In case you were wondering about the power of television in college athletics, Syracuse University announced an out-of-the-box hire on Wednesday.
John Wildhack, an executive at ESPN for the past 36 years, is returning to Syracuse — his alma mater — to serve as its athletic director. His last day at the cable network is July 28, and he will begin at Syracuse in mid-August.
Wildhack replaces Mark Coyle, who left the post after less than a year to return to the athletic department at the University of Minnesota as its athletic director.
“John is an entrepreneurial, outside-the-box leader who brings an unparalleled set of skills and experiences to the director of athletics position,” Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud said in a statement. “As a leader at ESPN, he has demonstrated a keen ability to identify and implement strategies aimed at elevating the entire organization. That record of success, combined with his extensive history of building and inspiring teams, will allow him to immediately and positively impact the lives of our student-athletes.”
Wildhack has no prior collegiate athletic administration history. Not technically, at least. He served a variety of roles at ESPN, most recently as its vice president of programming and production. Most notably, Wildhack produced ESPN’s first live regular-season college football game and first NFL game.
The art of TV contract negotiations is where Wildhack’s experience will likely best serve Syracuse and the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is reportedly seeking its own network.
“From day one, he is going to be the most knowledgeable person when it comes to media,” John Ourand, who covers sports media for Sports Business Journal, told Syracuse.com. “And media is the No. 1 revenue source for every single conference. To me, it makes a ton of sense. I think that he will immediately be looked for as the expert in these sort of deals.”
Both Ourand and Mike Tirico, a Syracuse graduate and a member of the Syracuse Board of Trustees who recently left ESPN for NBC, noted Wildhack’s “Rolodex” with a multitude of connections in college athletics and TV.
“He could call (Big Ten Conference commissioner) Jim (Delaney) and get a call back in a minute,” Tirico told Syracuse.com. “He’s got a Rolodex and can call one of 30 athletic directors and ask, ‘How’d you handle this?’”
Wildhack would do well to talk to Delaney (if he hasn’t already) about the launch of the Big Ten Network as the ACC prepares efforts to do the same. Wildhack dodged questions about a possible ACC network and deferred them to ACC commissioner John Swofford. But Wildhack did acknowledge how additional revenues will help Syracuse stay competitive.
“If you want to have the success that everyone covets, we’ve got to provide our student-athletes and we need to provide our coaches with the resources to have that success,” Wildhack told Syracuse.com. “We’ve got a beautiful indoor facility. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will Tuesday when I’m up. The Melo Center (for basketball) is tremendous. If you want to compete at a high level, you need to give your student-athletes and coaches the resources to do so.”
In addition to the football program, led by newly hired Dino Babers (who served on the A.D. search committee), the other priority for Wildhack is the future of the men’s basketball program and coach Jim Boeheim. In interviews with Syracuse.com, Wildhack and Boeheim acknowledged their longtime friendship, leading to speculation that Boeheim may coach beyond the next two years before retiring.
Now this gets interesting. Wildhack and @therealboeheim are close. I wouldn't be surprised if Boeheim coaches beyond 2018 if Jim wants to.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) July 6, 2016