UD Athletics Enters a New Era
Chrissi Rawak, the Blue Hens' new athletic director, believes every University of Delaware team has the potential to win a championship.
Left: Chrissi Rawak. Right: Rawak (seated) is surrounded by coaches who are driven to win, including (from left) men’s and women’s golf coach Patty Post, men’s basketball coach Martin Ingelsby and football coach Danny Rocco.//Photo by Tom Nutter
Rolf van de Kerkhof looks out over the area that will become the new field hockey surface for his defending national champion Blue Hens and proudly explains its features. A below-ground system of pipes will carry away water, keeping the surface perfect for play. The AstroTurf will be so smooth, one could shoot billiards on it. And its generous size will allow for creation of side-by-side fields capable of hosting tournaments and clinics, the better to introduce the next generation of field hockey prospects to the Blue Hen program.
If any team at UD deserves an upgrade, it’s van de Kerkhof’s squad, which accomplished the improbable last fall. At a time when the Division I ranks in nearly all sports are dominated by big conference schools, Delaware captured the national championship, dumping North Carolina in the final, 3-2. The Blue Hens won their final 19 games and finished the season 23-2, capping a remarkable campaign. And that warranted a new field.
But why stop there? How about a throne for van de Kerkhof’s office and a fat, new contract to upgrade the five-year deal he signed in 2013? Oh, yeah, why not name something after the guy, too? The lanky Dutchman would probably love that.
As Chrissi Rawak surveys the broader UD athletic landscape, she sees possibilities for more successes like the field hockey team’s. If that means bigger paydays and perks for coaches, so be it. Rawak, the school’s athletic director since May 2016, believes every UD squad has the potential to win a championship—maybe not on the national level—and expects the coaches she hires and retains to adopt the same attitude.
“Our mission statement talks about inspiring greatness together,” she stresses.
A 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, Rawak spent 17 years there as a coach, fundraiser and senior associate athletic director. She has no stated desire to turn Newark into Ann Arbor East, but she came to town with the distinct purpose of making Delaware’s athletic department more collegial, better-funded and more successful.
It’s a big job. UD president Dennis Assanis has said that athletics are the “front porch” of the institution, so making that part of the house more attractive is a mandate.
To accomplish that, Rawak must create a new philosophy at Delaware, one that emphasizes not only achievement, but also a set of values that will lead the entire school community—coaches, athletes, students, administrators, faculty, alumni and fans—to work in a way that promotes success across a range of measurables.
Wins and losses count, of course. So does fundraising. The academic success of players is paramount. Creating an exciting, accessible experience for spectators is vital. The school’s 37 intramural and club sports must be supported. So Rawak wants to build a department that works toward overall excellence and replaces some of the ennui that has prevailed over the past several years with a new enthusiasm that fosters success.
She is definitely on her way.
“We came up with a mission statement and a set of core values,” van de Kerkhof says. “Everybody in the athletic department participated, from the head coaches to the janitor. Everybody had a say. We asked, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘How do we want to go about this?’”
Rawak is a believer that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” In today’s world of college athletics, even the strongest institutional approach has trouble competing in the arms race of improving facilities. Granted, Delaware doesn’t have to worry about Clemson’s $55 million football complex, which features a miniature golf course, a barbershop and a virtual reality room. But it must be mindful that all of its brethren in the Colonial Athletic Association have upgraded their facilities over the past few years. Villanova opened a new football building last fall. The University of New Hampshire debuted Wildcat Stadium in 2016. Over the past decade, the College of William & Mary has spent more than $50 million to create and upgrade a variety of fields, stadiums and training centers. And James Madison University renovated its football stadium and added a structure to house its gridiron offices, lockers, weight room and training operations.
UD certainly doesn’t have substandard facilities, but when teams are competing and recruiting against rivals that are spending money to improve and expand their athletic footprints, it’s vital to keep moving forward.
That’s something Rawak understands, and she is working with her staff to craft a master plan that allows for creation of a more sophisticated fundraising approach that will allow Delaware to better compete with the competition. Though nothing was concrete at the time of publication, news of a capital campaign to bolster the athletic complex may be coming pretty darn soon.
“It’s about continuous improvement,” Rawak says. “We are focused on getting better every day. I don’t believe a great student-athlete experience and winning are mutually exclusive.”
In 2011, when former Michigan athletic director David Brandon asked Rawak to join him in Ann Arbor after her six-year stint at Northwestern and subsequent seven-year term in UM’s institutional development office, she was excited to return to athletics for the first time since the mid-1990s, when she was an assistant swimming coach for the Wolverines. But she was surprised to find that UM had a limited fundraising infrastructure. Though more than 110,000 people filled the Big House seven Saturdays each fall for Wolverine football, the school was living almost paycheck to paycheck. It used money from ticket sales and other revenue to pay the bills, but it did not have a dedicated, intentional campaign to cultivate donors for a greater athletic purpose. “It was a transactional relationship,” Rawak says. “There was nothing comprehensive.”
Though the school had all the trappings of a successful, 21st century athletic department—huge football stadium, an indoor football practice facility, a 13,000-plus seat basketball arena, etc.—it lacked the fundraising infrastructure necessary to cultivate the relationships needed to launch nine-figure campaigns that pay for the capital improvements necessary to compete at elite national levels. Rawak, as part of the development offices at Northwestern and UM, had learned how to create that kind of model. She knew how to help the Wolverine athletic department foster a more sophisticated approach.
The result was a $355 million campaign (she left for UD with $315 million raised) that enabled the school to improve its facilities. One of its more impressive enhancements was the $168 million complex that will be home to the school’s lacrosse, track and field, cross country and rowing teams. In May, university regents approved a $14.8 million football performance center project. According to Rawak, the campaign’s key component was developing an understanding in the UM community about the department’s importance while investing potential donors in the lives of the athletes who would benefit.
“You have to create an understanding and a case for support,” Rawak says. “You have to help people understand their impact and what they care about and are passionate about. Athletics are about excellence and community.”
Nobody at Delaware has any delusions that UD can launch initiatives to rival Michigan’s. That’s not the idea. What Rawak and other athletic department staffers are trying to create is an environment in which the Blue Hen sports community understands that it doesn’t matter whether the school competes at the highest levels—as on the field hockey pitch—or for glory in the CAA; the same tenets apply. Everybody must be willing to participate at a level that provides Delaware with a chance to become as great as it can be. The one thing she cautions people to be aware of is that, though Michigan raised more than $300 million from 2013-16, it was the school’s sixth athletic capital campaign. Delaware has yet to undertake one exclusively for athletics. It’s going to take some time to bear fruit.
“Chrissi came with some big goals and big dreams,” says Patty Post, head of the men’s and women’s golf programs at UD. “She’s an action woman, and she is putting things into action that will fit into those goals and inspire us to reach greatness together. The people in this culture feel that the energy is there.”
Rawak has increased development staff, and she is interested in expanding databases that can provide the information necessary to build relationships that will lead to funding. She interviews every serious candidate for a position in the department, because she wants to find out how those people see themselves at Delaware. Are they merely looking for a job, or do they have the kind of passion and determination she deems necessary for the Blue Hens to thrive?
“This isn’t for everybody,” Rawak says. “I want them to be really clear on what we’re trying to do here.”
That kind of approach has brought to Newark some new coaches. Though they haven’t yet stood on the sideline for a UD game, they have won considerable praise from fans, alumni and media. In March 2016, Rawak replaced men’s basketball coach Monte Ross with Martin Ingelsby—her first head coach hire. In December, Rawak lured Danny Rocco away from CAA rival Richmond to direct the football team. In May, Natasha Adair left Georgetown to take over the women’s basketball program, and Ben DeLuca took over the men’s lacrosse program.
Rocco’s move was especially interesting. As a head coach, he has never had a losing season. He posted a 43-22 record during five seasons with the Spiders and, from 2014 through 2016, went 29-13 and made three NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances. During the same stretch, UD finished 14-20.
“I like how aggressive she was in hiring a football coach,” says John Dollmeyer, president of the Blue Hen Touchdown Club. “She went after a proven winner. She found out what it would take to get him and got president Assanis with her and got her man.”
Rocco’s decision to switch addresses within the conference was based on institutional commitment to athletics. Late in the 2016 season, he was quoted as asking Richmond’s athletic department and university administrators, “What is the vision for the future of the football program?” When he joined UD, Rocco had no such question. A coach for 30 years, including 11 as the boss at Richmond and Liberty University, Rocco is keenly aware of what it takes to win at the highest levels.
“I recognize how the landscape is changing, especially at the FCS level,” he says. “If you are not willing to move with the changes, you will fall behind. I am convinced the University of Delaware is committed to remaining relevant and returning back to its tradition of success.”
Rocco cites roster management as an example of UD’s dedication to returning to a level that got it to three national title games between 2003 and 2010. Under a new NCAA rule, schools are allowed more players in preseason practices, in large part to protect them from repetitive injuries. Since those participants aren’t scholarship team members, they don’t require the same investment as those with grants-in-aid, but they still must be fed, equipped and treated by training staff. That costs money, and Delaware is willing to spend it. In Rocco’s first year at Richmond, he had 83 players. This year, he plans to begin practice with 108.
“You can’t have the smallest roster in the league and feel good about it,” he says. “If you’re not in line with this, you’re going to fall behind.”
No matter how many other teams at Delaware succeed, even at the highest levels, football remains the defining program at the school. But the last several seasons have not been very appetizing, on the field or for the fans, for a variety of reasons. The first is poor play. Though K.C. Keeler led the Hens to the 2003 national title and signed a 10-year contract extension in ’08, he lost favor for a 5-6 season in 2012 and for choosing to populate the roster with transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision programs instead of building through recruiting. There was also a sense from Blue Hen supporters that he ignored local high school prospects when building his team.
According to Dollmeyer, there was no universal support for Keeler’s successor, Dave Brock, who posted a 19-22 record in three-plus seasons. Brock’s teams played dreary football that didn’t produce victories over CAA rivals, particularly Villanova, which has now won 10 of the last 11 games against Delaware, including five straight. Furthermore, the athletic department’s tying of high donations for prime season ticket seats was extremely unpopular. Rawak has scaled back the contribution requirements, which, coupled with Rocco’s hiring, has helped restore goodwill.
“Dropping the donations for the seats was a gesture to the fans,” Dollmeyer says. “That said to us, ‘We want you back.’”
When Rawak started at Delaware, many of the coaches and staff members had no relationship with each other. Put another way, people charged with building winning teams didn’t know their own teammates. So Rawak started having monthly conversations with disparate groups of Blue Hen staffers. In some cases, people spoke with each other for the first time, even though they had worked together for several years. Rawak figured that if listening to others benefited her, the department’s members would grow by listening to other coaches and staff.
“It’s really nice,” Post says. “I have been here six years, and I hadn’t spoken to some other coaches and people in the department that I now interact with. We can now talk to each other and bounce ideas off each other.”
Building a successful athletic department requires many things, including outstanding facilities, talented coaches and staff, excellent athletes, an engaged administration, active fans and alumni, and a bit of luck. What it needs most of all is leadership.
The word “culture” is so overused in professional settings, it seems trite. For purposes of Rawak’s efforts at UD, we’ll settle on ethos. It’s a synonym, sure, but it gets a little closer to what Rawak is trying to do. By creating a set of characteristic attitudes, habits, beliefs and behaviors, Rawak hopes to establish a true UD identity that goes beyond the Blue Hens’ winged football helmets.
(Spoiler: She has no intention of letting Rocco change the helmets, which former coach and fellow Michigan alum Dave Nelson brought with him when he became head football coach at UD in 1951.)
Rawak believes that if every person associated with the athletic department has the same approach to his or her job and the same desire to succeed, UD can become a powerhouse in just about every sport. For instance, she is looking closely at men’s and women’s lacrosse as potential players on the national scene. If programs like Stony Brook, Canisius and High Point can thrive on the women’s side, and Towson and Albany can succeed on the men’s side, there is no reason why UD—smack in the middle of fertile lacrosse fields in Philadelphia and Baltimore—can’t do the same. She believes there are similar opportunities in men’s and women’s soccer, whose tourney ranks include schools from smaller conferences. Making that happen requires an institutional commitment with a broad reach and not just focusing on a particular program.
“It’s not about any one person,” Rawak says. “We need everybody. That’s what we’re working toward building here. Our mission statement talks about inspiring greatness together.”
It’s going to take some time for all of this to coalesce, but with each new hire and each creative initiative, Rawak hopes to move Delaware closer to its potential. She must develop a more sophisticated fundraising model, improve facilities, continue to hire great coaches and energize a student body that sometimes has more of a predisposition toward professional teams than on-campus outfits. But don’t underestimate Rawak. She may be quick to smile and eager to listen, but she has big plans and the talent and experience to make them happen.
“She is very, very positive,” Ingelsby says. “We both came into the athletic department together, and morale wasn’t great. It has been her mission to change that. There’s a lot more positive energy in the department. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Just ask the field hockey team.