Neil Sullivan describes himself as a life-long learner. He never wants to believe he has everything figured out. Much like the student-athletes at the University of Dayton, he knows he has to be coachable and adaptable if he wants to keep up with the pace of change.
“If you’re doing your job right, you’re always learning,” Sullivan said. “You try to learn from people around you, learn from experiences.”
The world moves fast, Sullivan said, and that has been clear in the last three years. Sullivan took the reins as Dayton Flyers Athletic Director in September 2015. He has overseen a number of coaching changes, most notably in the men’s and women’s basketball programs, while also helping guide the department through one of the biggest projects in school history: the three-year, $72 million renovation of UD Arena.
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In a wide-ranging conversation Monday, Sullivan talked about Dayton men’s basketball, scheduling and more.
Q: What are your thoughts on Anthony Grant’s first season as head coach and the status of Dayton men’s basketball moving forward?
A: We have high expectations. Coach Grant has been absolutely exceptional to work with. I have a tremendous amount of confidence in him and the staff. We have a very experienced coaching staff. Really, nothing’s changed in regard to our program expectations. We understand, and Coach understands the standards of excellence necessary to meet those expectations, which is to compete for conference championships and advance in the NCAA tournament. That’s really our daily focus. Clearly, in certain seasons, meeting those expectations can be more difficult than others based on any number of variables, but that’s what we focus on, and I think the future of Dayton basketball is very bright under coach Grant.
Q: How hard do you think the 14-17 season was on Grant personally?
A: He was given a tough task, but he’s never wavered. He understands what we’re after. Transitions are tough. Then you mix that with graduating the winningest class in Dayton basketball history, which has a very storied tradition. But he’s up to the challenge. He runs to expectations, not from them. He embraces that. He has a maniacal focus on developing our current players and just relentlessly recruiting new talent to the program. He aims high. He doesn’t put any perceived limits on our recruiting. He doesn’t chase people just to chase them, but if he and the staff see an opening, they run toward it. I think that will serve us really well into the future.
Q: Some of Grant’s decisions last year and this year seem focused on long-term goals. Do you see that?
A: We believe, at the university and in athletics, long term trumps short term. At the same time, we understand in sports results are what matter. You’ve got to balance all those things out. It’s very difficult to forecast how quick or how far a young player can develop. So we’re trying to build a roster one good decision at a time. Hopefully, enough good decisions accelerate where we want to be and what we want to do. Coach is very deliberate, very intentional. We won’t sacrifice the short term for the big picture because in the long run, that typically doesn’t work.
Q: How much do you follow the staff’s recruiting efforts?
A: I’m with the basketball staff on a daily basis. I don’t micro-manage or get myself involved in the evaluation of players. That’s their expertise. But where I can be helpful in my job is to put the wind at their back when they are recruiting, whether that’s in (giving them) the resources to be able to get out and recruit whenever they need or to visit with prospects when they’re on campus or just generally provide an environment for the coaching staff that allows them to recruit nationally.
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Q: The A-10 looked like a one-bid league at times last year but advanced three teams into the NCAA tournament. How happy are you with the state of the A-10 and Dayton’s place in it?
A: The A-10’s a great league with great teams and great coaches and a lot of tradition. At the same time, we have to be focused on constant improvement. We have to fight very aggressively for national space and national-level basketball. I think the Atlantic 10 and its members have to have their foot on the accelerator at all times.
If you really think about the last 20-plus years, if you’re not in the top 50, you’re not going to the NCAA tournament if you’re from the Atlantic 10. We need schools to commit to the pursuit of top-50 caliber programs. In any given year, clearly we’re not all going to be in the top 50, but I believe four to six of us should be fighting to be top-50 programs. That’s really what my focus is when I work with the league, and I know that’s Commissioner (Bernadette) McGlade’s focus.
I think the bottom core of our league has to get better. It’s really hard to win on the road. That road loss, while never desired, can’t be viewed as a fatal flaw. You’ve got to be able to lose on the road and it not derail you.
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Q: How close are you to finishing the non-conference schedule?
A: We’re really close. We’re just dotting some I’s and crossing some T’s. We're constantly evaluating our approach, but ultimately our goal is to build a non-conference slate that statistically and historically stands the greatest possibility of putting yourself in position for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament and also preparing you for conference play. At the end of the day, conference play is as important, if not more important, than the non-conference. A lot of people talk about the non-conference, and it's really important, but the totality of the schedule is what we're after, from day one to the end of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Q: Has there been any progress in the idea of creating Ohio’s version of the Crossroads Classic, playing an annual event with Dayton, Xavier, Cincinnati and Ohio State?
A: It had some legs there for a while, and we still talk about it and have been in communication about it. I think right now with the Big Ten adding more league games, that requires a few more logistics. I would say it's not dead, but I wouldn't be able to classify it as imminent.
Q: What are you telling fans about the Atlantic 10’s deal with ESPN+?
A: For men’s basketball, we still aggressively pursue television. We want to be on national television as many times as we can. We’ve got great relationships locally with Fox Sports Ohio, Spectrum Sports and WHIO, which hasn’t done as many games lately. We still focus on broadcast television first. For games, that can’t fit on that schedule, ESPN+, I think, is a great fit for fans because really wherever you are on the globe, you can watch the game. You’ve just got to log in and obviously it’s connected to the ESPN brand, and people can watch on their devices or hook it up to their televisions through Apple TV and those types of things.
Q: Is the second phase of UD Arena on schedule to be finished by the time the season starts?
A: It's a special project. Right now, everything's on schedule. It's bold. It's transformative. The complexity of the project reflects that in terms of the phases and the timing. We're focused on trying to have one of the most unique college basketball venues in the country. When I visit with recruits on campus, I tell the them the arena is an outward reflection of both of the university's commitment and the community's commitment to elite-level college basketball. It's part of our brand. As amazing as the building will be and has been, for us it's bigger than the building. It's the people inside the facility that make Dayton basketball what it is: the longtime fans, the multi-generational season-ticket holders, exceptional student-athletes, coaches. We're trying to use the arena as kind of the cornerstone of the whole ecosystem. It's not just about seats or the scoreboard, but it's really trying to steward the Flyers for frankly forever — for the next generation. At different times, that requires some bold transformative plans and thinking. We're certainly in the midst of that right now. We're excited. We've got a ways to go. We'll get through the next couple of phases, and November of 2019 will be a full unveil for everyone.
Q: With construction at UD Arena, do you know if there will be a Red and Blue Game this year?
A: I think it’s too early (to say). There’s a high probability it’ll be similar to last year … and we do something different like a meet-and-greet at a football game. It’s too early to know for sure, but there’s a lot of activity going on over there almost around the clock, and I anticipate according to our schedule, that’ll be well into October.