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FGCU AD SEARCH: Maine's James Has Kept Tabs on FGCU
ESTERO — Blake James has had his eyes on this prize for years.
The University of Maine athletics director has made December trips to Southwest Florida to watch his Black Bears play hockey in Germain Arena since he took over as the school’s senior associate AD in 2003.
He and wife Kelly, whose mother lives in Pompano Beach, would make treks to Florida Gulf Coast University to scout out the newish athletic programs (the Eagles have played seven basketball seasons, for instance) and campus.
James, 39, who with Kelly has a 6-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, would tell his wife, “If that job ever came open, what a great situation.”
Monday, James, a Minnesota native, became the fourth of six to be interviewed on campus for FGCU’s athletics director opening.
“Who wouldn’t want to come here?” said James, also hitting on the growth in the area, the stability left by former AD Carl McAloose and the amount of Division I-caliber athletes in Florida, as well as the ability to entice athletes from far away.
“And there isn’t a major professional franchise in the community,” James said. “Miami being two hours east and Tampa being two hours north makes us the big fish in this area. There’s a big media following. There’s a chance to be in the spotlight and be very successful.
“When you take in all those factors, it’s a great opportunity, and I think I’m a great fit for this job.”
James knows South Florida, having served as the Director of Ticket Sales (1995-97) and the Director of Major Gifts/Contributions (1998-2000) at the University of Miami. He has been the full-time AD at Maine since 2006 after serving as the interim for a year. In his tenure, Maine has made three appearances in the hockey NCAA Frozen Four. Last year, the football team made the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) 16-team playoff field for the first time since 2002. The Black Bears won the American East Conference academic award for the 2006-2007 academic year. Fourteen of Maine’s 19 teams sported a collective GPA of 3.0 or better, James said.
“I’m confident that the University of Maine is in better shape now than when I arrived,” James said. “I’m proud of where we are as a program, but you can’t sit on something.”
James said his top priorites are to graduate athletes and prepare them for “the real world,” to win conference championships, commissioner’s cups and to build nationally competitive programs.
“It’s not too early to start talking about national championships,” James said. “It’s too early to expect that, but it’s the direction I want us to go in.”
And, unlike the previous four interviewees who mostly stiff-armed the thought of adding football, James embraced entertaining the idea. It would take lots of research and having a conference, the stadium and funding in place, he said, but also noted during his stints at Miami and Nebraska (Athletic Development Officer, 1997-98) he saw how those programs “benefited so greatly by having football. At Maine it is a big benefit to us. If we’re ready to bring football, I think that would be great – six Saturdays in the fall in a state that loves football. If we have the money and it’s what the university wants, I think it would be great.”
However, he wouldn’t want football to be added at a cost to any of FGCU’s 14 current sports.
James said he likes to “empower” his employees to “make decisions,” and he has no problem making the tough calls.
He has a fund-raising background, and although he would want the specific head coach to join him in meeting boosters or other possible financial backers, it’s his job to close the sale.
“Fund-raising is a major part of my job,” said the quick-speaking James, who wore a tie striped with FGCU’s colors of green and blue. “If it wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t be a job I’d be interested in. That’s something I thoroughly enjoy.”
James is a stickler for balanced budgets, and he said Maine has operated in the black in his tenure. The Black Bears were on target to bust their $15 million budget by $2,000 this year, but he made a call and received $5,000 to reach his goal of coming in under budget.
He has some unique ideas about academics. For instance, no matter what professors say, class attendance is mandatory for Maine athletes. If they miss class (for unexcused reasons) when not on the road, they miss games or meets.
“We’re serious about this,” James said. “It’s a tough conversation to have, especially when you have a kid making A’s and B’s.”
He has a 10 Percent Rule at Maine. Athletes can miss Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes just five times because of road trips and can miss Tuesday-Thursday classes just twice. That means coaches have to closely monitor and plan ahead.
James wants the student body quite involved in athletics. “We want them to be proud of our programs and actively participate,” he said. “We want to treat them like we would treat any other fan or organization.”
Students stand in line for hours for hockey tickets at Maine. James thought about nixing that, but the students wanted to continue the tradition, so free pizzas or hot chocolate are passed out by players.
He expects each head coach to have a veteran player at the bi-weekly Student Activity Advisement Council meetings when brainstorming sessions for fund-raising and outreach ideas are conducted.
Getting FGCU fully funded for scholarships is a big goal, James said.
“You can have the best coaches in the world, but if you don’t have the student-athletes (to compete), it doesn’t matter,” James said. “I want to win games. That’s why we’re in this business.”
He said FGCU needs to “play up” its two fast-track programs, volleyball and baseball, which, unlike the other programs, will be eligible for Atlantic Sun Conference and NCAA tournament play next year, after two years of Division I transition rather than four.
FGCU men’s basketball coach Dave Balza, a member of the 10-person AD Search Advisory Committee, liked what he heard.
“He certainly didn’t fail to impress,” Balza said. “Another experienced athletic director. and his fund-raising background shown through (during the interview with the committee) and even more so with the coaches. I like his approach in that his first thought about resolving funding issues is how to raise more money instead of, ‘What do we need to cut?’
“He stuck out with me because he wants to make the right decision whether it’s difficult or easy. I’m big on character, and he obviously has a very solid character.”
Current position: Director of Athletics, University of Maine, since 2005
Athletic employment: Senior Associate Athletic Director, University of Maine (2003-2005); Director of Athletic Development, Providence College (2002-2003); Director of Athletic Development, University of Miami (2000-2001); Director of Major Gifts/Corporate Sales, University of Miami (1998-2000); Athletic Development Officer, University of Nebraska (1997-1998); Director of Ticket Sales, University of Miami (1995-1997)
Education: BS, Mankato State University (1992); Master’s of Science, St. Thomas University (1994)
FGCU AD SEARCH: Maine’s James has kept tabs on FGCU
The Naples Daily News (FL)