely the graduation rates have improved on campus and that is because of the leadership of President Boren, [then] Provost Mergler and others who were involved in initiatives to improve the graduation rates.

I will say during part of the time since 1998 we have also participated in that task force and development of those initiatives and have developed a similar model inside our program. One can’t say one can take the exact same model and apply it because we are different but we have taken the theory and the spirit and the intent behind such initiatives and created a hybrid version if you will for student-athletes. And it has had a positive impact because we are moving our student-athletes closer to graduation during their four years of eligibility. So that would be a good example of a program we have instituted. [Because of that initiative to increase graduation rates] we have done everything from a more intentional review of academic background prior to offering a letter of intent. If we cannot anticipate a student being successful at the University of Oklahoma, we will not offer a letter of intent. They still have to qualify and there are some cases where they are close but you have to remember that what happens in secondary education directly affects what we are seeing in academic preparation or lack thereof before they come to campus. At least we try to find out everything we can, that is public. Once they get here we do our own assessment, so immediately can find out more about the academic profile of the student-athlete. So if they have areas that need to be addressed, a learning disability or remediation, we are more prepared to do that as early in the process as possible.

One other thing we started was an attendance policy.

That wasn’t in place before you?

No. Candidly, we had seen a rise in missed classes for whatever reason. We would find ourselves getting into debates—the student-athlete saying they were there and the professor saying they were not there. We created a program that we \were going to check. And there was a significant financial invest to do that. There were only a few schools at the time that we doing that. And we spend a great deal of time examining what they were doing. And we have that in place and are doing that now. The policy obviously has punitive measure in it but it is meant to send the message that class attendance is a very important part of the journey toward academic success.

If you think about back then and here we are now. When I got here I think the average GPA was in the mid-2 and now our cumulative GPA for student-athletes is 3.03. Now, we will be the first to say that we need to make strides in graduation rates but if the basic premise is to put them in the best position to be successful going through and the grade improvement is any indication then it should correlate with more graduation. So that has been helpful.

A lot of big changes. I want to ask a question about you. I know from taking your class you are a humble person. I asked about these changes and you talk about other people. Two things I greatly appreciate about this department are the self-sustaining budget and the fact that you went and got your master’s degree almost ten years into the job. Why does the athletic director of a major university go and get a master’s degree?

There were several things that motived me. One of my personal core values is a commitment to lifelong learning. I don’t know if you would call it selfish but it more of me modeling the behavior I thought I should. One, I try to become a better leader all the time so the idea of learning isn’t foreign. Whether I accomplish that in the classroom, ongoing readings watching other people’s experiences, all that can provide moments for learning. I really felt like it would a great demonstration of my commitment to that value. Number two, it would give me a real-time glimpse of what our students were facing, albeit in a graduation program opposed to undergraduate program. And three it was something I wanted to check off my bucket list.

The same motivating factors that drive you to teach Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics every fall? To have an athletic director teach a graduate level class, it has got to be unique?

Well, I enjoy it. Probably the motivating factor is to give back. It doesn’t do any good to have all this experience and not share it. It doesn’t mean I have all the answers; it doesn’t mean my way is the only way. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to like what I have to say. As you know, I am very open in the classroom. I want it to be a really great learning experience that people could apply to their pursuits. And, you know, there is something to be said for staying in the classroom.

Under your guidance, the athletic department has started a psychological resource office (PROS), a career center, a writing center—all in house. Thinking about it from a faculty perspective, it makes me a little concerned that athletics has their own career center when there is another one on campus, that they have their own writing center, when there is another one on campus. Has it ever concerned you that athletics is almost creating an insular environment, having everything in-house opposed to having student-athletes utilizing on campus student-services.

Good point, and it does cross our mind when we think of these kinds of initiatives and the PROS would be a perfect example of it. We were using the university services previously and there was a need to use them more but there wasn’t enough staff to take care of the demand. I will tell you exactly what happened. Dr. Gerald Gurney and I started talking about it. He brought the concern to my attention and he had been working with the university. And they asked if we would co-fund a position. That was a novel idea and I was open to it. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that even with the cofounding we would still be having the same problem. So I proposed back to him that if we were going to put up that kind of funding why don’t we put the funding in for our own position and have it housed in the department. Still needed to have a licensed psychologist and would connect with any one and everybody on campus and be very well aware of how the [OU] wanted it to be run—we are not talking about creating an island here. It really came down to a funding decision if we wanted to do it, and I said I would find the funding to pay for the whole position and we would take the strain off of university services and have this person in house. And this person would be more known [to student-athletes] and create more comfort level.

We were the first university in America to do that. In fact, we received a couple of awards for doing that. Again, it is part of our proactive nature. Look you can talk about a lot of things. An athletic director is charged with a great deal of responsibility and one of those is fiduciary. But for me, I know that at times the athletic director has to be the face of the department. But I much prefer to put the student-athletes and the coaches out there in front versus the athletic director. I will stand up and take the arrows when necessary; I will make the tough decisions; I will run the ship with a firm hand. That’s ok, I can do all that. But when people think of the athletic program, I want them to see the student-athletes because that is why we exist. So if you think about what we are doing, there is nothing more important than having anything and everything we do reflect back on the number one priority and that is creating the best atmosphere for student-athlete academic success.

Thinking about a student-athlete’s academic success. I work in the [student-athlete] writing center and a lot of the ways we are allowed or not allowed to help a student-athlete with writing is dictated by the compliance department which is largely run by lawyers. One concern I have is that people with a law degree are deciding how best to help a student-athlete not people with backgrounds in education.

I think you raise a fair point. Compliance isn’t making decisions about what we do in academic services as long as it’s in compliance with the NCAA rules. And they are there to ensure there is ongoing monitoring and checks in balances in place so that someone doesn’t go astray. There are several ways can violate NCAA rules but the most hurtful to a program is blatant academic fraud. And even as intentional as we are about integrity and trying to do the right thing, people with intent on doing something wrong can find a way to beat the system eventually. So I am somewhat disappointed our world has gotten like that but it is the world we are in. So we have to do our best to ensure that we are protecting the student-athletes, the program, the university. Having said that doesn’t mean that [compliance] gets involved with determining academic initiatives. If there are some that send out a threat from a compliance standpoint, we will run it by them.

That’s a really good question.

To speak candidly, sometimes [in the athletic writing center]  we are frustrated because we feel compliance is more concerned about us not breaking rules than they are about us helping the student-athletes.

Fair question, and being very blunt it is something we need to watch. It doesn’t mean we don’t want the strict compliance with the rule and we don’t want to be proactive in protecting ourselves. But we are here to promote education. And I will tell you from a compliance standpoint, the worst thing coming down the road is the preponderance of online courses. How does the university known that the person doing the work is actually the student they are providing a grade for in the course.

You know right now student-athletes can email their papers to the writing center and receive feedback via email on their paper. And the writing center on campus under the direction of Michele Eodice, the associate provost, does the same thing. But the concern you voice is the same one voiced by faculty in general regarding the rise in online classes.  It is a big concern for all of higher education.

You know what, you can’t completely fight it. It is moving that direction.

It’s very lucrative, too.

That’s the reason we have to do what we can. I am very concerned. How can you stop it? You can get someone to do the work, and it will be tough to monitor.

Getting back to your point. We don’t ever believe that our athletic department operates outside of institutional mission. When you think about student-athletes having to balance their time so wisely, we think that providing the services here in a more convenient fashion makes sure that our student-athletes have every resource to be successful. If a student-athlete has to wait four weeks to get an advisement, chances are they may never take advantage of it.

That’s true. At the University of Oklahoma, our number one mission is to provide education, to educate students, why do we have an athletic program?

It’s an extension of the quality of life that is created around the university. If it was just about offering and taking classes, you could do that in a building downtown. What makes a university is the opportunity to be exposed to so many different things. It doesn’t mean that everyone will like everything that a university offers. But the fact that there is a wide variety of opportunity is important for a university campus. We have a wide range of universities and colleges across the United States. Not all of them offer athletics or not robust athletic programs because that doesn’t fit their mission and that’s perfectly fine. People know that this campus offers that because it builds community. I think at the end of the day, that there is so much good that can come of it, a sense of community, how it keeps people connected to an institution, and the way it brings people to the campus and engages them in an activity that can be unifying. For those institutions, Oklahoma being one of them, it serves a very valuable purpose.

I want to ask about the college sports landscape in general. College sports are a popular book topic and the large majority of these books position college sports as a corrupt enterprise. For example, Beer and Circus, Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in Collegiate Athletics. What do you say to these vocal, almost angry, critics of college sports?

Well, in some cases they have had grist for their mill. They have taken some real life examples and have used that factual evidence to support their claims. But where some of those authors go too far is to apply the broad brush approach: this is college athletics everywhere and these things are happening everywhere. On occasion could they have happened in many more places than people know? Sure, it is possible.  But does it happen with regularity everywhere? Absolutely not.

Look, I know people don’t like the idea that college sports has become a business but when the university said we cannot pay for you and do not want pay for you and pushed you over here. In order to survive, programs had to become entrepreneurial. And some of them have done a better job than others and are now being criticized for doing what they were asked to do.

Is that why OU athletics has a separate athletic budget?

Well, I don’t really know when that happened.

But we have been operating in the black for what?

14 straight years.

That’s amazing.

Yeah.

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