Puck Swami: DU Athletic leadership change offers new Vice Chancellor possibilities

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 11.01.04 PM(Photo Credits: University of Denver (Grahame, Peck), Swarthmore College (Akotaobi), Tulane University (Macneill), St. Cloud St. University (Weems), Blacktop Colorado (Willis)

We’ve now had a few days to process the major change in athletic leadership coming our way as DU fans: DU Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation Peg Bradley-Doppes announced her retirement at the end of the 2017/18 school year.  While longtime DU Deputy Athletic Director Ron Grahame is taking over the athletic director’s day-to-day responsibilities immediately, DU also announced that a nationwide search would take place this year to ultimately fill the vice-chancellor’s position that Peg has filled so well for the last nearly 15 years.

Indeed, Peg has built the Denver athletic program into the finest non-football athletic program in the country, and will now focus her final season on capital projects such as fund-raising and building DU’s new Tennis Center.  She will be rightly credited with moving DU from a hockey school with a successful ski team to a multi-sport Division I powerhouse that graduates 95% of its players and maintains a departmental GPA north of 3.3.  Every DU fan owes her a huge debt of gratitude for what she has accomplished here, and she rides into the sunset as the greatest AD that Denver has ever had.

Filling her shoes won’t be easy. DU is entering an uncertain period of college athletics, with big challenges ahead in finance, conference affiliation and elevating the DU basketball programs to a higher level of excellence (to name just three issues), as well as marketing DU sports in a time of declining college sports attendance and increasing local entertainment options.

Here is my own personal view of candidates with DU ties who might be considered to move into Peg’s Vice Chancellor position. Of course, the national Vice Chancellor search will provide far more potential candidates, but since we don’t know any of them right now, here are a half dozen possibilities with DU ties, in alphabetical order. You can click the link on each of their names to see more complete biographies.

Nnenna Akotaobi, currently Associate AD//Senior Women’s Administrator/Deputy Title IX Coordinator, Swarthmore (Pa.) College (D-III)

Nnenna is a 2009 DU graduate who was a standout basketball player and team captain at DU. Fast-tracked into athletics administration, Akotaobi has been a senior athletic leader at Swarthmore College since 2012.  While Swarthmore College is not a D-I school, it is a highly-respected academic powerhouse that just happens to be the school where Chancellor Chopp was President before taking the DU Chancellor position in 2014.

Certainly, Akotaobi knows Chancellor Chopp and vice-versa, and given DU’s emphasis on diversity in hiring, the chance to hire a young, dynamic, female, African-American DU grad with some administrative athletic experience should be evaluated.  Working against her candidacy is her experience level, which would certainly be on the light side for a D-I athletic director, as well as the fact she does not yet have a masters degree, which would be very unusual for a Vice Chancellor position. From where I sit, Nnenna is young and someone to keep an eye on in college sports but is probably a few years away from having the credentials to run a D-I athletic department. She would, however, be a great Colorado-native candidate to bring back to DU as a senior leader in athletics under the new Vice Chancellor.

Ron Grahame, currently DU Athletic Director

A former DU all-American and NHL goaltender, Ron bleeds Crimson and Gold and has spent the better part of his 30-year career in coaching and administration here at DU after his retirement as a hockey player. He’s a skilled, respected NCAA leader, a terrific person and fully deserving of his new role as DU Athletic Director. I hope he stays on the job as long as wishes to do so. That said, he’s 67 years old, and I assume that Grahame’s DU career is likely also now in the sunset phase, given the fact that there will be a national search for a new Vice Chancellor, and the new Vice Chancellor will want to be a hands-on leader with his/her own agenda and leadership team. Let’s hope that Ron, if he is indeed on a well-deserved career victory lap as AD, will be instrumental in helping Chancellor Chopp select the new Vice Chancellor later this year.

Brandon Macneill, currently DU Athletics’ Associate Vice Chancellor for External Affairs

Brandon Macneill replaced Ryan Peck last year as DU’s primary fundraiser in athletics. Prior to his arrival in the Mile High City, Macneill served as the Executive Associate Director of Athletics for External Affairs at Tulane University, a New Orleans campus he had worked at since 2008. While at Tulane, Macneill had significant daily involvement in fundraising, marketing, ticketing, corporate sponsorship, media relations, public affairs, licensing, video, new media, branding and customer service.

Before Tulane, Macneill worked for five years as the Associate Director of Athletics for Administration and Strategic Planning at the University of Kansas, with prior stints at Princeton, Dartmouth, and UConn. His Bachelors and Masters degrees were earned at Tulane in the 1990s.  I think Brandon offers an extroverted personality, mid-career savvy, and broad D-I athletic experience that could make him an attractive option, should DU choose to hire from within.

Ryan Peck, currently Executive Senior Associate AD For External Affairs, University of North Texas 

Ryan was the Associate Vice Chancellor for Athletic External Affairs at DU until last year when he accepted a similar athletics administrative position at the University of North Texas. Peck was very well-regarded in his position at DU, particularly for his skills elevating the fundraising operations and capital projects. His background at DU, UNT, Tennessee-Chattanooga and the Miami Heat (NBA) gives him deep experience for a candidate still in his mid-30s. He would add youth, vitality and a more extroverted persona to the leadership team at DU, and already has the respect of the current DU coaches.

Peck also has an MBA, which helps on the financial side of sports. What may work against his candidacy is the fact that he recently left DU for another school. Some may see that move as advancing his career by getting experience at a larger football school, while others at DU may have been surprised and/or miffed by his move away from DU, where he appeared to be on the fast track. From where I sit, Ryan would make an outstanding young candidate with a huge upside, who could hit the ground running and who could be the one to help DU get to the next level in basketball, which could, in turn, help open up more financial and conference affiliation options.

Heather Weems, currently Director of Athletics, St. Cloud (Minn.) State University

Weems became AD at St. Cloud State in 2012 and was DU’s Director of Athletic Compliance from 1998-2008. She has proven to be a competent athletics leader at SCSU, a mostly Division II school that also plays D-I hockey with DU in the NCHC. If Chancellor Chopp wants to hire another female AD for DU (and let’s face it, DU has had strong female athletic leadership since 1999 under M. Dianne Murphy and Peg Bradley-Doppes), Weems would likely be a candidate, since she already knows DU well, having worked here for a decade before moving on to Drake University and SCSU.  The downside of her candidacy might be that she is more known for her administrative capabilities than she is known as a program builder. I believe Heather would be a solid administrator and a decent hire, but perhaps not the extroverted leader that DU should desire for this position.

Bob Willis, currently DU’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of External Operations for Athletics & Recreation. 

Bob isn’t as well known as some other potential candidates, but he brings nine years of direct DU athletics management experience since joining DU in 2007, and many more years of senior level positions with Wells Fargo Bank and AT&T Broadband, and he also served as president of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the University of Colorado Foundation before joining DU.  Willis is a 1976 graduate of Colorado College and serves on a number of boards in the community. While Bob has a great corporate resume as well as some solid work here in DU athletics, he is also in his 60s and likely into the sunset of his career.

Of course, with a national search planned for the Vice Chancellor position, DU will attract interest from a vast array of candidates across the NCAA and professional sports. If Peg and Ron are able to help review these candidates, I am sure there will be some very exciting possibilities, to add to those with DU ties.

On a final note, let’s all hope Peg has the biggest say in her replacement as Vice Chancellor. With 30-plus years working in D-I athletics and the high level of national respect she’s created, she has access to a portfolio of capable candidates around the country. Given her high level of success in hiring the right people at DU (always based on character), we’d all be very smart to listen to her.

Go Pios!

Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his opinions here periodically on LetsGoDU.