In sports, success is most easily measured with statistics — in wins and losses and performance on the field. But in the front office at CSU, success is measured more in the character of its athletes and their academic achievements.
For Paul Kowalczyk, CSU’s athletic director, success means getting people to imagine, trust, understand and believe what only he can see.
Kowalczyk, who has faced a myriad of obstacles in his first nine months as CSU’s athletic director, is trying to right a department that is seemingly headed south.
He is a small, slightly-built man of 48. Under a neatly pressed, slate-gray suit lies the wiry body of an ex-division three lineman, now 40 pounds lighter. His sharp eyes retain a gleam of boyishness while talking about his college days and what he hopes to accomplish at CSU.
“Success is measured in records and stats – they tend to overshadow other advancements because they’re easier to see,” Kowalczyk said. “In the end, I will be measured by who I hire, our overall programmatic success, and the success of our 16 sports.”
The Ohio native became CSU’s 13th director of athletics in April, and brings more than 20 years of experience to a school on the cusp of national recognition.
But since his tenure began, Kowalczyk and the Rams have been involved in an upsetting amount of off-the-field controversy.
The CSU athletic department has witnessed football players involved in bank fraud, a basketball player cited for marijuana possession, questions regarding the job security of Ram head football and basketball coaches, and the cardinal sin – a losing football season.
The Rams finished 4-8, their worst record since 1991, while Hughes Stadium witnessed the second-smallest crowd in Head Coach Sonny Lubick’s career with the Rams, and the smallest average season attendance average since 1993.
In addition, four women’s basketball players were suspended over winter break after allegedly planting a homemade chemical bomb outside their teammate’s Fort Collins apartment in an apparent prank. They were formally charged Tuesday with reckless endangerment.
“This has been a learning process; it’s been very enlightening, but we are still in assessment mode,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s been a tough scenario, and I’m not a patient person, but we need time to get a good picture of what has happened and where we’ll go in the future.”
Marc Lubick – the Rams’ wide receivers coach – recognizes the difficulties Kowalczyk has encountered early in his tenure.
“Considering the obstacles he has had to overcome early, Paul has done a tremendous job,” Lubick said. “Every coach I know speaks highly of him, and he has a vision and aspiration for every sport on campus.”
Lubick notices similarities between Kowalczyk and CSU’s previous athletic director, Marc Driscoll. As a scouting assistant for the St. Louis Rams from 2003 to 2005, Lubick lived with Driscoll’s son, Luke.
“Both Marc (Driscoll) and Paul are strong, family-oriented people with great character and integrity,” Lubick said. “He will do what it takes to generate success in every sport.”
Kowalczyk admits being disappointed seeing student-athletes struggle academically and ruin once-bright futures. “They should value education, it’s something that they can’t afford to ruin,” said Kowalczyk, a first-generation college student.
Kowalczyk emphasizes the importance and value of a college degree.
“My education is why I am where I am today. Obviously athletes have different maturity levels, but some just don’t know how to handle these opportunities.”
At any Division I university, an athletic director’s position is one of importance to the entire university community. Successful athletic directors strive to help bridge the gap that exists between athletics and the rest of campus.
In April, Kowalczyk accepted an incentive-laden five-year contract paying $225,000 per year, structured to reward him for “performance in terms of wins and losses, student-athlete graduation rates and fund-raising.”
In his six-year tenure as athletic director at Southern Illinois, Kowalczyk showed the ability to develop winning programs and generate financial support, major aims of any university athletic director.
During that period, the Salukis won an unprecedented 15 conference championships in seven sports while increasing the athletic department budget 34 percent, from $5.6 million in 2000 to $7.5 million in 2006.
He was also responsible for making academic advancements, honoring 10 Academic All-Americans in the last three years while obtaining 12 new scholarships for student athletes.
“At SIU, (Kowalczyk) did a great job of turning around struggling football and basketball programs; now those teams continually make the postseason,” Lubick said.
Kowalczyk landed the SIU job after serving nine years at Northwestern University as the assistant, then associate, athletic director. Here at CSU, Kowalczyk hopes to accomplish comparable achievements.
“The board of governors has laid out some pretty forward-looking goals: to win the director’s cup, receive a BCS bowl bid, and receive two NCAA basketball invitations to the postseason,” Kowalczyk said.
But to accomplish the board’s ambitious goals the athletic department will face an uphill battle. CSU currently ranks at the bottom of the Mountain West Conference in athletic funding, with only $16 million to work with.
Kowalczyk believes that winning extends beyond simple economics – it is a byproduct of doing little things the right way. The smooth operation of an educational institution requires competent administrators, just as the operation of an athletic program requires a skilled athletic director.
CSU has witnessed four athletic directors come and go in the last 10 years. Kowalczyk replaced Driscoll, who resigned in order to resume his previous position as president of First National Bank in Fort Collins.
Driscoll, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSU, quarterbacked a 1974 Rams team that led the nation in passing.
“I want to be here as long as (CSU) will have me. I foresee building a long and successful program,” Kowalczyk said. “We have all the potential in the world.”
For CSU to continue to garner respect – in the Mountain West
Conference as well as nationally – Kowalczyk needs to bring a renewed spirit and positive attitude to CSU, its students, faculty and Fort Collins residents.
“I’m not a patient person, but success will come, as long as that may take,” Kowalczyk said.
His position as a member of the president’s cabinet shows the important role that athletics play at CSU. A successful athletic director needs to take responsibility in producing student-athletes who graduate and become leaders both locally and nationally. The most accomplished university athletic programs across the nation understand this.
Kowalczyk is beginning to implement a philosophy that emphasizes teamwork and sound business practices.
“I knew we would have a lot of work to do, we have long term goals, but we’ll have to work our hardest to achieve them,” Kowalczyk said.
He considers athletic donations a vital piece of the athletic department’s future success, believing that donors should feel the need to represent their community and appreciate the idea of universities as businesses vested in their communities.
He considers it preeminent that donors acknowledge CSU’s far-reaching goal as a provider of education.
“Donors are critical – the good ones are the most valuable asset to a successful athletic department,” Kowalczyk said.
The CSU athletic department currently carries a $4 million scholarship bill for this year, but has received only $1.5 million in support.
“We still have a $2.5 million gap to fill. We have to find ways to pay the remaining scholarships,” Kowalczyk said. “We need more donors, and we need to close that gap.”
Donors like Rod Bryant – an employee at Gregory Electric Inc. of Loveland – acknowledge the role athletic funding plays in the success of an athletic department and its student-athletes’ lives.
“Giving to CSU athletics is important and rewarding,” Bryant said. “It’s an honor to be a part of something bigger than myself, and I believe the administration will do what is necessary to fulfill their program’s duties.”
Despite recent setbacks in program goals and standards, Kowalczyk is optimistic about the future of Ram athletics.
“We have a nice foundation with which to build,” he said. “But ultimately, nothing succeeds like success.”
Sports feature writer Mathew Planalp can be reached at email@example.com.