The doctor is in: How AU’s new athletic director will increase support for sports
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in our print edition on October 25.]
AU Director of Athletics & Recreation Billy Walker has only been on the job for about six months, but athletes have already spotted a reverse in the direction of the athletic department.
“One of the key points he wanted to focus on was trying to get more people at games and really raise the profile of the athletics here, which I thought was awesome,” Conor Osborne, a junior midfielder on the men’s soccer team, told an AU journalism class. “He seemed really intent on trying to increase awareness about sports at the school.”
Osborne compared Walker to the latter’s predecessor, Keith Gill, and noted that Gill’s focus was seemingly on men’s and women’s basketball rather than the department as a whole.
“I really never heard him say one word,” Osborne added about Gill. “He was a kind of like in-his-office guy. If you saw him, he would never recognize that I was an athlete. I really like that [Walker] seems interested in improving [smaller sports’] situation here, which I thought was really refreshing.”
Walker has already made several changes in an effort to increase attendance at athletic events, including bringing back “Fan Friday,” where he and SG President Pat Kelly walk around and give out free pizza to people wearing Blue Crew or AU athletics gear. He has also reached out to students who typically don’t attend games for their advice on increasing support.
“When you come to stuff, you can have people my age there that are sitting there and clapping politely, and it’s fun,” Walker told an AU journalism class. “But when you have a bunch of students there with their guts painted red, white and blue and going nuts, that’s a lot more fun.”
Another strategy Walker has implemented to improve support is simple: Build a winning program. He hired three new head coaches in his first four months on the job as he brought on men’s basketball’s Mike Brennan in April, women’s lacrosse’s Emma Wallace in May and women’s basketball’s Megan Gebbia in August.
Brennan was an AU assistant coach when the team won back-to-back Patriot League Championships in 2007-08 and 2008-09. In the past four years, he accumulated a 252-163 record as an assistant coach at Georgetown University.
The Eagles suffered its worst men’s basketball season since joining the Patriot League in 2001 last year as they failed to earn a top-four seed in the conference tournament and lost in the first round of the tournament, both firsts for the program.
The team’s average attendance was just 1,201 in the 2012-13 season compared to a Patriot League average of 1,682, ranking seventh out of eight schools. When the Eagles made their first NCAA Tournament appearance during the 2007-08 season, their average attendance was 1,858 and over the conference average.
“I want coaches that I think can win,” Walker said. “I think the four [sic] coaches I hired demonstrated all those things. They are people of character. They understand what this institution is about, and they’re a good fit. And they’re great coaches and I think they are going to help us win.”
Walker said at his introductory press conference that he was attracted to AU because of the stability of the Patriot League, a significant advantage he has over many other athletic directors in the country.
Dozens of college programs have changed conferences in the past few years, leaving those left behind in tumult. Walker experienced that at Air Force with the Big West as four schools left the conference in the past four years.
“Conference turmoil is probably the biggest issue in intercollegiate athletics right now,” Walker said. “But I think the Patriot League has positioned itself very strongly. It has tremendous leadership. And the addition of Loyola and Boston University will strengthen it as well.”
Although the games have just begun, Walker’s new policies and attitude have already gained him the support of many student-athletes. They see the new athletic director as a symbol for a new and better era in AU athletics.
“Having a couple more people at the games that actually get into it, it really does make a difference,” Osborne said. “You go to games where it’s just your parents and that’s it. The atmosphere is dead. You get to a game where there’s like 500 or 600 kids there that actually are rooting for you and you’re like ‘I gotta play good.’”