Steve Patterson experienced it all as a pro-sports executive.
He assembled a championship team. He built another from the ground up. He restored a struggling franchise to contention.
The foundation Patterson established as the general manager of the Houston Rockets went on to win the 1993-94 NBA Championship.
He oversaw the expansion of the Houston Texans as the vice president of operations, luring the Super Bowl to Houston in 2003 after the construction of Reliant Stadium.
As president of the Portland Trailblazers, the team finished with the NBA’s worst record in the 2005-06 season — then Patterson assumed general manager duties. He gave life to the program by trading for future NBA All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy during the 2006 draft. Both players became the Blazers’ foundation for the next several years.
When ASU brought in Patterson as athletic director on March 28, 2012, the program was engrossed in a plethora of issues, much like the professional franchises Patterson already managed.
The ASU football and baseball teams needed to upgrade from their decaying stadiums. Todd Graham was introduced as the new football coach in a sensitive time when ASU fans were irate and displeased with the program’s coaching search.
Many questioned Herb Sendek’s job security as the men’s basketball team continued to plummet and the athletic department struggled to raise enough revenue to support every team comfortably. Fans were in complete disapproval of Patterson’s predecessor, Lisa Love.
Since Patterson has taken office, President Michael Crow believes the athletic department has grown in the right direction.
“In his first year as athletic director, Steve Patterson has met or exceeded expectations,” Crow said in a statement. “Our athletic teams are competing at high levels on multiple fronts: athletically, ethically and academically. The work that Steve has done on the business side of athletics, including his focus on customer service and the fan experience, is putting us on a path to sustainable financial viability.”
The University’s and community’s high expectations did not faze Patterson when he was promoted from chief development officer of Sun Devil Sports Group, the University’s athletic marketing brand.
Patterson admitted the collegiate atmosphere was new to him, but everything else was familiar.
“Oh, the pressure doesn’t bother me,” Patterson said. “You look at the decisions that you have to make, personnel you may have to change or processes you may have to change and just work through them. It’s part of the job.”
Patterson’s first year saw many teams experiencing significant improvements, bringing new excitement to the entire department.
“In many respects this is a brand-building experience, which is what we’ve went through in Houston with the Texans, or in Portland with the Trailblazers, which also has the elements of a turnaround,” he said.
The football team finished its season with an 8-5 record, a signature win over UA and a bowl victory.
The soccer and volleyball teams reached the 2012 NCAA tournament after mediocre 2011 seasons.
The men’s basketball team raced to a 14-3 start for the third time in 33 seasons. The team only won 10 games in the previous season.
“We’re trying to bring a more business-like approach, have certain levels of accountability, have expectations, goals that we expect people to meet, and I think we’re having success at the beginnings of that process,” Patterson said.
Track and field coach Greg Kraft, who is entering his 33rd year as a Division I coach, said given ASU’s current situation, an athletic director with Patterson’s background is more ideal than one who served as a former head coach.
“The landscape is continually changing, and I think that people who come into that role from a coaching background may not necessarily have the skill set that it takes to run an operation,” Kraft said. “I look at his pedigree, educationally and professionally, and I really feel like he really is the right guy at the right time for Arizona State University.”
Gymnastics coach John Spini is also a big fan of Patterson’s attention for detail.
“I really like Steve,” said Spini, who has coached under nine athletic directors since 1981. “He’s a numbers guy. … I like the way he’s saying, ‘I’m looking at reality, not just what people want us to do, what makes us popular, what doesn’t make us popular. This is what we need to do.’”
In order to identify each team’s needs, Patterson said the athletic department views each team as its own entity.
For instance, the program spent $1.2 million to renovate the Mona Plummer Aquatics Complex over the summer. Swim coach Dorsey Tierney-Walker said the initative will certainly benefit her team.
“I think Steve is a fantastic businessman,” Tierney-Walker said. “He’s made it very public, and also (behind) closed-doors, that he’s here to build championship programs. He’s going to give us the resources to do that, and that’s a relief for me as a coach.”
Despite his first-year success, Patterson said that Sun Devil Athletics is “not where we need to be.”
Financially, ASU is still off from its goal of raising $100 million a year in revenue. Sun Devil Athletics raised $50 million last year, and Patterson expects the program will have earned about $65 million by the end of the year. He believes it will require not only the players and the coaches to perform but also commitment from Sun Devil Nation.
Next, Patterson must plan how to move the baseball team away from Packard Stadium after negotiations with the Chicago Cubs and the city of Mesa collapsed in November.
Patterson is hoping the Oakland Athletics, which play at Phoenix Municipal Stadium for Spring Training, move into the Cubs’ former ballpark at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. Once the A’s relocate, the athletic department will meet with the city of Phoenix to discuss moving the team to the Phoenix Municipal Stadium, which is located north of campus on the corner of Priest Drive and Van Buren Street.
“(The move) is more likely (to happen) than not,” Patterson said. Relocating there is projected to be a substantially cheaper option than rebuilding Packard Stadium. Patterson expects the baseball team to move no later than 2015.
As for Sun Devil Stadium, the decision to renovate in phases, or in one go, has yet to be determined. A decision should be reached in the coming months.
Both stadium projects are expected to go hand-in-hand with Patterson’s plan to boost the athletic department’s annual income and make sure every team is stable and not subsidized by the University.
“If we’re able to do kind of the things that we wanted to do, (such as) moving off-campus, increasing our revenues and getting the baseball team underwritten and having a significant number of scholarships endowed … it takes a tremendous amount of pressure off the athletic department,” Patterson said.
In the long run, Patterson wants to move ASU back in the top 10 of the Director’s Cup, which annually ranks the athletic programs in the country based on every team’s performance.
Last year, ASU finished at No. 30, the worst in school history and ended up 11 spots under UA. The football, soccer and the volleyball teams’ postseason appearances, combined with the men’s basketball team’s record improvement, are expected to improve the University’s ranking.
“With every particular team, we’re playing for championships every year, that we have teams that are financially viable and sustainable on an on-going basis without having to be subsidized too heavily by the University, playing in new and/or renovated facilities that are the best out there to provide great services to our student-athletes and for our customer base,” Patterson said. “If we do all of those, I think we will have a lot of success.”
Likely the same success that the Rockets, Texans and Blazers had under his leadership.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org