Ready to Pivot

ready to pivotAfter a 28-year-run as head of the Augustana Athletics department, Bill Gross ‘73 announced his decision to step down from the athletic director post in December. This spring, he’ll begin a new role as a senior development officer and director of major gifts for the College’s Advancement office.

The 6’ 8” tall native of Hayfield, Minn., will leave behind an unprecedented legacy of success within Augustana Athletics and, it goes without saying, very large (literally) shoes to fill.

Under his watch, the Vikings have emerged as a formidable powerhouse within NCAA Division II athletics. Since joining the 16-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the Vikings have finished no lower than second in the U.S. Bank All Sports Award. At the national level, Augustana has recorded top-10 finishes among 300 NCAA Division II institutions in the Learfield Director’s Cup every year for the last three years, and finished sixth in 2012-2013.

Bill GrossIn the last four years alone, three of Augustana’s teams had history-making seasons: football in 2010-11, women’s cross country in 2011 and women’s basketball in 2013.

Beyond his efforts to build strong coaching staffs who can develop and foster student-athletes, Gross has also worked tirelessly to increase the Athletics department’s financial base. Over the last seven years, Athletics department revenue, including ticket sales, event proceeds and fundraising, has more than doubled. Over the same period, the College has seen more than $17.6 million in athletic facility improvements, including Kirkeby-Over Stadium and the Hall Football Complex and Sanford Gymnasium.

Today, 420 students – 26.5 percent of the student body – wear the navy and gold in athletic competition.

Ahead of his move across campus to the Administration building, we caught up with Gross to ask him about his career in Augustana Athletics.

Q. As a kid, how did you become interested in athletics?
A.
I grew up on a small farm – about 160 acres. It was a pretty typical small farm life – we had cows, pigs, chickens and farmland. My parents ran the farm and looked after the five kids.

I got the love of sports from my older brothers. We were all tall – my dad was tall, too. My oldest brother, John, got things going by playing basketball, football and baseball. From him, we fell in love with sports.

My mom and dad – even though they both had eighth grade educations – were proponents of education all the way. They wanted their kids to go on to college. Not that any of us couldn’t have farmed; I think they just didn’t envision that for us. I remember my mom saying, ‘Get your education first – then you’ll always have something to fall back on.’ They were a great influence on me.

I was recruited to Augie as a basketball player in 1969. I knew of the school because my older brother (Don, class of 1969, now deceased) had come to Augustana and really loved it here. He was a big influence.

I really was impressed with Augustana –  its academic reputation, the level of competition, which in those days was the North Central Conference, and the city of Sioux Falls. When those things were put together, I really thought it was a perfect fit for me. And, it turned out to be.

Q. What memories stand out from your time as a student?
A.
From the academic standpoint here, I was influenced heavily and motivated by my advisor Dwayne Matz (History). He was a great professor. I loved American History and I really admired him. I never wanted anything other than an A from him. He was probably my greatest academic influence.

From a playing standpoint, my influences were Mel Klein and John Thomas. They became the coaches here in 1971, during my junior year.

Mel and John were able to improve the program to the point where, when I was a senior, we were quite good and in the conference chase.

Sam Milanovich ‘73 (now deceased) was my best friend – we had great times together. We were opposites. He was from a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa. – a big city kid – and I was a farm kid. But, we seemed to hit it off well. He was a great friend.

Q. As a student, what did you envision as a career for yourself?
A.
Growing up, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. When I was in high school, I kind of thought I wanted to be a radio or TV guy. That all went away when I got to college. I became a history major and got my teaching certificate.

After graduation in 1973, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. John Thomas helped me find a tour team in Europe. From there, I went to a regular team in France and spent eight months there. During that time, I figured out I really wanted to coach.

I came back and coached in high school for awhile, then was an assistant [at Augustana] with Mel in 1979.

I never thought that much about coaching until I was just out of college. Then I ended up coaching but I never thought I’d be an athletic director – that was the farthest thing from my mind.

Q. How did you end up in the AD role?
A.
Well, I never sought the AD job here. I was the basketball coach in the 1980s and Virg Sandvig was the athletic director and was also a professor of geography.

In 1986, Virg wanted to step away so [then] President [Bill] Nelson asked me if I would be interested in taking on the AD job in addition to being the basketball coach.

I said no. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. We had two little kids and another one on the way.

But, he kept asking. So, I told him I would try it for a year.

There was so much going on here. In that year, the Elmen Center was in the planning stages. So you start to get into the middle of that, then it’s a year later and you think, ‘I should probably see that through.’ Then it’s two years later and pretty soon, it’s sort of like, ‘That’s your job.’

Q. You served as AD and head men’s basketball coach for six years. Was that tough?
A.
[He laughs.] They were six very long years. It was really difficult. In that era though, we didn’t have the number of student athletes we have now, nor the number of sports, nor the fundraising mechanisms we have now. It was still busy – but a different kind of busy.

In 1992, I went to [then] President [Lloyd] Svendsbye and said ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I said ‘I have to go one way or the other.’

I really wasn’t ready to quit coaching. But, I thought I could always go back to coaching. At the same time, I knew I might not always have the chance to go back to being an athletic director. So I chose athletic director.

There’s never been a dull moment. It changes all the time. There’s always excitement. There’s always challenge. There are always problems to solve. There are some rewards, too – of seeing something you had a part in succeed.

Q. As AD, what’s been your management style?
A.
I’ve always been a team guy – nothing happens with one person. You need a team of people pulling together – whether that’s in a sport, or raising money for a project – whatever it is, no one does it by themselves.

As an athletic director, I think your job is to help organize, to help create, and to help motivate. You need to help plan and help develop the vision. I think you always need to be looking ahead. If you’re staying where you are, you’re going to get passed up. You have to keep looking ahead and dreaming of what could be. There will be people who will tell you you’re crazy. But if you don’t have a vision, things will never happen. You have to dream.

Q. Favorite memories as an AD?
A.
Above it all, to me, it’s been about the relationships. I look over the last 28 years of doing this and I see the fantastic coaches we’ve had, the administrators, the people around campus and, at the top of the list, the student-athletes. Holy cow! They’re the greatest thing about it. It’s such a joy to run into these people now. They’re so successful and they’re doing so well. To think that maybe I had some little part in that – that’s just the most rewarding thing in the world.

And, through it all, my family has been the most important thing to me.

My wife, Sheree, is really special to me. When you’re a coach’s wife, your partner is going to end up living that life with you. They share in your joys and share in your sorrows. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. We’re blessed with three kids and four grandkids.

Q. What are you looking forward to in your new role in Advancement?
A.
The Augustana story is so good – whether it’s in academics or the arts or athletics or whatever – we have so many great stories to tell. We have such excellence in so many things that, when I visit with folks to share these stories, I’m hopeful they’ll consider investing in Augustana.

I’m really looking forward to this next chapter.