Missouri announced Desiree Reed-Francois as its Director of Athletics on August 11th. On Tuesday, her 7th day in the office, Reed-Francois sat down with PowerMizzou.com publisher Gabe DeArmond for a one-on-one interview. Below is the transcript of that interview in its entirety.
Q: You mentioned the two people you hired yesterday (Greg Hulen and Ryan Koslen). When you’re taking over a department, where does getting a staff in place fall on the list of priorities?
Reed-Francois: “We’re in the people business so I’m always recruiting, always looking for talent, regardless of what time of year it is. We had two positions that were open and so the opportunity presented itself. I knew that coming in and I knew what I look for in team members, the inherent characteristics. I look for selfless, smart hard workers, people that are going to come in and see an opportunity and see the potential as opposed to seeing everything that we don’t have. I don’t want someone who’s going to come in and say ‘Hey, we’re not a $200 million budget. We can’t compete.’ No. We’re going to be that much harder working, that much more innovative and that much more team and service oriented. And what I mean by that is I’m looking for people to come in and make others around them better.”
Most coaches and ADs will say for 10 years, 15 years along their way through the ranks they met people that they knew they would want to work with when they were eventually in charge. Did you do that along the way?
DRF: “Like I said, I’m always recruiting and I’m always watching and evaluating. I do a lot of national service, whether it’s through Lead1, which is our athletic directors’ association or NACDA (National Association of College Directors of Athletics). Along with Jason Galaska, I run the NACDA mentoring institute and so what that is, that’s for the next ones up. I coordinate that and I do that because it really impacted me. I know I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair if it wasn’t for the mentoring that I received throughout my life, starting with my family. But I also do that because I’m looking for talent all the time. Regardless of if I have a job open, I always am looking for who’s a rising star? Who’s someone that fits the inherent characteristics of people that I think make others around them better?”
At the introductory press conference, President Choi said “business as usual is out the window.” People I’ve talked to have characterized this as a new direction for Missouri. What does that mean to you?
DRF: “All I can tell you is what we’re going to do moving forward. We are going to have a high octane athletic department. We are always going to put our student athletes first. We are going to be comprised of people who take a lot of pride in outworking their competition, but doing so with a humility and a grace. We want to be an athletic department that is competitive in everything that we do. We are going to be a sound business enterprise focused on our student athletes, but we’re also going to be engaged in the community. Those are going to be the three pillars, if you will. Community in my mind, it’s a contact sport. We can’t just send out a mailer and expect people to come. We got to be out there and create reasons for people to care. When I say community’s a contact sport, that’s what I mean by that. We’ve got to go to our community. We’re the flagship institution. We cannot win championships; I can’t do it by myself. We need a team of people around us. We have a University that is committed to this athletic department. We’re so privileged, we have a board that’s committed. I would guess that our state legislature is committed. They passed, take for instance name, imagine and likeness. Our name, image and likeness bill, it’s really sound. It benefits our Mizzou student-athletes so that tells me we’ve got a legislature that is committed. And our community, I’ve been here what seven days now? And everybody I’ve encountered, they want us to win, but win the right way. This is vibrant, dynamic community and our athletic department needs to be representative of that.”
You mentioned the Show-Me motto at your press conference. I have said that’s something that at times holds Missouri back because it’s like give me a reason to show up and I’ll show up. How do you balance your responsibility to give them a reason, but it’s also a two way street and you need them to believe maybe sometimes a little bit before there’s a reason to believe?
DRF: “I think we need to eradicate the them and us. It’s got to be a we. We’re all Missouri. How I take the Show-Me State is actually do what you say you’re gonna do. You say you’re gonna be about winning championships and doing it the right way. Everybody knows it takes time. If it was easy, everybody would do it. And if you’re winning championships in the Southeastern Conference, you’re competing for national championships. We all want the same thing. We all want our student athletes to have a world class experience and that’s holistically. So I take that as actually a positive. Don’t just talk a big game, show up and do it. But do it with humility, do it with class and do it the right way.”
I don’t know how much of a chance you have had to meet fans and boosters, but what is your impression of their excitement for the football season that starts in four days?
DRF: “There is a lot of positive momentum. Everybody, I met Brock at Starbuck’s the other day and he was excited. I met a law professor the other day and he was excited. I meet people in the grocery store, I meet our students, our student athletes are excited about the positive momentum and that’s what we have right now. We’ve got a lot of positivity around the football program, around the entire athletic department that you can feel it. You can feel the energy and that’s pretty exciting. Yesterday, we did a run through about 1 o’clock yesterday. I like seeing the script and the in-game promotions and I like going through that. I think I spent 45 minutes. I would have liked to spend half a day, but I spent like 45 minutes on it. They played the opening and, I mean, I got chills. There’s something so special about people all coming together for a college game day.”
You mentioned the game day experience and having to make that better. Do you have specific ideas for what that looks like on Saturdays?
DRF: “Yesterday, I met with our ushers. First of all, I thanked them. I thanked them for being the first people to communicate with our fanbase. They have an incredibly important role. I’ve done game management. I know how important it is. If you have a bad experience with an usher or you don’t feel like you were treated fairly or you have a situation in the stands and you feel like no one is helping, you, you know what? You’re probably not going to come back to a Mizzou game. So our ushers are a critical part of our game day experience. So is everything from buying a ticket. Like is it easy? Push the easy button. Do we make it super easy? Are folks greeted? Is parking easy? We’re welcoming fans into our house. It’s just like when you’re hosting a dinner party or you’re hosting anyone coming into your home? Are our facilities clean? Is the concessions line easy to get in and out of? Are people thanked on the way out? Are people welcomed on the way in? We want folks to treat our stadium like it’s their home. So these are all things, I haven’t been to a game here yet and so my first game is going to be on Saturday. There’s going to be a lot that I’m going to be watching. And then after the game, we’re going to send out a survey. I love surveys. But I want people to have an open line of communication. All of our season ticket holders and everybody that we have an email address, they’re going to get a survey after the game. The survey will first thank them for attending and will second ask them about their experience. Because we want to keep making it better.”
I don’t know if the athletic director can be incognito, but will you do things like walk around on a game day so you can see some of these things up close?
DRF: “I walk a lot. And I say that, I’m going to go around to a couple of tailgates in the beginning. I’m also on the field because I also like to really watch the game, but I will walk around a lot.”
I’m jumping around a little bit, but the process of meeting the coaches, the athletes and the staff, where are you at in that process?
DRF: “Every staff member filled out a SWOT analysis. We’re going to share with our department, this is what you told me, these are some themes that I’m seeing and then let’s talk about next steps. I’ve met with our SAC executive board, I’m meeting tonight with a group of student athletes, I’ve met with our baseball team, I’ve met with our volleyball team, I’ve met with all of our coaches in a group setting and then I’m starting those individual meetings now. I’ve met with about a third of our head coaches. Met with the entire staff, but that was a the first press conference day. Met with the football team, been out to soccer. Going out and seeing people in their respective spaces. Tomorrow night I have another group of student athletes that I’m meeting with too.”
Any time there’s a new boss, there’s some natural apprehension. How do you handle that and put some of these people at ease?
DRF: “Psychological safety. There’s something really important. Our coaches impact our student athletes. Our staff impact our student athletes. Our job as leaders is to create that environment for them to be successful. Part of it is that psychological safety. As I’ve shared with folks, I’m going to come in, I’m going to watch, I’m going to take what is the foundation that’s here and we’re going to, together, in a very transparent way, figure out how do we keep getting better. And that’s not just a one time fix. It’s those details and the more that you continue to make progress on those little details, then you know what? All of a sudden those little details start adding up.”
You mentioned not looking at what you don’t have. You’re coming here from a place that didn’t have the budget this place has, but now everybody you’re competing against has that same budget. Eli Drinkwitz has mentioned closing the gap a lot in this league. How do you close that gap as a department?
DRF: “Two-fold. One, we’re going to be very aggressive in our revenue opportunities. We’re going to examine every revenue stream that we have and make sure we’re maximizing every dollar. Two, we’re going to be very good stewards of what we do have. We’re going to take very good care (of it). Three, we’re gonna be very strategic. We’re going to look at those priorities, we’re going to figure out what are those priorities and that’s where we’re going to invest. We’re going to tell our story, create that reason for people to care and, like I said, figure out ways that we can maximize our values. We have an opportunity, we have 550 student athletes, I’ve got to make sure they have a world class experience. That’s all of our responsibilities. In terms of are we ever going to be a $200 million budget? Probably not. But you know what? That’s okay. We’re going to do more with less and we can achieve just as much with an entrepreneurial mindset. We are never going to be, and forgive me, this may be a crass analogy, but I said this the other day: I’m a big Janis Joplin fan and I would rather be an original than go be some cheap cover band. It doesn’t mean I don’t like to watch some cover bands, because I do. But we’ve got to be our own original Mizzou and you can be just as effective with an entrepreneurial mindset. That’s why when we are talking about people, when we’re investing in people, when they come here, they’ve got to know you’re not going to be doing just one job. You’re going to be doing a job plus. I’m going to meet with every staff member that we bring on board. I’ve met with, I think, four different candidates for jobs. I met with an athletic training candidate today, I met with a sports information person yesterday. Everybody that we want to bring on board, I’d like to meet with for 15 minutes.”
It may be what you just mentioned and it may be, it’s been seven days and you don’t yet know, but in looking at this job and starting it, have you seen any challenges that are unique to Mizzou? Anything that exists here that might not exist somewhere else?
DRF: “I’m still doing a lot of listening and learning. I don’t know if I can say I’ve encountered something, I don’t think I have a full enough picture to be able to truly give you a well-thought out answer. What I do know, however is that there is so much to love about Missouri. Did you know that our campus is an actual botanical garden? This is one of the most beautiful campuses I’ve ever seen. The trails here are amazing. I can think of maybe three or four other true college towns and this is a unique college town. We’re the flagship land grant institution. The only one in the state. And we’re in the Southeastern Conference. We’re an AAU institution. We’ve got a great dynamic president. So while I’m sure there are challenges that I don’t even know about, there are incredible opportunities here.”
Along those lines, it’s a college town in kind of a professional sports state with four major pro sports teams. Do you view that as a challenge where you’re competing for dollars or an opportunity because there are a lot of sports fans?
DRF: “It’s a great opportunity. It means people care. And we’re going to be unique. When we were in Vegas, some would say we were on the cusp of being the capital of sports and entertainment. So we’re always going to be competing for people’s time and their resources. But I say figure out what’s unique about Mizzou. That’s what we did in Vegas, that’s what we’re going to do here. And quite frankly, it’s our students. It’s our student-athletes. None of the professional sports franchises have that. Students and student athletes bring a unique energy that cannot be replicated.”
This is not unique to Missouri. There are stories every year about student attendance going down. How do you make sure you’ve got your students engaged and out there on Saturdays and at other games?
DRF: “Same strategy. I haven’t seen a student section yet here so I’m saying this with a little bit of ignorance because I just don’t know. I do know that we’ll assess what we’re doing and then we’ll make sure that it’s a great event for them to go to and it’s a great experience. And also supporting other students too. We’ve got to win with them first and then we got to get our own student athletes to go to their own events and support one another and then keep expanding it out. There’s something important about when a student athlete or another student invites you to come to one of their events. That’s pretty special. I don’t know if we’re doing that. I say that because I just don’t know, but I want to see how we’re inviting students to our events and then making sure it’s a great event.”
Big picture, you mentioned name, image and likeness. How much has that changed things in the last month or the last year and how much a part of your job is that and managing that?
DRF: “It’s an awesome opportunity. Anytime we can expand the opportunities for our student athletes we want to do it. It speaks to who we are in terms of our brand and being innovative and aggressive in that space as long as we’re complying with the letter and spirit of the rules and our own state laws. So we have a program in place, it’s going to be continuously evolving and we have to do that because as we’re becoming into this next iteration of name, image and likeness, there’s so much we don’t know and we have to be nimble. That’s why I keep mentioning entrepreneurial mindset. We have to be flexible and nimble.”
When you say you have a program in place, can you detail that for me at all?
DRF: “It’s called Opendorse. That was put into place before I got here. Our compliance team worked in conjunction with our coaches and came up with this platform. It’s been in place for, I think, about a month. I can’t give you the analytics yet, but we’re going to continue to evolve that to make sure it’s meeting the needs of our student athletes. The educational piece is also really important now because I have 550 entrepreneurs and we have to make sure that we’re equipping them with the education to be able to be successful entrepreneurs. Now all of a sudden they have taxation rules to think about. They’re running 550, and I’m exaggerating because not everybody’s going to take advantage of it, but they’re running their own corporations and I want them to make sure they have the financial literacy, they have the branding, they have the taxation, they have all of the education they need because that’s a whole other level of opportunity that I want to make sure we’re meeting those needs.
“This is going to continue to evolve. It’s exciting. It’s an educational opportunity, but it’s also a branding opportunity. I had a student athlete, this is from the previous institution, but he had 250 thousand Instagram followers. Jordan McCabe, every time he went into Thomas and Mack or he went into the basketball practice gym and he tweeted out a picture, you know what? 250 thousand people are seeing a promotional video for UNLV and that’s 250 thousand people that are not following UNLV’s main Twitter account, main Instagram account. Jordan McCabe has a voice that resonates with 17-year olds, that frankly my Twitter account doesn’t”
What is the level of concern among ADs that we all understand it has been said this will not be used as a recruiting inducement. We all also understand the real world. So how much concern is there between the rules in place and how it can be policed?
DRF: “We don’t have a federal law so everything we’re doing we are checking to make sure it is in line with the letter and spirit of our state law and then also we’re running it by the Southeastern Conference to make sure that we’re within the letter and spirit of the NCAA rule too. It’s ever evolving, but that’s why we have to have open lines of communication and that educational platform.”
What was it like going to the SEC AD meetings your first day on the job? Did you have time to slow down and kind of appreciate it or was it just jumping right in?
DRF: “It was just straight into it. I’ve known the majority of that room for a really long time and they’re really good people. We’re all competitors, but we also have an alignment of interest. We recognize the responsibility we have. This is the preeminent conference in the entire country. We are led by Greg Sankey and he is such an incredibly strategic and forward thinking commissioner.
“I remember the last time that I was sitting in the SEC AD meetings and it was in Destin, I want to say it was maybe 2010ish, one of my colleagues, and he was not in the AD chair at the time. We were both back benchers. We were trying to figure out a way that we could pass a basketball initiative. We were laughing because that was the last time I was at an SEC AD meeting.
“It’s a very collaborative group. It’s a smart, values-based conference and it’s led by a very strategic leader. I’m very enthused.”
Being in that preeminent conference, the one that is on the forefront of everything that’s going on, that really leads the way, it has to be a pretty good place to be in that league. Is that fair to say?
DRF: “This is a league where the motto I think is incredibly on point. It does just mean more. This is a league that takes pride in achieving excellence and not apologizing for wanting to be the nation’s leaders.”
Conference realignment is my favorite thing because you can literally say anything is going to happen and no one can prove you wrong. Are athletic directors just as interested to see how much different it looks in five years as the rest of us are? Or maybe you don’t think it’s going to look that different?
DRF: “Right now my focus is on Mizzou and Mizzou is in the strongest conference in the land. We need to be our best Mizzou and we need to position ourselves so that we are competitive and challenging for conference championships. That’s where my focus is. What does college athletics look like in five or ten years? I think what you will see is a commonality. We all share the same goal. We want to win championships. We want to win the right way and we want to provide our student athletes with the best possible experience. That’s where our focus is. Are there changes coming? Have there been changes? Have the last 18 months been continuous change? Absolutely, but again, it goes back to that original point that I was talking about, this entrepreneurial mindset. We have got to be flexible. We have got to be nimble. And that plays to our strength.”
You mentioned the last 18 months. There are a lot of people that probably are itching to get back in a stadium on Saturday. There are probably also a lot of people who aren’t quite sure yet. I’m not asking for a number, but do you have a feel for where that’s at and what to expect on Saturday?
DRF: “I actually think that we’re all eager for a sense of community. We genuinely want to be together. We want to do it safely, of course and our student athletes’ health and safety will always be our priority, but I think there’s this inherent need to be around people.”
How long until you feel like you’re actually settled in here?
DRF: “When I hang pictures on the wall and I’m not living out of a suitcase.”