Q&A With Robert Morris University Athletic Director Craig Coleman

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Robert Morris University cheerleaders display their flags prior to an NCAA Tournament game in Dayton, Ohio this March. (Credit: RMU Athletics)

The past few months have continued a recent upward trend for Robert Morris University athletics, with the men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s hockey, women’s lacrosse, women’s volleyball, softball and men’s golf teams all competing for conference championships during the academic year.

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Men’s basketball, hockey and golf all were successful in claiming hardware, with hoops and golf picking up postseason crowns and NCAA tournament berths, while hockey followed up last year’s Atlantic Hockey playoff crown with a regular-season championship, and softball finished first in the Northeast Conference standings.

Athletic director Dr. Craig Coleman has been at the helm of the Colonials’ ship for the past 10 years, as RMU has gained unprecedented levels of local and national exposure for its exploits in various sports. He was gracious enough to grant me an interview in his office at Joe Walton Stadium on the Moon Township campus.

The following is a transcript of our 15-minute conversation:

Matt Gajtka: Your athletic department has gotten more than its usual share of attention lately. What’s the next frontier as far as making people more aware of what goes on here?

Craig Coleman: Honestly, our goal is to have our athletic success be more consistent. We want to have success across the board. We cut several sports a year ago, and as the savings eventually come back to us – it’s mostly tied up in scholarships, as a lot of those kids stay – once it comes back to us, it’ll go into our existing programs.

We want to be competing for conference championships in every sport, every year. In terms of athletics getting greater recognition for the university, that’s going to happen more efficiently with your higher-profile sports – obviously basketball, men’s hockey and football.

We’ve had consistent success in men’s and women’s basketball over the past seven or eight years. We’ve had increasingly great success in men’s and women’s ice hockey. We won a championship several years ago in football, but that needs to get more consistent.

We need to be on everybody’s radar as a successful athletic program. Every program here has to contribute to that.

MG: A big story from the past year was the Power Five conferences [Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12] “breaking away” from the rest of Division I in some ways. What are your general thoughts on that? Is it a net positive for a program like yours, because you’re not really competing with the bigger schools anyway?

CC: If they were truly breaking away, that would be true. The problem is, the only way they’re breaking away is making their own rules, but they’re still competing with us. I think the NCAA at the Division I level will have no resemblance to its current state in 10 years. We can’t really accurately predict in what way it won’t look like this (laughs), but it can’t continue like this.

You’re going to see, even among power conferences, a widespread cutting of Olympic sports. The [Power Five] conferences as they exist were not aligned with any geographic considerations. They’re aligned to maximize the value of their football team’s TV contracts. When these schools have to send their soccer teams, their volleyball teams to all these far-flung places, that isn’t going to happen for very much longer.

You’re going to see a new model for Division I athletics. The power conferences will essentially professionalize their basketball and football programs, and I don’t know what happens to the rest of us. It’s really uncharted territory.

A great microcosm of this is in hockey. In our women’s ice hockey league [CHA], we’ve got Division III RIT, we’ve got Division II Lindenwood and Mercyhurst, and we’ve got Syracuse and Penn State, who are in the power conferences. The power conferences pass legislation about increasing scholarships to include cost of attendance, changing the recruiting rules, et cetera.

Now does that mean the Syracuse women’s hockey team is going to have different recruiting rules from the Robert Morris hockey team? If everyone’s following different rules, how do you maintain a conference with any semblance of competitive balance? Those single-sport leagues are a great lab, a great experiment for what’s going to happen in Division I. And nobody knows what’s going to happen right now.

Right now the minimum number of sports to be in D-I is 14. We’ve had a school propose to cut it to six, because they want to cut a lot of sports. It’s a very unsettling time for Division I.

MG: In this uncertain time, what’s more important to you: succeeding in this niche that RMU is in with its peers or is it rising a level? What would you consider success?

CC: We need to be successful against the competition we’re facing, but we also have to keep an eye on the future and be in a position to succeed in whatever the new structure [of Division I] is. Which is hard to do, when you don’t know what the new structure is going to be.

But to me, the better your teams are, the stronger they are athletically and academically, no matter how it turns out, it puts you in a better position to compete. Your facilities are going to make a huge difference. If someday, suddenly the Northeast Conference ceased to exist, we’ve got to be in a conference, so you have to be attractive to other conferences. The NEC has to become more attractive as a destination for other schools, and we’re a part of that.

The bottom line is that I can’t imagine a scenario in which being better at everything won’t help (laughs). So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to be better at everything, and try to anticipate what’s coming around the bend.

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