A Season On The Brink For Fred Glass

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Not even three years ago, Archie Miller was introduced as Indiana University’s new men’s basketball coach. The fans who showed up for the first press conference, held at center court in Assembly Hall, came to see Miller. But the most powerful person in the arena was actually his boss: IU athletic director Fred Glass.

“Wow, what a crowd,” said Glass, before introducing the coach he’d just signed to a seven-year contract worth more than $3 million per season. “Getting to know Archie, I’m even more confident than ever that he is the right coach … to lead us to meet our very high expectations here at Indiana University.”

Today, that press conference feels like it occurred 10 years ago. IU’s basketball program has missed the NCAA tournament three years in a row. The football program, which combines with basketball to form college athletics’ two main revenue sports, hasn’t fared any better. Led by coach Tom Allen, the team has failed to reach even a lesser bowl game since 2016. If you root for Purdue, Butler, or Notre Dame, you don’t need to gloat to the IU fans in your life—the records over the last few seasons speak for themselves.

Glass, who’s in his 10th year as athletic director, is an IU alum—first for undergrad in Bloomington, then for law school in Indianapolis. Before he got the job, he worked in politics as former governor Evan Bayh’s chief of staff and in miracles as one of the key figures in bringing the Super Bowl to Indy. For those reasons, he’s more interesting than the typical, careerist AD, who always seems to be focused on growing revenues so he can pogo to a bigger program.

Still, the thing that unites everyone in college sports is winning. On that count, some fans have started grumbling about Glass. One of the candidates who recently ran for IU trustee has been highly critical of the AD, and a couple of sports columnists and talk-show hosts have questioned his performance. Glass knows all that. He listens to Indy sports radio and monitors the IU-centric Twitter feeds of Chronic Hoosier and Martha the Mop Lady. “I’d much rather our fans be passionate and pissed than apathetic,” he says.

And running a modern athletics department is more complex than most fans realize. Football and basketball make up a small fraction of an AD’s workload. Fundraising may be as important as performance on the court or the field. When you consider what Glass inherited, and how much he has revitalized IU’s facilities and culture, it’s clear he’s not going anywhere soon.

When Glass started at IU in 2009, he was the school’s fifth athletic director in eight years. The basketball and football programs were a mess, haunted by the shadow of former basketball coach Bobby Knight, the sanctions of former basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, and the tragic death of former football coach Terry Hoeppner. The sports facilities didn’t measure up to Big Ten standards. “I graduated in 1981,” Glass says, “and frankly, the athletics campus didn’t look a whole hell of a lot different when I came back. I think we were in danger of falling to a MAC level in terms of facilities.” (The Mid-American Conference consists of small schools with a fraction of the budget of a Big Ten university.)

Glass brought stability. He also brought fundraising juice and big project experience. During his tenure, IU has dropped a quarter of a billion dollars on its facilities: a new complex for baseball and softball, a new arena for volleyball and wrestling, big renovations for basketball’s Assembly Hall, and even bigger ones for football’s Memorial Stadium.

What Glass says he’s most proud of, though, is the way the department has prioritized its students, on the field and off. “We really needed to rebuild the culture here,” he says.

A good example is IU’s Student-Athlete Bill of Rights. Part of Glass’s job is meeting with recruits and their families. “For better or worse,” he says, “and I think it’s worse, we’re recruiting players younger and younger today.” Early in 2014, he sat down with a volleyball recruit and her family. She was just a freshman in high school, and her parents had a list of understandable questions about how IU would take care of their child.

Glass decided the university should formalize its commitment to recruits. “Being a lawyer,” he says, “I tend to think of things in terms of contracts.” During spring break, he headed to Florida with his wife, but while she was reading a novel by the pool, he was drafting a new document in his legal pad. The Bill of Rights ultimately included 10 points, including a promise that IU athletes could come back years or even decades later to finish their degrees, plus a fully guaranteed four-year scholarship, even if there was an injury or coaching change.

“I think that, over time, administrators have frankly overreached in terms of the balance of power between them and the students who are participating in collegiate athletics.”

One thing on Glass’s mind while he was drafting the Bill of Rights was The Atlantic’s recent article “The Shame of College Sports.” That story, in which the historian Taylor Branch argued that the NCAA’s treatment of its athletes had an “unmistakable whiff of the plantation,” had become one of the most visible signs of an ongoing debate about college sports. Call it reformers versus traditionalists.

Reformers begin by pointing to the obscene amounts of cash flowing through college sports. Each year, Division I schools submit detailed financial reports to the NCAA. In 2014, IU athletics brought in nearly $85 million in revenue—a number that had jumped to $123 million by 2018. The crazy thing is, IU’s ticket revenues have stayed mostly flat in that span: $17 million in 2014, $17.7 million in 2018. The increase has mostly come from the media-rights behemoth that is the Big Ten Network, with IU bringing in more than $40 million in media money in 2018.

People like Branch want to use these ever-expanding revenues to pay the players. People like your average college AD want to protect the status quo. Glass is hard to pin down on this continuum. “I get portions of it,” he says of Branch’s article, “I really do. I think that, over time, administrators have frankly overreached in terms of the balance of power between them and the students who are participating in collegiate athletics.”

IU’s AD isn’t a full-blown reformer. He still thinks universities shouldn’t pay their players. He still believes IU should support every sport, revenue or non-revenue, with equal vigor—because he believes in creating old-fashioned opportunities for lots of student-athletes. Glass likes to tell a story about his first days at IU, when he was touring the facilities. He walked into a room with two tables of food, one offering chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, the other piled with nice steaks and vegetables. Another administrator explained that the premium table was for the football players; the regular table was for everyone else. Glass said he didn’t like the idea of different classes of IU athlete. The administrator feigned agreement—and suggested putting some kind of partition between the two tables to make things appear more fair.

Glass has tried to make sure every IU athlete gets taken care of, from the walk-ons to star basketball recruits like last year’s Romeo Langford. He has pushed other reforms, including an Excellence Academy to help athletes prepare for post-collegiate life and a firm policy that IU will not accept any athlete who has committed a sexual assault.

What’s interesting is that many of Glass’s Big Ten counterparts haven’t followed his lead. Take the Student-Athlete Bill of Rights and its guaranteed scholarships. “We tried to get the conference to adopt that,” Glass says, “and they wouldn’t. I think that reflects the interest of some schools in maintaining that leverage.”

One way to read the Bill of Rights is as Glass’s attempt to be a reformer within the confines of the current system. IU’s athletics department spent nine figures last year on coaches, staffers, buildings, travel, and other operating expenses, even as none of it went straight to the players themselves. But Glass is trying to give those players as much as he possibly can. “Most coaches get long-term contracts,” he says. “Why don’t we give kids that same commitment?”

Brian Davidson is as dedicated an IU fan as you’ll ever find. He graduated from the university in 2004 and now owns a digital marketing company in Chicago. Yet he has kept his football season tickets for more than a decade. He bought an RV for tailgating that he stores in a Bedford barn. He met his wife before an IU-Akron game in 2010. “I’m all in on being a Hoosier,” Davidson says.

In the fall of 2018, after IU football lost a heartbreaker at home to Penn State, Davidson and a lot of other fans felt incredibly frustrated. Coupled with the IU basketball team’s failures the previous few years, the loss convinced Davidson that it was time for Glass to go. His brother tried to register the web domain firefredglass.com, only to discover that someone already owned it. Davidson told him how to look up the owner. “Make them an offer,” he said.

His brother ran the search. “The university owns it,” he said. “Can you believe this?”

“Actually,” Davidson replied, “I can.”

Davidson eventually decided to run for a spot on IU’s Board of Trustees. [Editor’s Note: Since this story was first reported, Davidson lost the election.] “I believe strongly in a couple of areas,” he says, listing the explosion of student debt and the rise of machine learning and AI. “But athletics sparked my idea to run.”

Davidson stresses that his official position is that the athletic department must be more efficient and competitive. As a fan, though, he feels free to say that Glass hasn’t been good enough. The AD’s biggest moves have been vexing: giving Tom Crean a long extension in 2012 despite his team’s inconsistency; watching football coach Kevin Wilson resign in 2016—over “philosophical differences,” in Glass’s lawyerly phrase, though reports suggested the differences centered on how Wilson had handled player injuries—and replacing him with the unproven Tom Allen. So far, at least, none of those moves have been clear wins. “Glass’s record of hiring, extending, and firing coaches,” says Davidson, “would not fly at most Big Ten schools. It certainly wouldn’t fly at an Alabama. It wouldn’t fly at a Michigan.”

Those hires are just the start of Davidson’s frustrations. He points to a common gripe among the anti-Glass contingent—that the department has sent Big Ten Network dollars back to the university, which has used them to build a new Global and International Studies building. “We’re paying these coaches millions,” Davidson says, “putting these athletes on TV, and getting millions from Adidas. At the very minimum, the direct revenues brought in by the athletes should be spent on their development.”

“Glass’s record of hiring, extending, and firing coaches,” says Brian Davidson, “would not fly at most Big Ten schools. It certainly wouldn’t fly at an Alabama. It wouldn’t fly at a Michigan.”

Davidson, in other words, sounds like a reformer. But he’s not being entirely fair to Glass. According to the NCAA, the IU athletics department is only paying $1.6 million a year toward the building—a sliver of its $123 million budget. Glass splurged on a Wilson extension in 2016, and he authorized Allen to give his new offensive coordinator a record-breaking contract for an IU assistant coach. These days, Glass seems happy to outspend Michigan State ($117.5 million per year in department expenses) on athletics, if not Michigan ($175.4 million per year), and one thing the “IU cheaps out” stories never mention is that Glass takes home one of the smallest AD paychecks in the Big Ten.

Even the firefredglass.com story isn’t as damning as it seems. Lots of colleges scoop up ugly URLs, and IU seems to do so across the board. (For obvious reasons, the university doesn’t want indianauniversitysucks.net falling into the wrong hands.) “This is a regular practice,” says Chuck Carney, IU’s director of media relations, “and one done by many other universities.”

None of this is enough for Glass’s critics, though. Davidson even dismisses the Bill of Rights. “I view that in many ways as a reaction to the Outside the Lines report,” he says, referring to an ESPN story on IU injuries from 2017. But that report came out three years after the Student-Athlete Bill of Rights went live. Glass has also done a good job at limiting student debt, a key issue for Davidson’s campaign. Each year, at least four other schools in the Big Ten charge their students tens of millions of dollars in fees to prop up their lavish athletics budgets. Not at IU. Everything Glass has accomplished—the new construction, the new coaching hires—has been done without costing regular students an extra dime.

Nobody has a better sense of IU’s fan base than Jerod Morris, who operates The Assembly Call, an IU-themed YouTube show, in addition to a podcast and a popular Twitter feed. “Many of the non-revenue sports seem to be thriving under Glass’s leadership,” Morris says. “But he’ll ultimately be judged by the success or failure of the football and, to a larger extent, basketball programs.”

Glass understands the fan frustration, but he’s quick to point out the larger scope of the job. He’s an organizer, someone who keeps a to-do list that breaks his time down by day, week, and semester, and a quick check confirms that football and men’s basketball make up only a small part of his schedule—one that includes 22 other sports, not to mention broader topics like facilities, academics, compliance, and fundraising. “It’s really nowhere near the majority of my time,” he says of those two big sports.

Glass’s boss, IU president Michael McRobbie, appreciates that fact as well. “Fred has been an outstanding athletics director for Indiana University and is one of the very best in the Big Ten,” McRobbie says. He points to a number of Glass accomplishments: fundraising, facilities, compliance, academic honors, and over the last year “a school-record nine teams finishing first or second in the Big Ten.”

Even so, Glass knows that basketball and football drive the majority of his fans’ interest. And he knows those sports drive his department’s bottom line. After all, while IU’s ticket revenues were $17 million in 2018, at Michigan, football pushed ticket sales past $55 million. Basketball and football pay the bills for the rest of Division I sports, and at IU, it’s fair to note that better teams would generate more cash than the department currently does.

So Glass is happy to debate the state of IU basketball and football. “Let’s break the two apart,” he says, ever the lawyer. Glass has outlined his goals for basketball many times: competing consistently for Big Ten titles, playing deep into March, eventually hanging another banner. “In football, it’s different,” Glass says. “Our history is different.” The program has made only three bowl games in the last 20 years—two of them under Wilson. What’s more, IU plays in the Big Ten’s brutal East division. Glass believes Allen will get better, but he’s not issuing any ultimatums for the upcoming season. “I’m not into the ‘this or bust’ thing,” the AD says. “I think that’s lazy. It’s my job to be the adult supervision, to see if the program is going where we want it go.”

“Fred has been an outstanding athletics director for Indiana University and is one of the very best in the Big Ten,” Michael McRobbie says.

Glass urges a similar perspective with basketball. “Last year was the craziest year ever,” he says, mentioning the team’s injuries and the patience needed while Miller’s culture takes root. He brings up coach John Beilein, who jumped from Michigan to the NBA. “He didn’t start winning until Year Six,” the AD says. “In this microwave, social media, Uber Eats world, we don’t give people enough time to build things that are excellent.”

That’s a fair point, and when you dig into each of Glass’s big coaching decisions, from the Crean contract extension to the Allen promotion, there are reasons why they made sense at the time, or why it’s too soon to judge them. But it’s hard to embrace this wait-and-see approach when there aren’t any easy victories to point to—like, say, the instant success enjoyed by Chris Mack at Louisville and Chris Holtmann at Ohio State, two coaches who were rumored to be on Glass’s basketball shortlist when he hired Miller.

When describing his Bill of Rights, Glass says, “it’s best to set out what you want to do and publish it—then you’re held accountable.” What’s true of his off-the-court reforms is true of his on-the-court initiatives, as well. If the basketball and football records don’t improve eventually, even great facilities and happy student athletes won’t save him. But Glass has earned time to make it right.