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Rick Chryst Interview with VanDelaySports.com

 

On March 30th 2009, Nick Gerogosian of VanDelaySports.com had the opportunity to spend time with MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst. Chryst announced in late January that he will be stepping down this June and pursuing other interests after leading the Mid-American Conference for the past decade. In mid-March Dr. Jon Steinbrecher was announced as the league’s new commissioner. Dr. Steinbrecher comes to the MAC from the Ohio Valley Conference.

Below is a portion of the question and answer session between Rick Chryst and I followed by a personal closing commentary.

 

Nick: The timing of your announcement in January was quite odd. On January 28, 2009, the MAC office announced the historic TV extension with ESPN and then within a day or two there was the announcement of your departure. Why was it done then?

Rick: Nick, I just think it was right time both personally and professionally. Ten years as a commissioner of any league is a long time and we’ve accomplished a great deal during this time period. I’ll admit the timing may have seemed a little odd but I wanted to make sure that this television contract was secure before I left. We’ve had an incredible relationship with ESPN over the years and certainly our product has had success on their family of networks. Obviously this was a win-win situation for both parties.

 

Nick: So it’s good to go out on a high note.

Rick: Absolutely.

 

Nick: How long have you been leaning this way? Where there any extenuating circumstances as well?

Rick: Probably for the past twelve to eighteen months I’ve been considering it. A decision like this certainly takes time to evaluate, both from a career standpoint along with a personal and family standpoint. As for extenuating circumstances, no, none really to speak about. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some outstanding presidents, athletic directors and MAC staff through the years. Obviously when you spend ten years doing something like this you develop relationships, some stronger than others. But no, there were no extenuating circumstances.

 

Nick: You have a young family, your wife has deep roots in northeast Ohio, are looking to leave the greater Cleveland area anytime soon? What’s next? Any possible AD positions?

Rick: Yes we do have family and deep roots here and it’s been great. My family and I are on the same page and open to leave if the right opportunity presents itself. I would like to stay in athletics if possible and also utilize my law degree.

 

Nick: Looking over your tenure as the commissioner, did you ever feel any resistance or push by the MAC presidents or athletic directors? Was there any disconnect over the last two or three years, such as too much emphasis on football over basketball or something of that nature?

Rick: I never felt any resistance from the MAC presidents or ADs; they’ve been wonderful to work with. As I stated, in this business you develop certain relationships and as time goes on and people change, sometimes new people may not always know or appreciate how far you have come, but overall, I’ve never felt any sort of unnecessary pressure. As for any disconnect, I think most everyone have been on the same page most of the time. You know when I entered the league and throughout those first few seasons MAC basketball was king and had guys like Wally Szczerbiak, Trevor Huffman, Antonio Gates, Turner Battle, Brandon Hunter and Chris Kaman. We had some really special teams with Miami in the late 1990s and Kent State just after that. Right now we really don’t have that dominate player or team in basketball. Players and coaches change, school’s athletic emphasis change, everything goes in cycles. Right now our football fortunes are on the rise although we need to do a better job in our bowl games. We are beating more BCS schools during the regular season than most non-BCS leagues which is a perception of your league’s strength. As for basketball, I don’t think its one thing; it’s a combination of many things. We did have a few seasons where almost certainly we would have had an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Kent State has had a couple of teams that would have been an at-large team had they not won the MAC tournament. Also, before we didn’t have any representation on the selection committee and had several teams that were right there on the bubble. Now we have someone (Kent State’s Laing Kennedy) on the committee but we don’t have any at-large type of teams. When you look at programs like Temple, UMass, Xavier, Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Creighton and to some extent Butler, those schools all build their resume throughout the year and think of themselves of an ‘at-large’ type of team and then often are rewarded for their efforts. I don’t know that at this point in time that we (the MAC) have any particular school actively becoming an annual “at-large” type of program.

 

Nick: Ten years is a long time in your business, what are the three things you are most proud of that you and your staff accomplished during your time as the MAC commish? Any specific legacy you want to be noted for?

Rick: First and foremost, I am very proud that we are at the table with the BCS schools for football and solidified our position as a FCS or I-A league. That wasn’t the case a decade ago, and in fact, we may have been pretty close to not being one. So I am very proud of that fact. With that comes our television relationship with ESPN. They have been a terrific partner over the years and as the ratings have shown the MAC has done very well. When you look at our ratings on their networks, they are quite impressive. I am also very proud of our basketball tournament at The Q. When I came to the MAC we were playing at the SeaGate Center in downtown Toledo in front of about 3,500 fans. Now our championship game is played in a state-of-the-art NBA facility in front of over 10,000 fans and one year we had over 14,000 for the championship game. When you look at our league’s efforts of vastly improved facilities and high graduation rates, there is a lot that has been accomplished.

 

Nick: I know what you mean about ‘MAC Madness,’ I work for a large bank in downtown Cleveland who owns a mid-court suite and I can tell you that the MAC basketball tournament is a major event for our associates and their clients and there is often a waiting list, just like for the Cavs. People commit early in the year just to be guaranteed a spot at this event.

Rick: I love to hear those stories Nick. We’ve come a long way over the past decade and I think those first two or three years when just about every game went down to the wire really made this a regional attraction for the league.

 

Nick: If you could do it all over again, what are the top two or three items you would do differently?

Rick: You always have some things that you would like to do differently if you could but I don’t look back like that. I suppose if there was one thing I wish could have happened is that I wish we could have brought in a 14th member for football to make the scheduling a lot easier and for that school to have a sound basketball presence to help us out there too.

 

Nick: From time to time, the MAC internet fan boards often chime in about Temple and if this was a good move or not.

Rick: I firmly believe that Temple was a very good move - it expanded the MAC into the Philadelphia market and they were an institutional fit as well. Temple could have gone to Conference USA but they decided that the MAC was their best fit for football. It’s a good fit for both sides and has incredible potential for longer term and deeper athletic ties.

 

Nick: When this position came up ten years ago, no one wanted it, but you have made this a job that is really prestigious – any thoughts on the next commish?

Rick: Thank you for the kind words, I have really loved and cherished this position. The league is in good hands and has a bright future.

 

Nick: What advice would you give Dr. Steinbrecher? During his introduction phone press conference a week ago he spoke often about reaching out to all parties, schools, staff and getting their input.

Rick: He is a terrific hire and will do the MAC proud. It’s not advice at all but I hope that he is able to implement his own ideas and vision and continue to move the MAC forward. This league has too much to offer to ever remain status quo.

 

Nick: You do realize that there are some people such as myself who were stunned by this decision and quite sad by it. As a long-time follower of the MAC, you were certainly the right person, at the right time for this position ten years ago. I wish you well.

Rick: Thanks Nick, it’s been a wonderful ride.

 

 

 

Personal Commentary…

As I ended this interview, I reflected upon the decade that Rick Chryst served as the commissioner. Under no other time in the MAC’s 63-year history did the MAC ever raise the bar so high and actually become a real player in D-IA athletics. The MAC has always had an inferiority complex being so overshadowed by the Big Ten. Fan attendance, especially in football, has always been below par and up until the past few years, MAC facilities have been below par too.

The last decade at the MAC has seen significant growth in football evident by their inclusion in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) and the Bowl Championship Series arrangement. I did not realize just how close the MAC was to becoming I-AA, now known as FCS. Chryst executed the move of the league’s office from Toledo to Cleveland, initiated and executed “MAC Madness" at The Q along with and developing several corporate partners along the way that did not exist before.

Through Chryst’s involvement, the MAC became a ‘founding father’ in establishing the popular BracketBusters college basketball series on ESPN. The league has had an Elite Eight team during his tenure and on the football side produced nearly 40 non-conference wins over schools from BCS conferences with seven of those victories over nationally-ranked teams.

Before Chryst, the MAC had only one bowl option. Consider this, in 1999 if Chad Pennington and Marshall does not come back and defeat Western Michigan in the MAC Championship Game, that undefeated and nationally-ranked Herd team would have sitting at home while 6-5 teams went on to the post season. Seeing this, Chryst acted quickly and the MAC now has three guaranteed bowl games each and every year and twice have produced five bowl participants.

Here is the real gem of his tenure though - the long-term ESPN contract and significant dollars that come with it. What many MAC fans may not know or perhaps have forgotten is that when Rick Chryst arrived, the league actually had to pay to be on television! Now the MAC is getting paid quite handsomely to be on the world’s leader in sports, along with other regional TV packages. That and that alone makes him, in my opinion, the best MAC commissioner since the league’s inception in 1946. We have an agreement with the Big Ten for football scheduling that includes those schools to play at MAC venues, something totally unimaginable back in the 1980s and 1990s.

Academics have never taken a back seat either under Chryst’s leadership. MAC football programs continuing to lead the nation in graduation rates for public institutions, as the MAC is the only one of the eleven Football Bowl Subdivision conferences to have more than half of its schools graduating football student-athletes at a rate of 70% or better.

The new commissioner has some very big shoes to fill. Chryst and his staff took the league from the doldrums and solidified it as a legitimate player in major college athletics. My hope is that Dr. Jon Steinbrecher takes the momentum that was built over the past decade and truly builds upon those successes. Nothing would be worse for the league than to go backwards to the ‘woe-is-me’ or ‘let’s just wait this out and see where it goes’ type of attitude. Sooner or later, more movements will be in play again in major college athletics and the MAC needs to be on the cutting edge and ready to make that quantum leap forward. We did it a decade ago and I hope we will again whenever that next opportunity arises.

 

 

April 20, 2009
By Nick Gerogosian

 

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