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New Samford AD dreams big and comes home for job
New Samford Athletics Director Martin Newton has a unique resume.
He’s the son of former Alabama and Vanderbilt basketball coach and Kentucky AD C.M. Newton. He’s worked for Joe Dean Sr. at Converse, Phil Knight at Nike and John Calipari at Kentucky.
He’s worked with coaches from Dean Smith to Tom Izzo.
Oh, and he’s watched Dr. J, Julius Erving, sing karaoke. But that’s another story.
Just back from his first vacation in 2 1 2 years – bone-fishing in the Bahamas with his dad and his son – the 50-year-old Newton sat in his new office in the Pete Hanna Center and talked about the people he’s known, the things he’s learned and how a Samford point guard who couldn’t shoot straight grew up to become the Samford AD.
Q. How hard did you have to lobby John Calipari to set up the upcoming three-year basketball series between Samford and Kentucky? (The first two games will be in Lexington in 2011 and 2012. The third, in 2013, will be in Birmingham.)
A. Believe it or not, not as hard as you might think.
When we were going through this process (to become the Samford AD), I told Cal, I really want this job. It’s my alma mater. Help me get creative.
What if I walked in there and told them we’re going to be able to play Kentucky in a three-game series. He said, “Absolutely. Tell ‘em.” Part of my thing is the connections I’ve built up over 26 years in sports marketing with Nike and Converse, that that would be an advantage to us.
So then I get the job. I go back to him and say, “OK. You’re gonna have to put your money where your mouth is.”
He didn’t hesitate. Now, he said, “I’m not gonna play you on campus.”
I said, “We’re gonna have to talk about that.”
I’ve had the fortune of growing up in Tuscaloosa being around Alabama football and seeing the fanaticism of Alabama football and being a part of Kentucky basketball and seeing the fanaticism of Kentucky basketball. It’s so similar. There’s no two places like them. You can talk Notre Dame football. You can talk Ohio State. There’s no two places like Alabama football and Kentucky basketball. They’re just unique.
Q. You look out the windows and see the quality facilities here at Samford. How important was that in your decision to go after this job?
A. I believe in fit . . . At the time, I’m not sure I would’ve been the guy to come in here and build these facilities. I don’t know that that’s my strength. I think Bob Roller (his predecessor as the Samford AD), that’s his strength. He made this a job that a lot of people were interested in.
What really makes this place neat is the people.
When I met (Samford President) Andy Westmoreland, it was over for me. It went from being, “I’m interested; I’m intrigued; let me check it out” to “I want this job.”
Q. Was it part of your vision for your career to become an athletics director?
A. It really wasn’t. I was content and set with what I was doing at Nike. It was the best of both worlds.
At one point, I thought I was going to be a coach. I think it was back in 1991, 1992. Rick Pitino actually offered me a coaching job at Kentucky. I had to make a decision.
My thought process was, the beauty of what I do at Nike, it’s all the perks of coaching without the negatives. You get to travel, you’re at games all the time, you’re inside programs, not just one. When I’d go to Michigan State, I’d stay at Tom Izzo’s house. I’d go to see Rick Barnes at Texas.
The AD part wasn’t a thought process until, when I was with Nike, I started helping athletics directors hire (basketball) coaches. I got involved at several schools … I got involved because I knew the coaches. As I got involved in it, I had a couple of guys say, “You ought to think about becoming an athletic director. You’ve got a pretty good feel for this thing.”
At Nike, I knew I was going to have to move to Portland at some point. I’d hit that ceiling, but I’m a Southerner. You can tell by the way I talk. The thought of living in the Northwest just didn’t appeal to me, so I thought, “I’m gonna have to start looking at a career move.”
I helped (Kentucky AD) Mitch Barnhart with (hiring) Cal. Cal said, “You ought to be an AD. Why don’t you come on my staff and you can run our basketball program and three, four, five years from now, you’ll be an AD.”
I did it. It was a leap of faith, and it worked out a lot quicker than I thought. And I’m thrilled. I’m having a blast.
Q. What kind of responsibilities did you have the last two years at Kentucky?
A. I was called the director of basketball operations, but the reason was more of a financial thing. If I was an assistant or associate AD, it was going to limit me on what I could make.
Cal had four positions – the three assistant coaches and the director – that he controlled the funding. Basically, he gave me the keys and said he was gonna coach. In fact, we put a sign up in his office and it said “Coach your team” in big, bold letters. He said, “I’ve got to focus on coaching my team. You run it administratively.”
Think about it. It’s an $11 million, $12 million budget. It’s Kentucky. It’s a lot of pressure. Everything you do, 365 days a year, is in the newspaper. It’s on the blogs. It’s being talked about. You just can’t afford to stub your toe. … Cal’s great because he’s so comfortable in his own skin. He allows you to do what you have to do to get it done. He doesn’t micromanage you. Plus, his mind never stops. He’s always thinking about creative things to do. Recruiting. Scheduling. Social media. To be able to learn from him helped me for this position.
Q. It sounds like perfect training to become an AD, doesn’t it?
A. I told Samford in the interview process, my lack of experience as an athletic director really isn’t a negative. In a lot of ways, it should be a positive. So many athletic directors came from the school of AD 101. I think it’s time for some new, creative, innovative ideas.
We talk about that a lot here. Think outside the box. Don’t tell me this is how they’ve done it in the past. If it’s not broke, let’s break it. Let’s figure out a new way to do it.
Q. You couldn’t have drawn up a better situation to become an AD, could you?
A. Perfect storm. One of the questions I got (in the interview process) was, “Will you use this job as a stepping-stone?” I said, “I look at this as a destination job.” I’m 50 years old. I hope I’ve got a lot of years left, but I see myself 20 years from now with us winning Southern Conference championships and still having some fun doing it.”
Q. What brought you to Samford as a student-athlete?
A. When I was recruited, there was a player here named Steve Barker. He was a freshman here when I was a senior (at Tuscaloosa High School). He’s the only guy I met that liked basketball as much as I did.
And this is a beautiful campus, with a unique family feel to it. It just felt like home to me. It was close to my hometown. I had a girlfriend. And I loved Coach (Cliff) Wettig. Once again, it was that perfect storm.
Q. How did you get your start at Converse?
A. I was going to go to grad school somewhere and be a grad assistant. Could have stayed here as a coach at Samford. Mike Hanks offered me. I got a call from Joe Dean Sr. He said, “I got a job for you in North Carolina. You’re gonna be my sales and promotion rep.”
Twenty-two-year-old guys weren’t getting those jobs. I couldn’t turn it down.
Dad discouraged me from coaching. It’s tough on your family. I was lucky as a boy because I went everywhere with him, but it’s just a tough family life. He really encouraged me to take the Converse job.
Q. Do you have any special memories or stories from your Converse days?
A. One of the first events I went to was a golf outing with Dean Smith. He was like Bear Bryant was here. An icon. I’m playing in his foursome, and I am scared to death. I’ve got white knuckles, I’m gripping the club so hard. I wasn’t very good anyway.
I go and miss the ball on the first tee. Didn’t even come close. He grabs my arm as we’re walking down the first fairway and says, “That’s how hard you’re gripping the club. Just relax and be yourself.”
It’s some of the greatest advice I ever got.
I remember the times with Julius Erving. Coaches’ trips, sitting there with him on the stage watching him sing karaoke. Can’t sing a lick but thinks he can. It’s hilarious. He and Larry Bird and Magic (Johnson) on tour. Those were fun times.
Q. What led to your move from Converse to Nike?
A. Converse had gone through some tough times. We’d bought a company called Apex. Remember those God-awful, ugly uniforms? Apex went bankrupt. We had about 30 college teams we had to outfit with uniforms.
Nobody at Converse knew anything about apparel. We were shoe guys. I was young and said, “I’ll do it. We’ll figure out a way to get these teams their uniforms.”
Somehow, we did.
It got the attention of these other companies. Nike had reached out. They were really expanding into the college market, trying to pick up more schools. This was mid-’90s. I went to work for Nike in 1996.
It was a great 13 years. We were able to convert a lot of schools to Nike. We’re all in the people business. That was the beauty of working for Joe Dean at Converse. Joe was all about relationships.
Phil Knight was very similar at Nike. He was all about being inside the athlete’s head so they look to you as a confidant.
It’s the same thing in this business. There’s a million guys out there a lot smarter than me about marketing, television rights, but it’s about people.
Q. What’s the most important thing you learned working with Calipari?
A. Servant leadership. He’s one of the most misunderstood guys I’ve ever known. Cal cares more about his players and the people that work for him than anybody I’ve ever been around. He gets more thrill out of me getting this job or placing an assistant coach in a job or having one of his players get drafted and change their family’s life than he does winning basketball games.
I don’t think he was always like that. He was a young, upcoming coach. He was aggressive, and he was trying to do what he had to do, but he got to a place in his career where it’s more important to serve those around him than get personal gain. Then there’s creativity. Never accepting the norm. I’m gonna respect the past, but I’m gonna represent the future.
Q. You said your dad discouraged you from following him into coaching. What about becoming an AD?
A. He encouraged me. When this job came open, he really encouraged me. He’s always been a purist. There’s a lot of negative going on in college athletics right now. He looked at a place like Samford as pure. When we say student-athlete, we mean student-athlete.
He said, “That’s the place you want to be. That’s what college athletics is all about.” There was a three- or four-week period where I didn’t hear from them. He’d call every day. “Have they called?” No, dad. “Don’t worry. They will.” He was more excited about it than I was.
I’m gonna brag about him because I can. He was a great coach and a great administrator, but he is a phenomenal dad. I told him: “You’re gonna be the lowest-paid consultant. I don’t have any money to pay you, but I’m gonna call you every day.” And I do. We talk every day. He’s one of those guys, it’s more about common sense than book sense. I hope, if I’ve learned anything from him, it’s that. It’s more about common sense.
Q. What’s your vision for Samford?
A. The challenge we have is having relevance in this community. We have this great campus, these great facilities, these great student-athletes and all these great stories that have just not been told.
We’ve got to be the front porch for Samford University.
There’s no reason we can’t win at our level, and I’m talking national championships. We should be able to win and compete for Southern Conference championships in all our sports, and do it the right way, with true student-athletes. We’ve got to become the over-themountain team. We’ve got to be about families. We’ve got a great, safe campus where you can come at a very affordable price and enjoy Division I athletics at a high level.
Q. Five years from now, where are you and where is Samford?
A. I’m right here, and Samford is winning an all-sports trophy in the SoCon and we’ve won a conference championship in men’s basketball and football, and we’ve got this thing going to where we’re having to expand our football stadium. Lofty goals. Dream big or go home.
By Kevin Scarbinsky, Birmingham News