Q&A with Athletics Director Chris Gage
With more than 30 years experience in collegiate athletics, Chris Gage has seen a little bit of everything in the college sports world. Gage, the university’s athletic director, came to UT Dallas in 2003 from Colorado State University-Pueblo where he had served in the same position following stints in the athletic departments at UT San Antonio, Eastern New Mexico State University and Drake University.
For Gage, a North Texas native and member of the first four-year graduating class of Bishop Lynch High School in East Dallas, joining the Comets’ staff was a literal homecoming—his early memories of Richardson were dove hunting as a teenager in the mid 1960s “when this area was nothing but sunflowers.”
Today, Gage leads a flourishing athletics department that has fielded winning teams in a variety of sports and compete regularly for titles in the American Southwest Conference. He sat down with Chad Thomas for the November 2013 Staff Council Interview.
You’ve been UT Dallas’ athletic director since 2003. How has the athletics landscape at the university changed over the last 10 years?
As the university has grown in size and population, the athletics program has as well. In the fall 2003, we had 187 student athletes competing in 12 sports. We started this year with almost 300 student athletes. We were fortunate to be able to add volleyball in 2003-2004, which has been a very successful program. Most of our programs have become regionally if not nationally recognized. With broadening our nonconference scheduling, we are playing a much more national schedule. Winning conference championships and experiencing NCAA postseason play, the UT Dallas brand has become more acknowledged.
Our facilities have also expanded. We have 10 new state-of-the-art tennis courts. We’re continually looking to enhance and remodel our venues to better serve the student athletes and spectators. Through the years we’ve collaborated with Rec Sports in using and scheduling facilities — we talk about them as “multi-use” venues to better serve the campus community.
What are some of the unique challenges of leading the athletics department at UT Dallas compared with some of the other institutions you’ve been?
UT Dallas reminds me a lot of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was the associate director of athletics for three tremendous years. Extremely gifted, talented and bright students that enter college with a distinct and well-defined academic and athletic plan. When you are fortunate enough to be at an institution that has a special, refined mission, like Drake and UT Dallas, you see a different focus—a select game plan, so to speak.
We profess excellence, achievement, success and growth. It’s a unique challenge with these aspirations to be able to successfully solicit, recruit, retain and graduate student athletes. But the athletic staff and coaches understand the challenge and continue to bring quality students to campus—and then venture into the developmental process of producing outstanding student athletes.
Many of our efforts require our attention 365 days a year: recruiting, external development, facility enhancement, coaching, marketing/promotions, public relations, compliance, budget and personnel management. The jobs we perform at UT Dallas are the exact same jobs in athletics at Michigan, North Carolina, Stanford, Colorado, M.I.T. or Montana State. Our No. 1 priority is to develop the student athletes in every possible way we can and to see them through graduation. At the same time, we’re trying to win games, manage budgets, monitor compliance—and do it better than the day before.
You’ve helped guide the department through some major changes. What changes can we expect to see in athletics in the coming months or years?
We continue to discuss the what, why, when, if and how of adding new programs, improving the support of our athletic staff, better serving the student athletes and campus community. In the current political climate, we’re not really able to pursue any additional financial assistance to add sports. That’s a rather large request that would also rely on the support of the student body.
That’s where external development is so critical. The facility upgrades we want to do will require funding from within athletics via the Comet Club, sponsorships, etc. The goal for the immediate future—and future months and several years—is to continue to work to be successful in the American Southwest Conference with the sport programs we currently have. But we’ll continue to explore, research, strategize on the opportunity for growth.
UT Dallas has a reputation among its students of being an academics-first institution. It’s also historically had a large commuter student population. How has that impacted your department, particularly in terms of student interest and attendance at home games?
I refer to the commuter population as yesteryear. With the construction of the new residential properties, the increased enrollment and the success our programs have had, we’ve seen game attendance increase. We still have our challenges just like everyone in the country. We know that we have a large offering of night classes, and playing at home in a midweek game can be somewhat frustrating in regard to crowds. But I’m frequently surprised and pleased to see good crowds when we weren’t necessarily expecting one.
Our crowds have increased at most of our sport venues over the last 10 years with our marketing and promotion efforts. People have become more knowledgeable of game days and times. And the success of our teams has helped improve attendance as well. But there’s one thirst of athletics that we’ll never quench, and that’s attendance. Once we have standing-room-only crowds, we’ll be trying to figure out where additional seating can go.
Game attendance is a universal concern. I was watching a major college football game on a Thursday night a few weeks ago…a university with a 30,000-plus-seat stadium that was less than half full. During basketball season, a basketball junkie can get into their La-Z-Boy at five o’clock and watch nationally televised games until midnight. When Duke, North Carolina, Michigan start talking about their concern for home game attendance, that can be defined as an epidemic.
University President David Daniel has said publicly he’s happy for UT Dallas’ athletics teams to continue to play in NCAA Division III. What are some of the advantages of remaining in that division, and why does that seem to well suit UT Dallas?
NCAA Division III prides itself on promoting the complete collegiate experience for the student athlete. That’s in part why Division III has shorter playing seasons, limited out-of-season contact, no athletic-related activity during the offseason periods.
UT Dallas has the second largest enrollment of any Division III institution in the country. We’re also one of the youngest institutions in Division III. By philosophy, UT Dallas could serve as a poster child for Division III: strong specialized academic offerings, quality campus and student life opportunities, integration of the student athlete into the regular campus environment. These things make Division III a good fit.
From a management perspective, due to the support and generosity of the students and [Vice President for Student Affairs] Dr. [Darrelene] Rachavong, we are able to operate our athletic department successfully with the financial resources that we’re provided. It’s not said publicly very often, but our standard operating procedure is that we are not going to have “token programs”—programs that we can’t provide the sufficient resources for to provide positive experiences for the participants and the university. I think that’s important. There are numerous athletic programs around the country that run multimillion-dollar deficits annually. That puts an undue and irresponsible burden on the campus and isn’t an accountable way to run a business.
A longstanding joke at UT Dallas is that our football team is undefeated. Do you think the university will ever field a football program or will that joke live on forever?
Personally, I would love to have a football program that we could say was undefeated. That’s not realistic but a very aggressive goal. Actually, it’s an interesting question and one I like talking about. Again, it’s our modus operandi not to do something we cannot adequately fund. Currently, we don’t have the financial resources to have football. Over the course of 10 years this question has been asked by students, faculty, staff, fans, parents, community people, etc.
Like any major operation, football requires a lot of resources even at the Division III level. But there are also indirect assets that football would provide when and if that opportunity, decision and selection occurs.
How can staff support the university’s athletics, and are there any discounts or perks for staff that they might not know about?
First, faculty, staff and students at UT Dallas get into all home athletic events complimentary by showing their Comet Card, except for special events that restrict us from offering that benefit.
Next, staff can show support through attendance at athletic games and events. The greater the attendance, the greater the atmosphere for participants and fans. It also indirectly spells a greater reception to external funding initiatives through sponsorships and individual gifts.
We do a variety of special events at games recognizing academic departments and we want to expand that to every department. If a department is doing a special night for their unit, we have a vast menu of things we can do. So, attend a game, use your Comet Card and experience the tremendously talented and skilled student athletes that represent UT Dallas. Be loud and be proud!