The 2013-14 sports season is underway at University of San Diego and optimism is everywhere. It’s the pursuit of excellence, winning big games, titles and playing deep into the postseason. The new year is also a milestone marker for Executive Director of Athletics’ Ky Snyder, who has led a dedicated group of coaches, student-athletes, staff and administrators, since December 2003. He has navigated well in a college sports system that demands long hours, constant energy and getting the most from a modest budget by West Coast Conference (WCC) standards but pales in comparison to bigger national institutions. Making it work with 17 Division I sports — not all fully funded — requires effective strategic planning, changing to keep up with change, and having people who understand “athletics isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle.” Ten years later, Snyder is as determined as ever. He consistently strives to see that USD athletics, winners of five of the last six WCC Commissioner Cups and 26 conference team championships (including Pioneer Football League)/WCC Tournament titles since he took over, raises the bar athletically and academically. Inside USD asked Snyder questions about his role, about USD athletics and where the program is heading next.
What does it mean to be USD’s athletics director for a decade? What do you appreciate most?
“It’s a fun ride. Every year is different. Every year you have something that comes at you, something very unique. Every day we’re learning so that makes it very fun. You can’t help but be energized on a college campus. You’ve got students, for whom the world is in their hands with an opportunity to change it, and faculty members who are so phenomenal to work with and to learn from. Being around them is a great perk of my job. We have a very unique campus, a place where people really care about people. It shows itself in wonderfully random ways and is demonstrated in ways from our trustees on down to the students.”
How have you grown as an athletic director?
“Being athletic director is challenging. You constantly have to grow because times are always changing in this business. Just by its competitive nature, you start over every year. It doesn’t matter if you were an Elite Eight team last year, you have to prove yourself each year. That’s challenging, but it creates excitement. It’s fun to be part of this campus community. I’ve definitely done things across campus I probably didn’t anticipate when I first arrived because you’re so focused on the department itself. Being a member of the President’s cabinet is great because you have the perspective of the campus community and so what we’re trying to do as a university becomes the forefront for everything we do here. As we look at our annual goals, we make sure they are incorporated into the strategic initiatives of the campus. Athletics is the front porch for the university. We get to invite people onto our campus on a regular basis and they can learn about everything that’s happening.”
What’s a great moment for you as athletics director?
“Everything, in my mind, comes back to our students. We had a student graduate this past year that was a wonderful success story. He was going to be challenged academically and challenged socially. He had some obstacles, some things that, if he’d made poor choices, things could have turned out horribly wrong. Instead, he made the right choices and he graduated. He and his family went through some really big challenges while he was here, but to watch him grow from a young kid into an adult who’s focused on the world, his place in it and how he can add to it, there’s nothing more rewarding.”
How do USD athletics contribute to the holistic education of students?
“There’s the formal education in the classroom and it’s integrated into the community. There are ways for that to be taught outside the classroom. We feel we’re a laboratory for students to take those leadership skills and put them into play, to work on goal setting, strive for excellence, learn how to deal with adversity and manage their time. These are all skills our student-athletes have to master to survive our rigorous academic and athletics programs. If they master these skills, by the time they graduate, they’re ready to step into the business world and play a key role in their communities.”
“I grew up on a college campus. My father (Lester) worked at Arizona State University his entire professional life. I went to preschool at the University of Michigan (Lester got a PhD there). I saw my first football game at Michigan’s Big House and I saw Cazzie Russell play basketball. Growing up in Arizona, I went to every sporting event. I missed only three ASU football games from first grade until I played in my first college football game (at San Diego State). Being on a college campus is natural for me, but working in a business environment and working in a campus community environment isn’t the same. There’s a learning curve how things are done on a campus. Yes, we’re all teachers here, we’re all about student development, but the cost of running an athletics department means it has to be run like a business.”
As someone who competed in college athletics, when you were done, how did you know you wanted to stay active in sports as a career?
“I swam competitively when I was 5 years old. It was in my blood. When I was done playing at SDSU (earned a BA in marketing), I volunteered in the athletics department. It’s a lifestyle that just gets into you. We caution people all the time that it can be overwhelming. Athletics isn’t a job; It’s a lifestyle. The hours our staff puts in are enormous and there’s minimal social life outside of this circle. Your family has to understand. It’s part of the reason why we want to create a family environment. We want employees to feel good about bringing their families here. This is a perfect campus for that to happen.”
What about the education process that happens while you’re the AD?
“Every day we’re learning, every day I make mistakes. But you have to keep learning because if you stop having that eagerness to learn, you’re going to fall behind. By definition if you don’t change, you cannot get better. We look and try to understand what new ideas and trends we can incorporate that fit into what we do and what we’re about here. The only way to do that is to constantly educate ourselves. I don’t believe that people want to stay what they are. Around here everyone wants this place to get better. You have to change to do that.”
How has college athletics changed in the last decade?
“We’re in the education and entertainment business and how we go about that has changed. We look for metrics to understand how we get better at different things. Athletes today are so much better than athletes of my time or even 10 years ago. Athletes now are far different with their expectations and how they communicate so there’s constant learning. Look at social media and its prevalence today. Five years ago it was nearly non-existent. Now, it’s a natural marketing tool, let alone how people interact. We’re still about the core pieces of coaching, teaching and student development, but the techniques for delivery and how we go about it are changing and evolving. Another thing is that the need to develop self-generating funds continues to climb. The demand is more each year and that’s not changing with government spending being reduced. There is no golden egg out there coming our way, although we’ve had wonderful donors help us get things done. We have angels around this program who’ve helped us quite a bit.”
What’s a misconception people have about college athletics?
“When you hear, mostly in the media, that athletes don’t care about school or all of the money that’s being made in college athletics, something that’s happening at very few schools. Take, for instance, Texas and USD. The difference in our budgets is about $140 million. Annually. A common perception of college athletics is watching BCS schools play Saturdays on TV. I really like the NCAA commercial that says 99.9 percent of college athletes will go pro in something other than sports. That’s what really happens. The USD valedictorian was an athlete just a few years ago. Have we had pro athletes come out of USD? Yes. What a wonderful opportunity it is for those athletes who get to chase a dream they’ve had as a child, to live that dream. It feels great knowing we helped them launch it.”
Where has USD athletics been and where is it going?
“We’ll always go where the institution wants us to go because we’re a part of the institution, so we want to reflect that. Excellence is one thing that’s in everything we want to do. USD won five of the last six WCC Commissioner Cups. Prior to that I don’t think we’d been close to competing for it before we won the first one (2007-08). We set out to achieve that goal by putting together a strategic plan to take us to that level. Once we got it, another strategic plan was done to keep us there for long-term success. We’ve achieved that. This past year we lost the Cup to BYU, a team with BCS football and a budget that’s twice as much as us. We lost for the first time in six years but we were right there. Our theme this year is to bring back the cup. We want to go after the Commissioner’s Cup each year because it’s about having a successful, broad-based program. But we’re also looking at the next step — how can we improve on our excellence? There’s a Directors’ Cup, which is for all national Division I schools. Looking at schools with non-scholarship football programs, one measurement is based on how deep you go in NCAA tournaments. That’s something we’ve talked about the last few years. Yes, we’re getting in the tournaments, but how can we go deeper? We have to defeat BCS schools in almost every sport and that usually means going through Los Angeles in volleyball (currently ranked ninth in the nation), soccer and baseball. We need to finish ranked among the top 16 to host. In baseball, a goal is to reach the Super Regional. So we’re starting to look at who is in front of us. But, also, how do we go deeper in NCAA tournaments without losing focus on having our graduation rates stay up, retention rates remain up and our student-athletes’ GPA match the general student body.”
USD successfully hosted the NCAA Women’s (Soccer) College Cup in 2012. Will USD host more NCAA events?
“The JCP is reserved the first weekend of December every year to host postseason volleyball. It’s been awhile since we’ve hosted it. Overall, hosting been an issue because the NCAA still has some of the bidding done months before for some sports and some where it’s years in advance. We hosted a golf regional in 2011 at The Farms and we’re hosting one in 2015. We’re always sensitive to what’s going on campus and the impact it would have, but we’re doing what we can to make it happen. The College Cup brought thousands of people who’ve not been on our campus before, so when they come and see this beautiful campus for the first time, people typically like to go for a walk. That’s why it is so important how we run our events. We’re providing fans with a culture, a feeling that when they’re at our games we want it to be a welcoming and a family-friendly environment. We’re promoting what the university is all about and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Fowler Park’s 2013 opening was a great moment, but what’s next for the Drive for Torero Success?
“We have three other projects on our bucket list. One is a golf practice facility and softball locker room. We want to renovate the tennis courts and build a locker room and bathroom, because right now there’s not even a bathroom for fans. We also want to bring our staff closer together. We’re spread out in five places. Everyone thinks the Jenny Craig Pavilion is where the athletics department is housed, but really it’s only 10 percent of our athletes and 12 percent of our staff. Eight of our 17 sports do not have a locker room. The timing of all these projects will be determined by when the funding will be secured.”
What’s at the heart of USD athletics’ success?
“Our success comes from the staff and student-athletes we have. We have committed students, passionate staff, coaches, support staff and administrators. Everyone cares so much about what they’re doing and that makes it fun to come to work. We’re all driven by the same goal — to make it a great experience for our student-athletes.”