Can Ben Jay Save UH Sports?

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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.