Interview with Earl M. Hilton III the Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at NC A&T State University in Greensboro who tells us about the responsibilities of athletic directors across the nation and the challenges they face in today’s collegiate environment.

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Earl M. Hilton III is the Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at NC A&T in Greensboro, and today tells us about the responsibilities of Athletic Directors across the nation and the challenges they face in today’s collegiate environment.
 

The campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) is located in Greensboro, NC. With a total enrollment of almost 13,000 students (undergraduate enrollment of almost 13,000) it offers 54 undergraduate degree programs, 9 doctoral degree programs, and 29 master’s programs through its 8 college programs. N.C. A&T has a total Faculty & Staff of 1,976, with 1,664 being full-time.

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Earl M. Hilton was appointed Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at NC A&T in 2011. As Director, Hilton serves as the chief executive and administrator for 17 Division I varsity sports governed by the NCAA and he also oversees the fiscal management of athletics and provides guidance for 11 head coaches and 8 support departments including marketing, compliance, media services, and sports medicine.

Under Hilton’s leadership, NC A&T athletics has made tremendous strides academically and athletically, and under his leadership many of his athletic programs have made significant improvements in national APR scores. Hilton received his B.S. degree in political science in 1992 from Lamar University. He also has a master’s degree in public administration and a Juris Doctorate from Texas Tech University.

Interviewing AD Hilton today is Joseph Ragone, director of the public-service website “Regency Park Partnership”  and founder of the Triangle Network of the Drexel University Alumni Association.  Joe has observed a wide-variety of athletic events at 19 college campuses in 5 states, has served as a volunteer for an ACC member booster club, and has produced a short community college documentary about college football that includes remarks by both an ACC athletic director and a head football coach.

Earl, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about college athletic directors today. If they all do not have enough to do already, I know that the effects of pandemic has put so much more on their plates. Hard to imagine how everything will get done.  I know that I frequently have taken it for granted what you and other college ADs do for their universities, and this interview is an excellent opportunity for you to tell us about how important and difficult their jobs really are.

Thank you, Joe. Yes, we often seem to have a lot on our plates and sometimes it may seem that there is not enough time in a day to get everything done.  Where do we want to start?

The responsibility for 17 Division I sports, the fiscal management of athletics, guidance for 11 head coaches and 8 support departments seems like an awful lot to carry on your shoulders.  I realize that most other college ADs have similar structures and that you cannot speak for all of them, but what is it like to have such a broad range and depth of responsibility at NC A&T?​

Joe, I know this seems like a lot of responsibility and it certainly is that. But in many ways the ‘range and depth’ of the position is one of the primary sources of the gratification which comes from my serving as an athletics director. The simple truth is that I love my job and its challenges and the opportunity to work with our coaches and know that I am helping shape the lives of our student-athletics and preparing them for life after college, wherever that may take them – I would not have it any other way.​

 

Very well said and the life of the student- athletics after college is so very important. It appears you are highly successful at what you do for your university. What would you say are your keys to success in such a demanding environment?​

Well, there are so many things to talk about here and every athletic director would have his own “keys”. I will mention what I feel is the most important key to success in this environment, at least for me.

​I have found that there are few problems which cannot be solved if you are surrounded by a group of people who are willing to work hard, anxious to accept responsibility, and generally see the world from a “glass half-full” perspective. And I don’t mind saying that it is my privilege to work with just such a group of students and staff at A&T.​

Earl, before becoming NC A&T’s athletic director, you were its assistant AD for compliance and also its assistant AD for internal affairs. After that, there was more than 8 years as its assistant vice chancellor for student affairs there.   Can you tell us how these experiences helped prepare you for the responsibilities you now have? 

I feel I was most fortunate to have these positions and yes, these greatly prepared me for my current duties and responsibilities.

To me, perhaps the most significant benefit of those opportunities, especially in Student Affairs, was the chance to discover the expertise that exists all across campus. Athletics departments tend to be fairly siloed from the rest of the institution – and much of that is self-inflicted. The nature of competition creates an ‘us versus them’ world-view, which while this may be helpful on the field of play, it may be less so in higher education.​

What about your time in internal affairs. Can you elaborate on this for us?​

Well, I discovered a lot of really smart people all over campus, and in every department, who were willing and anxious to help during my time in student affairs. And when I came back to athletics, I tapped that institutional expertise liberally. We now have an organizational structure at A&T which allows for either solid or dotted-line oversight of the critical areas in athletics (budget, compliance, academics, athletics training, Title IX) by individuals who are outside of athletics. This gives us a standard of institutional control of athletics that I think is fairly unique and very successful!​

Earl, having solid or dotted-line oversight of the critical areas in athletics by those outside of athletics makes perfect sense to me. Now can we talk a little about booster organizations?  While I volunteered with one local college booster club for several years, and learned first-hand how important these groups can be, there may be many out there that do not understand the role they play.

 

Yes, I agree that even the most casual of fans have heard the term “booster” numerous times but may not fully understand the vital role that boosters play in collegiate athletics.​

I would start by stressing that athletics fundraising is most essential to successful NCAA Division I athletics programs, and this is especially true in North Carolina where we have a statutory prohibition against using state dollars to fund athletics here. In many instances, both nationally as well as in-state. the funds provided by booster organizations pay for all student athletic scholarships and help fund new facilities and facility updates as well.    

 

There are other perhaps less visible areas where boosters provide contributions as well, but can you imagine where we would be without scholarships for student-athletes and the facilities for them to play in?​

 

These are particularly good points and I think that many of us may have never thought much about how scholarships and facilities are paid for and how critical these both are for student-athletes. And you mentioned some less visible areas where boosters also help. Before we go on, can you recap these?​

Some boosters, especially former athletes, might serve as mentors and help current student-athletes prepare for life after college and life after sport. Others often provide networking assistance as student Athletes begin to look for internships and career opportunities.​

And the other thing is that boosters are also avid fans of many of the athletic programs they contribute to thus serving as primary fans (in-game) and also departmental cheerleaders in the community and region.​

Earl, I imagine that raising of the funds can be a difficult process. Can you tell us how you think most ADs participate in the fund-raising process?​

Joe, I do not personally know of any ADs that do not engage in the fund-raising process, and in my opinion, fund raising is more and more becoming one of the most primary obligations for athletics directors if it was not so previously, and this will only increase in importance moving forward, especially as we come out of the pandemic. Even the most casual fan of college sports has seen the reduction in games and the additional expenses due to health and safety concerns due to pandemic. We will all be in catch-up mode for a very long time and raising the funds to get back to normalcy will be a top priority for many of us. 

And again, while raised funds may be spent across a wide variety of areas, these still tend to focus on scholarships and facilities.​

You mentioned pandemic and there is no question that this is the biggest issue in college sports today. A few minutes ago, you touched on the increased need for fund-raising in pandemic.   College sports are obviously not immune to the devastation of pandemic not only right now, but perhaps long after we have mostly beaten it back. What are athletic directors across the county thinking and what adjustments they will have to make?​

This is really a tough issue, and I hope that I am speaking for other ADs when I state that this pandemic will have a significant impact on collegiate sports for many years to come. In just Division I, it is already forcing a realignment, primarily driven by the scarcity of resources, upon which so many programs have been dependent on in the past. 

I do not think it is a great exaggeration to suggest that this pandemic will impact collegiate athletics at least as much as other historical paradigm shifts. What I mean to suggest is that this pandemic may necessitate our reevaluating our priorities. And I remain confident that the vast majority of the thousands of interactions that occur between student-athletes and universities every day will continue to be grounded in the appropriate balance between academic and athletic pursuits.​

I also remain hopeful that athletic directors everywhere will take the opportunity provided by this pandemic to step back and reorient our industry to more closely align with the educational mission of our colleges and universities. Could any of us ever have imagined that something like this would have created both a leveling and a separation among Division I schools?​

Can you explain what you mean by a “leveling” and a “separation”?

 

Joe, I use the word “leveling” to mean that many of the resources which were previously available to support athletic programs are no longer there, and many of the most highly-resourced institutions are dropping programs, eliminating staff, and reducing contractual obligations in response to that scarcity. Perhaps a more helpful description is ‘compression’ of athletics budgets…. Division 1 budgets span an enormous range, with some programs operating on 4-5 million dollar budget and others with 30 to 40 times that amount. I think the pandemic has the potential to compress that range…. of course only time will tell if that is true.
 
“Separation” to me means that some mid-major programs, which were not as media or externally dependent on resources as larger programs, are ideally positioned to manage through this pandemic and emerge stronger reputationally…. this will serve as a leverage point for them. In other words, as resources become more constrained across the Division I landscape, institutions will have opportunities to distinguish themselves in non-monetary ways. For example, historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) have traditionally been at a resource disadvantage in a head to head arms race, while having comparative advantages in cultural, experiential, and social offerings for students.​

As resources become more scare across the entire Division, I landscape students may tend toward making enrollment decisions that are less about money and more about co-curricular experiences and opportunities. Universities with strategic and visionary leadership will thrive in this new paradigm and have a chance to punch above their weight from a recruiting perspective.​

A very interesting perspective, and certainly one that I never really thought about before this. But what about scheduling, especially when it comes to the big schools playing smaller schools that are not in their conferences?​

Another very good question.​

I want to emphasize that this virus has and will continue to change scheduling in at least two ways – the high dollar guarantee fees which Power 5 schools paid to other programs to play them may be a thing of the past, which will in turn require the non-power 5 schools to reevaluate their incentives for playing these games.​

And the other thing now is that budgets will require increased regionalization in scheduling, which I think is a largely positive development. In other words, more teams will find it necessary to play other teams that are closer to them, especially for non-conference games.​

Earl, again, this is something I never thought about before.  And since the effects of this pandemic are so significant, is there anything else you can share with us before we move on?​

Yes. I think that everyone should understand the while it may seem that ADs across the country are singularly focused on the effects of pandemic on their athletic programs, this is certainly not the case! We all recognize the terrible cost and effect of the lost learning which has occurred over the entire course of the pandemic … regrettable, many of our student-athletes have not fared very well in virtual learning environments…. this will inevitably result in delayed or lost educational and career opportunities for them. This is a terrible consequence of this pandemic, and we need keep it ever in mind as we emerge and start to return to our classrooms.​

I also want to mention that the pandemic has had the effect of increasing student-athlete transfers across the country and in almost every athletic program. And at least for now, we need to try to distinguish between ‘revenue-producing’ sports and ‘profit-producing’ sports…every school has revenue producing sports, very few have profit producing teams.

I am so glad you talked about this.  How many of us stopped to consider how the impact of lost learning during pandemic has negatively impacted non-student-athletes as well?  Earl, you also mentioned transfers. Why are they occurring and why are the transferring athletes not having to sit out a year? 

 

Allowing transferring student-athletes to compete immediately will provide additional opportunities to them during this continued difficult time, and perhaps allow games to be played that otherwise might not have been.” In a time of great uncertainty amidst pandemic, most if not all ADs feel it is in our best interest to grant immediate eligibility for those who have transferred in order to best support their mental health and well-being.​

Obviously, the NCAA would have to approve any legislation relating to allowing transfers to play without sitting out.  This reminded me of another question – what about the NCAA from an organizational and oversight perspective?  A broad subject for sure, but could you please just try to cover a few major points?​

Well to me, and I hope I am speaking for most athletic directors, when I say that the NCAA tries hard to ensure that there is a level playing field for all its member universities and their athletic programs regarding recruitment, scholarships, practices, education, as well as the health and welfare of student athletics is most important. This is paramount in my opinion and even if the NCAA ever ceased to exist, college sports will still need to have some decisive management, oversight, and coordination from a third party to ensure integrity in the process.​

I would add that I strongly feel that the NCAA helps all of us maintain our focus on the ‘student’ nature of student-athletes …. it is imperative that we remember and act like the most important activities these young people pursue are in the classroom, and not on the field of play …. I am not sure many people recognize how unique our model of college sports is across the world, and the role which sports should play in an institution of higher education …. it has a legitimate place in the academy, and the NCAA helps us remember that….​

What you said about the importance of the classroom over the field of play is so important to me.  What about the fact that the pandemic has brought greater focus on the student -athletes well-being, health, finances, and mentality? And they also desire safer sporting environments, and want to use their likeness for their own personal entrepreneurship and not be exploited. Earl, your thoughts on all of this?​

 

I personally feel that the student-athletes are absolutely right – In addition to the right to transfer, we should insure they are safe, and they should have some measure of control over their name, image, and likeness, and I hope that I am speaking for ADs everywhere when I say this.​

 

The mental health challenge of this pandemic on our student-athletes is the most troubling and acute problem athletic directors face today…athletics is the only identity some of them have ever had – for their entire life they have been recognized and valued for their athletics ability …. it forms the basis of their identity …. in the best of times, it is a process to help students move from a sports identity to another iteration of themselves, where they become professional in something other than sports.​

 

This is generally an easier transition for student-athletes that do not have a well-worn path to professional athletics…. they have always known that their sport affiliation would likely not continue into a career and so they come into college understanding that sport is a means to an end, not the end itself. 

 

And I believe that student-athletes engaged in sports that have high profile, high visibility, and high market value, may struggle to see themselves as something other than only athletes, because the possibility of converting their talent to higher or greater resources has always lurked in the back of their mind. And during the pandemic, to be stripped of that identity, while at the same time trying to navigate a virtual educational space, manage their responsibilities to their families, many of whom lost jobs or had reduced hours because of the pandemic, presents a dilemma that they have never had to face before.

 

And if this were not enough, many student-athletes continue to wrestle with what it means to be a minority in America today, with George Floyd et al, and a federal government that, in the kindest rendering would be described as “ambivalent” toward social justice issues, has been and remains a herculean undertaking even today. 

​What about the role that collegiate sports play as catalysts for the BLM movement? 

Sports have historically served some meaningful role in focusing our attention on social patterns or practices which, upon further examination, are inconsistent with our cultural aspirations. I am pleased to see ongoing efforts by individual student-athletes and the athletics community to lead in this space. 

 

Earl, I must ask you what you see as having been the single-most major change in the roles, responsibilities, and challenges of collegiate athletic directors over the last 10 to 15 years or so?​

Joe, This is another awfully big question. So much changes every year, so when we try to talk about more than that, it becomes a more difficult exercise. In my experience, the student-athlete engagement in their academic and athletics experience is one of the most visible progressions in collegiate athletics. 

Can you please explain?​

Well, students generally, and student-athletes specifically, have much greater access today to information, systems, and processes which impact them directly. Their efforts have led to increased transparency in the business of college sports. This is an unqualified “good” in my opinion. Their willingness to leverage that access is evident across a number of fronts – things like the ongoing developments in name, image and likeness legislation, the increased institutional focus on mental and emotional health, their engagement in social justice activities, the continuing evolution of Title IX – just to name a few. 

 

This has forced us to reimagine how we might ethically and effectively continue to conduct athletics in a higher education environment. Again, I think that is a good thing.

Can we briefly touch on the recruiting process? Can you tell us what roles ADs generally play in this process, and how much is left to head coaches and their staffs?​

 

Of course this will vary some from program to program so there no one answer, but I want to share with everyone that at least at NC A&T, the identifying of who to recruit and play is left entirely up to the discretion of our head coaches. I may assist in the recruiting process for some of our programs from time-to-time, but only when requested to do and this is usually during campus visits.​

You might find it somewhat interesting that in the case of sports like football and basketball, I may be more intimately involved in campus visits when needed, but I really can’t speak to the role of other ADs in this regard.​

Earl, earlier I asked you about the single-most major change over the last 10 to 15 years.  Another difficult question, but what would you say are the toughest parts of your job at NC A&T, and the best parts as well? 

Joe, to be perfectly honest with you, I cannot think of a bad part of my being an AD…. although to be fair, I do naturally enjoy some parts of my job a little more than others. The best part? That is an easy one, at least for me - everything that involves students directly is the best part of the job – I am regularly amazed as they learn, lead, compete, and excel.​

What about the discharge of a head coach, Earl? This must often be the toughest job of an AD anywhere. 

Yes, personnel changes are the most unsavory part of the job for any AD, even if everyone, including the coach, knows the time is right. Of course, termination is part of the head coaching lifestyle, so it is not as unexpected for a coach to be terminated as it might be for someone in another line of work, but that does not minimize the trauma for the coach or their family when these kinds of changes are made.

 

One of the good (and bad) parts of athletics is that it is such a public enterprise, so every employment decision is played out in the media in a way that most other industries are not. That is especially true at a state institution which is subject to public records requirements. 

 

I also want to add that managing the expectations of stakeholders and boosters is also part of the process….one of the hardest parts of coaching is the public perception that anyone can coach …. if you sit in any basketball arena or football stadium in America you will hear people ask “why is the coach doing that…. I would do this…”. Many people feel like they know what it takes to be a successful coach, and so sometimes people feel like they have the perfect candidate for our coaching vacancy…​

What about the other side of this equation? For every head coach that is terminated or resigns to go elsewhere, there is now an opening to be filled, correct? Tell us who bears the responsibility in this hiring process?​

As is the case with most ADs, hiring head coaches is exclusively my decision, and most assistant coaches are hired by their head coach. In my case. I generally use a small committee of boosters and university stake holders to help me narrow the field, but again, at a public school there are requirements which all searches must meet.

What do you look for in a new head coach? 

I generally looking for just a few things when I hire a coach – integrity, a history of seeking excellence, and a willingness to lead.  I believe that ADs of other programs feel much the same way as I do in the coach recruiting process. 

Can you elaborate please?​

Integrity – to me this one is simultaneously the most important characteristic and yet the most difficult to effectively quantify …. I try to get a feel for their candor and forthrightness from their descriptions of previous responsibilities and their interactions with me and others on my staff. 

 

Excellence – have they excelled in any area of their life …. sports and school are the two easiest places to look at, but I want people who know what it tastes like to win championships … who have had that experience of leading a group of people to the top of something …. winning games and winning championships are different skill sets. 

 

Willingness to lead - I try to get a sense of their willingness to accept responsibility …. I will ask about the biggest mistake they have made professionally, and how they handled it. If they use ‘I’ and ‘me’ to describe the problem and how it came about, and then use words like ‘we’ or ‘they’ when describing how the problem was solved …. then I know we are in a good place …. if they reverse those, then it is not going to work. 

 

I do not need or expect people to be perfect, but I do expect everyone to own their decisions, admit their mistakes, accept responsibility, apologize when needed, and then work to correct them. I can’t speak for the other ADs on the subject of what they look for, but I strongly suspect that these things are right up there on their lists.

Earl, thank you for taking so much time to talk to me today.  I know I have acquired a much deeper respect for what athletic directors do and I hope we all have deeper understanding and appreciation for the responsibilities of college athletic directors all across our country.

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We wish to thank Ms. Debbie Yow, retired athletic director of North Carolina State University in Raleigh,
                 and Dr. Eric Zillmer, Director of Athletics at Drexel University in Philadelphia
                                        for their contributions to this interview.

Address: 1601 E. Market Street, Greensboro, NC 27411

Main Switchboard: 336.334.7500

University website: https://www.ncat.edu/

 

Campus Map: https://www.ncat.edu/_files/pdfs/visit/campusmap.pdf

Athletic website: https://ncataggies.com/

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