Dull moments are few for fourth-year Hawaii athletic director David Matlin. Leading UH’s 21-sport department presents constant, fresh challenges in a rapidly changing collegiate landscape.
Matlin, the former executive director of the Hawaii Bowl and the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, sat down with Hawaii Warrior World for a wide-ranging Q&A session in advance of the Hawaii football team’s homecoming game against Duquesne.
Topics included progress of facilities projects, the state of the UH football and volleyball teams, his leadership style, the athletics budget, and the 2018 UH Sports Circle of Honor class being honored at the game on Saturday.
Q: Does your tenure as AD (three and a half years) feel like it’s been that length of time?
A: Sometimes it feels longer, sometimes it feels a lot shorter. It’s really, every day is a little different. You know, you think you have a good understanding of what the job is when you take it, and then you realize you really don’t. But, I feel that we’re working on looking at what we accomplished the first three years, and there was kind of a lot. Quite a bit. Then you’re looking at the next things you’ve got to focus on. There’s a lot more to get done than you’ve gotten done. Sometimes it feels like it’s been a few weeks, sometimes it feels like it’s been 10 years. But I’m kind of (rejuvenated) right now. I feel more energy going forward, so I’m kind of excited. Some of the deals we’ve gotten done, whether it be IMG or Under Armour or the Hawaiian Airlines (travel) deal. Now, you focus on fundraising, you focus on merchandising licensing. There’s some other areas we can focus to get better on.
Obviously I’ve hired six coaches since I’ve been here. That’s probably six in the first two years even (football, Nick Rolovich; men’s basketball, Eran Ganot; women’s volleyball, Robyn Ah Mow-Santos; swimming, Dan Schemmel; track and field, Tim Boyce; and women’s golf, Stephen Bidne). Obviously football, basketball, volleyball are major revenue-generating sports. … Football and basketball were in the first six months. And then volleyball was a little more than a year (in).
Q: Following up on something you said, what was different about the job than you expected once you filled those shoes?
A: I worked in (this) department in the ’90s. And then I’ve always been somewhat close, whether I’m volunteering for stuff or my role with ESPN, the two events (Hawaii Bowl and Diamond Head Classic), I worked with the people here a lot. You understand the visibility of the program. There’s no professional sports here and no other Division I athletics programs here. I guess I didn’t realize how many meetings there would be (laughs), I mean, for one thing. A big part of the job is, it’s a human resources job. You’re dealing with a lot of employees, a lot of volunteers, a lot of coaches, different unions. So I mean, a lot of the job is human resources and there’s nothing more important than people. Sometimes it’s daunting, but you know, it’s energizing at the same time.
Q: Have you tapped into different leadership skills than you had at the Hawaii Bowl or DHC?
A: Well, I’m very fortunate that I worked for a lot of really good people, even going back to the Houston Astros, my boss there, Ted Harris, and Dick Wagner’s the general manager there. Basically there were seven different departments and I was the jack of all trades, the master of none. I did budgets, research in all these different areas. Working for Pete Derzis, Jim Donovan and a lot of people … Hugh Yoshida. The good thing about working with people in the bowl and Diamond Head Classic is, I got to deal with a lot of coaches, administrators, ADs. I knew these guys. So when I went to the Mountain West meetings the first time, you’re a new AD, but it’s not like you’re unknown, with Craig Thompson, even Dennis Farrell (of the Big West). That was really helpful in the transition, because a lot of the job is (meeting people).
Some of these people you work with in a previous life, even in baseball. So that has been really helpful. I learned a lot in my 13 years with ESPN, just seeing the television side of the business. And at the end of the day, it’s all about people. We can make it harder than it is. I mean, this is not neural surgery or rocket science. But it’s a lot of volume. It’s a lot of volume. You have 500 student-athletes; that’s a pretty incredible responsibility. And it’s not just about winning and losing. I’m very competitive. We all want to win. But there’s academics, there’s health and safety, there’s so many issues that are so important. And a lot of people around here care a lot. Sometimes, you gotta do what you believe is right. That’s my litmus test for success, really, is to look at a mirror and say ‘am I doing what I believe is right?’ It doesn’t mean you’re not going to make mistakes. But are you doing what you believe is right? And sometimes you’re doing the right thing when it’s just not popular. And sometimes you make a mistake. You’ve gotta own it, get better and learn from it.
Q: What have you found to be the toughest aspect of the job? Is it the part about making decisions that aren’t popular?
A: I think it’s tough, but it can’t be compromised. It’s tough, sometimes, but it’s getting easier. It’s getting easier because at the end of the day my job is to steward the experiences of 500 student-athletes. But it’s a bigger job in Hawaii. That by itself is very important. It’s huge. When I meet with recruits — I meet with a lot of basketball recruits, different recruits — what I pretty much tell them is that playing at the University of Hawaii is a unique experience. I think it’s different than any other place in the country. I believe it. What makes it unique is that, you’re not just playing for your team, your university. You’re playing for the whole state. That’s an incredible opportunity. It’s also a responsibility, too, that you have to steward well. People are watching. People care. I think that’s great for them. Our student-athletes get more media coverage here. They’re on TV a lot more. Just about every one of our programs, student-athletes are getting interviewed. That’s not true at any (school). There are some sports that get less attention. Here, they get more attention than their peer universities.
So, I think that is a tough thing. But I think you keep your focus with what your mission is, to the student-athletes, and also how we better represent the university, that’s very important. We can play a part, we have a role for the university, and for the whole state. Promoting the state. Being ambassadors, we call it ‘Ambassadors of Aloha’ whenever our teams travel. How they travel matters. So as long as you keep to those core things. The phrase is, winning with integrity. Because integrity, it’s not winning. So it’s doing it the right way. Doesn’t mean mistakes don’t happen. It’s a complex business with really just a few simple priorities, but there’s a lot that goes into it.
Q: Where do you feel things are at with facilities?
A: Well, I think we’re headed in the right direction. I’m appreciative of the legislative support, the support of the university, also. Our facilities people here, led by Teri Chang, they’ve been working really hard getting some good input from coaches. A lot of it’s about priorities. I’m excited about Gym 2, Gym 1 (a $9-10 million renovation). I think those will be game-changers for us. Looks like Gym 2 will be online in December. We’ve actually had the (water damage) issue with the Nagatani (Academics Center) which is unfortunate. But I’m very proud of people, the effort that’s been put forward. We’ve relocated people. Good team effort by the whole university. Then Gym 1 for volleyball will be done next, after that. The baseball locker room was in sore need of (work). … So that will be done November. Softball stadium, obviously got a phase done. That’s really good. And then for safety, we got the (ground stabilizing) pads for the scissors lifts (for UH football). Which is good. Good effort done by the facilities planning people to figure out a way to do that to save a lot of money, which allows you to do other things. We’ve got some more projects. We have about $13 million more (for facilities upgrades) and we’re looking at our priorities right now. But some of the things that we’re looking at, the track (at the T.C. Ching Athletics Complex) is probably the No. 1 priority. Replacing the track. So we’re meeting with architects right now and going through that process. There needs to be a little more work done on softball, we’re looking at that. … Looking at doing possibly some locker rooms, some build-on-up below so it’s kind of a contained unit, contained facility. But you look at the cost. We have some money deployed to that. Then we look at some structural things at Les Murakami and Stan Sheriff, just some things that, those are prime facilities for us, we want to invest into those to make sure they’re still working for us. But we should have more plans probably in the next three to six months. We probably have nine projects. We feel there’s a shot we get a lot of them done. We’ve got four or five priorities, and then we’ll see what’s left and deploy, reprioritize the last four or five based on what’s left.
I’m real excited about it. That’s probably $26 million invested in the last three years. And I think we’re headed in the right direction. A lot of people, a lot of effort, and I’m very appreciative of it.
Q: Your predecessor, Ben Jay, wanted to turn Klum Gym into a student performance center. Is that on your radar at all?
A: Not for me right now. Not at the moment. I think there’s merit to that. For me, the priority is Gym 1 and Gym 2. That takes care of four teams. A lot of times it’s tough to practice there because of the condensation. It’s going to be PV (photovoltaic), energy efficient, so very proud of that. There’s not going to be any extra energy costs. The university’s done a very good job on projects now, making sure they’re energy efficient. Which saves you money in the long run, but it’s obviously a little more up-front cost at the beginning.
But I would say Klum, I don’t share the same vision, at least right now. Strength and conditioning (purposes), it makes sense. There’s need in other areas too. But it’s just about prioritizing. Like for softball, we need to make that as close to baseball as possible.
Q: Would you consider widening the Ching track to have a playable soccer field in the middle?
A: We spent a lot of time looking at that. I think that’s something else Ben looked at also, which I liked the idea in a lot of ways. But the cost of that, when you factor it in, there’s so many other things we couldn’t get done if we did that. So for this time right now, we’re not.
Q: How do you feel about pay-per-view for football?
A: Well, our deal with Spectrum is a very lucrative deal. It’s about $2.5 million this year. Everyone reads about our budget quite a bit. I’m just about positive that it’s the best local TV deal in the country. I mean, and the fact that the TV deal we get is better than the national deal that most Mountain West schools get. So, it’s, I think, the model has worked overall. It’s not perfect. We’ve been able to adjust to the streaming thing on the mainland. That was obviously a big issue. The Mountain West, and the Big West, we worked through that. That was imperative. The landscape of distributing sporting events is changing a lot. A lot of what I do, I try to stay plugged in. Find out what’s going to happen. It is changing, so what’s going to be next, I’m not sure. You don’t want to decide too quickly, you don’t want to be too far ahead of it. You want to have as much information (as you can) before you make your decision. Obviously our contract comes up in 2020, June, for Spectrum. So we’ll obviously honor our contract and look at all of our options. But right now Spectrum’s been a good partner. We had some issues, and the issues were you couldn’t see (via streaming). When the contract was signed, streaming wasn’t as much of an issue. So part of it is, the world changed. But like I said, we had a little time where we had to use technology to make it work, but they did it. And now our recruits and people on the mainland can see it. So overall it’s good. The world’s changing for them, too. It’s going to come down to, what are your goals and objectives. And what new technology exists out there, what’s the new distribution systems. ESPN, they’ve got the new Plus app, for $4.95, I think, per month. It’s a different world now. We have to be open to any opportunities. But at the end of the day, I think our current deal is working for us, overall.
Obviously at our conference meetings we’re all talking about the future. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s next.
Q: What are your thoughts on UH football’s 3-1 start?
A: You know, I’m excited. It’s an exciting product. Players are very unified. Very proud of the coaching staff. I think there’s energy. And the energy you can feel all amongst the athletic department right now, too. People are excited about it, people in the community. I think being on national TV three times, we won the first two, obviously had a tough game against Army. But, I’ll tell you one thing, the team plays hard. Even after the loss at Army, you go down there and look at the players, they don’t like losing. But they’re unified. Together. I feel like we’re developing some leaders for the future because we’re still kind of a young team. But you can see the development of leaders and some people are stepping up. I think the coaches are doing a heck of a job right now. I guess the thing to say is I’m just proud of the effort. We’ve had more people going to Aloha Stadium, which is good. It’s a better product. Obviously Nick’s comfortable with the run-and-shoot. Excited that that’s back. A lot of people say, ‘well why didn’t it come back sooner?’ A lot of it’s personnel. First year, we went to a bowl game. We hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2010. For six years (we hadn’t) so that was good. Last year we took a step back, but it looks like we’re heading in the right trajectory now. A lot of it is, the best teams win. So the goal is to make your team the best team they can be, and that’s by being unified and working together. A lot of people think the most talent wins. Talent’s important. But it’s mobilizing your talent to be the best team.
Q: Are you hoping attendance builds through the season if the wins follow? There were about 27K in house for Navy and 22K in house for Rice.
A: No question. Winning helps. We’re doing a lot more programs through social media campaigns, different ways of advertising. We’re doing a lot more with the military, too. We have a GovX (web) site (for them).
Q: With the 2018 UH Circle of Honor class being inducted this weekend, and the 2007 Sugar Bowl football team being among them and honored at the homecoming game, what do you remember about that season?
A: I was at the Hawaii Bowl at the time. I remember being at the Washington game with my wife, daughter and son. I know we were planning on going to the BCS game if they won. I recall the score was 21-0, and looking at my son. And I could just see it in his face, sadness or whatever. But he was so into the game, and as the team came back you could just see the joy in his face. It was a special team and a special time for UH athletics, the university and really the entire state of Hawaii. That team brought a lot of positive recognition for the entire state. Very proud to have them enshrined in the Circle of Honor as well as Kanani Danielson, Rick Blangiardi and Skippy Dyer.
Q: What are your thoughts on Wahine volleyball as it embarks on Big West play this week?
A: Well, it’s been a challenging year. I was real excited about the Oregon game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in town; I was traveling back from the Army game. But they took a very good team to five sets and came back. I think this team’s going to compete in the Big West. They’ll play hard. I’m excited to have Coach Robyn Ah Mow leading our Wahine. Robyn’s a tireless worker and competitor. She cares about student-athletes. For us, I’m glad to have her as the leader of our Wahine team. She’s a three-time Olympian, and (there’s) some great homegrown talent.
Q: How would you assess the latest efforts to balance the athletic department budget?
A: You know, financials in the current collegiate landscape is tough. Only about 10 percent of the schools are actually balancing their budget, and those are all Power Five schools. I’m proud of the effort. It takes the whole university, the whole staff and a lot of external people to help us out, whether it’s the legislature, our fundraisers, our ticket purchasers, corporate partners. You know, we’ve gone in the right direction. We’ve gone from $4.2 million (in the red) to $3.2 million to $1.7 million the first three years I had the job. So, it’s an ongoing challenge. Our job is to do the best we can to steward our resources, and to really provide a great experience for our student-athletes on and off the court.
This year we haven’t released our final numbers, but we expect it to be a little north of $1.7M. We haven’t finalized yet, but low 2s (million) is what I expect.
Q: What’s your philosophy on dealing with various coaches’ contracts and deciding when to offer extensions?
A: You know, as far as contracts, there’s really no one-size-fits-all. I think it’s situational, based on both internal and external factors. Also, obviously we have to make sure we are stewarding our resources in the best available manner. But in the end our goal is to hire and retain coaches who develop student-athletes, represent the University and the State of Hawaii with integrity and excellence. And so, in short it is situational. And it’s really case-by-case.
The factors on coaching (are) academics, the development of student-athletes, all they’re doing in the community, obviously performance matters. There’s a lot of things that matter.
Q: On academics, how would you rate recent performance?
A: I think our student-athletes are getting it done in the classroom. Last semester our student-athletes had a 3.02 GPA, and the cumulative GPA was 3.09. It’s the highest (cumulative) we’ve had since we began keeping records. Also, that’s 12 semesters in a row that our cumulative’s been over 3.0. So, I’m very proud of our student-athletes and frankly our coaches for making that a priority. … We have a separate area for academics which is led by Dr. Ron Cambra, and the person who heads that for him is Courtney Tsumoto. They’re doing a great job with all the advisors. But as I said too, the coaches have to buy into it with them. As I said, I’m very proud of how we’re doing academically and it’s obviously a priority.
Q: When you came in, men’s basketball was teetering over the APR cliff. Has that fully turned?
A: Absolutely. Eran got hired for a lot of reasons, but one of them is I believed he would take the student part of the athlete equation very seriously. And I think he’s done a great job with the people he’s brought in, the focus him and his staff have put on academics. Kari Anderson (Ambrozich), who was a former volleyball coach and player, is the academic advisor for the men’s team. She, along with our other advisors, has done an excellent job with them. But like I said, it takes buy-in from the coaching staff, the academic advisors, as well as the student-athletes. Very pleased with where they’ve come from academically in the last three years.