Bahn: Q&A With New Razorback Foundation Executive Director Chris Wyrick


Bahn: Q&A With New Razorback Foundation Executive Director Chris Wyrick
Chris Wyrick was recently named Executive Director of the Razorback Foundation after serving in the Arkansas athletic department since 2008. (Arkansas Business File Photo)

Chris Wyrick was announced Monday as Executive Director of the Razorback Foundation. Wyrick has spent the last four-plus years in the Arkansas athletic department in a variety of roles, including overseeing the Razorback Seat Value Plan that helped increase the football season ticket base and raise an additional $6.5 million in revenue.

Wyrick, who lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Merrily, and two daughters, Caroline and Caitlin, worked at South Carolina and Vanderbilt before joining the Razorback staff in 2008.

Below is a Q&A conducted Tuesday afternoon with Wyrick. He outlines his plans for the Razorback Foundation and how he envisions the private, fund-raising arm working more closely with the athletic department in the future.

No, I didn't ask why you have such a lousy parking space ...

Q. Let’s just get this one out of the way right off the bat. You’re not an Arkansan. You’re not a former football player like the previous Foundation directors. This concerns a segment of boosters and fans. What do you say to alleviate that concern?

Wyrick: Well, I think the business of college athletics continues to evolve. I think the days of an alumnus being the AD or an alumnus of the booster club, are quite honestly more rare than they’ve ever been. What I’ll say to them though is I do respect and understand how they feel. I can truly say that because I’ve been here going on five years. I do have a pulse of the Razorback nation. I sat in a cubicle for 18 months and talked to some 4,000 Razorback fans about their football tickets, their most valued possession. I heard the good, the bad, the ugly of that. So I can truly say I am qualified to know what it is they are looking for. I understand the importance and the heritage of our letter winners and how it is special in this state. Truly, all I ask them to do is give me a chance. I’ve had a chance to get to know a lot of them. I’m confident that given that chance, the fact I’m not a letter winner from the University of Arkansas will become obsolete in the future.

If you look around the country right now there aren’t a lot of people that have come up through development that came through the University of Arkansas. There just aren’t. So one of the things I want to start immediately is an internship program where annually we hire one or two Arkansas graduates to come in and work with us for a year, get them placed in the development industry across the country. So that the next time these jobs come up, there will be qualified Arkansans in the marketplace to come back. We did that at N.C. State in 1992, we had four a year and it’s the most powerful pipeline in the country. Think about that, four people a year since 1992 that went to N.C. State that are now in this business. I want to start that for the University of Arkansas. There’s no reason we don’t do that.

Q. You mention being here going on five years, alluded to the Razorback Seat Value Plan (RSVP) program. If you look at your tenure here is the ticket licensing program the accomplishment you’re most proud of or is there something else?

Wyrick: Well, I think it’s the most accomplished because it’ the most public. Anything that is going to be the most public is what anybody is going to talk about. Because it was successful people are definitely going to talk about it. If it wasn’t, you’re not going to want to talk about it. I think the parallel I’ll make between RSVP and the Razorback Foundation is that the organization and the way we’re going to approach the Foundation as a whole is exactly what we did with RSVP. We’re going to listen to what people say. We’re going to interview people. We’re going to go out and truly get the pulse of what people want us to be doing in the Foundation. It’s the same thing we did with RSVP. Then we’re going to run it by focus groups, our board of directors, the board of trustees; we’re going to have everyone bought into what we are going to try to be. Then we’re going to go out there and try to sell it. It’s not a ready, fire, aim-type mentality. We’re going to be very purposeful in how we lay this out. I’ll tell you this, we’ve already done a survey. We did a survey last November and already have the blueprint of what our donors are saying. In my opinion, for various reasons, we haven’t had a chance to act on it yet. So I think all we’ve really got to do to begin with is go back and look at the results of that survey and start moving forward.

Tomorrow [Wednesday] we’re closing the office. Every staff member — we’re hiring a temporary person to answer the phones — but we’re going to a staff advance. I’ve asked every one of them — no holds barred — to list everything they like, everything they question, things they dislike. Write them all down. We’re locking ourselves somewhere in Bentonville and we’re not coming out until we have the blueprint. I’m excited about that.

Q. What’s the thought behind moving your office up to the front of the building?

Wyrick: Well, I did that when I went to South Carolina. Because when I went to South Carolina I found the person was locked way in the back and never got a chance to interact with the fans that want to be talked to. So, certainly there are going to be meetings and things when you can’t, but already today I just went and sat in the lobby to introduce myself to people as they were coming in the door. I think it’s very important that you are accessible if need be. More importantly, I think you’ve got to be transparent. They don’t have to talk to me to get the answer, but everyone on the staff is going to be singing off the same sheet of music. I’m not saying whether we are or aren’t doing that right now, but I know from RSVP that is paramount to gain the further trust and respect of the membership.

Q. What is the Foundation’s role as you see it?

Wyrick: I think that goes back to the first question you asked me. The reason I feel like I might be able to engage the base right now who doesn’t know me, doesn’t know me as a letterman, I’ve already written a 120-day plan for the Razorback Foundation. I wrote that with the permission of the athletic director and the chairman of the board. I wrote it for the purpose of, just finding out how close the plan that I want to put into place is going to mirror what the staff puts in place. I can’t wait until we’re done with that advance. I’m not a betting man, I can’t be, but I’m willing to bet 95 percent of the things that the staff says they want to see is exactly what is already written in this plan.

Q. Why are you so confident of that? It seems like 95 percent might be overstating it a bit.

Wyrick: Because I think … we went through in reassessing our seat values, we went through perhaps the largest experiment you possibly could go through. And going through that over the length that we went through and the number of people that we touched, you should come out of that with a real good feel for the pulse of what people want to see. What they want is transparency. They want consistent answers. I say all the time, and it’s the truth, ask an honest question and I’m going to give you an honest answer. But you have to understand: I can’t make you like the answer. I can make you understand the answer. I can’t make you like it. I think that, right now, is really what we’ve got to be. We’ve got to have honest answers to honest questions.

Best example I can give you is that people are calling right now wondering why their seats were moved. We did not, again, I wasn’t here, but I do oversee the ticket office, we don’t arbitrarily move people’s seats. If seats were moved it meant they did not fulfill their pledge by the deadline. We didn’t go in and arbitrarily move people. So, when people make that comment, you have to make the honest answer. Those that follow me in RSVP know I am a deadline guy. In order for us turn around and get things out when people want them, they have to meet deadlines. You want your football tickets 17 days in advance, you can’t be a week late meeting your pledge to order your tickets.

Q. Transparency comes up a lot here. What else are you hoping to change?

Wyrick: I think a huge frustration as we’ve grown these last several years as football has become more successful, we get a lot of people talking about all we care about is new donations over old donations. People think we only care if you give big bucks now. We talked in this survey about possibly creating some type of points system where you can reward annual donations, but also reward lifetime giving, the number of years of increased giving. So getting more into a points system where you can value all the factors other than just the annual dollar, I think that has validity. I’d like to see how the membership feels about that.

To my knowledge we’re one of the very few schools that does all these different drives: a drive for football, a drive for basketball, a drive for baseball. In my studies of taking this job I found out we have 36-percent duplication of effort in doing multiple drives. Why do we do it that way? Wouldn’t it be easier to make one donation, one time a year to all the sports? So my question is, should we try? Should we look into that?

I think the transparency in tickets is big. People like logging on and knowing what seats are available. We did that two years ago. We didn’t do it this year. There was an outcry for continuing that. I think we need to continue that technology base and get better in upgrading our technology.

Q. There’s that word “transparency” again. Are we looking at the possibility of the Foundation no longer being private and being part of the athletic department and university?

What I will say is that for the last six to nine months, as the chancellor and the athletic director have been working with the chairman of the Foundation board and his committee, the very first thing that everyone agreed to is that there are tremendous benefits to having a private foundation. Everyone’s desire was to continue having that private foundation. There was no doubt about that. But we had to, once and for all, determine what was institutional control.

If you look at Penn State, if you look at Chapel Hill (North Carolina), if you look at Ohio State, you’re teetering with organizations that don’t have direct correspondence with the athletic department bringing down the entire university. That is not going to happen at the University of Arkansas. So as a board, the board of the Foundation, is committed to looking at its bylaws, its constitution, operational procedures and making sure we are following it to the letter of the law. The meaning of institutional control.

So, the short answer is, ‘No.’ There are no attempts at bringing it in house. It’s been separate for a number of years and that has its advantages, but it’s time to modernize our way of thinking.

Q. What’s your message to the staff here, the 12 folks working with you at the Foundation?

First of all, I want to talk about Harold Horton. I respect and admire Coach Horton. We had a great relationship. We really did. But the beauty of the relationship is that we could maintain that relationship whether we agreed or disagreed. I think that is so important and probably missing today. The staff itself, got a chance to know me better through RSVP. I think they got a sense in looking at my organization, my attention to detail. I came down here every single day to open the mail. I wanted to demonstrate to that staff I wasn’t too good to do what was the most menial task in RSVP. I think they kind of get a pulse of my sense of urgency, my leadership. My humor, which is something I enjoy. So, quite frankly the thing that has mean the most to me is how they’ve welcomed me. It’s been a good feeling.

Q. How involved is the Foundation going to be in the upcoming capital improvement projects? What is the role in raising money for the basketball practice facility and other projects on the horizon?

Well, the biggest thing in taking over this role is once and for all we’re going to have everything under one development roof. Although John Erck in his major gift capacity will still be in the athletic department and have some reporting roles to the university, he’ll be treated like he’s a member of this staff. The monies will all be deposited to the Razorback Foundation and accounted for in the Razorback Foundation. It will truly be a cohesive deal, whether it’s scholarships, planned and deferred gifts, capital gifts, annual gifts, it will all be under one umbrella. I think that’s going to be a lot easier to understand from a donor perspective.

Q. What the athletic department, with the help of the Foundation, is committed to do with facilities is ambitious. There are three projects (basketball practice facility, student athlete center, baseball/indoor track) going before the Board of Trustees this week. What makes you certain these hundreds of millions of dollars aren’t more than the UA and fan base can support?

I don’t think there is any doubt. I don’t think I’ve ever been more certain of something in my life. Look at the growth that coach Horton and the staff attained last year off the growth from the year before. I think the biggest thing is just sheer numbers. Look at the number of people that are donors to the alumni association, look at the history of past donors to projects, we just are scratching the surface of our major gift fund-raising. In the past there were two different patterns: $1 million and above and then $20,000 and below. One of my goals in these next three or four years is to develop that middle silo — that $100,000 to $500,000 type donor, maybe some younger folks just coming into some means doing things that will be the future pipeline for major gifts. You run all the numbers, there are all kinds of studies you can go through to [make projections].

We are very blessed with folks that have the philanthropic interest to do what needs to be done.

Q. Memberships are up. Ticket sales are up in Fayetteville. Record numbers of folks attended the football kickoff luncheon and the Hall of Honor banquet. What does that say for the state of the program?

It’s very healthy. I think what it says is this is, this was the year to rally around the kids, particularly in football. What it says is folks believe in those kids. What a great message that it is. There was an electricity running through the A for Jacksonville State that I don’t know I felt two years ago when it was Alabama. Again, it’s about the kids. That was really, really cool.

Q. Is this sustainable beyond 2012? There’s a lot of uncertainty with football right now.

Well, it’s certainly our job. Our job every day is to work hard and make sure you can. Hopefully by doing the right thing, and I mean this, you do the right thing every day it adds up and sometimes if something doesn’t go your way you hopefully have enough in the right-hand column it allows you to endure. I certainly think that is how we’ve endured thus far.

Q. What was your reaction to being named as the Foundation director last week?
When I came home and told my wife that this was happening, she started crying. I wasn’t expecting that emotion. She started crying because we knew we felt like for a long time this was home. We felt more connected to the University of Arkansas than any place we’ve ever been. … We truly can call Fayetteville, Arkansas, our home and the University of Arkansas our home. That’s a really good feeling. I think that, again, it’s not fool's gold to me. I know there are some out there that would question me in this job. I respect that. I do. I ask to be given a chance, but I have been overwhelmed in the first 24 hours of this being announced that people from all across the state have reached out. My goal is to get out and meet as many of those people as we can. That’s my goal, to really go see the state and get to as many places as possible and talk to as many people as possible. I’m really looking forward to that. That’s what I’m suited to do. So I’m excited.

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Email: cbahn@abpg.com. Also follow Chris on Twitter @cbahn.