November 13th, 2019

I Want Your Job – Episode 11, Innovating To Support Student-Athletes

Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens joins Jim Cavale on “I Want Your Job” to talk about his journey to becoming an AD, balancing his role as AD with his role on the College Football Playoff committee, and the ever-growing system of support for student-athletes at Oregon athletics.




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Highlights from the interview:

2:30 — Jim and Rob discuss the five core goals of Oregon Athletics: creating a culture that wins, putting student athlete experience at the forefront, making the Oregon following proud, continuing to increase resources, and competing for championships.

5:44 — Rob discusses how tangible results have come from the Jaqua Academic Center in academic success, but it’s “the functionality of it, what it stands for, what it means, and how it helps young people” are it’s true purpose.

6:27 — Learning programs like O’Heros community service (student athlete driven), foreign service trip for athletes which now has an application process because of its immense growth, and giving athletes a voice on different councils.

7:25 — Rob discusses how he balances being a part of the College Football Playoffs (CFP) committee while running a national brand at Oregon.

9:25 — Rob takes Jim through his nonlinear path to get to Oregon, starting at Virginia Tech. He brings up his first mentor at West Virginia in media relations as a student worker, and how he kept building on those experiences, added in a little luck, and continued to learn under those making changes and building great programs. 

13:08 — Rob discusses the impact Kentucky’s Mitch Barnhart had on him. He continues to share what it’s like to see how Barnhart leads and how he creates a family based culture.

17:25 — “It always felt like it was right,” Rob says as he tells Jim why he knew Oregon was the right move.

18:12 — On Nike and the importance it has at Oregon: “The people there, that come from Oregon and know this place inside and out have really done an amazing job at helping tell the story, and creating something very very special.

It really sets the tone for innovation, it encourages us, it enables us to be willing to be first. And you know those strong relationships, and the connection to the DNA are really you know the special sauce. And to have our staff and student athletes to be able to engage to that in a unique way is very very special.”

20:40 — Rob discusses how the access and connection into college athletics, beyond what happens on a given game day, is now being shown through the eyes of student athletes and staff. 

22:20 — Student athletes are at the core of anything Rob and Oregon does, and he shares how the environment they create in the entire department (staff and students) allows for inclusion and new ideas on supporting student athletes.

24:10 — Rob says that Oregon allows for individual freedom when it comes to social media, but educate their team and students on the positive and negative power the platforms can have.

24:45 — Rob on Jim’s question of what he would tell his 21 year old self, “follow your passion, first and foremost”, “you’re going to make some right decisions, you’re going to make some wrong decisions but just trust your gut, work hard, do your responsibility and the other stuff will happen for you”. 


Full Podcast Episode Transcript

Jim Cavale: Rob, so this is my first time in the State of Oregon, which is crazy, because I travel so much across the world, really, not just the country, but I’ve never been out here and it’s pretty amazing out here.

Well, welcome to the beautiful Pacific Northwest and the Willamette Valley in Eugene specifically, it is beautiful, and you’ve caught us at a perfect time. You know, a lot of fall colors. beautiful sunshine, people are very familiar with the, the rain, but you know, the summers are spectacular. And now it’s carried over into this fall. So, we’ve been very fortunate on the weather for our home football games.

Well, I had a chance to go to Nike yesterday and see that campus and meet with some of the folks from Nike football and basketball about what we’re doing at INFLCR. And seeing that campus after reading Shoe Dog was surreal. But coming here, it’s like the same branding here that’s there.

Yeah, there is a lot of similarities. Obviously, you know, Nike was born here at Hayward Field. So it’s part of the DNA. Obviously, anytime you’re inside the berm up in Beaverton at World Headquarters, it’s a special place, very magical.

And there are a lot of similarities and, you know, we are a strong partnership. There’s a lot of folks with deep Oregon ties starting with Mr. Knight, Tinker Hatfield, Todd Van Horne, and a lot of others, who play a big role in what we’ve been able to build here.

Talk about what you’ve been able to build here. Some people call it The Decade of the Duck, right. It’s been a really awesome run that has happened under your leadership. And as a guy who loves talking leadership, loves thinking about how you scale culture through people, because that’s the only way you can do it, right? You can’t do it by yourself. Core values, mission, vision, those are all things I’m real passionate in talking about.

That’s where I want to start is, you know, you have five core goals for Oregon Athletics. And I love it if you just talk through those five real quick…

Well…

…and how you, how you translate them into your culture.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, culture wins, right? It beats strategy every day.

Right.

And that’s what we say. And we’re really about operational. So we love the saying, “It’s what we do in the halls, not what we hang on the walls.” So it really is about the people. Much is known about our brand. We’ve already talked about it on here, a lot is known about our exceptional facilities. We have some of the best in all of sport around the world.

We have visitors from all around the world who want to see our facilities, but it really is about the people and it’s about the culture that you build. So around those, you know, five pillars is, you know, culture of excellence. If we’re going to do it, we want to be great at it. And in that we’re going to put the student athlete experience at the center of everything that we do. Because of our platform, we want to be… we want to make everyone who’s associated with the university proud—our alumni, you know, our faculty, our staff, or fans. So that’s really key for us.

We want to enhance the resources so that we continue to build this brand and be successful. And at the end of the day, we absolutely want to compete for championships, right? That’s why we’re all attracted to this is, “What can we do? How can we do it different? How can we do it better?” that shows up in the results on the field.

And so, when you got here, you came from Kentucky. You were talking about it earlier. Our first client at INFLCR. I know the athletic department well. You spent almost a decade there. And then you come out here. And, you know, obviously, that’s a big change. But you’re in a leadership position. You have these three things in mind that you mentioned, the five core goals of athletics that you’re known for.

How do you launch that and implement that? Talk about what, what was the process of getting that together?

Well, you know, I was taking the long view, right. You know, you want to get the system set up. I’m a systems person. You want to get the system set up. You want to get the right people who share in the values. So that was the first process. And once we were able to get that in line, then, you know, then you just start doing it every single day and being consistent.

Right.

Adjusting where you need to adjust. But it… you know, it does sound a little bit repetitive, but what can we do to elevate our brand, to support our student athletes, to enhance the resources that allow us to be, you know, competitive from a broad base perspective? You know, obviously, our track history and tradition is better than anybody. But how can we leverage that? How can we leverage the innovation of Nike? How can we leverage the innovation of what was happening in football in the uniforms to allow us to create a program that enjoys broad-based excellence? And, you know, it was a day-by-day thing. There was no magic bullet. It was just about… and there’s no pixie dust. You know, you do have to roll up your sleeves.

Yes.

So it’s about showing up every single day with people who believe in it and making it happen.

Well, I love the whole, you know, dichotomy of we’re not going to, you know, hang it on the wall, so it’s going to be something that comes out with the people in the halls. And I think that’s a brilliant way of saying it. And obviously, it’s happened. So, so tangibly, this is the beautiful part about culture is culture can seem so abstract to some people, right, like, you know, you talk to some investors and folks who are all about the numbers and you have to almost sell them on culture. But culture beautifully connects to tangible concrete results.

A hundred all PAC-12 academic selections, right, wins on the field, talk about some of the things you’re most proud of by putting athletes at the center of this whole vision that your program has been able to produce?

Right, so let’s, you know, Jaqua Academic Center, outstanding academic center for student athletes, 40,000 square foot space, you know, highly innovative, highly interactive, and we’ve been able to add you know, I think some crazy number like 35% of all of our academic all Americans have come in the 10 years since that building has been open. So that’s the tangible result, right? Beautiful building, gets a lot of attention. But the reality is, the functionality of it…

Yeah.

What it stands for, what it means, and how it helps young people, that’s, you know, the kind of results that you’re looking for. As you mentioned, you know, the all PAC-12 academics is really important to us. We’ve been able to launch a number of great learning programs, whether it’s O Heroes Community Services, that’s student athlete driven or whether it’s the Foreign Service trip that our student athletes take.

You know, when we first started that with a vision with Courts for Kids of, you know, let’s create an international service-learning opportunity. You know, we recruited somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 student athletes and three staff. Well, that’s become such a powerful experience, we now have to have an application process because we don’t have the ability to take everybody.

Everybody, right.

And so, you start to see those things grow. The engagement that we have with our Student Athlete Advisory Committee, you know, giving them leadership opportunities. You know, where the PAC-12 has gone with creating a student athlete leadership team and having a student athlete voice on the council and in the important decisions that we make in that opportunity we’ve been able to provide for our student athletes in getting to that table and understanding, you know, what happens in this administrative process. So, all those things are very powerful. 

So I want to switch for a second. I want to talk about college football playoff. So, I’ve heard it said many times by folks I know in college athletics. It was a startup, well, some say, it still is a startup, right. And it’s been very successful. And here you are stepping into this role. This is your second year?

Second year as chair, fourth year on the committee.

Fourth year on the committee. Talk about that experience, what it’s been like in balancing that with leading $123 million dollar budget brand like Oregon Athletics.

Well, it’s been a phenomenal experience. I’ll start with that. When… anytime, as you said, I was, I mean, I think, I think it was the third year of the playoff was my first year on the committee.

Okay.

So something that is so important to our industry. And then you get to serve on a group of 13 outstanding individuals who, high integrity, successful leaders and committed to the cause of making sure that the, you know, the 14th kid in the playoffs is a big task. So, outstanding experience with great people. And anytime that you have an opportunity to work so intensely with a small group of people in such an important task is, is a bonding experience. And so, you can just go down the roster of who’s been on the committee of who I’ve been able to serve with and what a great opportunity to meet outstanding leaders, you know, to have new friends, and people that you can lean on, you know, from a leadership experience standpoint.

So all in all, I’m a huge believer in the system, in the selection playoff committee, great staff. I love everything about it. I think it’s been outstanding for college football and it still is only in year six.

Yeah, it really is amazing what impact it’s had and how well it’s gone. All right, let’s, let’s go back to how it all started for you. So talk about your first memory of knowing, “You know what, I’m going to work in sports.”

Well, that would be reaching back. I mean, obviously sports played an important role in my youth. You know, you talked about beyond when I realized that couldn’t be a pro athlete, right.

That is when it was for me.

Right. Yeah. So mine probably came a little earlier than you. So, you know, I love sports. I loved everything about it since I can ever remember. And when I first thought I wanted to work in it was, you know, when I was an undergrad at West Virginia, I was on track to get my degree in accounting and I was headed down that path and I had opportunity to some Federal Work-Study Funds to work in the athletic department at West Virginia.

And while I was in an area that, you know, really didn’t interest me long term, it opened my eyes to what, you know, how many great people there were in the business and that you could… there was a career beyond a coach or a trainer. And so, I would say, probably, you know, during my time at West Virginia is when it, you know, my eyes were really open to the opportunity. I was so passionate about college athletics growing up in a college town and, you know, as a kid, I got caught up in in all the, the fandom around it. So probably as an undergrad is when it first hit me of, you know, I can… there may be an opportunity here.

I’m a Syracuse guy. So we at the east have a good rivalry.

Yeah, it was a great rivalry. In fact, one of my all-time favorite memories is in in the late ‘80s when West Virginia had that undefeated season with Major Harris.

Major.

Yeah, the final home game was Syracuse. And so, it was a fun day at Mountaineer Field.

Man. So you decide, “I’m going to do this,” and your career path, I think, for younger folks to slow them down and help them understand what it takes to get to where you are today both from a hard work and, you know, natural ability standpoint, but also from a mentorship people that take you under their wing, and a luck standpoint, you know, certain positions become open and certain people, you know, help you get those opportunities, kind of talk about the whole, I call it, non-linear path, a zigzag path to success. Because I think some people think it’s just like a straight line. And you and I both know, that’s not the case.

No, there’s no straight line. And boy, you can think back, now that I’ve been this, at this for 25-ish years, boy, there’s so many people who helped starting back to, you know, to my time as an undergrad at West Virginia. You know, I’m so fortunate, even though it was in media relations, that I met a mentor at that point, you know, who really helped guide me, you know, from a… even though I was just a Work-Study student worker who really took me under his wing and is somebody I could still lean on today.

And so, it starts from there. And in every experience, you just build on that. You know, Miami, you know, that was my first full time job. And it was very eye-opening. And, you know, then I… then some of the luck comes in, right, then you get an opportunity to go to the University of Maryland and work under Debbie Yow at a time when she was creating a lot of change and building something at Maryland.

And you get to meet somebody like Jamie Pollard, who becomes a great friend, another mentor. And then, you know, so you take that run and you have amazing experience in building an Xfinity Center and seeing football go from the bottom of the ACC to winning an ACC title your last year in playing in the Orange Bowl, to seeing basketball close a historic building like Cole Field House, win a national championship, move into the new building, and then, you know, life kind of comes into play too, right. So then, you know, my wife and I were looking for something different from a personal standpoint.

So we get the opportunity, as luck would have it, to go work with Mitch at Kentucky, and then eight years to have a mentor like Mitch Barnhart and see what he was able to build at Kentucky and be a part of that experience was different than a Maryland experience. And to combine those two helps prepare you for when your opportunity comes.

What… talk about Mitch. Because he’s like these coaching trees you see, you know, and Kevin White, Mitch Barnhart, you know, that have a pretty big AD trees and it’s fascinating to me how that keeps going back to, you know, a guy like Mitch, obviously, he’s doing something right. What, what makes him tick? What makes him such a good leader in college athletics?

Well, I think at the end of the day, you know, he’s a servant leader first and foremost. He is really about the people. You don’t have to spend much time at all in the, in the buildings at the University of Kentucky to see how connected he is with student athletes, how connected he is with coaches and how connected he is with staff. He wants to help others. And so, it absolutely starts right there. And as a staff member, you know, it’s in every single way. I mean, he is, he is your strongest advocate. He is absolutely open to let you, you know, build the resume, to learn and do the things that you need to do to help you prepare. And he is a great sounding board. He’s there for just wise counsel and good advice. And he does create an incredible family atmosphere.

I mean, when we built the Joe Craft Center, the basketball practice center, my office happened to be right next to his. And when we had kids, it did not matter who was in his office, president of the university, biggest donor, my kids knew that they could walk in and see Mr. Mitch. That’s what kind of atmosphere he built and the way that he wanted it. And what a great place to work. To have your family welcome to be a part of it and to have a mentor who wants what’s best for you, and to be standing side by side with you, helping you work towards your goals.

Awesome. What is the, you know, mindset when this job comes open and you’re happy there? It’s a big opportunity. Was this the first time that you said, “You know what, I’m going to, I’m going to take a shot at being a head guy”?

No, it wasn’t the first shot. I took, I took several shots. But we were very happy there. We love Lexington, absolutely loved working for Mitch, both our boys were born there. So from a personal standpoint, our life was in a great place.

Special place.

It is a special place. Professionally, we were in a great place. So we were being very, very selective on what opportunities would appeal to us. When this one came about, my wife is from the Pacific Northwest. So it did have a little special twist for us. It fit with what we wanted—college town, a rich tradition, passionate fan base, quality, high quality of life—so it fit everything that was for us.

And again, all along the way, Mitch was extremely supportive in whatever we wanted. You know, he was always there to give wise counsel and advice, but at the end of the day would always line up and support what we wanted. And it just so happened, as you said luck, you know, in this job search for this one, there was a connection between the president and I when this job was open, and he was willing to take a chance on somebody who had not been in the chair.

You know, the tough part when you’re not in the chair is that everybody starts with… their search with, “We want somebody that has AD experience. And we would like to have somebody who has some connection to the institution.” I didn’t have either of those things in this opportunity. But I did build a connection with the president.

Yeah, and, and, you know, our last episode… our previous episode with Allen Greene, he talked about going to Auburn, being a guy from the Pacific Northwest, being an African-American, and not being an Auburn grad, and how those three things, you know, were three things that he couldn’t change. And, and yet they still accepted him and wanted him to be the guy. And instead of having that in the back of his mind, as an insecurity, the fact that they wanted him to be the guy still made him even more confident.

You come here, you’re not an Oregon guy. And, you know, you’re not from here, like you said, did you ever feel like, in anything in the background of your mind, like, “Will it fit for me?” Or, did you always feel like this was right?

I always felt like it was right. You know, again, my wife was in the Pacific Northwest.

Right.

I had been to the Pacific Northwest several times, had worked closely with Rich Brooks, who is a legend here at Oregon. Mitch had spent some time at Oregon State. So I felt like I had a really good read on it, and so, didn’t really had that. You know, this is a very inviting, inclusive place. So, you know, and listen, having Rich Brooks have an event at his house, my first week on the job with a lot of influencers there was extremely helpful. So, you know, there were some people who put their arms around me who said, “Hey, I want to get you a strong foundation and I want to help you.” And so, I always felt welcome. I always felt embraced and, you know, I feel very lucky.

That’s awesome. So, you get here. We talked about the leadership philosophy, the success. Let’s talk about Nike, because when people think of Oregon, of course, they think of Nike. What’s it like having a behemoth brand, the brand in sports, right, have such a connection to not just the university but the athletic program within the university that you’re at the helm for, getting to know Phil Knight, getting to know the leadership there, and being the teams to test products first, like what, what’s that like and how have you been able to really leverage that?

Well, it’s outstanding. I’ll start there. It’s really hard to describe. I mean, it’s, it’s just awesome. It’s awesome. You know, obviously, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s as strong a global brand as you could ever find and it happens to be strong in our industry. And it’s the people there that, you know, come from Oregon and know this place inside and out, have really done an amazing job at helping tell the story and creating something very, very special. You know, it really sets the tone for innovation. It encourages us. It enables us to be willing to be first.

And you know, those strong relationships and the connection to the DNA are really, you know, the special sauce. And to have our staff and student athletes to be able to engage to that in a unique way is very special.

Talk about selling the story, and that’s one of our slogans at INFLCR. We want to help high school, college, pro athletes have empowerment through having their content. You have a brand that, social media wise, is also on the cutting edge. And some of that is because of what you can benefit from the great design and leading-edge design that comes from Nike, right? Like you have that on your uniforms and in the settings of your stadium and arena. You know, so talk, talk about social because Major Harris wasn’t tweeting…

Right.

…after that big win, right.

But he had a student worker signing his stats to send up to Heisman voters.

Yeah, right, right, right. So talk about social because you’ve been in college athletics for three decades and you’ve seen the message be completely in control of the middleman and now see it be relinquished to everyone, including your staff here. John Brewer just walked me in the office, what they’re doing is cutting-edge. But you guys are telling your own story to a high degree on social.

Right, because it has a big reach, right? And, you know, now everything is instant. Everybody… and everybody wants access. Everybody has always wanted access. And the access was provided in different ways, right? We used to have coaches shows, whether it be radio or on TV and there were, you know, there were certain ways to provide it.

Now, you can really see it through the eyes of many different people. You know, you can see it through the eyes of staff. You can see through the eyes of student athletes. And it allows people to connect to what’s happening here. Everybody sees what happens on Saturday or what happens at games. But that’s such a small part of what we do. I mean, we are here with 450 to 475 student athletes a year doing great things academically, doing great things in the community, from a community service standpoint, really providing a front porch for the institution to welcome people to learn more about Eugene and learn more about the University of Oregon. And we can do that in multiples. It’s very, very powerful.

And, you know, we want people to see what’s behind the curtain because what’s behind the curtain is really, really good. And at the end of the day, you know, we are part of the educational mission and when we can connect people to that and help them see how great Eugene is, how great the university is, and what our priorities are, that’s powerful.

It is powerful. And for student athletes. You know, the whole notion of putting student athletes first, keeping them at the core of your vision is clearly happening here. And I would say, it should be the true north of anyone who works in college athletics. This is the reason your job exists, right? If there aren’t student athletes, the job wouldn’t exist. So how do you make sure that the student athlete becomes a filter for your, especially in bigger decision?

Well, we put it, you know, our senior team and our staff, we put it at the core of everything that we do. We try to keep it at the core of everything that we do. And then we have a strong connection with, with our units, and with our student athletes, whether it be through the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, or whether it be through each locker room is we want to know, you know, what their experience is like.

We want to know, you know, where, where are we performing well, what would you like to see different. So it’s about communication. It’s about connection. And we want to have it… and we want to have an environment, departmentally, both, you know, with our staff and with our student athletes where it doesn’t have to be… you don’t have to be a subject matter expert to bring an idea forward. We want, you know, we want the collective intelligence, I guess, is the best way to say it, is if you see something somewhere else, or if you see something that we’re doing here that you say, “Hey, I think we can do this different and better to support student athletes or some other initiative,” put it on the table.

We may not be able to do them all. People may disagree. But that’s the beauty of it. We have a lot of passionate people, a lot of smart people and good debate will get us to the best decisions.

Yeah. What’s your personal philosophy on social media?

Me individually? It’s really not authentic to me. So I have not engaged in it. Just because if I do something, I want to want it to be authentic to me.

Yeah.

So I’ve stayed away from it.

And, and you feel like we’re talking… we were joking before about your quarterbacks…

Right.

You get away from it too, right?

Right.

But as far as the whole concept of social media can either be a weapon of mass destruction, we’ve seen that.

Right.

Or a weapon of mass production. You clearly are empowering from your coaches, to your athletes the ability to tell their own story.

Right. Absolutely. And again, you know, this is, this is a place that is very much about lifting the individual. Obviously, we want to do everything within the team concept, but it very much is about the individual freedom and the opportunity to tell your story. And, you know, we’ve embraced that. And we’ve attracted young people who know how to do that the right way. And obviously, we do a lot of education.

We’re an educational institution, whether it’s with the adults or with the young people. We’re doing a lot of education around what you said the powers and the pitfalls of, you know, this, this platform. And, you know, we, we try to provide some education and then let them run with it.

If you could go back, you see Rob Mullens interning and helping out in the West Virginia Athletic Department, and you’re, you’re there and you have a chance to give him some advice on what you’ve learned at this point in your life, what do you tell your 21-year-old?

Whoo. I mean, I think I would say I would probably keep it pretty high level, follow your passion, first and foremost. You know, if this is something you’re passionate about, remember, I started out as an accountant and then went back because I sensed the passion. So, follow your passion, first and foremost.

And then you touched on something earlier that I think is right is, you know, the path is going to take a lot of twists and turns. You’re going to, you’re going to, you’re going to end up at some forks. You’re going to make some right decisions. You’re going to make some wrong decisions, but just trust your gut. Work hard. Do your responsibility and the other stuff will happen for you. You know, there, there are no shortcuts, you know, so, you know, keep your head down, work hard and good things will happen.

Rob, man, I really appreciate you making time. I’m going to go to my first Oregon football game Saturday night, I hope that you have the biggest conflict with your chairman role at the College Football Playoff in a couple of months.

Yeah.

So good luck with the rest of your football season, but all the sports. It’s amazing what’s going on here and how… the breadth of the impact happening across all the sports at Oregon Athletics. And we, we really at INFLCR tremendously appreciate what is our first ever PAC-12 partnership. We’ve grown a lot since but that Oregon had with us so thank you for being a leader that’s innovative and allows us to be able to partner with the school like yours.

Well, we appreciate the partnership with INFLCR. It fits. We’re not afraid to be first. Hopefully, you’ll see a lot of other people follow here on the west coast. Appreciate you being here. I think you’ll find that Autzen is a phenomenal experience. They… it’s homecoming. It’s Hall of Fame weekend for us. So it is… there are going to be a lot of energy in there and I hope you enjoy it.

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