Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Retiring Elon A.D. Dave Blank reflects on university’s achievements, challenges in athletics

By Bob Sutton

Special to The Alamance News

“Elon has been growing up all those years [during his 17-year tenure and that of his predecessor Alan White for 27 years]. A lot of that is Elon deciding what Elon wants to be and become, and I guess he and I were fortunate to be in this position through that.”

– Retiring Elon athletics director Dave Blank

Dave Blank’s decision to step down as athletics director at Elon University after 17 years became a matter of timing.

“It just seems like the right time,” he said. “I am in a position that I can do it if I want to do it. I don’t have an immediate plan that I’m going to go do this or that. I just felt like this is a good time.”

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Much of that comes because of the evolving landscape in college athletics. From Blank’s vantage point, it makes sense for a transition to take place now as Elon waits to see how it fits into whatever Division I looks like amid changes in transfer rules, the power structure, and the fallout of athletes pursuing Name, Imagine and Likeness (NIL) opportunities.

“There is going to be a lot of change – the whole what it means to be involved in NCAA sports,” he said. “I don’t have a negative banter on that, it’s just going to be a lot different. A lot of that we don’t know how it’s going to land. It just felt like this would be a good time before I decided I’m going to do this in the middle of all sorts of flare-up transition. I thought it would be a better situation for me and the institution.”

Blank, 63, will remain in the athletics director’s role until a successor is in place. The university’s goal is to have the next AD hired by the end of June, though the starting date could come later in the summer.

Blank will handle assignments as a special assistant to university president Connie Book. His ties to Elon are strong.

His four children are Elon graduates. His wife, Leslie, is an instructor of psychology at the university.

[Story continues below photos of Blank at Elon.]

Photos at Elon

Elon athletics director Dave Blank and Leslie Blank, an Elon psychology instructor.
Elon athletics director Dave Blank with Elon University president Dr. Connie Book.
Elon athletics director Dave Blank with then University president Dr. Leo Lambert in 2016 for the groundbreaking of the Schar Center.
Early in his tenure as athletics director, at a football game at Rhodes Stadium.
Surveying the site of future field house at Rhodes Stadium.

Photos courtesy of Elon Athletics

“All our sports are in position to win their respective championship. . . The ultimate goal would be to win a championship in every sport at least once every four years.”

– Elon athletics director Dave Blank

“I want what’s best for Elon,” he said. “I’ll always have a stake in Elon relative to the athletic department and how it’s going to go. These are all my coaches. For a while, I’ll know most of the student-athletes. That will dissipate as we go. Ten years from now, if all the coaches are different, I’m still going to have an infinity to Elon athletics.”

Either Blank or his predecessor, Alan White, have occupied the athletics director’s chair for a total of 44 years.

“Elon has been growing up all those years,” Blank said. “A lot of that is Elon deciding what Elon wants to be and become, and I guess he and I were fortunate to be in this position through that.”

With Blank as AD, the Phoenix has won about 90 team and individual conference championships in either the Southern Conference or Colonial Athletic Association. Blank launched the “Night of the Phoenix” fundraiser that across 15 years has gone from a goal of raising $30,000 to closing in on $450,000 annually for student-athlete scholarships.

Blank was hired by former president Leo Lambert. He said he shares the vision of both Lambert and Book on how athletics fits at the university.

Q&A with Dave Blank, retiring Elon Athletics Director

 Here are topics discussed in a wide-ranging interview this month:

Will his future include intercollegiate athletics?

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not like I’m out of energy. It’s not that at all. I’m just not sure what’s next. What I’m going to do is spend as much time as I can focusing on my wife and my four children, and that will be fun for me. I don’t know what that will all involve. It’s time for me to do some of that. They’ve let me do what I’ve been doing for a long time.”

He said there could be new interests within college athletics that emerge once he’s retired from Elon.

“I’m not wired to work (forever),” he said. “I’m not going to die in my briefcase.”


Some of the biggest accomplishments?

“I’ve got an awful lot to be proud of and it’s really a team effort,” he said. “It starts with the two presidents who I’ve had the pleasure of working with. … This was part of the vision for the institution. Some of that has my personality on it. I’ve been fortunate to be able to dream those dreams and then pursue them.

“Putting the coaches and athletes in positions to be competitive. I think everything revolves around that… and giving the coaches the resources to be able to pursue championships.”

For the last six years, Elon led the CAA in graduation success rate. Every Elon team travels abroad once during a four-cycle (though football players go during their junior seasons).


What about facilities?

A building project or significant renovation has been completed for every team under Blank.

“Now 17 years, I would expect that of anybody,” he said. “Maybe there’s some people that don’t get that luxury. I remember getting here thinking, ‘There’s a lot here, so what’s going to be next?’ And then it just never stopped. There was a good base when I got here. It wasn’t like I walked into a war zone.”

Elon made the move to Division I in 1999. It has been an ongoing quest to keep up with those demands.

“I was allowed to advance that,” he said. “It had gotten to a certain point. To get it home, it had to keep going. Athletics in Division I keeps progressing and you have to keep progressing with it. Elon afforded me the opportunity to keep that progression going.”

The biggest future undertaking would be an indoor practice facility for outdoor sports. Blank said adding a clubhouse for baseball and advancing the golf facility are on the wish list.

“I’ve got to believe someday you’ll see Rhodes Stadium have turf instead of natural grass,” he said.

That would provide more practice space, give the go-ahead for additional women’s lacrosse games in the stadium, and offer an avenue to add men’s lacrosse to the athletics department.


How has Elon managed in the CAA?

Then nicknamed Fighting Christians, the school was in the Big South Conference early in its Division I days. There was a move to the Southern Conference and then, in 2014, it was off to the CAA.

“It was a challenge. We weren’t quite ready for that level. It was a big transition for us to make the move,” Blank said. “It was more expensive and travel was different. … I think there are still a number of our fans that check the Wofford-Furman scores more than they check the Hofstra-Northeastern scores. I get that.”

Yet there have been good times, particularly for women’s track and field, men’s soccer, and a two-year span of NCAA Tournament berths for women’s basketball.

During the 2022-23 school year, Elon finished in the upper-half of CAA standings in every sport except for men’s basketball, women’s basketball and women’s lacrosse.

“Every sport is its own formula,” he said. “All our sports are in position to win their respective championship. We aren’t just a one-trick pony and that has always been very important to me. … The ultimate goal would be to win a championship in every sport at least once every four years.”

Elon is braced for the unknown.

“Is there going to be more conference reorganization? Is there going to be financial stress and divide at different levels in athletics?” Blank said. “And if so, then where is Elon’s landing spot? … There is more transition coming, but we don’t know what it’s going to be yet. I think Elon is in a good position to be reactive if they need to be.”


What about men’s basketball?

“We still have not gotten men’s basketball to the NCAA (Tournament),” Blank said.

That’s the school’s only program without an NCAA Tournament bid on the Division I level.

Coaches Ernie Nestor, Matt Matheny, Mike Schrage, and current coach Billy Taylor have been in charge under Blank’s watch.

“We haven’t had consistency,” Blank said. “Transitioning from one conference to another conference is not consistency. Coach changes is not consistency. We have to let that consistency settle out. And I think that will happen. … I think Billy Taylor is the right coach right now for where we’re trying to move.”

There’s a formula that needs to work for the Phoenix, regardless of sport.

“Elon is a place that you have to mix excellence in recruiting with excellence in player development,” Blank said. “You have to develop them and then be patient, and it will happen. And we’ve seen that with other sports. That’s why I think that will happen in basketball. Charlotte Smith has done a tremendous job and has made that happen (with women’s basketball).

“I don’t think men’s basketball is in a state of emergency. I think it just needs to get consistency and it will happen. Football was the same way. It took us a while.”


Who’s hiring?

In 17 years, Blank hired head coaches for every sport except baseball, volleyball, women’s golf, men’s tennis, and women’s tennis.

“I’m a byproduct of two presidents that makes me think at least I have things in common with them,” he said of the hiring topic. “The question is: Who fits at Elon? The other thing is, who fits at Elon with this particular team we have? And has the vision to take it forward?”

Often, the result was hiring an assistant coach from more established programs within the state. Those examples included Matheny (from Davidson), Smith (from North Carolina), former football coach Jason Swepson (from North Carolina State), women’s lacrosse coach Josh Hexter (from Duke). Others such as Schrage, former football coach Curt Cignetti, men’s golf coach Don Hill, and cross country coach Kevin Jermyn had significant time in ACC programs within the state, though they worked elsewhere before arriving at Elon.

“I’m not batting a thousand,” Blank said. “I’m pretty close.”


The NIL impact

Elon doesn’t have a collective for NIL, treading carefully until the legal angles are defined, Blank said.

“I have been hesitant on all of that because I want to see what’s legal,” he said. “Are there going to be guardrails on Name, Image and Likeness? Is the transfer portal really working?”

Blank said he supports athletes benefiting from NIL. Concerns arise when people outside athletics departments have leverage in recruiting, he said.

So new rules are bound to be coming.

“The new age of ADs, that will be the only way they know it to be,” he said. “It will be OK, but people like me who have been around it so long, it’s so different. It’s like, ‘I’m not sure I‘m the right person for this.’ Those are comments I’m hearing from colleagues around the country. It’s unsettling, but it’s really because it’s so new to us.”

The transfer portal is another issue for schools outside the Power 5 conferences. Major colleges are poaching talent from smaller schools.

“One of your athletes accomplishes Player of the Week in the conference and you cringe,” he said. “Now, don’t tell anybody. It’s a shame.”


Can Elon entice more fans?

With the opening of Schar Center in 2018, a new era opened for volleyball and basketball teams. But when the CAA’s women’s basketball tournament was taking place in the building in March 2020, there was an unexpected twist. The remainder of the event was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Blank said that wiped out momentum to build a bigger fan base.

“COVID killed it and now we’re trying to get back to it,” he said.

One solution is obvious.

“I think it’s about winning,” Blank said. “People will get behind winning. They always do. We always compete with the Big Four ACC schools and when their schedules are.”

In this market, the Atlantic Coast Conference schools dominate the conversion. Elon can fit it.

“We might not be everybody’s favorite school, but we’re one of two, which is the most I can ask for,” Blank said.

Pushing for student attendance is crucial. The pitch in the broader community is that Elon can provide more of a family atmosphere than a corporate tone, he said.

“When they can, they come,” he said. “We’re not going to wait to win and then try to get people to come. We’re going to do it the other way around. We need you here so we can win.”

Blank said Elon has promoted the convenience of attending Elon games.

“We haven’t really tried to convert people. We just kept inviting them,” he said. “It’s the church approach: Everyone bring a friend. If we do our job and impress them, they’ll come back on their own. I get it. You’ve got to have a good product, and we do.”


What’s the biggest challenge for the next AD?

It’s NIL. “I don’t know how to separate that,” he said.

Blank said he hasn’t been involved in hiring the next AD. There’s bound to be style changes.

“A fresh set of eyes on things, there might be some things to tweak and change,” he said. “I think the national landscape is what has to continue to be followed to make sure we figure out where we belong and how that’s going to impact Elon.

“My role, if there’s any role, is to be 100 percent supportive if that person wants it. To be intrusive or to be opinionated, that’s not my style.” 

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