Analyzing the performance of anyone with general authority over a large enterprise with multiple, competing priorities is difficult. With John Currie leaving K-State after more than seven years as athletic director, we’ll do our best.
Before assessing Currie, we should attempt to set forth some reasonable criteria by which to judge an athletic director. Among fans, the shareholders in the athletic department, dividends are paid in wins and trophies, which requires attracting coaching staff capable of delivering the same. For the coaches, competitive salaries and facilities are the measuring stick; this requires income from conference affiliation and booster fundraising. In general, the department must also monitor coaches, student-athletes and boosters to ensure compliance with NCAA rules.
Currie inherited an athletic department with stable and able coaches. Bill Snyder, Frank Martin and Brad Hill coached the three major men’s sports, while Suzie Fritz and Deb Patterson, both long-tenured and acceptably successful, managed volleyball and women’s basketball.
Snyder needs no introduction. Martin took K-State to its first Elite Eight appearance since the 1980s. Hill coached K-State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance, then two more and a conference title. Both Fritz and Patterson had won Big 12 titles.
Snyder still coaches K-State’s football program and added another Big 12 title in 2012, but retaining Snyder is hardly difficult given that he’s in his 70s and not looking to change jobs. Hill also still coaches the baseball team, though the general trend is downward there at the moment. Fritz is still coaching competitive volleyball teams. Patterson was fired and her replacement has the program trending upward.
Martin requires his own section of discussion. After Bob Huggins laid the groundwork, Martin took his baton and led K-State to the NCAA Tournament four times in five years, an Elite Eight appearance in 2010, and never finished worse than fifth in the Big 12 Conference. He was easily the most successful basketball coach at K-State since Lon Kruger in the 1980s.
But in 2012, on the eve of K-State’s matchup with Syracuse in the round of 32, Currie suspended Jamar Samuels based on a wire transfer receipt that magically found its way from a supermarket trash can to the athletic department’s compliance office. Martin took issue with the suspension and accepted the head coaching job at South Carolina a few weeks later.
Currie hired Bruce Weber, recently fired Illinois coach, to replace Martin. Weber delivered a Big 12 title in his first year, but the results have trended downward since. Now it’s 2017 and the Weber’s team is about to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. Currie further missed on a golden opportunity to admit a mistake and hire an up-and-coming coach with K-State ties last year. When he declined, Oklahoma State snapped up Brad Underwood, who will take the Cowboys to the Dance this year and is protected from intra-conference poaching by a $6 million buyout.
The Samuels incident, and the later fiasco with Leti Romero’s transfer, cemented Currie’s reputation for hypercompliance with NCAA rules. Hypercompliance is great for a resume bullet point that will be read by a university president, but is less than ideal for maintaining a workable environment for a coaching staff looking to deliver wins.
K-State’s financial situation was a different story in 2009. Under Bob Krause and Jon Wefald, fiscal mismanagement was the order of the day. Krause signed a contract extension with Prince mere months before he was fired, and later a secret memorandum-of-understanding was discovered that obligated the athletic department to pay Prince more money. An audit revealed more sloppy financial practices.
Under Currie, that changed rapidly. K-State now operates in the black without any public funding and maintains a healthy reserve fund. Bill Snyder Family Stadium looked like this when Currie was hired. Now it looks like this. K-State’s basketball training facility opened in 2012 and rivals any facility in the country. A rowing center and tennis stadium were built.
All told, more than $210 million in facility improvements were completed with no debt financing. For that, Currie gets no small amount of credit. These facilities were needed badly to compete with peer institutions, and avoiding debt is paramount with an uncertain future surrounding conference affiliation.
But lest we slip into binary judgments here, Currie didn’t conjure the money for these projects from thin air. Conference television payouts are the largest item, and those sums increased significantly in 2011 when the Big 12 became a 10-team league that was paid like a 12-team league. And raising funds from donors is always easier in a winning climate. Starting with the Elite Eight run in 2009-10, K-State’s major sports were no worse than nationally competitive, culminating in the 2012-13 conference-title sweep.
Most of this has already been covered. K-State has maintained NCAA academic progress rate scores sufficient to avoid penalties on Currie’s watch. The department has likewise avoided NCAA penalties of any sort, though they’ve gone a bit too far in the other direction.
Currie’s biggest black mark here in general has been his deference to the Big 12 Conference on sportsmanship issues and high-handed response to student behavior at games. Apologizing to the Big 12 over KU’s delicate sensibilities regarding court storming and band formations was unnecessary. And while certain chants during certain songs directed a certain universities with delicate sensibilities are unnecessary and reflect poorly on the students … they’re students. Currie’s approach was ineffective and condescending.
Returning to our original criteria, let’s evaluate Currie in each area. K-State has won conference titles in three major sports during his tenure. But two were won by inherited coaches and the other by a coach who’s proven less effective than his predecessor in the long run. That hire was a failure as much because of who he ran off as who he hired, and the other hire is a qualified success.
Financially, Currie’s tenure is an unqualified success. But given the nature of revenue in this industry, Currie’s credit for the actual revenue generation is partial. Maintaining a balanced budget and a reserve fund goes in his credit ledger.
And while Currie has maintained a compliant department free of NCAA violations or other scandals, the balance tipped a bit too far in the other direction. The other general items were irritating, but ultimately didn’t affect the overall athletic department significantly.
Overall, Currie earns a B- from me, with the Martin and Underwood situations causing the biggest downgrade. K-State fans seem mostly happy with his departure, but will do well to remember that an athletic department can be run a lot worse than Currie’s. It was probably time for Currie to go, given the general sense that he’s been looking for a job at a bigger school for a while and the current basketball malaise. But his contributions to K-State athletics were not insignificant.