Warde Manuel was named UConn’s director of athletics on Feb. 13, 2012, after serving six years as AD at Buffalo and as assistant athletic director of academic affairs at Georgia Tech. An All-American high school football player, he was a defensive end at Michigan and also was a member of the Wolverine’s track and field team. This past June, he was among a select group of Division I athletic directors appointed to provide advice and perspective on issues to NCAA leadership and president Mark Emmert. He spoke with UConn Today about leading the Huskies, and about issues in intercollegiate athletics.
When you arrived in March 2012, the Big East realignment had not yet surfaced. How much of a surprise was that issue?
There have always been conversations in the last few years about conference realignment and to change the conference affiliations of different schools. Many of us were caught off guard by the agreement among the Catholic schools. That was probably the only portion about it that surprised me; that if all seven Catholic institutions decided to leave the conference, here are these things in place. Other than that, I knew different conference affiliation is always a potential issue; it remains one of those issues that are still present and out there in the realm of collegiate athletics that could potentially happen. It’s not that I deal with that every hour of the day, but it’s something that we monitor on a continuing basis.
The issue you did know about was the NCAA penalty for men’s basketball. Both you and President Herbst were very clear in your statements that the academics would be addressed. How have you looked at maintaining that standard, given the demands on today’s student-athletes?
It’s a focus. Our student-athletes hear the message from us. We have a great academic staff that not only supports our student-athletes, but all students across the University. It’s just getting everybody to understand that from day one it’s all about you being a student. It’s a philosophy of getting them to understand most of the hours during the day are more important in a lifetime than those three to four hours you’re involved in athletics. It’s been something that’s been an easy message and well received. I’m proud of the work of our student-athletes. We won’t be in that situation again where we have a team that can’t compete because of academic reasons.
Has it bothered you that the issues that arise with a few athletes overshadow the majority of the students who are doing the work to get their degree?
That’s just the way the world we live in works. It doesn’t bother me as much as the importance for us to get out our message about how well all of our students are doing across the board. That’s important, and I think we’ve started to get that message out there. We’re going to continue to work to highlight all of our student-athletes and the success they have in the classroom and on the field of play, so that people understand we have lots of student-athletes here at UConn.
In the past year, you have hired new coaches in men’s basketball and in both men’s and women’s ice hockey. How do you view the hiring decisions you have to make as a manager, knowing you’re beginning to put your footprint on the campus?
I look at it as important for the success of our teams and student-athletes, and have a great deal of respect for the history that has been developed here and what our coaches have already established and the success that is expected. There’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure we do our due diligence and focus on picking the right people to lead our programs. I’m happy with the selections we’ve made. All place tremendous value on the educational side of what we are doing here, and really work with our student-athletes to make sure that they establish success in both the athletic and academic realm.
Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany recently put forth his perspective on the issues surrounding intercollegiate sports such as stipends for athletes. How can these criticisms about intercollegiate athletics be addressed so universities and student-athletes can deal with them?
It arises around the amount of money and the increase, in particular the television dollars that have come into universities because of the sports we participate in. There’s always going to be a healthy disagreement about which way you should go. I personally benefitted from participating in collegiate athletics when my parents, but for sports, couldn’t afford to provide me the opportunity to attend a university like Michigan. I think many of our student-athletes are in that same situation, as are many of our students who receive financial aid through the University or the federal government. It’s not about setting a pay scale. It’s about providing some of the things student-athletes need to continue to be successful and do the things they do as a student. In general, we provide a lot for our student-athletes and support them in many different ways. I think there will be a national discourse about how much you provide in miscellaneous expenses. Times have changed from the ’50s and ’60s, when laundry money was given to our student-athletes. The question is: Can we get to a number where people can have that kind of cost-of-attendance built into it? I think we will. I think here at UConn we’d be willing to look at supporting something like a miscellaneous expense for our student-athletes. But it’s got to be in that kind of context, not to be paid to play. I think that’s the discussion that’s taking place and will continue to take place.
There is a lot of hyperbole happening on sports television and on radio about these issues. Do you follow much of this discussion?
There are some things written that are more thought-provoking than others. I follow it fairly intensely; it is my role and my job to understand what is going on the realm of intercollegiate athletics. At the same time, I probably don’t listen as much to those who have no accountability for what they say, who put out their beliefs and editorialize. I don’t put much credence in that. But there are some good thoughts floating out there. There is a lot of misunderstanding – more than understanding – of everything we have to deal with to make those types of decisions. There are laws and policies that come into play that we have to be mindful of we as make our decisions. There are certainly things we can do more quickly. I don’t think everybody puts it together the way we do when the ADs and [conference] commissioners sit together.
What do you think are the issues that could be worked on sooner, rather than later?
Many of the fans think it’s just about football and men’s basketball, paying the student-athletes the money that is made from those two sports in particular, and that it’s a fairness issue. The balance of it is we do have Title IX in terms of what we do between men’s and women’s sports. We have the long-term financial impact on the model that is out there. You have people who feel on the miscellaneous expense issue that $2,000 is not enough, that it might be good for one place to have $2,000, but our cost of living in another state or city is much more expensive. Now you get into a differential, even within the conference. Do the players that live in Los Angeles and San Francisco get more than those who live in Oregon? Is it more in Connecticut because of our cost of living and in Texas they get less? I support taking a look at what that number could be, to make sure the student-athletes have the resources to deal with the things they need to take care of.
From the University perspective, you have that same debate with graduate students, honors students, and students who are on financial aid. We all talk about student-athletes, but this same conversation is one that universities have to look at with their top academic students as well.
Is there a way to resolve the fact that there is the need for an extra stipend for many students while others may not have the need?
This is a University issue, not just an athletics issue. It’s all about supporting our students. I say a lot of the time, we have students at the University who participate in athletics, but they are first and foremost students at this university. When you start to say that students who participate in athletics get a full ride also get additional dollars to offset some costs of attendance, but yet we’re not doing that with other students who participate in activities in other areas, such as academics, you get into a conversation that has to occur at the University level. Our student-athletes generate millions of dollars. People would argue they are on television representing the University in a different way. I think it opens up the discussion on campus about what are we willing to do across campus, given that athletics has decided to take the lead with others nationally to do this for their student-athletes. It just opens up another part of the conversation.
There’s been discussion about bringing UConn basketball games to other parts of the state, particularly in the Fairfield County area. Are we likely to see that this season?
In my 16 to 18 months here, I can tell you we have a great fan base and it’s spread out across the state. From my perspective, I would love for us to have one or two opportunities to go down, particularly to Fairfield County, and really go there and get into our New York alums and fan base, and draw them up an hour or so away. We are working on the potential for that to happen, but it’s all predicated on what we’re doing here at Gampel and the XL Center in Hartford, and then look to see how we can take some games down to Fairfield County. I want to be consistent in how we go into that area of the state. I saw two years ago how much we own New York with Madison Square Garden, and what we did in the tournament. I want to give our fans the opportunity to see the Huskies come into Fairfield and New York City.
There are major plans for improving facilities for baseball, softball, soccer, and ice hockey. When will those become reality?
We have raised some funds for baseball and soccer. We’re looking to finalize the plans for baseball, softball, soccer, and ice hockey. We’re working towards having some finalization of those plans by spring, having some solid numbers with some solid designs for what we want.
Was it a bit of shock to see the high glare in the media that you are in here, with the way everybody looks at the University?
I’m comfortable with the media, but I don’t need to be in the media. Our fans’ expectation of media coverage is welcome. That’s part of being in sports. You’re going to have issues that pop up. I love our fan base. I think they’ve been great. Their expectations of UConn athletics and our teams are certainly mine; that we will field the best teams, be able to compete in sports that we do at a high level, represent this state, this institution, and our fans across the country in a very successful manner.
What do you think people would be surprised to know about you that they don’t know?
People could look at me and know that I like to eat, but they probably don’t know that I used to have a catering business and that I like to cook. When I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D., I had a catering business on the side. It was Cajun food and Southern soul food. I’ve expanded it now to include Italian food. I make my own sauces. I actually wanted to go on to the Culinary Institute of America at one point and become a chef.