Since Hunter Yurachek was hired by the University of Arkansas in December as the new athletics director, the women’s softball team earned the program’s first-ever NCAA Super Regional appearance, the women’s golf team won the program’s first SEC and NCAA Regional titles while breaking school records in nearly every category, and the baseball team made a historic run at the College World Series in Omaha, finishing as national runner-up.
Clearly, Yurachek’s impact on the UA athletics department is a harbinger of things to come.
“Clearly,” he said in a recent interview, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “I inherited a number of great coaches and great student-athletes who are building very successful programs. I just can’t tell you how much I enjoy being around all of them.”
Yurachek, who previously worked as athletics director at the University of Houston and Coastal Carolina University, is the chief executive of an athletics program that collected $115.2 million in revenue in the 2017-2018 school year. He spoke recently with Northwest Arkansas Business Journal editor Paul Gatling and discussed a number of topics related to the business of college athletics.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Paul Gatling: How do you and your family like Northwest Arkansas?
Hunter Yurachek: We love it. I had only been to Arkansas one time for about an hour prior to flying in on Dec. 5 at about one o’clock in the morning. I looked out of the window of the airplane and looked at my wife and said, “I hope we love it.” And I can tell you with a degree of certainty we do. It’s a special place with special people. It quickly felt like home.
Gatling: What did you learn at Houston, from mentalities to strategies, that you are looking to bring to Arkansas?
Yurachek: Houston and Arkansas are totally different animals. In Houston, we were in a city of 6.5 million people and a state of 25 million people. Where we were, at best, maybe the ninth or 10th sports team people look at, even within our own city. One of the things I learned in both AD jobs at Houston and Coastal Carolina is, really, I have to grind things out in college athletics. The staff at both of those institutions is not nearly as robust [as Arkansas], and so as an athletic director at both of those places, you have to roll your sleeves up. That’s what I enjoy. That’s the type of schedule I have to maintain here.
Gatling: College athletic programs used to be about hiring coaches and winning programs. Now it’s about generating revenue. What’s the definition of running a successful athletic program?
Yurachek: It goes back to student-athletes. That has always been my focus as an athletic director and the culture I have tried to create within an athletic program. We are always focused on the success of our student-athletes, and we break that out into three key areas: their academic success, which means they earn a degree; their athletic success, which means they have an opportunity to compete for and win championships; and that they grow as young men and women. We equip them with the skill set to be a champion and Razorback for life in whatever they decide to do.
There is a significant revenue component that goes into that. We generate revenue to pay coaches’ salaries and pay staff that includes a full-time sports psychologist, full-time nutritionists and full-time dieticians. Just about every sport has its own full-time strength and conditioning coach. It has evolved so much. We look at ways to help student-athletes better manage their time, and so most of our teams take charter flights to their competitions. That allows them to leave in an evening after classes are over for a competition the following evening. So they only miss, for the most part, one day of class.
Gatling: You’ve been in college administration going on 25 years. It wasn’t like it is when you started. Where are we headed 25 years from now with all the staff and the money involved? Escalating coaching salaries, etc. Is that sustainable?
Yurachek: If you look back to when the Knight Commission [on Intercollegiate Athletics] first formed in the 1980s, if you look at what the challenges were in college athletics back then, it was the same thing — is the financial model sustainable? Are they truly student-athletes? Are we losing focus on the educational mission?
When I first got into this business 25 years ago at Wake Forest, we were talking about reform in college athletics. We were talking about should we pay men’s basketball and football players because of all the revenue they generated. That paled in comparison to the revenue now. Is it sustainable? It is. Because we’ve always questioned, year after year, if it’s a sustainable model. And somehow we just continue to make it work.
As I look out 25 years from now, will college athletics look different? Absolutely. College athletics will continue to evolve as society evolves. Just as it has over the past 25 years.
Gatling: Will that involve paying players? Will they get part of the money?
Yurachek: I hope not. I don’t think that is the right model. We’ve been talking about that for 25-plus years, and whether it’s old-fashioned or not, I truly believe student-athletes are student-athletes. They receive a scholarship to pay for their education. Yes, they invest a significant amount of time in what they do. They generate — especially football, basketball and baseball — a significant amount of revenue that supports this enterprise. But what I go back on is this is a voluntary activity.
I’ve got two sons. One just finished his career as a student-athlete at Marshall University and one who is just starting his career as a student-athlete at the University of Colorado. At any point in time, they could step away and say, “This is not for me.” They can go and get a job during college and make some money to put in their pocket and pay for their own education that way.
We are offering student-athletes an incredible opportunity and experience. We did a rough estimate that for a full-scholarship student-athlete, we’re pouring about $65,000 to $70,000 to each of them annually. I challenge any 18- to 22-year-old without a college education to find a job that pays you in that regard. That’s a long-winded answer to say I hope we never get to a model where we are paying student-athletes. I don’t think that is a sustainable model.
Gatling: The UA has agreed to keep playing football games at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock through 2024. Why was that decision made?
Yurachek: As I traveled around the state and talked to various constituents about Little Rock and playing games in Little Rock, it kept coming back to the fact that was something that was definitively the fabric of this state — Razorback football at War Memorial Stadium. There’s actually been more [Razorback] games played in Little Rock than there have been in Fayetteville.
Have we made a significant investment in [Razorback Stadium]? Absolutely? But I thought it was important for coach [Chad] Morris and me as we are both beginning our tenures that was something that continued to be part of that fabric. I thought we came to a great solution, playing every other year there, and then potentially moving our spring game on odd years down there to Little Rock as well.
Gatling: Any early indication of how ticket sales are going for the Little Rock game this year against Ole Miss?
Yurachek: I don’t have an exact number, but it’s one of our best-selling games outside of the game in Arlington [against Texas A&M] and the Alabama game [in Fayetteville]. People in Little Rock and across the state have responded well to that game.
Gatling: Other than the black-and-white things like signage, what are some anecdotal things that sponsors want when considering programs to sponsor?
Yurachek: Sponsors really want an affiliation, especially across this state, with the Razorbacks. To be affiliated with a successful program. Some sponsors will pick and choose which program they want to be associated with, but most of them here regionally and across the state, they just want to be associated with the Razorbacks. Corporate partners are what we are trying to accomplish.
Gatling: What’s one issue in the college sports landscape you feel the NCAA needs to improve?
Yurachek: There seems to be a significant push right now to address the transfer issue. But we may be missing what the transfer issue is all about. Having gone through this process with my two oldest boys, the recruiting process on the front end, to me, is a little bit flawed. Young men and women are pushed to make decisions, some as early as the eighth grade, to make a decision on where to go to college. When I was in the 11th or 12th grade, I wasn’t ready to make a decision.
I don’t think we do a great service to student-athletes in how we push them to make decisions and how quickly they have to make decisions in some instances on where they will attend college. And they end up somewhere in a program where maybe they aren’t a great fit. We’re addressing it on the back end, like changing transfer regulations, which I think is great. There’s still a significant number of transfers, but I think we could fix that on the front end.
Gatling: What’s lacking that you would want to fix?
Yurachek: How far out some sports recruit. When you think about 13 or 14 years old, kids making a decision about where they are going to college. And I think there’s times coaches put a squeeze on a young man or woman to make a decision. It’s very much a shell game and a chess game, and that forces some decisions that aren’t in their best interests.
Gatling: When you were a kid, what’d you want to be when you grew up?
Yurachek: I wanted to be a sportscaster. With the evolution of ESPN and SportsCenter, I could always see myself in front of a camera. I loved talking about sports, and I can remember as a kid listening to broadcasts on the radio. I went to Guilford (N.C.) College, which didn’t have any radio broadcast programs, and I thought about transferring out my sophomore year to the University of North Carolina to join their radio/television school. I decided I enjoyed being a student-athlete and went the business route. That kind of squashed that career for me.
Gatling: What part of the job do you love, and what part could you do without?
Yurachek: Quite honestly, I love what I do. I have three passions in life, and that’s my faith, my family and college athletics. If someone told me tomorrow I had to choose a new profession, I have absolutely no idea what I would do. I love what I do. When I got out of college, I was a high school basketball coach and a teacher. I wasn’t enjoying that as much as I thought, so I worked at a bank, and for that year, I probably had in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 sick days.
I think I’ve taken one sick day in 25 years in college athletics. For one, the Lord has blessed me with great health, and two, on days I don’t feel very well, I still come in to campus because I just love it. I enjoy being on a college campus.
Gatling: What’s your favorite smartphone app?
Yurachek: Evernote. I’ve tried to encourage all of our staff to download it.
Gatling: What time do you get up on workday mornings?
Yurachek: 5:15 is when my alarm goes off. And the first thing I’m doing is going to grab a cup of coffee.
Gatling: Breakfast at home, breakfast on the go, breakfast at your desk, no breakfast at all?
Yurachek: Depends. When I’m taking my son to school, I like to sit down and have breakfast with him. If I’m working out in the morning, I’ll usually grab a shake out of the cooler in one of our workout facilities. I guess that’s breakfast on the go.
Gatling: Everyone has made some form of Russian joke about your last name. Is there a nickname your friends and family have for you?
Yurachek: It’s Czechoslovakian, by the way. All my friends call me Check. My wife knows when someone is calling me from college because they always call me Check.
Gatling: Favorite movie?
Yurachek: You can kind of lean on just about any sports movie. “We Are Marshall,” “Facing the Giants,” “Greater.” Probably my favorite all-time movie is “Forrest Gump.” If it’s on, I’ll sit and watch it. Love that movie.
Yurachek: For the past 22 years, since our oldest son Ryan was born, my hobby has been my kids and my family.
Gatling: Favorite drink?
Yurachek: Coffee. I can drink coffee all day long. I can have a cup of coffee at 9 at night and still get a good night’s sleep.
Gatling: How do you take it?
Yurachek: It’s black with one [sweetener]. Splenda, Equal. My wife’s trying to get me to switch to Truvia because it’s healthier.