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Cleveland State president Harlan Sands wants a ‘partner’ as next athletic director for the Vikings

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A new president brings a new athletic direction for Cleveland State University and its flagship basketball program. Where that will lead is still to be determined as CSU President Harlan Sands now looks to find an athletic director to chart that course.

Current AD Mike Thomas, hired by Sands’ predecessor, has resigned effective the end of December. Mike Alden, a retired 30-year veteran AD, will be the interim director effective Feb. 1. A search committee for the next AD will be announced after the first of the year.

Sands makes it clear he and the next AD will effectively be joined at the hip.

“I don’t have any comment on any particular candidate,’’ Sands said. “But I will say this. I think the relationship between the president and the athletic director is very important. I would prefer partner. That is the word I use.

“We’re in downtown Cleveland, we’ve got a fantastic campus that is primed for growth. There is an incredible amount of energy around our athletics program, and there is a blueprint for success.’’

But when asked why there is no tangible evidence of that energy and blueprint inside the Wolstein Center, in a season that marks the 10-year anniversary of CSU’s last NCAA Tournament appearance, the president said he is not just trying to get a handle on the present, but the future.

“I’m in the mode of inventory and figuring out what we’re going to be in 5, 10, 15 years,’’ Sands said. “That’s the message I’ve given to the campus. The focus right now is getting the right team together, seeing where we are, and setting the right course for where we are going.’’

Following are Sands’ answers to some of the questions about CSU athletics, particularly basketball, the future of the Wolstein Center, and the search for the next AD.

PD: Let’s do the easy one first. Are you going to bring football to Cleveland State?

Sands: “My standard answer is, let’s do basketball right before we start talking about football. I’m really, really bullish on what we can do, not just with basketball but all our Division I sports.”

PD: So, in your vision, what is doing basketball right?

Sands: “One of the things we’re talking about, as we look at our search for a new athletic director, we’re bringing in an interim (Mike Alden, Missouri) retired from a major college program, SEC school, which should give you some sense of what we’re thinking about here.”

PD: It sounds like you want to get a bit more higher profile (with basketball)?

Sands: “Here is what I will say about that. I want to know the lay of the land from a guy who has been with a successful program. Kind of assess where we are, what we have and what we need. That’s what I’m looking for from a guy (Alden) who has been around the business of athletics for 30-plus years.’’

PD: Your background at Louisville, UAB (Alabama-Birmingham) and Florida International shows most of your expertise was fiscal?

Sands: “Yes, most of it has been fiscal.”

PD: So where is your athletic comfort zone, in terms of people, sports and finding the right people for Cleveland State? Louisville has a different profile than UAB, which is different from Florida International.

Sands: “And don’t forget Penn, part of the Ivy League.”

PD: I saw Wharton (in bio) not Penn.

Sands: “Wharton is part of Penn. Business school. But it has it’s own brand so I understand where you get that.

“Athletics, in my 20 years of higher ed, is a really important part of the entire student experience – and if integrated to the university’s strategic priorities can be incredibly important in building momentum and excitement to that university, especially one that is growing like we are.”

PD: In the 1970s, 1980s, early 1990s, urban college basketball – Marquette, DePaul, Louisville, Memphis ..

Sands: “St. John’s, Boston College, yes, yes, …

PD: Those programs were very big and drew big attendance. That is not the case anymore for urban college basketball, particularly for this (mid-major) level, which most of the Horizon League is: Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, all these programs struggle getting people into their buildings. All have NBA teams at their doorstep. So where can you recapture some of that from the ’70s and ’80s for your programs now?

Sands: “I’ve been here nine months now, and Cleveland is a sports town. We’re a college team in downtown Cleveland. There is a rich tradition here for basketball success. I believe that the city will support us.’’

PD: Why hasn’t that happened yet? Going back to Kevin Mackey and Woodling Gym, the core has never really grown beyond 3,000, 3,500 or so. Can you build something here with the Indians, Browns, Cavs, Division III teams, a strong MAC (Mid-American Conference) presence?”

Sands: “I believe we can be successful. I’m a builder. And I’m looking for a partner as an athletic director who can put the right pieces together with our community supporters, our students, our faculty and staff. I’ve gotten a lot of enthusiasm and energy, I’ve felt a lot of enthusiasm and energy for a successful program. Not just basketball, but all our other sports. I’m really bullish on what we can be.”

PD: Talk about your ‘partner.’ What do you want?

Sands: “First and foremost, it has to be someone of incredibly high ethics and integrity. That’s No. 1. Non-negotiable. No. 2, it’s someone who understands the importance of athletics in the greater scheme of our strategic priorities at CSU. Then No. 3, it’s someone who can put the right pieces together, both financially with internal resources, external resources and with the right people. Ultimately it comes down to talent so we can build upon what we already have.”

PD: Prior to your arrival there was talk of reconfiguring the Wolstein Center, downsizing the Wolstein Center, maybe turning it into dorms and building another arena; several different options. Where are you with that, and are any of those options still on the table?

Sands: “It’s too premature to talk about that. It’s something, part of one of the priorities we have is to look at our campus, what our campus wants to be in 5, 10, 15 years. Obviously our facilities, our buildings are our campus footprint. That is a big part of that.’’

PD: What you’re talking about with (building) your program is probably five years out, and maybe 10. How do you hold the excitement level, the interest level for that long?

Sands: “I don’t want to put any specific goals out there before I understand the lay of the land. Back to your first question, that’s one of the things I want to learn as we take inventory of where we are and where we can go. In terms of what we’re building here, I’m in the realm of the possible. There is an incredible amount of energy, and interest, in the city and recognition of how important Cleveland State is. Not just basketball, but the whole university.

“Again, things have to be looked at in the context of where we are going (as a university) and that is what we are going to do.”

PD: When building Wolstein first started, the Cavs were in Richfield. The vision was for this building to house more than basketball, also major concerts and events. Then the Cavs moved back downtown and effectively became a competitor both with facility and product. How …

Sands: “I understand where you’re headed, but I think it’s too premature to get into what the ultimate connection is going to be between our program goals and what we need to make those program goals happen. I’m still at 50,000-feet, looking for in an athletic director. We have good energy and support from our board and community constituency groups.

“I’m still looking for getting the right leader and partner in athletics to help me with a lot of those questions and put some options before us. That’s where I’m at right now. Again, it has got to be the right person. This is a pristine, a really attractive job. We have got a lot of interest. We’re going to get a top person for this job.”

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