5 years later, Love still heart of ASU athletics

LABOR OF LOVE: ASU athletic director Lisa Love high-fives ASU softball head coach Clint Myers after a 9-0 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats at Farrington Stadium on May 24, 2008 that sent ASU to the Softball World Series in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Jeffrey Lowman)

Lisa Love’s energy is palpable.

As she sits at a table in her office attached to Sun Devil Stadium that features a giant glass wall showing a picture-perfect view of Frank Kush Field, she’s very direct. She constantly talks with her hands, illustrating plans of attack and results she expects to achieve. She uses descriptive adjectives that come through with a bit of a Texas twang. She’s visibly intense.

But she doesn’t exude the type of intensity that would make one scared to meet her in a dark alley. It’s the kind that would make one want to storm out of the Tillman Tunnel and tackle the quarterback wearing the visiting team’s colors.

She kind of sounds like a coach — maybe because she used to roam the sidelines while at the helm of the USC volleyball program from 1989-1998.

But today, she’s been asked to reflect the most recent stage of her career.

It’s been five years since she was hired to serve as the Vice President of University of Athletics at ASU in a tenure that has already featured a mix of highs and lows.

There have been individual and team national titles under her watch and a slew of new coaching hires, but the athletic department has also been forced to cut sports and has put self-imposed sanctions on its baseball program.

For Love, the journey has already flown by.

“It’s been the fastest five years that I could imagine,” Love said. “It’s been wonderful, it’s been challenging [and] it’s been invigorating. It has also been extraordinarily rewarding, I’m counting my lucky stars that I was afforded the opportunity in 2005 to be the Athletics Director at Arizona State, and every day I’m appreciative of that. Every single day.”

Out of the box

When Love was 24 years old, she was told she had no one to look up to her in career field of choice.

During a meeting with her academic counselor while pursuing her graduate degree, Love said she wanted to be an Athletic Director at a major university after her coaching career was over.

The uncharacteristic goal was met with skepticism, but she didn’t care.

“[The counselor] looked at me and he said, ‘That’s not a job women typically are in. You have no role models in that regard,’” Love said. “I said, ‘I know, but I’ve never felt held back by the guys that I worked with — not by my father, not by my colleagues, not by the [Athletic Directors] that I worked with. I never felt like it was something I couldn’t do if I wanted to try.”

She was thinking outside the box, and so was ASU President Michael Crow when he hired Love in April of 2005.

When former ASU Athletic Director Gene Smith left for Ohio State, many expected Crow to hire a sitting Athletic Director from another big university as a replacement.

Instead, he picked Love, who was serving as a senior administrator at USC at the time and did not have any previous experience as an Athletic Director.

“Lisa was more of the sleeper that you take a little bit of a leap of faith with somebody that hasn’t done the job before,” said ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne, who served on Crow’s advisory board during the hiring process. “The key is that you see what their skill set is, and I think everybody could see and everybody around Lisa knew that she absolutely had the skill set to be a great leader.”

It was also an out-of-the-box hire for another reason — because of Love’s gender. She is just one of five female Athletic Directors at a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision school and one of three at a BCS conference school.

“It’s awesome,” Turner Thorne said. “I’m certainly someone who believes you should hire the best person for the job, but at the same time, we all know that women haven’t gotten the same opportunities as men over the years in athletics. To see the growing the opportunities for women in many areas through athletics, and especially college athletics, is just incredible.”

But even though Love is in a position rare for a woman, she said she’s never felt unfairly judged because of her gender during her five years at ASU.

“It comes down to, whether you’re a male or female, people that love their school, that love their teams [and] that love their local college evaluating for performance, and I think I’m evaluated the same way,” Love said. “I’m not thought of as a man doing the job or a woman doing the job — I’m just me.”

Laying the foundation

Since her arrival in Tempe, Love has started to implement what she calls the “three-legged stool” that builds a top athletic program: championship success, academic success and doing it honorably.

“[I want people to] look back at us and say, ‘Wow, that place is big [and] those venues are loud. That’s a tough place to play, but they do it right,’” Love said. “That’s what I want our campus pulse to be about the athletics program, and that starts internally. It’s very difficult for anybody externally feel that about you if you’re not exuding that.”

Love needed to assemble the right coaching staff to carry out that three-legged stool philosophy.

Her first hire was Clint Myers in softball, who is an ASU alumnus but was coaching baseball at Central Arizona College at the time.

Not exactly a typical choice, but it’s turned out to be a slam dunk. The ASU softball team has been to the Women’s College World Series every year that Myers has been at the helm and captured the national championship in 2008.

“I’m sure there were people who thought there were other candidates that would have been a better fit, but she took a chance,” Myers said. “I’ve tried not to let her down in the five years that I’ve been here, because she did give me that chance.”

Next came Herb Sendek, who has revitalized the men’s basketball program to produce an NCAA Tournament run in 2009, a second-place conference finish this past season and two 2009 NBA draft picks in James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph.

Dennis Erickson was then brought on to take over football in 2007 and notched a share of the Pac-10 title in his first season, and Kevin Boyd led the soccer team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 this past season.

Her most recent move, hiring Tim Esmay to coach baseball on an interim basis, has resulted in a school-record-best 24-0 start and a chance at another Pac-10 title.

Love has also extended the contracts of some of ASU’s established coaches that have already found plenty of success, including Turner Thorne, track and field’s Greg Kraft and women’s golf’s Melissa Luellen.

“I’m looking for a master teacher,” Love said. “Not only the ability to help a young person get really good at their sport … but they also get the life of an 18-, 19- and 20-year old. I want to work with people who understand the college environment, [because] you can’t replace it.”

In all, ASU has racked up six team national titles during Love’s tenure — 2007 women’s indoor track and field, 2007 women’s outdoor track and field, 2008 women’s indoor track and field, 2008 men’s indoor track and field, 2008 softball and 2009 women’s golf — finished a school-best fourth in the final Director’s Cup standings in 2008 and was named the top athletic program in the nation by Sports Illustrated that same year.

“It’s impossible to extract the performance of some teams,” Love said. “But the view from my chair and watching that kind of coaching and teaching and learning and elite expression of athleticism, there are too many high points to list.”

The success has also extended to the classroom, where the 2009 Graduation Success Rate among ASU athletes is 72 percent, which is the university’s all-time high.

“I look at us as an academic appendage,” Love said. “I look at us as a component fostering intellectual, social [and] emotional growth. The student-athlete is the center of our universe, and the degree to which we teach leadership, risk-taking, teamwork … we teach a whole different kind of citizenship through courage and physical growth and expression.”

Erickson said the relationships Love has built and the way she manages her staff have contributed to her success.

“She communicates with everyone so well,” Erickson said. “She lets you do your job, yet if things aren’t going the right way or if she sees something that needs to be changed, then she lets you know it. But she’s not somebody who’s going to come in here and tell you how to do your job.”

And Love’s ability to be the conductor is what drives ASU’s three-legged stool.

“While I liked coaching and that influential realm, I like it on a more expansive view and I love the strategic chess game and I love competition,” Love said. “I loved competing, I loved coaching [and] I’m a great fan. It’s just all of those things rolled into one.”

Tough times

Even though the ASU athletic program has climbed to unprecedented heights during Love’s five years, it has also experienced some low points.

Love didn’t hesitate when asked about her darkest day as Athletic Director. That came when ASU was forced to cut wrestling, men’s swimming and men’s tennis in the summer of 2008.

“[Since I was] a volleyball athlete, I could feel exactly what it would have been like if somebody would have walked in to say we can no longer sponsor your sport at the varsity level,” Love said. “That was the toughest time and that was the most anguishing time, and I hope never to go through that again.”

But most of that rough situation turned into a positive when swimming and wrestling were reinstated with the help of ASU community members, many of them being former athletes in those particular sports.

ASU has also been involved in an ongoing NCAA investigation surrounding its baseball program, resulting in the dismissal of former coach Pat Murphy in November and self-imposed sanctions that vacated 44 wins in 2007 and put restrictions on recruiting. The NCAA will look at ASU’s case in August.

Looking ahead

While Love said the “base of the pyramid” of the ASU athletic department is almost completely set, she knows there’s still much work to be done to turn the Sun Devils into a consistent power across to board.

The high success of the spring sports like baseball, softball, track and field and golf must be maintained, and football, the school’s biggest moneymaker, needs to crawl out of the hole of back-to-back losing seasons.

But Love said the biggest move that needs to be made involves rallying what has often been regarded as a fickle ASU fan base. She wants to see the Sun Devil Club, which currently hovers around 8,000 members, to grow to 150,000 members and said it’s necessary for the whole community to become more engaged and “participate” in Sun Devil athletics.

The catchphrase? Skin in the game.

“We’ve got a very terrific core group [of fans] — they’re wonderful,” Love said. “But the next step is to take that core group and express ourselves in all our magnitude. We want to play big, [but] in order to play big and sustain big, then we need the kind of ‘skin in the game’ from all our communities, starting with campus.”

But with the consistent winning tradition of many sports still going strong, highly-ranked recruiting classes in recent years for the power sports of football and men’s basketball and state-of-the-art indoor practice facilities in place for football and basketball, if the first five years of Love’s tenure were the building blocks, the next five could be the launching point.

“There is no reason you can’t, in the same sentence, name off the top 10 revered, high-powered, high-performing athletic programs in the United States…[and] that we cannot consistently be a part of that,” Love said. “I just absolutely believe that the sky is the limit.”

Reach the reporter at gina.mizell@asu.edu