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Topic:  Troubles at Toledo...from The Blade

Topic:  Troubles at Toledo...from The Blade
General User

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  Message Not Read  Troubles at Toledo...from The Blade
   Posted: 10/17/2021 11:22:24 AM 
UT administration, board of trustees face rift with athletic community

When longtime University of Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien announced he would be leaving his post next spring, it was celebrated as a retirement on his terms.

It was not.

A deep divide is fracturing the university community, with Mr. O’Brien — and Toledo men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk — caught in the middle.

In the past year, both prominent athletic figures were confident their performance merited a contract extension, only to be denied in curious manners.

Mr. O’Brien was pushed toward the door with a drawn-out sendoff that has been spun as his decision, while Mr. Kowalczyk was spurned in an unheard-of crossing of signals.

Here was the deal-turned-no-deal: As the Toledo basketball team rolled to a Mid-American Conference regular-season championship last season, an agreement was drawn up and Mr. Kowalczyk and Mr. O’Brien both put their signatures on a two-year extension for the basketball coach, currently under contract through 2024.

But after the school’s March dreams came to an abrupt end — with the Rockets losing in the semifinals of the MAC tournament — the seeming offer was withdrawn. University President Gregory Postel went against the recommendation of his lame-duck athletic director and declined to sign off, telling The Blade, “With Mike retiring next April and a new athletic director coming, I didn’t feel it was fair to the incoming person to not have a vote in whether a major coach’s contract was extended.”

Mr. Kowalczyk declined comment.

Image DescriptionTHE BLADE
Agree with the moves or not, the handling of them — especially the previously unreported account of Mr. O’Brien’s coming departure — has contributed to what more than a dozen sources close to UT described as a climate of broad distrust between some university leaders and the athletic community, and flooded light on a clear rift.

In one corner is a vocal delegation of Toledo boosters who believe the athletic department well represents the university both inside the lines and out, and want an explanation for why its leader is being let go. In the other is a small and secretive but powerful group — led by Board of Trustees chairman Alfred Baker, according to several sources — that appears to be raising the bar of expectations, though to what degree and in what fashion is unclear.

Is Mr. Baker — as one ex-board president said — on a “jihad” to remake the athletic department in a win-at-all-costs manner and exploiting a go-along-to-get-along board to get his way? Or is there more nuance at play?

Mr. Baker, a retired executive at Owens-Illinois who played for the famed undefeated Toledo football teams from 1969-71, did not respond to repeated voice and text messages left on his cell phone.

Also not returning messages: Six of the other seven members of the board during the last academic year, including former board chair Mary Ellen Pisanelli. The one who did, Richard Walinski, a Toledo attorney who is beginning his third year as a trustee, said he did not feel versed enough to comment. “So far, I have had to miss only one board meeting but, in those that I have attended, the topic of the athletic department’s future leadership has not come up,” he said in August.

Playing with retirement

So, what’s the real story behind Mr. O’Brien’s impending exit? Depends on whom you ask.

Dr. Postel denies that Mr. O’Brien was cast aside.

“He gave his own retirement,” he said in an interview in his office at University Hall. “The board and I had no involvement in that. Mike plans his life and when he wants to retire.”

Asked if Mr. O’Brien could have stayed on at UT if he had wanted, Dr. Postel responded, “Sure, if we had that discussion. But that wasn’t the discussion.”

Others familiar with the situation described a very different scenario, as Mr. O’Brien, 68, targeted a retirement in 2023 or beyond.

Their understanding: Well in advance of Mr. O’Brien’s contract coming up this past July, he made clear to former university president Sharon Gaber that he sought an extension. But Ms. Gaber kept Mr. O’Brien on hold, telling him, according to three sources, that Mr. Baker — who became board chair in July, 2020, and would be the chair when Mr. O’Brien’s contract expired — was against any such move.

Ms. Gaber then resigned in April, 2020, to become the chancellor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, leaving Mr. O’Brien’s fate in the hands of her successor. Dr. Postel was appointed interim president in July 2020 and named president in March.

“He didn’t have much of a choice [with O’Brien] if he wanted to be selected,” one well-placed UT booster said of Dr. Postel and his eventual appointment as president.

Mr. O’Brien was set to be relieved this past July, with one more year remaining on his term on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, one of the most prestigious posts in college athletics.

While Mr. O’Brien asked for and was granted the opportunity to stay on at Toledo through the end of the 2022 NCAA tournament — and in January he announced what he and the school called his retirement — sources close to the athletic director said he is deeply hurt by the inability to leave on his terms.

Ms. Gaber did not return an email and call requesting comment.

In a statement to The Blade, Mr. O’Brien wrote: “Until April ’22, my focus is on the Rockets. It’s then the next chapter for me and my family. I am proud of our academic and athletic accomplishments over the past 20 years.”

He declined further comment.

Donors react

Mr. O’Brien’s supporters were not as restrained.

“Certain members of the UT Board, who were instrumental in causing him to move on, obviously had a personal agenda that was not in the best interests of UT,” Toledo attorney Jim White, Jr., said. “Who knows why except for their lack of competency at the leadership level on the board?”

One major donor to the university and athletic department said he was “shocked” that Mr. O’Brien is being forced out.

“I’ve worked with everybody in the athletic department from Vern Smith [Toledo AD from 1971-86] on and Mike has done more for the university than any of the others combined,” said the booster, who asked to speak anonymously because of his close relationship with UT. “A lot of us were blindsided by their approach. Those of us who have been substantial donors to the athletic department were not contacted and asked if we’re pleased with his performance. It was not handled very well. It really seems like there is a motive.”

Another supporter, Doug Smith, a Toledo graduate who, incidentally, was the president of the Bowling Green State University Foundation and vice president of university advancement from 1998-2009, wrote letters to several of UT’s trustees, challenging them to be engaged and inquisitive.

“Trust me the university’s reputation has been tarnished on multiple fronts by the way the university ended its relationship with [Mr. O’Brien],” he wrote. “I respectfully ask that as a trustee you ask President Postel and chair Baker why they pushed Mike out the door, and then ever so casually told you and others that Mike was okay with the manner in which he was leaving. The fact of the matter plain and simple is Mike wasn’t given a choice. The decision is wrong, and mean spirited, and reflects a low value set on how you treat people.

“It will also not serve the University well in recruiting a pool of top-level candidates in the future as you scramble to find a successor.”

A career snapshot

Mr. O’Brien, who took over the UT athletic department in January, 2002, is the second-longest serving AD in the MAC, and a respected figure in the college sports ecosystem.

His tenure has not been without blemishes, most notably the point-shaving scandal that rocked the university in the mid-2000s and the hire in 2008 of Gene Cross as men’s basketball coach. Mr. Cross went 11-53 and otherwise ravaged the program.

Critics also note the Rockets’ lack of conference championships in the marquee sports. The football program has won one MAC title in 17 years (2017) while men’s basketball — for all of its regular-season success — has not won the conference tournament and made the NCAA tourney since 1980. The women’s basketball program has made the Big Dance once (2017) since 2001.

Yet Mr. O’Brien’s supporters believe the postseason shortcomings belie the bigger picture.

While the peaks could have been higher, the Rockets have produced consistent winners during his tenure, especially in recent years.

The football program — led by Tim Beckman, Matt Campbell, and now Jason Candle — is 92-46 since 2010 and one of 10 programs nationally without a losing season since 2009. Men’s basketball under Mr. Kowalczyk, the reigning league coach of the year, trails only Buffalo with its 91 conference wins since 2013. And Tricia Cullop’s women’s basketball program is 142-84 in the MAC in her 13 seasons.

Toledo has also enjoyed success in the classroom.

In the spring of 2020, the athletic department had a school-record 3.527 GPA. In the spring of 2021, it achieved the second-highest GPA (3.343). Toledo has won the MAC’s Institutional Academic Achievement Award, presented annually to the school with the highest GPA, in six of the past nine years.

“It’s more than just winning,” said Ron Greller, a UT grad who owns a scrap processing company in Philadelphia and is a significant donor to his alma mater. “The reason why I give is because of what they do for their student-athletes, and I hope they don’t mess it up.”

Further, Mr. O’Brien is lauded for his ambitious out-of-conference football scheduling that has brought a parade of larger programs to the Glass Bowl, upgrades of UT’s athletic facilities, and acumen as a fund-raiser.

In 2014, Mr. O’Brien added the title of vice president, and, in 2019, he was named by Ms. Gaber as co-director of the university’s capital campaign. He spent multiple days of the week outside the athletic department, helping spur more than $150 million in donations to the university.

Likening it to a “jihad”

Whether real or perceived, the push by Mr. Baker to remake the athletic department led several boosters — many privately — to share their concerns with The Blade, and it has especially incensed one former board chairman.

“This guy’s on a jihad and he’s got to be stopped,” said Joseph H. Zerbey IV, who served on the board from 2009-2018, including two years as chairman.

Mr. Zerbey recalled a conversation with Mr. Baker during their time together as trustees. They overlapped for three years.

“I don’t remember the exact words, but there was no question that he was all about ... the most important thing was winning,” said Mr. Zerbey, the former president and general manager of The Blade. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. What’s most important are the kids. He didn’t quibble with that. He said, ‘Of course the kids are important, but you’ve got to win, you’ve got to win, you’ve got to win.’ And his treatment of O’Brien says it all.”

Contrary to a narrative of underachievement, some puzzled by that treatment see athletics as a point of pride and find it hard to reconcile the department being held to a standard the university does not itself approach, with U.S. News & World Report rating UT in the bottom quarter of national universities and enrollment sliding.

Toledo’s headcount this semester — 17,070 students — is down 7.8 percent compared to one year ago. In 2020, enrollment was down 6.7 percent. The university has used the coronavirus pandemic as a talking point, but Bowling Green State University’s decline is much smaller and UT had already seen sagging numbers — about 2.5 percent a year since at least 2016 — prior to the pandemic.

Regardless, no matter where their expectations are for Toledo athletics, what those troubled by how Mr. O’Brien’s impending exit was handled want most is a measure of transparency.

That includes Tom Douglas, a longtime Sylvania lawyer and former UT runner who recently informed the university he was ending his contributions to the athletic department.

“We just cannot support an institution that uses individuals such as it has regarding Mike O’Brien for its/their (Gaber; Baker; Postel; et al.) advantage(s) and then throws that person under the bus and just walks away,” Mr. Douglas wrote.

“Abe Lincoln once said, ‘To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,’ and I believe strongly in that,” he told The Blade. “This is so wrong.”

In the letter, Mr. Douglas added: “I am thoroughly aware of the backstory behind OB’s retirement announcement. A story which hopefully someday and soon, will become a front-page story as it should.”

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General User

Member Since: 12/20/2004
Location: Athens, OH
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  Message Not Read  RE: Troubles at Toledo...from The Blade
   Posted: 10/17/2021 1:28:10 PM 
brucecuth wrote:
. . .“Abe Lincoln once said, ‘To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,’ and I believe strongly in that,” he told The Blade. “This is so wrong.”

Another of the many fake Lincoln quotes that predate the internet. This statement does not appear in any of Lincoln’s writings. It actually comes from a poem written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

"It is better to be an optimist and be proven a fool than to be a pessimist and be proven right."

Note: My avatar is the national colors of the 78th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, which are now preserved in a climate controlled vault at the Ohio History Connection. Learn more about the old 78th at: http://www.78ohio.org

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General User

Member Since: 7/8/2010
Location: At least six feet away from anybody else
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  Message Not Read  RE: Troubles at Toledo...from The Blade
   Posted: 10/18/2021 10:15:59 PM 

University President Gregory Postel went against the recommendation of his lame-duck athletic director and declined to sign off, telling The Blade, “With Mike retiring next April and a new athletic director coming, I didn’t feel it was fair to the incoming person to not have a vote in whether a major coach’s contract was extended.”


Same smokescreen that Mitch McConnell used for not letting the Senate act on the Merrick Garland Supreme Court nomination for ten months back in 2016.

We will get by.
We will get by.
We will get by.
We will survive.

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The Optimist
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Location: CLE
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  Message Not Read  RE: Troubles at Toledo...from The Blade
   Posted: 10/26/2021 8:24:30 PM 
Interesting. I know they missed the tournament, but that’s turned into a solid basketball program... I sense something else is afoot

I've seen crazier things happen.

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