The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

USATF CEO Search – Another Bobble

May 26th, 2011
5:47 am PDT

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USATF – USA Track and Field. The governing body of the sport in the United States of America. Outside of the IAAF, the body that should be the most powerful in the sport – in charge of the deepest strongest team on the planet. We produced Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Edwin Moses, Jackie Joyner Kersee, and Evelyn Ashford. By default we should start with 20 medals in Daegu and London.

But we can’t find a CEO! Are you kidding me?!

This “should” be one of the plum jobs in all of track and field. It should be like placing an ad for coach of the Lakers or manager of the Yankees or coach of the Patriots – announce the opening then decide which ultra talented candidate is most deserving of our selection! Yet after hiring a high powered agency to manage the search process we are told that we’re NOT the Lakers or Yankees or Patriots – as a matter of fact we’re not even the Timberwolves or Bengals – because apparently NO ONE wants the job! At least that what we’re being told – and that therefore Board President Stephanie Hightower could become the next CEO.

Of course, we really have no idea who does or doesn’t want the job, or even who applied for the job. Because the transparency we were promised has been as translucent as a brick wall – we know nothing. We do know that Vin Lananna turned the job down – he’s told us so. Apparently he was the leading contender in the hunt. But what of Mary Whittenberg, or Bill Schmidt? Individuals who clearly have what it takes to run the organization and move it forward. Did they apply? Were they interviewed? If so, were they finalists? And if not, who was seen as potentially better fits, outside of Lananna who turned down the job? And if they did apply, is Hightower really seen as a better option, or did they too turn down the job?

In his article on the subject Phil Hersh said that “There is a feeling the entire interview process may have been flawed because all potential candidates are aware of Hightower’s interest in the job and may fear she would interfere with the CEO’s ability to run the federation — thereby compromising the CEO’s security.”. So was the entire process a farce from the beginning? Was this a front for the eventual move of Hightower to the position or, as has also been floated, paving the way for Ian Stewart (Hightower’s husband) to take the mantle?

All speculation aside, here’s what I do know. Since Doug Logan’s release last September we’ve been told two things, the name of the search firm, and the job description. Nothing else has been forthcoming, and when asked (I’ve emailed the office several times during the process) the standard response has been that information would be coming soon. We’ve been lead to believe that the board has been doing their due diligence, and has been focused on doing what is best for the sport. In essence we have been told to trust in them and trust in their judgment as this process was not going to be conducted in front of the public. And now we are being lead to believe that after months of research, interviews, and vetting (who, or even how many we have no clue) that this board has found only ONE suitable candidate for the position! And that we should trust in the current president of the board to take the reins and move this sport forward!

Mind you this is the same board and board president that after Masback’s departure sent American athletes onto the track of the Olympic Games in handwritten bibs. This is the same board and board president that allowed what was once one of the country’s most prestigious meets (Modesto/California Relays) to die a slow and agonizing death while TAKING AWAY USATF funding! The same board and board president that has allowed Olympic and World Champion Lashawn Merritt to rot for two years for an offense that athletes from other federations are cleared of in three to six months! A board that if any of it’s members have attended a meet outside of Eugene in the past few years has had it’s selection of seats because the majority of them were EMPTY!

But this board, and it’s president, want us to believe that while they have presided over the rapid deterioration of the sport in this country that they know what’s best for the leadership of the organization going forward. That they have found no one capable of taking the reins of this sinking ship and that the BEST option moving forward is the current steward of the board who, by the way, does NOT fit the requirements for the position as set forth in the job description adopted by THIS sitting board! I guess next they will be unveiling a fundraising plan centered around selling major bridges across the United States starting with the Golden Gate.

It’s time for USATF to poop or get off the pot! To stop insulting the intelligence of the track and field community. To stop with the building of a fiefdom and decide if it is happy with the state of track and field in this country. If they are happy with the lack of funding flowing into this sport. If they are happy with track and field being a third class citizen on television to lacrosse, cheerleading, and spelling bees. If they are satisfied with our inability to host a major championship in this country, then they should do as they suggest and continue the Keystone Cops standard status quo and move the current board president into the position of CEO.

IF, however, they are sincere about the needs of the organization as expressed in the job description that THEY claim to have used in their search for a CEO, then they will extend their search and/or revisit some of the candidates previously discarded. Because this organization/sport sorely needs someone that can interface effectively with the business community. Someone that can lead a fundraising effort substantial enough to secure the kind of sponsorships that will not only fund current meets/activities, but can begin to put more high level meets (like New York and Pre) back onto the U.S. schedule. We need someone that can lead a marketing effort strong enough to ensure that these meets are effectively sold to the general public, that tickets are sold, and seats are filled. We need a CEO that can negotiate with television networks to secure the sport adequate media face time, because we are after all a global sport that should at least have a presence comparable to hunting & fishing, cage fighting, hiking, and cycling which are all staples on sports television.

More importantly we need a CEO with vision, and the acumen to make that vision reality. We need someone with the vision that the sport needs at least one major stadium in this country. The vision that the U.S. should be the host of the sports’ grandest competition – the World Championships. We need someone that understands that the needs of the amateur faction of this sport are so much different than the professional faction of this sport that perhaps we need to move towards some sort of restructuring – and has the capacity to lead such an endeavor. In short we need the kind of CEO that can lead the U.S. to it’s rightful place into track and field’s global hierarchy!

The fact that this wish list is so extensive says that, clearly the leadership that we need does NOT currently exist within the organization. That’s why this board MUST go back to it’s job description and look for someone with (among other skills):

  • Previous CEO / President / COO or equivalent leadership experience
  • Minimum 10 years executive level corporate executive experience and a track record of growth and success
  • Minimum 5 years sports marketing, joint venture, licensing, sponsor relationship experience
  • Experience with developing a strategic and visionary plan in tune with a dynamic environment
  • Has established relationships with business CEOs, media moguls, and sports leaders that can be leveraged.
  • Has experience and insights in both the business world and the non-profit world coupled with negotiation skills (re: TV deals, sponsor contracts, meet director deals, athlete demands, etc.)

The board was correct in adopting the job description that it did to guide them in this search. To accept anything less than what they themselves determined was needed for the position however would be irresponsible – even hypocritical. While the lack of transparency prevents me from saying who among the actual applicants fits this mold, I do know that Vin Lananna, Mary Whittenberg, and Bill Schmidt do – my personal short list. If Whittenberg and Schmidt either didn’t apply or were frightened during the process because, as Phil Hersh said, they may have feared lack of support or even undermining from the board president, then the board needs to call them – and any others that fit the description – back in and ASSURE them that such would not be the case. That they would be welcomed with open arms, given the key to the kingdom, and asked to lead – and that the board would follow that lead.

If the board is unwilling to do that, then it is indeed irresponsible,incompetent, and clearly in possession of an agenda other than the success of the organization and the sport here in the United States. And if that is the case then perhaps it is time to revisit the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 and ask the USOC to take away the charter of USATF. If this is the best that can be done under current leadership, we could do no worse than to start over from scratch. Burn it down as it is currently constructed and start over with a new foundation. Because this organization has shown time and time again that the best interests of the sport is not a part of it’s vision and the failure to find a legitimate CEO for the organization would be the final straw in my humble opinion.

Harsh? Yes I guess I am a bit harsh. But really, how much more should we take? Were you not embarrassed in ‘08? Does it not bother you to see so many empty seats in stadiums – even for a meet like the New York Diamond League meet? Does it not anger you when our athletes are thrown under the bus while those from other countries are provided support? Did it not break your heart to find out that the Modesto Relays could not garner enough support to run this year or to find out that Lannana just walked away, and that talent like Whittenberg and Schmidt may have been scared away? More importantly do you feel at this point that USATF, the folk that are supposed to be in charge of these things, do you feel that they even care or have the capacity to do anything about it?

3 Responses to “USATF CEO Search – Another Bobble”

  1. 2912baaa-885e-11e0-829d-000bcdcb8a73 says:

    I've benn saying the same for more than a decade. A complete absence of leadership within the organization. Stephanie is an utter joke of a President. She should do the sport a favor and resign, pack her bags and never come back. While on the way out, take every other person who has been there since the AAU days and exile them on a deserted island for eternity.

  2. Almighty One says:

    If pro track athletes spun off their own organization, a) the IAAF and Olympic bodies would recognize it, and b) they would be able to attract qualified administrators to lead the organization. This would leave USATF to focus on building good, strong clubs, and would allow the USATF to more easily find a leader with the requisite skill set and experiences.

  3. Conway Hill says:

    Obviously I agree that it is time for major change … Part of that could very well be, as I hinted, a separation of the amateur and pro "divisions" … Their needs are just so diverse … I do think that both would be better off with their own leadership and organizations that could focus on their needs …

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