Can Ben Jay Save UH Sports?
An accountant from Ohio has come to turn Hawaii’s dysfunctional athletics program around. He may be the last hope.
UH Athletics Director Ben Jay.
Photo: David Croxford
Ben Jay took a step up and a step down when he left Ohio State University, where he worked as an assistant athletics director, for the University of Hawaii, where he is the new athletics director.
Ohio’s athletics program has 36 teams, more than 1,000 athletes and a budget of over $130 million. It’s the rare college athletics program that actually pays for itself. Its football team, one of the NCAA’s most prestigious, went undefeated last year. Its stadium, which seats 105,000, regularly sells out for football games. Its exuberant fans proudly proclaim themselves to be “the best fans in the land.”
The University of Hawaii’s athletics program, by contrast, has 21 teams, about 475 athletes and budget of around $30 million. It routinely ends the year a few million dollars in the red. Its football team, which had a dismal 2012 season, ranks at the bottom of its conference. Many of its facilities are, to be blunt, shabby. Its home stadium—a poorly designed, rusting hulk that should probably be torn down—seats 50,000, but hasn’t sold out a football game since 2007.
Jay knew all this when he moved into his new office on UH Manoa’s lower campus last January. What he didn’t know is how hard it was going to be to get the burned-out light bulbs changed.
Altogether, Jay counted 72 burned-out bulbs—he is a numbers guy—along the walkways outside the athletics department when he arrived. Three months later, as he caught a red-eye flight to California for a football meeting, the bulbs were still out. This wasn’t the only facilities issue Jay faced. There were the broken toilets in the Stan Sheriff Center, the bent rims in the basketball team’s gym, the decrepit locker room that was too embarrassing for football coaches to show recruits, the weeds—the list went on and on.
Jay stewed about this all the way across the Pacific. The football team had been thoroughly manhandled in 2012, ending the season 3-9. Fans weren’t buying tickets, donors weren’t writing checks and morale couldn’t get much worse. The entire campus was still reeling from the Wonder Blunder, in which the university poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into damage control after the athletics department, in a hapless attempt to bring the musician Stevie Wonder to campus for a benefit concert, lost $200,000 to a pair of Florida scam artists. Meanwhile, with a widening gulf between the “have” and “have-nots” in collegiate sports, and with Bachman Hall floating the idea of downgrading UH from a Division 1A program, the continued existence of the athletics department as we know it had come into question.
Jay had been brought in to turn things around. And yet he couldn’t even get the light bulbs to work. As soon as his plane landed in Los Angeles, he did what exasperated people do these days: he vented on Twitter.
“Going to Home Depot & buying several cases of replacement bulbs myself. Will find a ladder & do this myself. Can’t sit idly. Embarrasing,” he tweeted, using his handle, HawaiiManoaAD.
Then he tweeted: “My staff knows when I see something broken & it obviously hasn’t been fixed in a long time, I’m impatient. THIS IS OUR HOUSE!!”
And this: “We are cleaning up our athletic offices. Getting rid of moldy carpets. making it presentable for guests, recruits, parents.”
And this: “What do recruit parents think when they see junk lying around, wallpapers falling off, landscaping overgrown? ‘They don’t care.’”
Those are highlights. There was more.
UH Athletics Director Ben Jay.
Photo: David Croxford
Jay didn’t expect his late-night, bleary-eyed rant to blow up in the news, he says. But blow up it did. KHON-TV jumped on it that night. The Associated Press got ahold of it, and Jay’s friends in Ohio were asking him, “Why are you talking about light bulbs?” Chatters on the local sports forums went nuts. By the time Jay got back to Hawaii, all of the bulbs had been changed, and some upper campus feathers had been thoroughly ruffled.
When I meet Jay in his office on the ground floor of the athletics department, he’s six months into the job. The office has big windows that look out on the end zone of the football practice field. Jay prefers natural light to fluorescents, so—hard not to notice this—he leaves his overhead lights off. He sits half slumped in his desk chair, and when I ask about the Twitter episode, he sighs and smiles like a kid who’s been caught doing something he knows he can get away with only once. “There are folks in upper administration who still look at me and say, ‘Um, you’re not going to Tweet about us anymore, are you?’” he says.
For the record, no, he isn’t. “It was one of those rookie AD mistakes,” he says. “You don’t want to embarrass the people that you work for, and it led to undue attacks on our leadership. That wasn’t the point. I wasn’t calling out my bosses. I just wanted to get things done.”
Since we’re on the subject of things that have blown up on Jay, I ask about the nickname flap. One of Jay’s first orders of business at UH was to simplify the hodge-podge of team nicknames. Some of the men’s teams were Warriors, some were Rainbow Warriors, and the baseball team was simply the Rainbows, while the women’s teams all went by Rainbow Wahine. “It was ridiculous,” Jay says. “You can’t brand that many names. Even broadcasters were getting confused.”
During his first several weeks in Honolulu, Jay canvassed everybody he met but couldn’t find any consensus on a single preferred name. So he decided to go with Warriors for all the men’s teams, while leaving the women as Rainbow Wahine. Only then did the depth of support for the traditional Rainbow moniker become apparent. “Until you make a decision, nobody screams at you,” he says. In May, after a thorough pummeling by opponents of the Warriors-only name, including some politically powerful ones, Jay changed his mind, announcing that the men’s teams would, in fact, be the Rainbow Warriors. “Most people will tell you that’s probably the best change I could have made, because it recognizes both the Rainbow name and the Warrior name,” he says. “But I still have the Warrior-only supporters who are all pissed off at me now.”
Before he took the hot seat at UH, Jay worked for six behind-the-scenes years as Ohio State’s “executive associate athletic director for finance and operations.” He was the department’s chief financial officer, or “the money guy,” as Gene Smith, OSU’s athletics director, liked to call him.
Among his many duties, Jay was in charge of game-day operations at Ohio Stadium, where he was in touch with the multitude of moving parts that go into staging a Buckeyes football game, from ticketing to parking to recycling to the sniper teams that law enforcement puts on the roof to guard against terrorists. As the athletic department’s point person for construction and renovation, he also presided over a mini building boom, overseeing 16 construction and renovation projects, which ranged from replacing the grass on the football field with artificial turf to the building a new softball stadium.
Jay likes to geek out over well-designed athletics facilities. “It starts from having a good set of architectural plans that answer the programmatic needs of your sports and your coaches,” he says. “I’m not one for having 17 flat screens up on the wall. Give them a facility that’s efficient, economical, works, looks nice and will last a long time.”
Construction at UH, as well as maintenance and procurement, each mired in its own intractable bureaucracy, are largely out of Jay’s hands. “I have to admit, in the initial couple of months here, it was frustrating, because this is not what I’m used to,” he says. “But I think back to when I first arrived at Ohio State, and how bureaucratic it was there at first. And I saw that change, so I know we can work through this here.” The change he witnessed was driven by Ohio State’s president, Gordon Ghee, who worked with the governor and the legislature to streamline the university’s contruction processes. “Then Ghee put it on us, as a staff, to make facility renovations and building a more efficient process,” Jay says.
As much as Jay would enjoy playing a similar role at UH, renovation and construction is no longer part of his job. Maybe someday, but in the meantime he’s got other pressing issues to deal with, such as fighting for the economic survival of UH sports in the face of fan and donor apathy, and preventing the marginalization of the school during a time of upheaval and uncertainty in college sports.
Last spring, UH-Manoa’s Chancellor Tom Apple, in a curious effort at rousing public support, raised the possibility of annihilating UH sports as we know them. “If we’re not breaking even in three years, I really have to look at whether we will continue Division 1A athletics,” Apple told the student newspaper, Ka Leo O Hawaii. The alternative could end up being a model in which athletics exist purely as an extracurricular student activity.
Despite the existential threat he has hung over the athletic department’s head, Apple is one of Ben Jay’s greatest supporters. It was Apple who hired Jay, offered him the $293,000 base salary, with all sorts of performance bonuses—the largest for any UH athletics director ever—and saw to it that the $13 million debt the athletics department owed the chancellor’s office was forgiven. Apple told me he wants to do everything he can to support Jay and head football coach Norm Chow. Nonetheless, he says athletics are at a crossroads. “If the community, the government, the stadium authority, the students, the faculty don’t show their support, then that tells us what we might want to do,” he says.
In the meantime, Jay has drawn up an austere budget for the current fiscal year that’s about $2 million leaner than last year’s budget, and he’s out to milk every revenue stream he can get his hands on. Merchandising will be a big one, starting in 2014, when the athletics department takes over the sale of—and proceeds from—Rainbow Warrior and Rainbow Wahine paraphernalia. The Office of Campus Services, which operates the money-losing Rainbowtiques, currently handles merchandising. “I think I can run it better,” Jay says. “I think I can make money.” A half million bucks in the first year is his goal.
He’s also trying to reduce the expense of using Aloha Stadium for home games, which costs the athletics department $20,000 to $70,000 per game. “It’s a broken model,” he says of UH’s arrangement with the Aloha Stadium Authority, which keeps all the concession proceeds yet charges the university to dispose of the trash.
Jay is doing what he can to get fans back in seats. Of course, nothing will help like winning football games, but in the meantime he’s launched two-games-for-the-price-of-one packages and other aggressive ticketing options to lure fans back.
As for breaking even in three years? “We’re going to try to get there in the first year,” Jay says. “But it’s going to take some ambitious revenue goals.” Hear that, donors?
Still, say the doubters, a balanced athletics budget is simply crazy talk. “It would take one marvelous bit of accounting to get the program to break even this year,” says sports commentator Bobby Curran, the radio voice for UH sports. “If Ben Jay manages to break even, forget extending his contract as athletics director. Make him president, or maybe senator.”
The volatile landscape of college sports conferences poses another threat to UH athletics.
In the world of college football there are the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the rich powerhouses, such as UCLA, Michigan and Ohio State, and the impoverished also rans, such as Lamar University and Middle Tennessee State. Between the two lie the “mid-majors,” which is where the University of Hawaii fits. Plenty of NCAA prognosticators believe that the current consolidation trend among the nation’s football conferences will ultimately result in the formation of a handful of giant superconferences. The danger in this for the Rainbow Warriors is that, if they fail to get absorbed into a superconference, they will slip into the cash-strapped netherworld of the have-nots.
“As conference realignment keeps going on, we have to be in one of those conferences with the haves, and not among the have-nots,” Jay says. “Because, quite frankly, if we’re in the have-nots, we’re not going to financially survive.”
But the problem is, UH doesn’t bring a lot to the superconference table. Its football team is hurting for talent, its academics are so-so, it has a history of light bulb issues. But one thing UH does have that might be of interest to an expanding Pac-16 or Pac-18 is access to Asia, a potentially enormous new market for college sports. China is especially tantalizing at the moment. Five Chinese universities have launched fledgling football teams, and when I met Jay he was planning a trip to China to see how they were doing. Jay envisions exhibition games, recruiting student athletes, and maybe even meeting each other on the gridiron. “The University of Hawaii is in a unique posittion,” he says. “It has a Chinese head coach, it has a Chinese athletics director—I think we have great potential to have a pretty good influence in Asia.”
Jay has been to China once before, to visit the village where his mother and father wed in an arranged marriage. They settled in Columbus, Ohio, and opened a small grocery in a blue-collar neighborhood a few minutes from Ohio State’s campus. They had three boys. “My parents’ sole purpose was to put their three sons through college, and they worked 16-hour days to do it,” Jay says. “Fortunately for us, my mom and dad were a little different from the typical immigrant parents who drive their kids to be doctors or lawyers. They just wanted to let us pursue our dreams.” For Jay, that was sports. As an avid basketball player in high school, he trained his 5-foot-8-inch frame hard enough to dunk a basketball, but he realized early on that his future was in the office, not on the court.
After getting a bachelor’s in accounting and a master’s in athletics administration from Ohio State—there was never any doubt about what college he would attend—Jay worked in minor league baseball in California, then as operations manager for the Cleveland Indians, took a detour out of sports to work for Bloomingdales in New York, became assistant athletic director for Fairfield College, worked as an administrator for the Pac-10 and finally landed back at his alma mater.
It's easy to see how Ben Jay might be a little less of a rabble rouser if he was an administrator who was content to sit at his desk all day. But he likes to roam. “I spend a lot of time walking the facilities because I want to see what the fans see, I want to see what the parents of our recruits see, I want to see what our student athlete recruits see when they’re here,” he says.
He takes me on a tour of lower campus, starting with the football locker room, which has been gutted and is filled with construction workers. We peek through the doorway. “A new locker room was kind of promised to Norm when he got here,” Jay says. “Funds have been allocated but the work has been slow to get done. Design has been slow. It was just languishing. But we’re finally underway, and we’re gonna have a new football locker room that’s finally worthy of Division 1A.” Then he closes the door and backs away, as if we might jinx something if we linger too long.
We walk into the Stan Sheriff Center, the 10,000-seat arena where basketball and volleyball games are played. As athletics director, Jay has a reserved row of court-side seats. They’re great for watching games, but not so good for entertaining donors and recruits, a vital part of an AD’s job. A sports arena really needs VIP suites for that. “Say this kid comes in that we’re trying to recruit, and she’s a big biomedical person and I want to match her up with the dean to get her to talk about the program—there’s no place to do that,” he says. “The fact is, if we lost a few seats for suites, I wouldn’t mind.”
Jay spends a lot of time at social events, schmoozing with the rich and powerful and trying to figure out where the money’s at. Hawaii has more millionaires per capita than any other state, he points out, but no tradition of major gift giving to college athletics. Most donations are transactional—here’s $10,000, and we’d like reserved seats and VIP parking, please. “We have a lot of high-end, big-dollar folks who support us, but we have a lack of big-dollar donations supporting the program,” he says. “When I take a look at the list of lifetime donors to athletics, I can count them on less than one hand.”
We enter the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex and stand by the pool, where the women’s swim team is warming up on kickboards. “When I first walked in here, I thought, for a pool facility, not bad. It ranks up there with a lot of the California schools,” Jay says. “But then I started noticing things like the broken clock.” He points to a weathered digital lap timer mounted to the wall, dead as scrap metal. “We’re relying on broken equipment! It makes you crazy.”
Two Rainbow Wahine coaches, Serela Kay and Jennifer Buffin, come over and greet Jay warmly. I ask what they thought about Jay’s infamous Twitter rant, and they both laugh approvingly. “We were like, ‘Yes! Ben Jay’s our MAN!” says Kay, associate water polo coach.
Kay and Buffin have their own long list of absurdist horror stories concerning facilities, including the one about the aquatic center’s recently renovated women’s locker room, which features standing water on floors that don’t properly drain, decorative tiling that is slippery when wet, and showers with hair traps that cannot be removed to clean out trapped hair.
Buffin notes that, before Ben Jay’s arrival, nobody had made such a big deal over the state of UH’s facilities since June Jones, the winningest football coach in the university’s history. Jones resigned in 2007, frustrated with the system. “I know there were other reasons why he left,” Buffin says. “But that was one of them—facilities. He knew things would never change.”
Back in his office, Jay and I watch the football team gathering for practice outside his window.
“You take a look at all the pre-season magazines, everybody’s rated us at the bottom of the Mountain West,” he says. “But these guys firmly believe they can compete with anyone, and I love that attitude.”
When Jay talks about UH’s infrastructure and bureaucracy, he’s often frowning, shaking his head, cursing, or laughing the wait-until-you-hear-this-one laugh of the cynical and the damned. But when he talks about things like the pluckiness of his underdog football team, or how he watched the men’s volleyball team beat UCLA, or how the sailing team took him for a sail, his frown lines soften, his posture straightens and the pure heart of a bona fide sports nut shines through.
It’s when he seems the most optimistic, and it’s when you realize why he got into this business in the first place. And it makes you want him to succeed more than ever.
“You know what?” he says, after venting about how the tennis team hasn’t been able to practice at night for three or four years because the lights at the tennis courts don’t work. “This is what I signed up for. Taking on challenges is what I love to do. It really is.”