NORMAL — Gary Friedman was caught off-guard by an old friend following a news conference announcing him as Illinois State’s athletic director Wednesday.
Cam Pepper, a former University of Illinois lineman, came up and congratulated Friedman. Pepper played for the Illini in 1989-90 during Friedman’s start in administration at his alma mater. Pepper is director of partnership sales/premium seating at U.S. Cellular Coliseum in downtown Bloomington.
“It’s great seeing him,” said Friedman, clearly touched by Pepper being there.
Friedman’s boss for the last 10 years, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, wouldn’t have been surprised by such a scene.
“Gary is a real people person,” said Jurich. “He’s going to be a fantastic leader for Illinois State.”
Those interested in ISU athletics who don’t know or haven’t met Friedman yet should just give it time.
He will be reaching out his hand and getting to you in short order.
Friedman, 43, a senior associate athletic director at Louisville, plans to go full-speed ahead when he takes over as ISU’s athletic director on June 1.
Those in the ISU athletic staff would be advised to get a seat belt. Friedman didn’t help lead fundraising at Louisville that totaled more than $400 million by waiting for donors to come to him.
“At Louisville we called it ‘Go Time,’ but what we’re going to call it here is ‘Redbird Time,’ ” said Friedman. “ ‘Redbird Time’ means every day we’re going to come to work and have great passion and enthusiasm. We’re going to provide a championship experience for every staff member and certainly every student-athlete here.
“Family is very important to me. We want to have a family of champions. What does that mean? Every constituency — alumni, donors, fans, all people on and off campus — you are part of our family as we are part of yours.”
Like the man he will replace, Sheahon Zenger, Friedman comes from a major conference school with deeper pockets than ISU.
Yet, like Zenger, Friedman also knows what life is like at a non-BCS school, having worked his way up to Louisville after five-year stops at Central Michigan and East Tennessee State.
“I can tell you daily the job is the same,” said Zenger, who arrived at ISU in 2005 from Kansas State and is now AD at Kansas. “People don’t realize that. You don’t notice it (difference in athletic budgets) that much. Gary and I have been at other institutions at other levels. I knew what I was getting into, and so does he.”
Friedman already realizes the first challenge facing him will be a renovation of aging Hancock Stadium.
Zenger put a lot of sweat and hours on that project. Undoubtedly, the subject came up when Friedman talked to Zenger a couple times about the ISU opening.
It will be up to Friedman to get the Hancock renovation finally off the ground and finished.
Jurich believes ISU has the right man to pull it off.
“Gary is a tireless worker, great leader and wonderful visionary. He did a wonderful job for me,” said Jurich. “We raised an incredible amount of money, and he was at the forefront of that. We took on two of the biggest projects probably in NCAA history with a brand new basketball arena and a pretty much redone football expansion of the stadium.
“He had to sell an enormous amount of suites and club seats and season tickets and had to really build a lot of energy around it and did a great job.”
The man who hired Friedman, ISU president Al Bowman, believes the time for a Hancock Stadium renovation is now.
“Gary will jump head first into our fundraising initiatives that are under way. We’re talking to a number of people in participating in the football upgrade project,” said Bowman. “Secondly, we’re still in the planning stage and looking for a way to do the upgrade that gives us the most bang for the buck. He will help shape what that upgrade looks like.
“I would like to have campus involvement in the planning in the fall and out of those conversations emerge with a firm timetable.”
Despite difficult economic conditions, Bowman said private giving to ISU increased 30 percent from 2009 to 2010 and expects similar numbers when this fiscal year ends June 30.
Friedman’s approach as a fundraiser is simple. “We’ll roll up our sleeves and try to uncover every rock we can,” he said.
That will start on June 1.
“I’ll work real closely with our staff and Dr. Bowman in setting priorities as far as getting out,” said Friedman. “I want to initiate a lot of contact with people on or off campus, whether it’s alumni, former student-athletes or the corporate world.
“We want to be a very visible program. From an athletic director standpoint my door is always open. I always encourage people who come on campus to say hello and introduce themselves.”
With plenty of roots in the state, Friedman is no stranger.
He grew up in the northwest Chicago suburb of Deerfield and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Illinois. In the summers during college, he worked as a coach in Deerfield at former ISU All-American Doug Collins’ basketball camps. Collins was the Chicago Bulls’ coach at the time.
“I think it will aid me in the transition here,” said Friedman of his Illinois upbringing. “There’s an opportunity to reach out to a number of folks throughout the state. I look forward to rekindling relationships or enhancing those that are already out there throughout the state.”
Don’t expect any announcements from Friedman about a timetable for Hancock Stadium or an upgrade on Marian Kneer Stadium for softball or any other ISU facility improvement.
That won’t be his style.
“I learned from Tom Jurich we were never big into putting a lot of master plans on paper together. The key is implementing,” said Friedman. “We will be all about implementing. We’ll continue to enhance the great things that are already happening here.”
1988-91 — University of Illinois: Assistant to associate athletic director for external operations
1991-96 — East Tennessee State University: Director of athletics marketing and promotion (1991-92), assistant athletic director for external operations (1992-96)
1996-2001 — Central Michigan University: Associate athletic director for external operations
2001-2011 — University of Louisville: Associate athletic director for development (2001-09), senior associate athletic director for external operations (2009-11)