Mike Waddell, whose 2 1/2-year tenure as Towson's athletic director was marked both by the tremendous growth in its football and men's basketball programs and by the controversy surrounding the elimination of men's soccer and the proposed dropping of baseball, is leaving to become a senior associate athletic director at Arkansas.
Waddell's departure comes a few months before the school is scheduled to open Tiger Arena and several months after Waddell found himself embroiled in an often nasty debate that ultimately reached the state legislature and was — at least temporarily — resolved with extra funding for the baseball program.
The timing of Waddell's decision to leave Towson might indicate that he found the climate uncomfortable, though the position he will be taking at the Southeastern Conference school involves many of his strong suits as an administrator. In Fayetteville, Waddell will oversee marketing, licensing, ticket operations and media and public relations. He will also serve as the liaison with the new SEC Network.
The job is similar to the one Waddell held at Cincinnati before coming to Towson, but the addition of his duties with the SEC Network and a chance to work for Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, who made a similar move from an athletic director’s job at a Football Championship Subdivision school, might have helped close the deal. Waddell said that he missed being in a college town where he didn’t have to fight for headlines and fans with pro teams.
On Monday, Waddell said he was excited about the new job and rattled off a list of accomplishments from his tenure, including getting the men's basketball players off of academic probation and improving fundraising efforts.
“Towson had been looked at as, ‘it's only Towson,'” Waddell said. “We've kind of left behind the old way of thinking about Towson.”
Waddell defended his proposal to cut the men's baseball and soccer programs, saying the decision addressed longstanding issues with Title IX compliance.
“I don't regret the decision at all,” he said. “You're either going to kick the can down the road or you're going to pick it up and do something with it.”
Waddell said he will miss working for Towson President Maravene Loeschke, whom he says has “done a great job.”
“The only thing I regret is that communications couldn't have been carried out in a more thorough manner,” he said, referring to controversy over how players were abruptly informed by Loeschke their teams would be cut. “But hindsight is 20-20. We called the plays.”
Mike Gill, who served on the search committee at Towson that recommended hiring Waddell, said that Waddell helped energize what had been a moribund athletic program weighted down by the long-standing failures of its marquee teams in football and men's basketball.
Though he did not hire football coach Rob Ambrose, Waddell gave the program more financial support than it ever had, including the hiring of a full-time strength coach. After winning three games in Ambrose's first two years, the Tigers went 9-3 in 2011, winning the Colonial Athletic Association title for the first time and then going to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time.
Waddell hired Pat Skerry, then a relatively unknown assistant at Pittsburgh, as the men's basketball coach. After the Tigers finished 1-31 in his first season and broke the NCAA record for consecutive losses, Towson had the biggest single-season turnaround in men's Division I history when it went 18-13 last season, finishing tied for second in the CAA.
Waddell said that he is proud of the progress the athletic department made on and off the field, and in the community. Waddell said that he expects the athletic department to have a perfect Academic Progress Rate after the men’s basketball team was ineligible to play in the post-season this year because of its past academic failings. Waddell said that he was able to find others in the community that shared his vision, resulting in the CAA bringing its men’s basketball tournament to Baltimore next season. Reached Monday night, Skerry wrote in a text message that “Mike did a good job here and I wish he and his family well and thank him for bringing me to our super university here at Towson.”
Asked if he thought Waddell had left as a result of the decisions surrounding baseball and men's soccer, Skerry wrote, “I have no idea about that.”
Ambrose, whom Waddell signed to a new contract after the 2011 season, could not be reached for comment.
“I think the thing that was most needed and we felt strongly about when we interviewed Mike was that he could bring some energy and some ideas and he could really elevate us from where we had been.” Gill said. “One of the areas in which he did an excellent job was from the branding standpoint. I give him credit on the branding side. He really tried to take an athletic department that for too long was middle-of-the-road and see whether he could move it to another level. I think in a number of those areas he did a really fine job.”
But Gill and others believed that Waddell's managerial style sometimes left bad feelings.
“Ultimately it's about people, it's about bringing different groups together,” Gill said. “I think that Mike's style wasn't one where across the board a number of the constituencies found the love. Some he did. No question, if you maybe didn't quite see the world in a similar fashion, he didn't necessarily show an openness to want to discuss that there are multiple ways to look at situations.”
Longtime baseball coach Mike Gottlieb complained last fall that he heard second-hand about the proposed elimination of the team. At the time, Waddell said it had to do with the university's complying with Title IX legislation. But the facts and figures about the number of scholarships being offered men and women athletes as well as the amount of money the school would save by dropping baseball and men's soccer did not always add up, according to those who opposed the decision.
“I think he misjudged and misread the tea leaves on the soccer and baseball situations,” Gill said.
Gill also thinks that Waddell came to Towson with a university in transition. A few months after Waddell arrived, longtime president Robert Caret announced that he was leaving to go to the University of Massachusetts.
“I really believe if Bob had stayed at Towson, there would have been a different outcome,” Gill said. “In all likelihood it would have been a better outcome for Towson or for Mike.”
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said the athletic program is excited to have Waddell on board for his next opportunity.
“Michael is a tremendous addition to our administrative team and will provide Razorback Athletics an informed perspective to help our program capitalize on the valuable exposure opportunities we will have moving forward,” Long said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.