"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

My years with Bill Cords. A personal reflection

I had heard the rumors last year that Bill Cords was close to retiring so today's announcement was no shocker by any means. With the recent extension of Tom Crean's contract, we speculated here that unfinished business was done and perhaps pointed to Bill riding into the sunset. Good for Bill. He deserves to go out on his terms at the top of his game. I had the pleasure of working with Bill Cords for five years and prior to that as a student during the early years of his tenure. Here are my thoughts on one of the good guys.

I first met Bill Cords as a freshman at Marquette in 1987 as a member of the student basketball ticket committee. Nice man, not overly gregarious by any stretch, but took the time to talk to a California kid and showed he cared. He was in his first year at MU and the athletic department was in sorry shape to be kind. He had just come over from UTEP where he was the AD there. He was an old school athletic director, a former coach by trade. Today's AD's typically have MBAs or Sports Marketing / Management degrees, but the old school AD's were coaches and he fit the bill.

At this time college basketball was changing significantly. The Big East had been formed less than a decade earlier, television was becoming a major player, and the role of Independent in the college basketball world was now an albatross. All of these changes had a major impact on MU along with the retirements of Al McGuire and Hank Raymonds. Marquette was in a state of flux and in danger of falling off the map entirely. Some professors at MU were even throwing around the idea of dropping to Division II. Bill Cords would have none of that and convinced the leadership that great things could happen again. It would require money, commitment, great people who were dedicated, a bit of luck and a ton of hard work.

Bill had to perform a bit of triage and that meant address men's basketball first. Bob Dukiet was the head basketball coach and coming off a NIT season with the prospects for a similar season again. Unfortunately nothing of the sort happened. Dukiet's squad finished 10-18, the first losing MU season in two decades. The season included three streaks of four or more straight losses. A miserable season for Bill's first at the helm of MU athletics. It was also our last season at the MECCA and MU basketball would move into the shiny new Bradley Center the following year. At least there was one thing to be excited about.

The next year Dukiet delivered another losing season as we finished with a 13-15 season, including a loss to Notre Dame where we trailed 36-12 at halftime in our own building. It was the end. Dukiet was re-assigned by Cords at the conclusion of the season. Since McGuire had departed, the three coaches to follow came either internally from MU or from a small school in the east (Dukiet came from St. Peter's). Cords would push to go after someone with some outside pedigree from a major school. Someone that would work night and day to restore MU basketball. The hire was critical as Marquette was now a decade since the championship and mired in mediocrity.

Bill went back to his Pac Ten roots (he was a former coach at Washington State) and hired Kevin O'Neill, an assistant coach from the University of Arizona. Speculation from the media was Tony Barone of Creighton or O'Neill from Arizona. Cords picked the right one. O'Neill, love him or hate him, was the right man at the right time for Marquette. He irritated many a fan and player, but he righted the ship and in his first year we were back in the NIT. A few years later back in the NCAA tournament.

Equally as important in 1988 was our admission into the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (MCC)...MU's first all sports affiliation after 80+ years as an independent (note: the women's teams did participate in the Northstar conference for some sports). This move did not sit well with many of the old timers at MU, but they did not understand the landscape of college athletics. Conference affiliation was a must now in basketball and if MU had any hope of surviving long term, it had to be done.

By 1993, MU had moved up in neighborhoods again. Cords and the university helped to engineer Marquette as a charter member of the Great Midwest Conference. This move told me that MU was serious about college basketball again. The MCC was a nice little conference with urban schools, but it screamed mid-major. The Great Midwest was anything but. Cincinnati, Memphis, UAB, DePaul, Saint Louis, Dayton. By no means was it a powerhouse, but clearly a destination of basketball pedigree schools that wanted to go somewhere again. Indeed they did. In 1993, MU went back to the NCAA tournament. A year later, they were in the Sweet 16. Other teams in the conference excelled as Cincinnati went to the Final Four, Memphis to the Elite 8, Saint Louis and UAB were nationally ranked.

Playing a hot hand, Cords and the university administration supported and joined the Great Midwest transformation into another charter conference...Conference USA. Arguably the largest conference in the country at the time geographically and with the number of institutions. It was a conference that spread into two time zones and over 10 states with public and private institutions. Certainly not a perfect fit for Marquette by any stretch, but a necessary one if MU was to continue a pursuit for national attention. CUSA certainly was national both literally and figuratively.

During this same time period Kevin O'Neill decided to leave MU for Tennessee and greener pastures. Kevin always marched to a different drum and the decision was not surprising. Cords and the university were at a crossroads again....what to do about a basketball coach that just left the university high and dry. In 1989 he hired an assistant from a big name school to revive the program. Now he was looking for something different. The program had momentum and stability, someone was needed to be the caretaker. Several candidates emerged but when Mike Deane of Siena was said to be Dayton's final choice, Bill got on an airplane and flew to interview Deane quickly before he could sign with the Flyers. A decision was made promptly and the offer extended to Deane. A day later the Flyers would learn they lost their expected head coach to rival Marquette.

The course of the next five years saw continued success in MU basketball. A championship appearance in the NIT in Deane's first year, two NCAA berths including a CUSA tournament title followed by another NIT year in Deane's fourth year. It was during Deane's second season that I was hired at MU as an intern in the marketing department. Bill treated us all as equals. One of my duties was to start a Marquette athletics website. Soon we became just the 6th school in the NCAA to broadcast our games on the internet...something that Bill found wildly amazing as we all did back in 1996. We were reaching MU alums throughout the world listening to our broadcasts. I enjoyed sharing with Bill the list of far away countries that tuned in. We started the Golden Eagles Kids Club, began to market women's basketball and soccer, youth programs were created and student participation increased. Attendance and success climbed in other sports under his leadership. Women's hoops was viable now and went to the NCAAs. Women's soccer was born from scratch and fielded very competitive teams and the men's soccer team tasted the NCAA tournament. Women's tennis also went NCAA dancing, something virtually unheard of for a Midwestern school. Track and Field / Cross Country remained strong placing individual athletes in the NCAAs. The Valley Fields opened up as well with state of the art soccer field, football turf and track and field facilities. They were the first intercollegiate facilities built in more than 50 years for MU. What a difference in just 10 years from when he took over.

In 1998 after four years in the department, he named me Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing and Technology. He gave me my chance and I am forever grateful. He knew we didn't have a ton of money to work with but encouraged us to turn over every rock we could to maximize MU athletics and market each team to the Milwaukee public. We set records in attendance for women's hoops, women's and men's soccer, volleyball and increased men's basketball attendance from the year prior despite having a losing season. It was a rewarding year to be sure. Personal tragedy hit my family in May of 2000 with the sudden death of my father. The first person I called was Bill Cords and his comforting words were tremendous. The man had gone through much tougher personal tragedies then I could ever imagine....his experienced words were much needed. Months later when I indicated to him that family needs required me to leave MU and return to Southern California, again he was terrific.

Not always roses

Of course not everything was roses either. In 1994 the university decided to change the nickname from Warriors to Golden Eagles. Bill was the athletic face for this change even though it came from Father DiUlio. Bill was a professional about it, not throwing DiUlio under the bus even though much of the anger was directed at Bill and the Athletics Department. Those wounds reopened again just last year with the nickname balloting. I don't know where Bill Cords personally stands on the issue and even if I asked he wouldn't be dumb enough to tell me anyway. He was a company man and he played it by the book. If I had to speculate, I would guess he wasn't too thrilled about the name change back in the mid 1990's but had accepted the realization in part deux...pure speculation on my part.

If the name change didn't irk you, the points system probably did the trick. The Blue and Gold Fun was created during Cords tenure, as well. All athletic departments today must find as many revenue sources as they can to fund their departments and MU was in worse shape than most when he came on board. Only a couple of scholarships were endowed and the cost of running the athletic department was climbing each year. Other universities had started funds to support their athletic departments. Donations from alumni and season ticket holders would earn them points and determine seating priority at Marquette games...a RADICAL change from the past and one met with much anger by some season ticket holders. Some fans had been buying tickets for decades but now they could lose their prime locations to others that had made considerable donations. It was a tough pill to swallow and an unpopular program for many fans, but the nature of the beast for the athletic department to survive. Again Bill often took the brunt of it from a few irate fans during the re-seating process at the Bradley Center. He stood tall, explained why it was necessary and most MU fans got it. The heat he took from the others was emotion getting in the way, but unnecessary for one person to endure. Yet he did.

The program also saw the loss of two sports during Bill's tenure. First to go was the rifle team. A co-ed sport that earned Marquette a top 20 national ranking several years running. The sport was phased out in the late 1990's. Wrestling was the other sport that fell victim of Title IX and budgetary restraints. Despite private funding for a proud wrestling program, it was done away with several years ago despite many efforts to keep it going. Neither program departure made Bill happy, but as the CEO of the Athletic Department a decision that had to be made. Marquette joined the list of many schools across the country to drop men's sports to reach the required standards set by Title IX legislation passed in the 1970's.

I also recall vividly the day after Jack O'Hara died on the TWA plane crash from New York to Paris. Jack was with ABC Sports and a big friend to the department. He was a good person to know and had become a friend of Bill's. All of us had seen the devestation on the news the day before but no one knew O'Hara was on the flight. When we learned that O'Hara, his wife and daughter were on that plane it was devestating for Bill. He had lost a great sports contact with MU connections but more importantly had lost a friend.

The Big East, Tom Crean, Al McGuire Center

For years Cords had the midas touch when it came to hiring coaches. Soccer, tennis, basketball, rifle....it didn't matter, he always seemed to land someone qualified and right for the job at that time. Things change, of course, and sometimes the right guy at the time doesn't remain the right guy years later. In 1999, Bill and the university had come to another crossroads. Mike Deane's squad has just finished with a 14-15 record, his first losing season. Deane had compiled 100 wins (20 per season) and 4 post-season berths in the previous five years, hardly a candidate one would think could be fired but that is exactly what happened. In a bold move that many questioned at the time, Cords replaced Deane and hired Tom Crean from Michigan State.

I still remember the day in the office when they told us that Mike was fired. There was a lot of anger amongst the staff, confusion, uncertainty and a general sense of why is this happening. Deane had his faults, we all do, but he was liked by many in the department. He worked with us in every request we had and was not a prima donna coach like others around the country. Bill obviously saw something else. I believe he respected Deane's coaching abilities to the hilt, but was looking for someone that had the recruiting magic as well as the PR ability to raise the level of the program nationally and financially. Crean was the guy.

Seven years later Marquette is now in the Big East conference, a few years off of going back to the FINAL FOUR, we have perhaps the best practice facility in the country in the Al McGuire Center, and Bill has secured Tom Crean for at least the next ten years. A magical mystery tour that no one could have predicted in their wildest dreams in 1987. NO ONE.

There are many other stories I could tell. The day he walked over to the hospital north of campus and found out he needed his gall bladder taken out immediately...at least I recollect it being his gall bladder. He had a habit of losing his keys every once in awhile which was an inside joke in the department. Hooking him up to his own personal computer in 1996 and on the internet....a big step for someone that was 55 or so and not used to dealing with computers. Mia Hamm's visit to Marquette and subsequent partnership with her and MU soccer for a few years. Or the conversations with the MECCA where I saw for the first time Bill raise his voice and tell Wisconsin Center District exactly who would be making the decisions of what was in the best interest of Marquette...I can tell you one thing, it wasn't the WCD but rather Bill Cords was going to make those decisions...plainly, loudly and with clarity. That was a fun meeting.

To this day whenever I bump into Bill he's the same quietly enthusiastic and kind person he always has been. In San Diego before the NCAA game with Alabama he made a special effort to talk to my 7 year old son and give me the low down on how proud he was to be in the Big East. And boy was he proud. What a legacy. Enjoy your retirement Bill and may you and Gwen be as successful in your next endeavor in life.


Midwestern Collegiate Conference
Great Midwest Conference charter member
Conference USA charter member
Big East Conference member
Full time tenant of the Bradley Center
Marquette hosted three NCAA tournaments at the Bradley Center
Valley Fields built
Al McGuire Center built
Final Four in men's basketball
NCAA berths in men's & women's basketball, men's & women's soccer, tennis, wrestling, track and field, cross country
Blue and Gold Created
Rifle and Wrestling dropped as programs
Terri Mitchell, Tom Crean and Louis Bennett hired
Golf & tennis ultra competitive despite Midwestern location


Anonymous said...

Great article. Professors wanted to move to Division 2? Are these the same geniuses who objected to changing changing the nickname back to Warriors?

TB said...

I was too far under the influence to pay attention to the profs on this issue, but I do recall the cover story of Marquette Magazine during this abyssmal period. The cover was black and read simply, "10-18". Inside an article by David Holtermann, a very good student writer, advocated for a step down from Division 1, citing examples of other programs that had done so -- while increasing endowment and other programs. Was a good read and a sound argument.

But I'm glad it was dismissed out of hand.

Anonymous said...

Yes, there was discussion of going to DII. Buckholdt I believe was one of the profs and there were others.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely done!

Anonymous said...

Just today, (prior to reading any of this) I was speaking with an alum of one our rival formerly independant-catholic schools that was in a similar position to MU and was another of our MCC compatriots and I was very proud of the way MU has worked their way through the modern college sports system to arrive with a solid b-ball team in the top conference with our school's integrity in tact. It feels good to be an MU grad and I think Bill has been a big part of that.

Also, beyond sports, I think the school is also reaching new heights in reputation.

rugbydrummer said...

and let's not forget about Jim McIlvaine!!

Anonymous said...

"Marquette Hoops" mentions the Marquette Magazine (actually, Marquette Journal) article with "10-18" on the cover (it was white letters on a black background and the subhed read, "Will the light shine again on Marquette basketball?"I was the assignment editor for that story, and, wow, how great that someone remembers it 18-19 years later! Just for the record, the well-reported story was written by Ann Downey, but she didn't advocate for a step down from Division 1. In fact, the gist of the story was that all programs have their ups and downs, and that MU fans should be patient during the downtime of that era. To quote the story: "The overriding message in every interview was for Marquette and its fans to be patient and give Dukiet a chance to make something of the team he has recruited."
Obviously, things didn't work out for Dukiet, but the program did bounce back.

Anonymous said...

"Marquette Hoops" mentions the Marquette Magazine (actually, Marquette Journal) article with "10-18" on the cover (it was white letters on a black background and the subhed read, "Will the light shine again on Marquette basketball?"I was the assignment editor for that story, and, wow, how great that someone remembers it 18-19 years later! Just for the record, the well-reported story was written by Ann Downey, but she didn't advocate for a step down from Division 1. In fact, the gist of the story was that all programs have their ups and downs, and that MU fans should be patient during the downtime of that era. To quote the story: "The overriding message in every interview was for Marquette and its fans to be patient and give Dukiet a chance to make something of the team he has recruited."
Obviously, things didn't work out for Dukiet, but the program did bounce back.

Anonymous said...

I worked with Cords too. He obviously did the right thing for MU with Crean, so kudos for that, but everything else he did, like moving into a conference and the point system, was something any AD would have done, and probably done it sooner. He was a weird individual.

Unknown said...

I dont view the womens program as ever being successful. It seems like it just settled for mediocrity and Terri Mitchell. Now AGAIN, a young coach from the assistant coaching realm and former player is hired to lead womens basketball. Was this to be a home run hire? It wasnt, just my opinion. Look at Penn State, South Carolina, Purdue, Nebraska..and terri mitchell had 23 years and accomplished what?? exactly?? Pretenders, 20 win seasons, with no significant consistency in NCAA tournament. That is the womens basketball legacy championed by some. Mediocrity.

Unknown said...

Thank you Terri Mitchell for 23 years, new coach has mentioned carrying the tradition?? What tradition? NCAA one and done, no big east championships, how about all americans? How about bringing in elite recruits, Wisconsin and Chicago talent?? Where is the fan base after 23 years? Consistency? I think Marquette should have went after an established coach, or a name fans could get excited about and recruits could get excited about...good luck womens basketball. As Athletic director Mr. Cords is credited with mens basketball, is he to blame for the mediocrity in womens basketball?