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Interview with Syracuse Director of Athletics John Wildhack

Syracuse Director of Athletics John Wildhack addressing the media in 2020.
Syracuse Director of Athletics John Wildhack addressing the media in 2020.

The ACC announced on Friday, September 1st that three new schools – Cal, Stanford, and SMU – are joining the conference in 2024. Ben Spector had the chance to sit down with Director of Athletics at Syracuse University John Wildhack to discuss the conference’s expansion.

Ben Spector: Thanks so much guys. Here on McClurg Remodeling countdown to kickoff, before SU Football takes on Colgate and its season opener. I'm Ben Spector, joined by the Director of Athletics at Syracuse University, John Wildhack, after the ACC announced on Friday that 3 new schools will be joining the Conference. SMU, Cal, Stanford -- all joining the ACC. John, thanks so much for taking the time.

John Wildhack: Ben, my pleasure.

Ben Spector: We're talking after the ACC announced on Friday that 3 schools -- SMU, Stanford and Cal -- are all joining the Conference. So, John, how does this impact SU and its student athletes?

John Wildhack: I think yesterday was a great day for the ACC and a great day for Syracuse Athletics because I think the addition of those 3 schools solidifies the ACC, strengthens the ACC, and a stronger ACC is good for Syracuse.

Ben Spector: How does this impact Olympic sports, specifically? Those non-revenue sports, especially with the travel that these student athletes have?

John Wildhack: That was one of the big things that we pressed the Conference Office on early on in this, and they did great work and they presented data to every AD -- all the ADs -- and all the CEOs as well. For us, it will be a maximum one trip West per year, and when you go, you know we'll play 2 games, right? So, if Women's Soccer goes out, they'll play Cal, they'll play Stanford, and come back. And that eliminates another road trip somewhere else. For summer Olympic sports -- both our Crew teams, Cross Country, and Track -- which is really not relevant because those are all meets or regattas, right? For Basketball, we'll be out there once every other year, in all likelihood. Again, go out and play 2 games, one road trip. It eliminates a road trip someplace else. In Football, it'll be either 2 or 3 times over a 5-year period. So, you know we really pressed hard on travel, particularly for Olympic sports, and I think the Conference really did an excellent job of settling those concerns.

Ben Spector:

So, you said a lot of data was shown to you and a lot was given to you. What was your level of involvement? How did you sort of come up with this decision and help the ACC incorporate these 3 new schools?

John Wildhack: I mean, ultimately, it's the Conference Office and Commissioner Phillips who, you know, led the efforts. As chair of the ADs this year, I was involved a lot with the Conference Office in meetings and strategies, etcetera, that type of thing. But I give the credit to... the credit really needs to go to Jim Phillips, and he garnered the support of the CEO's, which led to yesterday's announcement.

Ben Spector: Have you talked to any of the coaches here at Syracuse about incorporating these 3 schools and what were those conversations like?

John Wildhack: Yeah, I think the vast majority are excited about it. Because you look at those markets, right? OK, Dallas- Fort Worth: top 5-6 market in the country. You know the Bay Area: Top 10 market in the country. We recruit heavily in California for all our sports, Olympic sports in particular. We recruit in Texas for all our sports. So now when we recruit, we can recruit their families and we can say, “you know what, your son or daughter, you’re going to see them play here,” right? When we're at SMU, when we're at Cal, when we’re at Stanford. I think it could help; it could help our recruiting. We're a global brand. So, to take our brand to the West Coast, I think is good for our teams. And our coaches feel the same way, so they're excited about it.

Ben Spector: I'm Ben Spector here with the SU Director of Athletics John Wildhack. John, you talked about how this strengthens the Conference, this helps SU. What are the logistics, really, of bringing new schools into a Conference and expanding?

John Wildhack: It falls upon the Conference office to really do that, right? Because you, again, you come up with scheduling models, we'll have to refine the Football scheduling model: this year is the first year of the 3-5-5/no divisions, we'll have to refine that. Maybe you go from 3 permanent opponents to 2, then you play everybody else on a rotating basis? You know, we'll take a look at Basketball as well. Olympic sports, I would hope there's a chance to create some creative scheduling. Maybe we can do some in-season showcases? You know, at a neutral site in Dallas or something like that? Stanford's on the quarter system, Ben, so they don't start school till late September. So, they can do a lot of their East Coast travel early in the year where they're not session with classes.

Ben Spector: You talked about that creative scheduling, something that Basketball is doing this year that's sort of near the ACC-SEC Challenge. Do you see something like that with these Olympic sports? These non-revenue sports such as soccer, field hockey, or volleyball?

John Wildhack: You know it could. I think you still want that Conference competition; you still want those Conference championships to really be great experiences for the teams in all sports. But I think you can do that and also maybe do a little more regionalization with some of your Olympic sports because there's great competition, you know? Last night, our Men's Soccer team was at Penn State. Great example of that. You know it's within a drivable distance.

Ben Spector: Will the drivable distance play a factor, even with the expansion of these Conferences?

John Wildhack: Potentially.

Ben Spector: You talked about the expansion of those other schools implementing new Conferences. How did the expansion of the Big 10 and the SEC prior to the announcement of the expansion of the ACC on Friday play a factor in incorporating these 3 new schools?

John Wildhack: Well, I think you look at it, it was the Big 10 -- actually the SEC -- we see them move first, right? With Texas, Oklahoma and then quickly, you know, within weeks, it was the Big 10 with USC and UCLA. Then it was the Big 12 So, you know, we understood that the landscape was shifting, and the landscape was shifting significantly. So again, I think the ACC did the right thing. Like, “let's consider what expansion options that we have, make sure it's the right fit, make sure it's good for the 15 institutions, make sure it's good for the Conference.” They've done that, and I think the outcome is tremendous.

Ben Spector: Here, with director of Athletics John Wildhack before SU and Colgate go head-to-head after the ACC announced that SMU, Cal. and Stanford all joining the ACC on Friday. At ACC's kickoff event in Charlotte, Jim Phillips spoke to the media and talked about “bridging the gap” with these other Conferences, specifically the Big 10 and the SEC. How has this move specifically bridged that gap, do you think?

John Wildhack: It will help. Every school will benefit and see increased revenue from this, so it certainly helps close the gap. Does it close it all the way? No, it doesn't. But it helps close the gap. Secondly, with the success initiatives that have been put in place that’s a part of this, on-field success in Football, Men's Basketball and potentially Women's Basketball -- depending on the NCAA licenses in the future -- you can earn additional revenue based on on-field success.

Ben Spector: You talked about how it hasn't fully bridged that gap, but it's definitely helped. So, what do you think is next to help bridge that gap even more that Commissioner Phillips was talking about?

John Wildhack: I think there are things we can do with sponsorship, right? I think there's things now that we've got a foothold in the Dallas market, Dallas-Fort Worth market. We got a foothold in the Bay Area market. I think from a sponsorship perspective, corporate sponsors, official sponsors in the ACC, I think there's tremendous opportunity there. And everybody's focused on the revenue, it's also really important how you spend what you have. It's not always “OK well, I have the most, so I always win all the time.” What we always think around here is we want to be creative; we want to be entrepreneurial, and where we spend, we want to make sure there's an ROI on that investment.

Ben Spector: John, you talked about how a big concern was travel with those schools being on the West Coast and especially in Dallas with SMU. What were some other concerns that you thought of and that were brought up with people who you spoke to here at Syracuse with 3 new schools coming?

John Wildhack: Yeah, the scheduling model for Football, for Basketball, etcetera, that type of thing. But for me really the travel was a big issue, and once they satisfied our concerns on that, the more that we looked into it, this was the right thing for Syracuse. Because again, it strengthens and solidifies the ACC, and that's really good for Syracuse.

Ben Spector: Did the travel put you over the top?

John Wildhack: I don't know if it put me over the top. I was always a proponent.

Ben Spector: Why were you always a proponent?

John Wildhack: I just think you look at where things are going, right, and I just think it was important for us, for the Conference, to get to get bigger and better at the same time. And I think from an academic perspective we've done that with these 3 schools. From a competitive perspective, I mean Stanford and Cal, the number of Olympians that they produce is amazing. The feeder system for the US Olympic movement is college sports. The best Olympic sports is the ACC, so the best Conference in Olympic sports just got stronger with the additions of Cal and Stanford. And SMU excels as well in some Olympic sports.

Ben Spector: A lot of fans have a lot of different thoughts about how the landscape of college sports is moving with Conferences blowing up, expanding to maybe close to 20 teams, if not over that. What's your message to Syracuse fans specifically and also to fans of college sports with how the landscape is?

John Wildhack: Well, I think for Syracuse fans, I think for us, this is a really good day, because a strong ACC is really good for Syracuse. The ACC is a great fit for Syracuse academically and competitively, and if you take this and then you combine it with other momentum and success that we've had. Academically, our student athletes are performing at an all-time high. Last year we had 10 teams ranked in the top-25, and won a national championship, obviously, in Men's Soccer. You look at what we're doing with the Lally Athletics complex. Phase 1A is completed, Phase 1B, which would be our new one-team, Olympic Sports Center and Football operation center, is under construction. You look at what we've done with the JMA Wireless Dome. We've had a record year (fiscal ‘23) in terms of our fundraising for athletics, so this just builds on the momentum that we already have.

Ben Spector: Do you think there's more expansion in the future for not only the ACC but for different Conferences?

John Wildhack: Good question, Ben. You know, time will tell on that one.

Ben Spector: John, thank you so much. That was John Wildhack, the Director of Athletics at Syracuse University after the ACC announced on Friday that 3 new schools -- Cal, Stanford, and SMU -- are all joining the Conference in 2024.