WKU president Caboni offers thoughts on school's athletics

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On Thursday, WBKO sat down with new Western Kentucky University president Dr. Tim Caboni. Caboni started his tenure July 1 after the retirement of long-time WKU president Dr. Gary Ransdell.

Caboni offered his thoughts on WKU athletics duirng the following Q&A:

FOR STARTERS, WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL PHILOSOPHY ON THE ROLE OF ATHLETICS FOR THE UNIVERSITY?

“There’s a really important role for athletics to play at any institution, but particularly for a university that competes at our level. I wish 20,000 people would show up on a Saturday night to watch a drama department or theater department production, but that’s not the world we live in. We need to take advantage of that as a university.

“To talk about championships – look, we’ve had remarkable success in Conference USA: 21 championships in the past three years. The nearest institution has seven championships. That is a tremendous record of success. But did I also tell you about our championships in forensics? We have to be able as an institution to embrace excellence in everything that we do. And whatever we do, we wanna be the best at it. That’s true for athletics, that’s true in academics, that’s true in extra curricular activities.

“The other thing I will say is I am a sports fan. I can’t have grown up and gone to LSU as an undergraduate and had that football experience where I marched in the marching band without understanding how that affects students – some students. The ones who choose to be a part of the university in that way. The same thing is true from where I just came: Kansas. KU has a remarkable program.

"And my hope is, whatever we do, we try to compete at the very highest levels. At the same time, we know job one is graduating our student-athletes. We’ve been incredibly successful there as well. So that’s to be proud of.

“Athletics are an asset and something that, not only do I support, but certainly enjoy on a personal level as well.”

WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR INITIAL IMPRESSIONS OF WESTERN KENTUCKY ATHLETIC DIRECTOR TODD STEWART?

“Yeah he is terrific. What a strong leader who has been transformative for WKU athletics. If you look at the level at which we’re competing across the board? That is terrific.

“We have work to do, certainly, on some facilities. I’m excited to see where he leads the fundraising to get those things done. But Todd is a good, solid, strong leader, but in some ways doesn’t need the spotlight and you allow your coaches to play those roles.

“I think Todd has done a terrific job, not just at managing the athletic department, but also in terms of talent identification and recruitment. You look at what we’re going to have coming up with football and a new head coach there and the excitement that surrounds that. You look at a relatively new basketball coach as well.

“The ability to identify talent and get them to be here in Bowling Green I think is the testament to the work he’s done as well.”

WHAT WILL BE YOUR ROLE IN THE HIRING, FIRING AND RESIGNATION OF COACHES?

“It depends upon the hire and depends upon the context. As is true with all the folks who work with me, my goal is to empower people to do their jobs as best they can do that, to support them however they need to be supported, and then to hold them accountable as well.

“The provost will work with me that way. The vice president for fundraising will work with me that way, and as well the athletic director. But I am still available whenever is necessary to close a deal, to rally support, to be a cheerleader. That’s true for athletics, true for our forensics program, and that’s true for our music department as well.

“I think my experience in multiple facets of a university gives me the ability to say, ‘I don’t want to focus only on one thing, I want to have the totality of the institution in the best interest of the whole place in mind every morning and every evening as well.’ ”

WHAT COMES FIRST– INVESTING IN ATHLETICS AND THEN SUCCESS, OR SUCCESS IN ATHLETICS AND THEN INVESTMENT?

“So I think it’s both at the same time. It’s a lot like academics. You invest strategically and you look for the return on that investment. At the same time, people want to give to winners. If you have a program that is successful, one knows that is a place folks likely want to be affiliated.

“If you think about the long history and tradition of basketball at WKU, the remarkable success we’ve had during the entirety of the program going all the way back to coach (E.A.) Diddle, that legacy is something as an institution we should embrace, we should honor, we should leverage.

“Athletics, done right, can help support this notion of a total college experience. People come to a university because they have something in mind for that experience. For some of them, it is about going to class and being engaged in service projects and then performing in musicals. For others, it’s going to class, being in a fraternity or sorority, going to a football game on the weekends.

“But my hope for the institution is that we’re a total community. That faculty and staff, who are interested, show up and support our student-athletes. That the student body as a whole shows up – at every game. That energy, when you put that number of people together excited about what’s happening on the field or on the court is something you can’t do at any other venue, really.”

HOW DO YOU BALANCE BUDGET CONCERNS?

“We’ve managed and done incredibly well at producing success with a pretty lean budget compared to other institutions in Conference USA. I think our goal is to be smart about how budgets grow. And that’s not just for athletics, that’s for the whole institution.

“What we have to think about is, ‘What are our strategic priorities? And given the limited and scarce resources we have, where are we most likely to get the best return with those limited dollars?’ Some portion of them will come from students, some portion of them will come from auxiliary, some portion of them will come from donors.

“But what we have to make sure we’re doing is being not just equitable, but being strategic. And that means that some places get more than others – and that’s OK, because perhaps those places produce more of a return than others as well.

“You hear folks, ‘Well why would we raise money for athletics? We have these academic needs.’ Donor intent is critically important. There are many donors who only want to give to support our student-athletes. We have to understand that as an institution, even though there are myriad needs at the university, if the donor really wants his engagement or her engagement to be with a sports team or with athletics in general, we have to make sure we’re facilitating that relationship. I think that’s a good thing for the institution for everyone to understand.”

NOW THAT YOU'VE STARTED YOUR TENURE, HAS ATHLETICS MET YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF WHAT YOU PERCEIVED IT TO BE?

“What I’ve discovered, and what I knew from my time even as a graduate student here at WKU, is there’s a great passion – particularly then around basketball, now around basketball, women’s basketball, football, volleyball – there’s a great passion for the success of our teams.

“What I think is the opportunity, and I’m gonna talk about this every opportunity that I get, when I’m off The Hill and engaging with folks in the community, is we want this town to be painted Hilltopper Red every single weekend. These are remarkable teams, and the price point is pretty affordable for you and your families. We want you to show up on The Hill every Saturday. We want to sell out Diddle (Arena) this year. We want to make sure our volleyball team has incredible support and we wanna make sure all of our athletes know, it’s not just the university that supports them, it’s Bowling Green, it’s Warren County, it’s the entire region.

“And I think there’s a place for us to work. It’s really getting the entire community to celebrate and embrace our teams. I think, that if we’re successful, and nothing breeds success like success – I don’t wanna see a half-full stadium when we have a successful team. That’s not good for the university, it’s not good for our players, but even more importantly, that’s not the message we want to send as a community about what we believe in is the strength of this town and this county.”

YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF WKU'S ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENTS BY ITS ATHLETES?

“One of the challenges that we’re doing very well with is making sure our student-athletes understand why they’re here. They’re here to get a degree, they’re here to be prepared for work. We want them to be able to make a good living and also to make a good life for themselves. The experience of competition at this level is wonderful for providing that skill set.

“But you have to go to class, you have to graduate to get that job. I think the folks that support our student-athletes do an amazing job at creating that success, helping keeping them focused on the reason they’re at a university – and that’s to go to class, to do their homework, write their papers, to take their tests and to get that degree.

“I’ve been really pleased with all of the comments our coaches have made that I’ve heard in public about the importance of going to class and graduating. I think that that’s something about which we should be very proud. Our (Academic Progress rating) is amazing and we’re going to continue to focus on that as an institution.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop