NORMAL — Illinois State president Al Bowman thought Gary Friedman would need some time to get his family settled. So Bowman told Friedman he could start his new duties as ISU’s athletic director on July 1.
Friedman had other ideas. He bumped the date up a month.
That told Bowman a lot about what kind of person the Redbirds are getting.
“He’s very energetic,” said Bowman. “We need someone who is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do whatever jobs need to be done.”
Friedman, 43, a senior associate athletic director at Louisville, was officially introduced by Bowman as the Redbirds’ 19th athletic director during a Wednesday news conference at the Kaufman Football Building. Friedman replaces Sheahon Zenger, who left in January to accept the same post at Kansas.
Friedman, who grew up in suburban Deerfield and has two degrees from Illinois, promised to run a “fast-paced athletic department” with the Redbirds.
“Things are going to be going on and we’re going to make things happen. I assure you that,” said Friedman, whose yearly salary will be $200,000. “We’re going to be very aggressive and cutting edge. I think it’s critical always to stay cutting edge. Status quo is falling behind. We’ll be moving forward every day, but we’ll need everyone’s help to make sure that happens.”
Dan Layzell, who is ISU’s vice-president for finance and planning, headed the search committee that considered 45 applicants. He immediately “saw the passion” in Friedman when he came for an interview last month.
“He’s a Midwesterner. He connected well with people on campus,” said Layzell. “You can’t understate the importance of that. He’s a very down to earth guy, very humble and hard working. All of our referencing is he’s who he said he is.”
Friedman said he has always had an eye on ISU as he proceeded from jobs at Illinois, East Tennessee State, Central Michigan and, in the last 10 years, at Louisville.
Working as a coach at former ISU All-American Doug Collins’ basketball camps in the late 1980s in Deerfield, when Collins was the Chicago Bulls’ coach, helped fuel that desire.
“You’ll see a lot of famous former student-athletes that don’t want anything to do with their university,” said Friedman, who was accompanied by his wife, Ra’Tonya, and two young sons. “The fact that he is so engaged (with ISU), the success he had in his career and everything he stands for is really, really special to me.”
Friedman led fundraising at his last three stops. He was involved with the design and construction of several major facilities at Louisville — including a brand-new basketball arena and upgraded football stadium — that totaled more than $350 million.
The renovation of Hancock Stadium (football) and Marian Kneer Stadium (softball) are two projects that Friedman realizes are top priorities for Bowman and ISU.
“He has the right breadth of experience,” said Bowman. “He’s been at a place like East Tennessee State where they had a very small athletic budget and understands the kind of work it takes to be successful. He has literally seen both ends of the spectrum.
“He’s leaving a place with an annual budget close to $70 million. He has a unique set of experiences that I think made him the perfect fit for Illinois State.”
Jack Currin, who is on the advisory council for the Weisbecker Scholarship Fund, believes Friedman’s previous stops will serve him well in his new position.
“What I like most about him is he’s got Louisville experience and mid-major experience. He understands the challenges at the mid-major level,” said Currin. “We look forward to meeting him and supporting him any way we can.”