Since he was officially named A&T’s Director of Athletics in February 2011, Earl Hilton has worked tirelessly to help the Aggies reach new levels of prosperity. Armed with some stellar job credentials that include a law degree from Texas Tech University, Hilton took on the challenge of leading the A&T athletic department out of academic and organizational chaos, while also finding coaches who could give long-suffering A&T fans a chance to finally celebrate championships. We recently sat down with Hilton and talked to him about his role as the head of Aggie Athletics.
BlueDeathValley: If you had to give a state of the athletic department address to fans right now how would you summarize the current state of A&T athletics?
Earl Hilton: “We’re moving in the right direction. Good people, good student athletes, making good decisions. We’re digging out of some of the holes that we were in. We’re not out of those holes yet but we can see some daylight. We’re heading in the right direction. I’m very optimistic about the future.”
The department seems to have enjoyed a great deal of success and accomplishments over the last couple of years. What are you most proud of since taking over as Director of Athletics in 2011?
Earl Hilton: “Well, this is not really about me. This is about good coaches finding good student athletes, coaching them right and encouraging them to go the class and graduate. But I can say that I’m very pleased with what’s happening with our APR scores. I’m very pleased with our graduation rates and the direction that we are going there. And I’m obviously excited about our competitive success on the field.”
Can you describe the process of repairing the football program’s APR issues? I know that had to be a tremendous battle initially just to get out of that hole you were in to a point now where you’re finally beginning to stand on solid ground.
Earl Hilton: “You’re probably going to hate this answer, but it’s really not magic. I just hired good people, stayed out of their way and tried to make good decisions every day. I have very clear expectations and I know where I want us to go. And every decision we’ve made has been done to bring us closer to that goal.”
I’m sure there had to be times during that process where you experienced some frustration. I know as A&T fans, it seemed like the program would take one step forward and then two steps back, regarding its APR woes.
Earl Hilton: (laughs) “Of course. Especially in that first year when we were just trying to work through some of the things. We were in the middle of certification at the time and we had a number of challenges that we were trying to work through and negotiate. There were definitely a few moments that were more frustrating than others.”
As an athletic director, you have what many would consider a unique and interesting background, including a law degree on your resume. Was there any previous experience that you had or any advice you may have received in your career that prepared you specifically for the APR challenge:
Earl Hilton: “I believe most of the problems that we have can be solved by paying attention to detail. If we focus our attention on a particular issue or concern, there are enough resources in place and enough brilliant people on campus to solve any problem we may have. All we have to do is just get the right people together and ask the right questions and commit to a solution. That’s what we did with the APR. We pulled the right people together and said this is our challenge, this is where we are and this is how fast we need to move. Now what kind of resources and attention can we bring to bear on this project? I can’t say enough about what the academic community here has done to support our student athletes as they worked through the steps of their academic rehabilitation to solve the APR problems.”
Speaking of the academic support system at A&T, I am sure that was something you had to address almost immediately after taking over as athletics director.
Earl Hilton: “We were just understaffed there. That became clear when we began to meet early on with the academic community and looking at our APR problem. Based on the number of student athletes we had to serve, we just didn’t have enough bodies to provide the attention that we needed. So we said let’s find some more resources; let’s identify some people. Athletics found some money and we were able to put good people in place that could provide support for our student athletes.”
Looking back, there was quite a bit of turmoil inside the A&T athletic department when you first took over. Aside from the APR struggles, the school had just fired its second-year football coach, fired a popular athletic director, and was also still reeling from all the fallout from the highly-publicized death of track athlete Jospin Milandu which eventually forced longtime coach Spaceman Thompson to retire. How long did it take you to go from just having to put out fires and trying to keep things together, to being at a point where you finally were able to say that this is now Earl Hilton’s athletic department?
Earl Hilton: “That’s a good question and I don’t know if we’re there yet. Truthfully, from my perspective, I felt ownership very early. I feel like if it happens, I’m responsible for it – in the sense that if it’s not working, I need to fix it. If there’s a problem, I need to address it. I don’t know if I feel like a terribly effective leader. I don’t think I’ve attempted to look at it introspectively enough to know that yet. If I had to identify what I think appears to be working, like I said before, it’s hiring the right people, making good decisions every day and letting them do their jobs. The key for me has been finding the right coaches. And this is not a criticism of any previous coaches we’ve had here at all, but I’ve tried to find the right people who are motivated by the same things that I am motivated by: they want to win, they want to win championships, they want their players to graduate, and they want to do things the right way. They are people of integrity. They say they are going to do this and they do it. That resonates with me and we’ve been very fortunate with some of the people we’ve brought on board in the last few years.”
It seems like those major hiring decisions are what really defines an AD’s success. Unfortunately, if you slip up and make a couple of bad coaching hires at the wrong time it could end up eventually costing you your own job. How much pressure is involved when making a head coaching decision and how do you go about the process?
Earl Hilton: “I wish there was a formula I could give you, but there is really just a sense of finding people who can win; who have a history of winning. Winning championships takes more effort than almost anything else you can do in athletics. It is a special kind of commitment, a special kind of sacrifice that people who win championships make. And I want, as much as possible, to identify people who made that commitment previously – who knows what it feels like, who knows what it takes to win championships. People who recognize the little extra effort, the extra work; the attention to details. There are no small matters; everything is important. Certainly, people win championship ever year that had never won them before and they gain that experience as they go forward, and I hope that happens in a lot of our sports here. But, as much as possible, I want to find people who already know what that tastes like. And then, as I mentioned, I want people that I trust implicitly. I don’t lay awake at night worrying about what’s happening in my athletic programs; I trust my coaches. Of course, we’re going to have problems from time to time. I’m Ok with that. When there is a problem that arises, we address it head on. We don’t pretend it’s not there, we don’t hide it, we don’t sugarcoat it. We all talk about it, we find out if it’s an issue and then we come up with a solution.”
I am sure, like most MEAC athletics directors, one of the biggest challenges you face each day is dealing with overall budget constraints. For years A&T has ranked in the bottom half of the conference in terms of athletic budgets. Do you see that improving in the years ahead?
Earl Hilton: “Let’s put this whole conversation into perspective. We couldn’t be talking about any of the things we’ve discussed – coaching hires, additional scholarships, additional resources for academic support – if it wasn’t for the full support of the chancellor and the university community. They have identified and brought in money to support athletics. My goal is to be completely self-supporting in the next two years. I want us to be at a place where we are breaking even. We have some growing to do but I believe everything is going to fall in place that will allow us to do that. But we don’t have this conversation – we don’t win a championship (in men’s basketball), we don’t have the APR success, we don’t have the graduation rate success – without the chancellor and vice chancellor of business and finance saying ‘Earl, do what you need to do to make this work. Hire the coaches you need, go spend the money for academic support; do what you need to do to make this work’.
There is a perception that when a school has successful revenue generator sports like football and men’s basketball, the alumni donations and corporate sponsorship dollars flow in at a greater pace. Is that true?
Earl Hilton: “If you were to ask Texas A&M today what has been the benefit of having a successful football program and a very colorful quarterback … they raised $740 million last year. That’s $300 million more than their best year ever before. Now I can’t even wrap my mind around those figures but I think it speaks to the point that you make that there is a value of having a strong and visible athletics program. From my perspective, athletics serve as a proxy for the strength of the institution. Right or wrong, institutions that are viewed as having strong athletic programs are also viewed as having strong academic programs. Think of Notre Dame – you think of football. Yet, somehow that strength becomes a reflection of the entire university, as a strong and vibrant, successful organization. Look at Chapel Hill or Duke. When you say those words the connotation that goes with the two are the athletics programs so they serve as a proxy for the strength of the institutions; for its vitality, for its academic prowess and success. So when our athletics programs are doing well it is perceived that A&T academically, and in all other areas, is also strong. And that invites and encourages additional investments.”
With that being said, you were quoted in the paper recently as saying that A&T’s football season ticket sales were slightly down this season, despite the program enjoying its first winning season in almost a decade last year. What do you think is a factor for that?
Earl Hilton: “This year the season book price got to a place where it became potentially more attractive to buy individual tickets. For instance, you could buy general admission tickets and a reserved ticket for Homecoming for less than the price of a season book. I think there were a number of people who have done the math and said this is the level that would make sense for me to purchase a season book. So we may have bumped up against a line there. We only have six home games this season, where last year we had seven home games which made the season book a very attractive option for games. We won’t have seven games next year – we’ll have four of five home games next year – so we’ll have to take a look at the pricing. But what I am seeing is that individual ticket sales are up. We’ve only had one home game this season, but we doubled our (revenue) from the Elon game from what we had expected to make.”
One of the debates that fans on our site have engaged in is whether the $25 general admission price point has caused some sticker shock for casual fans in the community. Is that something your team would ever consider adjusting or is that pretty much the price you need in order to generate the revenue necessary to sustain this program?
Earl Hilton: “There is that balance between what is an appropriate level of cost for the ticket versus the need for revenue generation to support athletics. To answer your first question: it’s always up for discussion. We review these prices every year and make determinations about next year’s prices, in football and basketball. So it will continue to be something we discuss, look at and evaluate, and hopefully we’ll make a good decision going forward.”
Another big decision that you made early on in your tenure as AD, was the implementation of the Game zone. That decision was met with a lot of controversy and media attention. How would you assess the overall impact of the Game Zone over the last couple of years and is it too early to determine if it’s been a success or not?
Earl Hilton: “From my perspective it’s been a success. The baseline that I’m using is Homecoming ticket sales, year over year, and those are up the last two years over the previous year. Also, the feedback that I’m getting from fans that are in the game is that it creates a very inviting, comfortable game experience. Obviously, the ones who aren’t inside (the Game Zone) are not having that experience and there is some frustration from them because they can’t get in. I think it’s important to know that when we implemented the Game Zone we also created the Community Outreach Ticket Program which allows for elementary and middle school students to come to the games for free. They can come through a community organization like the Boys and Girls Club or junior high school or a church group – just as long as they are not recruiting age, eighth grade and below. They get free tickets and we provide tickets to their chaperones and they can all come to the games. This is our third year of doing that and so far we’ve given away almost 3,000 tickets. So we’ve made the games a little more exclusive with the Game Zone but we’ve also created a way for individuals who might be excluded otherwise to come and have that experience. We want to continue to engage the community and invite them to attend all of our games.”
When you also look at some of the recent tragedies in the news like the Boston Marathon bombing, safety and security has to be a new concern when you are staging large gatherings like college football games. I am sure the Game Zone set up only helps improve the safety in and around Aggie Stadium.
Earl Hilton: “Yes, since 9-11 it’s been something that anyone who creates an event that draws large number of people has to be concerned about. It does make it simpler for us to establish a perimeter away from where the biggest crowd of people will be gathered.”
Well the football team has a big game coming up against Howard which will be broadcast live on ESPNU. Are there any new things from the athletic department that fans can expect tonight?
Earl Hilton: “Well, we rolled out the cannon two weeks ago (against Elon). Last spring we met with the ROTC leaders here on campus about our Veterans Day celebration that will be coming up later this season. We were talking with them about things we could do for that game and someone asked about borrowing a cannon. I said hey, ‘let’s just have the cannon for every game.’ I was familiar with that being a tradition at other schools, so we’ll have the cannon go off after each score and the ROTC students will do pushups on the track. Also, we’ll have field goal nets this year. That was something that was encouraged by the MEAC office because it creates marketing space and it eliminates balls going into the crowd and hitting people in the head. It will happen at other MEAC schools but we’re excited about it happening here at A&T.”
One of the things we’ve talking about on our message board is how to improve the visual for TV games. Last year we had a nice crowd against Morgan State but because of where the TV camera where positioned it gave the impression of a lot of empty seats.
Earl Hilton: “Against Howard, we are trying to move everybody to the visitor’s side. The cameras shoot off the top of the press box and I don’t want any empty seats on the opposite side. So we’re going to move the students and band over, but we’ll also be asking our season ticket holders and everybody else to move to the other side. Another thing that we’re doing this year is that when we take photos of any check presentations at midfield we will have the participants have their backs to the (home side), which will present a better image.”
Lastly, are there any future facility upgrades or renovations that fans should be aware of?
Earl Hilton: “One of the things that I expect to happen in the next 8 to 10 years is that I want to create an athletic administrative office built in the horseshoe area of Aggie Stadium. I want it dug into the hill and sit three of four stories off the ground. The first two stories will be behind the stadium and the third and fourth will be above the back of the stadium where you can watch the game. That would create more leasable space, space for the Aggie Athletic Foundation and also some event space for games. So you would have the sky box over there with the suites, and you’d have the athletics building in the endzone which locker rooms, coaches offices, classrooms, training facilities and some vending space, and then on the top floors you might have some AAF space and development space where people could watch the games. That’s my number one objective right now in terms of big projects.”