Jim Donovan was named athletics director for the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in March 2008; he recently took time out to talk to Mālamalama.
You’re a native of Anaheim, Calif. What brought you to Hawaiʻi?
I came to Hawaiʻi in December 1980 because I was offered a scholarship to play football. I decided to stay because of the people. The aloha spirit won me over…not to mention, I married local girl Tracy Orillo-Donovan!
You earned all-Western Athletic Conference honorable mention for your senior season as a UH offensive lineman in 1982 and served two years as a graduate assistant to Football Coach Dick Tomey.
My most memorable moment had to be my first game in Aloha Stadium. Before the game, Coach Tomey had us gather around him in the locker room and take a knee. He told us when we run out that tunnel onto the field we aren’t just playing for ourselves, but for an entire state. He said that was an awesome honor, but also a big responsibility—how we conducted ourselves, how we played (and by winning) we could bring pride to an entire state, and that not many other players in intercollegiate football could say that. I was so pumped up when I ran out onto the field and they were playing “Hawaiʻi Five-O,” I thought I could hurdle the goalpost!
Your undergraduate degree in geography is handy in the far-flung WAC league, and your MBA is apropos your current role.
The faculty I had for both programs was outstanding! I had the opportunity to be taught by faculty at the University of Southern California and the University of North Carolina through a professional development program, and I can tell you our UH faculty is just as good or better.
Geography is the study of people, environment, economics, culture, etc.—a great way to learn about so many things. My Shidler College of Business executive MBA, covering management, marketing, economics, organizational behavior, etc., has been invaluable regarding the day-to-day business of running an intercollegiate athletics program.
What role did your hānai family play?
John and Dede Awana, my hānai parents, taught me about the aloha spirit and re-enforced many of the family aspects my parents taught me growing up. They are very humble. They helped about half a dozen other young men besides me, which shows how selfless they are. I keep in close touch with my hānai mom (unfortunately my hānai dad passed away last October); about every other month, we sneak out for a Friday lunch with her sister.
What are your immediate goals and long-range vision for UH Mānoa athletics?
We are in the business of both education and entertainment. We want to be student-athletes’ destination of choice and see them graduate. We must also get a handle on the budget, instill a corporate culture that emphasizes customer service and improve morale.
The long-range vision, besides making sure the new corporate culture is well entrenched, would be to have our sports programs regularly win conference championships, participate in the NCAA post-season events and achieve great graduation rates. We want to change the budget deficit to a surplus, and I’d like to see us continue to grow our athletic endowments and bring all our facilities to first-class status.
Are recurring murmurs about UH joining the Pac-10 a pipe dream or realistic goal?
Without question, UH Mānoa is a quality research institution that would fit well educationally in the Pac-10. The athletic side is more complex. To be attractive to a Bowl Championship Series conference, our athletic programs would regularly have to be among the nation’s best. Besides competitive improvement, we would have to appeal to fans outside of Hawaiʻi, maybe in Asia, so that it would make economic sense to add us.
The smartest thing we can do is to increase the competitive success of our athletic program, broaden our public appeal and position ourselves as best as possible for any future conference re-alignments.
The budget presents a major challenge, and the economic forecast isn’t encouraging.
In good or bad economic times, people always look for value. It can be in the form of lower prices—we have lowered prices in some seating sections for all our sports this year—or it can be in value-added items such as promotions and/or additional entertainment value. (The late UH Athletic Director) Stan Sheriff taught me the bottom line is people vote with their wallets—if they perceive the value to be worth it, they will come. Our job is to make that perception a reality. Every time has it challenges, and great programs rise to the challenge.
Describe your ticket pricing strategy.
Some of our ticket prices became too high over the years compared to the perceived value of the seat locations—for example, the end zones for football and upper levels of Stan Sheriff Center and Les Murakami Stadium. Often, businesses keep raising prices, thinking they will make more money, but they don’t sell as much, so under financial duress they raise prices again. We were headed down that path, but I think we’ve now made sure, by lowering prices in certain sections, that we are still affordable to all the people of Hawaiʻi, which represents our whole fan base.
Will we see a closer relationship between the alumni organization and athletics?
I served on the UH Alumni Association Board of Directors for six years, and I’m very proud of the organization’s growth and accomplishments. The goals of UHAA are to keep all alumni connected, increase support for all campuses and provide scholarships to deserving students. UH athletics and UHAA are building a partnership where both entities can benefit—we provide ticket discounts and exposure; UHAA provides new avenues to communicate with our fans and alumni.
Who is your mentor or hero?
I’ve been very fortunate to have many mentors in my life—Coach Tomey; UH’s Rockne Freitas, Stan Sheriff and Hugh Yoshida; ESPN executive Pete Derzis and now Mānoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw. These individuals and many others helped me become a better person and leader.
That said, my best mentors and heroes are my mom and dad. They laid the groundwork for me to be who I am today through life-lessons, education and unconditional love. I only hope Tracy and I can do as good a job!
As president and CEO of m2c, Inc., you provided strategic direction in event management to clients including ESPN Regional Television, Panda Travel and Sodexho Food Services. What’s your top event management tip?
Sweat the details! All it takes is one, just one, thing to go wrong and your customer can have a bad experience. The best customer service organizations in the world understand this and work overtime to make sure nothing can go wrong. If you are successful, you’ll have a satisfied customer and, important for UH athletics, you’ll likely have a repeat customer, maybe even a season ticket holder.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Did you have a good-luck practice as a player? How about as athletic director?
I kept my same routine every game—what I watched on TV, how I got dressed, how I stretched. Did it help? I don’t know. The important thing is if you don’t do the same things, it irritates you, and then you’re thinking about something else and not concentrating on your performance.
As athletic director, I try to not bachi a coach or player by paying a compliment during a game or series. If necessary I’ll wait to the end of the season, but the first chance I get, I let them know they did a great job!
How do you unwind?
I workout/walk everyday. It helps keep me healthy and lowers stress levels. Other forms of stress relief include spending time with my family (often watching my daughter or son play a game), reading or playing a computer strategy game.
Your wife was a UH athlete and athletics staffer before moving to an upper campus job. Are your children following in the family sports tradition?
Tracy is the true athlete in our family. Born slightly too soon to enjoy all the benefits Title IX has brought women, she just missed being a softball player for UH. At Waialua High School she played basketball, volleyball, softball and ran track and field. In my best year I played two sports, football and either baseball or shot put.
Both of our children are doing well in sports—Jackie in volleyball, basketball and judo and Josh in football and baseball. We really enjoy their academic and athletic successes!