Rhoades to Success

Years of grinding and overcoming major challenges led Baylor’s AD to Waco and the rebuilding project of a lifetime.

By Michael Smith
Since becoming Baylor’s AD in 2016, Mack Rhoades has helped turn scandal and crisis into success and national championships.Courtesy of Baylor

Baylor University Athletic Director Mack Rhoades was at a crossroads in his career. Having just entered his 30s, he interviewed with two financial institutions, AG Edwards and Dean Witter, to become a certified financial planner.

AG Edwards came back with an offer. This was the safe path.

Rhoades would start in a week at an office in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., where he and his daughters would be surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It might not have been his dream job, but it would provide a solid living and keep them close to home.

Rhoades had given college athletics a shot. He got his master’s in sports management from Indiana and interned at Yale before joining the staff as a marketing assistant. He knew he was starting at the bottom, but he didn’t know the true depths until the custodial staff that cleaned Yale’s office space went on strike and Rhoades had to scrub the restrooms every morning from 5:30 to 7:30.

MACK RHOADES

Baylor University: Athletic director; vice president
Age: 55
Resides: Waco, Texas
Hometown: Tucson, Ariz.
Previous AD jobs: Missouri, 2015-16; Houston, 2009-15; Akron, 2006-09
Previous jobs in administration: UTEP, 1998-2006; Marquette, 1997-98; Yale, 1996
Alma mater: Arizona, B.S., exercise and sport science; Indiana, master’s, athletic administration, sport management

To this day, Rhoades, now entering his sixth year as the athletic director at Baylor and Sports Business Journal’s 2021 AD of the Year, makes a point to know the cleaning staff members by name. It’s something he learned from retired Yale AD Tom Beckett — everyone matters.

The view from Yale’s privies to the athletic director’s chair at Baylor, where Rhoades is in his fourth Division I AD job, was virtually imperceptible to him at the time.

So, Rhoades took his wife, Amy, and their daughters back to Tucson, where he delivered pizzas while he was between jobs to make some extra money until he got the call from AG Edwards.

In that life-changing week before he started as a financial planner, though, he got another call, this one from one of his best friends from graduate school at Indiana, Jamie Dyckes. He said there was an opening in athletic development — fundraising — at Marquette, where Dyckes worked in marketing.

“Mack, you’d be perfect,” his friend told him. Rhoades interviewed at Marquette and got the job. The family packed up again and headed to Milwaukee on a path that would eventually lead to AD jobs at Akron, Houston and Missouri before landing at Baylor in 2016.

“I was a week away from a very different career,” Rhoades said. “I think I would have been a good financial adviser, but the thing about college athletics is that no day is the same. Every day is different. I just wonder how fulfilled I would have been if I had gone down that other path.”

The Bears won the Big 12 women’s basketball championship this year and were national champions under Mack Rhoades in 2019.Courtesy of Baylor

Ready for a challenge

When Rhoades spoke those words about college athletics — “No day is the same” — he didn’t know how prophetic he would be. That was before Texas and Oklahoma stated their intention to leave the Big 12 and accept an invitation to the SEC.

The past few weeks have thrown the Big 12 into disarray with no sense of what the future might hold. But this isn’t the first time Rhoades has been presented with this kind of professional challenge. Those who have worked with him say the more difficult the situation, the more he digs in.

When he hired Hunter Yurachek at Akron, Rhoades invited Yurachek’s family over for dinner. When they finished, Rhoades and Yurachek escaped to the basement, where Rhoades, a rookie AD, had prepared a stack of assignments for Yurachek, who now is the AD at Arkansas.

HTML“There were papers and folders stacked a foot high,” Yurachek said, laughing. “And Mack said, ‘This is what I want you to work on.’ Like, are you kidding me. But Mack is a fixer.

“One of the reasons we connected is because we were both navigating our way up through this industry by taking our own path. Honestly, Mack has never been big on going to industry events and networking, all of the typical things that people do to move up. He’s a grinder.”

Akron and Houston were difficult jobs. They were resource-challenged, and their facilities were old and tired.

At Akron, he led the charge to build a new $300 million on-campus football stadium development that opened in 2009 and replaced the off-campus Rubber Bowl as the Zips’ football home.

Houston was a job with tremendous opportunity because of the huge market and the need for a facilities makeover. Rhoades again put on his fundraising and facilities hats and went to work on a plan for a new $125 million football stadium that opened in 2014 and a major renovation to what’s now called the Fertitta Center, formerly Hofheinz Pavilion.

“Mack is the kind of guy who runs toward the chaos,” said Boise State AD Jeramiah Dickey, who worked with Rhoades at several stops, including Baylor, Akron and Houston. “He leads from the front; he doesn’t hide from anything. His fingerprints are still all over both of those programs.”

Running toward the chaos, as Dickey says, aptly describes Rhoades’ move to Baylor five years ago. He was just a year into the job at Missouri, having replaced the Tigers’ longtime AD, Mike Alden, when Baylor’s search firm, Eastman & Beaudine, reached out to gauge his interest. Rhoades and his family were on vacation, but he took the call. It was another call that changed the course of his career.

To put it mildly, Baylor was not an attractive job. In 2016, the Bears were still mired in the sexual assault scandal that had rocked the entire campus. Many of the allegations led back to the football team, which prompted the ouster of highly successful football coach Art Briles, who was 65-37 and posted back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2013 and 2014.

Baylor’s national championship in men’s basketball earlier this year was only the second NCAA Division I title ever for a Texas school.AP images

Inspiration to rebuild

The scandal also brought down AD Ian McCaw, who resigned in 2016. Rhoades was hired on July 13 that year to replace McCaw. Later that year, fans were still wearing T-shirts to games supporting Briles. Members of the athletic department were split.

That was the environment Rhoades stepped into with his eyes wide open, but his head on a swivel.

“I don’t know any other way to describe it. It was a calling,” Rhoades said. “God called us to be there. With everything the school was going through, it just felt like there was an opportunity to make some real change. Our job in this business is to impact the lives of young people and help them grow, not just as athletes.

“I’m not going to tell you there weren’t times that I wondered if this was the right decision. I read the ‘findings of facts’ report (detailing the scandal). I talked to Ian McCaw. But at some point, I had to put my trust in God.”

Rebuilding more than athletic programs

Before Rhoades began his pursuit of a career in college athletics, his hobby was restoring cars. He rebuilt a couple of old Volkswagens, but his true love was a 1973 Ford Bronco, one he’d love to have today.
Unfortunately, Rhoades said, he sold the Bronco when he needed cash to move his family to Connecticut for his internship at Yale.
He still harbors a desire to “buy an old car, tear it down to the frame and rebuild it front to back.”

His move to Baylor under such difficult circumstances raised a lot of eyebrows industrywide. Why would someone on an upward trajectory step into such a toxic job?

Dickey was at Houston at the time when Rhoades asked him to join the staff at Baylor.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Dickey, who eventually moved to Baylor in 2018. “It looks like a sinking ship. He just kept saying, ‘I believe in this place. We can win national championships in every sport.’”

Ultimately, it was the combination of Rhoades’ faith and the opportunity to make a difference at a private Christian-based school that led him to Waco.

Still, there was residue from the scandal that left a stain within athletics that first year. As Rhoades went about instituting a plan to make sure it never happened again, some within athletics pushed back on his message that the Bears’ best days were ahead of them.

He stressed that no detail was too small. Never take on a task just to check a box. Everything counts, everyone counts, all the way down to the custodial staff.

“If you’re around Mack for any length of time, you’re going to hear him say these things,” said Marcus Sedberry, Baylor’s senior associate AD, student athlete success. “He talks a lot about being elite in everything we do and how everyone has a role in that.”

For those first few years, Rhoades made a habit of telling his staff, “Everything is going to be OK, we’re going to be OK.” It’s a saying he dusted off in recent weeks when Texas and Oklahoma made their intentions known to leave the Big 12.

Many of these habits and sayings rubbed off on staff members.

“As I thought about what kind of AD I wanted to be, I thought about the way Mack treated everyone the same way, from the football coach to the person who empties the trash,” Yurachek said. “Mack always stressed how important every single person is.”

Each employee at Baylor is given a plaque with the saying, “There’s no limit to what we can accomplish if you don’t mind who gets the credit.”

Not everyone was quick to jump on board. In that first year, Rhoades said there were 90 personnel changes. That number grew to 140 after the second year. Essentially half of the athletic department turned over.

“It felt like taking a bunch of body punches,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades leaned on the four pillars of what he calls “Preparing Champions for Life,” which is the mantra at Baylor and other schools where Rhoades has been AD. It’s built on academic and athletic success, spiritual development and social responsibility.

“If you don’t believe in it and you don’t have a passion for it, you can’t be here,” Rhoades said. “Not everybody does, and that’s OK, we will just move on.”

icki Collen (center) was introduced as the new women’s basketball coach by Mack Rhoades in May.Courtesy of Baylor

Opportunity from adversity

The silver lining from so much turnover is that Rhoades was able to remake his senior leadership team.

“You could see that Mack was transforming something that, at its core, was really good,” said Jovan Overshown, Baylor’s senior associate AD, external affairs, who joined the Bears’ staff in 2017. “He knows what this place can be and he has brought this really heightened level of excellence. In many ways, he’s like a coach.”

In Rhoades’ five years at Baylor, the Bears have won national championships in men’s basketball (2021) and women’s basketball (2019), while men’s tennis and women’s golf have ascended to No. 1 rankings,  and women’s volleyball has finished no worse than second in the Big 12 since 2017. Rhoades’ most high-profile hire was football coach Matt Rhule, who took a hapless one-win team in 2017 to an 11-3 season in 2019 before being hired away by the Carolina Panthers.

Two mentors, major impact

Two of the relationships that meant the most to Mack Rhoades were Cedric Dempsey, the former Arizona AD who went on to become the NCAA’s executive director, and Don Haskins, the Hall of Fame basketball coach at UTEP.
When Rhoades wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduating from Arizona, Dempsey encouraged him to pursue his master’s. “After talking to him,” Rhoades said,
“I was clear-minded about what I wanted to do.”
Rhoades spent eight years at UTEP, where he befriended Haskins. Even though the coach retired in 1999, the year after Rhoades arrived in El Paso, they became good friends.
“One of the most humble men I’ve ever known,” he said.

When he was a young athlete, Rhoades thought he might be a coach. He excelled as a player in football and basketball until a serious ankle injury derailed his plans to play a sport in college, so he wound up at the University of Arizona in his hometown of Tucson.

He had learned from his parents that life didn’t always follow a script. His mother, Carmen, immigrated to the U.S. from Chile during her teenage years because her father wanted her to graduate from high school in America. There she met Mack’s father, Mack III, who came from a Mexican-American family in Texas that moved to Tucson.

Mack Rhoades IV was the oldest of three boys and his father was a safety engineer at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Even with those telescopes, Mack didn’t see himself running an athletic department until much later.

“Probably the thing I’m most proud of is that I was able to find my own path,” Rhoades said. “I never had the opportunity to work for some of the really big names in the profession. I had to fight, scratch and claw to make my own path. But I was fortunate that I had people telling me I could do this.”

Men’s basketball coach Scott Drew credits Rhoades’ fiery spirit and motivation with inspiring his team’s national title.AP Images

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