Person-Student-Athlete: The Tenure of Wright State AD Bob Grant

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Bob Grant, right, stands with Deputy AD Joylynn Brown, left, and Brooklyne Mason, center.

Shortly after the Raiders men’s basketball season concluded, Bob Grant announced his retirement from the position after 16 years at the helm. As one of the longest-tenured athletic directors remaining in collegiate athletics, he leaves behind a legacy at Wright State that solidifies a culture of care towards the student-athletes within the university’s purview. I took some time to interview Grant as he begins to make his way towards a new chapter in his life, and asked him about his journey with the green and gold.

The start of this journey begins over 40 years ago, with Grant enrolling at Wright State as an undergraduate student, looking to make his mark in baseball through the Sports Information internship he held during his undergraduate career.

“I figured doors were gonna open when they were supposed to,” Grant recalled. “My dream … I thought I wanted to work in Major League Baseball. That didn’t work, couldn’t get my foot in the door.”

That’s when Cincinnati Reds GM Bob Quinn gave a young Grant some advice – head back to Wright State and make yourself indispensable. Wright State had become a burgeoning program in southwest Ohio and was continuing to grow, having recently put a D2 championship in hand. So that’s just what he did, volunteering hours in the sports information sector of athletics and doing every odd job possible to make himself known. One of those odd jobs was operating the Raider Hotline, a number that fans could dial into to get the scores of the game.

Through the connections made and with the advent of the Nutter Center, a fundraising position opened up and Grant was selected for the position in Wright State’s athletics program as Director of Development.

He spent a good amount of time under the supervision of Michael Cusack, Wright State’s athletic director who led the transition of the university into Division I and the creation of the Nutter Center and many other athletic facilities. As Grant continued to gain experience, he asked Cusack to oversee the men’s soccer team to get to know the athletes better. Once he was given the okay, Grant and his wife Kim invited the team over for dinner on some nights. When it came time for the 25-year athletic director to retire, Grant fought hard for the position and won it in 2008, earning the mantle as Wright State’s third ever AD.

As the AD, other teams began to ask to come over for dinner.

“All of the other athletes were like ‘Hey, this means we get to come to your house for dinner and spend more time with you right?'” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not sure Kim was thrilled that we gotta have 14 teams for dinner, but that told me early on that it was important.”

Team dinners would not be the only instance of rant’s generosity and hospitality. Over the years, he would take students out for ice cream or lunch, run the stairs with the volleyball team in practice, or perhaps most famously, would deliver chocolate milk. These touchpoints became a cornerstone for how he interpreted and managed the athletics sphere that he was given.

“I might be the most accessible, least connected AD in America – my focus has always been Wright State,” Grant mused. “We’re trying to make 250 eighteen to twenty-two year old’s better at life, and so I learned early on the best way to do that is to really be visible and available and try to sew into their lives.”

One of the first orders of business for Grant was to develop the first strategic plan for the athletics department as a whole. Following the growing model of planning in higher education and drawing from his experiences with the athletes he oversaw before becoming athletic director, he emerged with a goal to develop athletes as people, then as students, then as athletes. The hypothesis that was drawn was that a happy, healthy student athlete contributed more to the campus and the community as a whole. By focusing on the person and the educational goal they wish to obtain first and second of all, then the university and its staff can “lay our head in our pillow,” as Grant puts it, knowing that they are operating in a trustworthy manner.

“That Person-Student-Athlete mission (P-S-A) – that was born out of my experience as a young administrator of seeing what’s important,” he said. “It took frankly much longer than I thought it would to take hold. That involved making sure everyone on our staff – coaches, administrators, student athletes – shared that same vision and same priorities.”

As the mold for collegiate athletics continues to shift to a win at any cost mentality, Grant’s vision for athletics at Wright State led to pushback from coaches and staff members. Coaches and athletics administrators are graded and criticized on all sides when a team doesn’t perform to the perceived standard in competition. That’s not the goal of Wright State athletics however, as the mission of any university is to educate and promote a well-rounded development. Grant took the higher education mission and made it his own to develop not just recruits, but also coaches and other staff.

When Bob Grant replaced Cusack in 2008, he inherited some of the best coaches Wright State had in its history. Brad Brownell had just taken the Raiders to their second-ever NCAA tournament berth in the highly competitive Horizon League just a year prior, winning in dramatic fashion against nationally ranked Butler in the Nutter Center. Rob Cooper was leading the baseball team with Greg Lovelady at his side, and after Bridgett Williams contract wasn’t renewed, he landed Mike Bradbury and his assistant Katrina Merriweather.

After some great performances, Brownell moved on to Clemson and Cooper went to Penn State. Billy Donlon would replace the superstar Brownell, but that’s not to say that Grant didn’t hear his fair share of questions regarding how he planned to keep Brownell in those early years.

“It was a really busy time… It used to bother me those first couple of years when I could predict the questions I would get was ‘Bob, when are you gonna play University of Dayton’ and ‘Bob, how in the world are you going to keep Brad Brownell?'”

As a mid-major AD, Grant learned to embrace those questions.

“My mantra basically is ‘You can hire two kinds of people: the kind nobody wants, and the kind other people covet,’ and we’re interested in the latter… We’ve proven that we can provide (coaches) with a really good platform, if your desire is to go elsewhere for a bigger, brighter platform, go ahead,” he remarked. “Our coaching tree is incredible for a branding that is not out-spending anybody.”

The golden era of Wright State University, from roughly 2012 to 2016, brought about stability in the athletics department. Baseball continued to flourish now underneath Greg Lovelady, who led the baseball team to unprecedented success in the NCAA regionals, bullying the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame out of the 2015 and 2016 Road to Omaha. Donlon was doing well in the Horizon in his first head coaching tenure, and Mike Bradbury led the women’s basketball team to their first ever NCAA tournament berth. The university’s enrollment kept increasing, peaking to roughly 18,000 students as the college continued to expand its ventures.

Maybe a little too much.

Starting in 2015, Wright State University began to tumble down into a budget crisis due to administrative mismanagement. The Double Bowler project, H-1B visa violations, federal aid mishandling, a presidential debate that didn’t come to pass, the faculty strike, and a continuing cavalcade of errors put the university into a tailspin. Enrollment began to plummet, and each and every part of the university was being evaluated for budget inefficiencies. Athletics was told to cut $1 million from its $10 million budget and had to make the tough decision in 2019 to cut softball and the swimming & diving program, putting the university in danger of losing its D1 certification.

“It was pure hell… Those were the darkest days in our department, you had to cut people away… They weren’t just numbers to us, they were our family – our culture,” Grant remarked solemnly.

And yet, despite all the turmoil, Wright State athletics as a whole continued to shine. Donlon’s time with the green and gold expired and Grant went for a splash hire in Scott Nagy at $500,000 per year, making him the highest paid coach in Horizon League history at the time. Katrina Merriweather was brought on as head coach after Bradbury departed for New Mexico, who continued Bradbury’s success in competing for the top spot in the HLWBB scene against the evil empire Green Bay.

“Our job is to shine the best possible light for Wright State, I hope we did that,” Bob commented wistfully.

Speaking from my own experience, Wright State athletics during this time provided an escape from the turmoil that the campus climate had become. The teams were winning and kept the stands filled in a way that seemed to defy the headlines.

In the final years, the P-S-A mission began to reap serious rewards. In the final five years of his tenure, Wright State athletics has put together fifteen NCAA tournament teams, including two appearances by both men’s and women’s basketball. Up until then, the Raiders had twelve in thirty years.

Baseball and golf continued to put on NCAA-level performances, men’s soccer reached the tournament and beat Notre Dame to notch an appearance and a win for the first time, and Wright State volleyball led by Allie Matters brought the team out of the basement and up to an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. The school added men’s indoor and outdoor track to go back up to Division I standards and elevated the women’s bowling club to a fully sponsored sport. The McCafferty Trophy, the coveted all-sports title awarded to the Horizon League standout school, was awarded for the first time to Wright State in 2019.

Additionally, Wright State athletics boasts a 91% graduation success rate and fifty-nine consecutive terms of 3.0 departmental GPA or higher, keeping in line with the student aspect of P-S-A.

As Grant would say on Twitter, #uhyeah.

The story behind the tag that became synonymous with Wright State’s AD began with the Special Assistant to the AD Chris Grant, who is now the Southland Conference Commissioner, suggesting to the boss that he get on Twitter, a fledgling social media platform at the time. Bob Grant joined in 2010 and would tweet out scores in a similar manner to the Raider Hotline, to little success at the time. That’s when Chris Grant got an idea.

“He’s like ‘Don’t give up BG, you need a hashtag.’ I’m like ‘I don’t even know what that is, man!'” Bob chuckled. “So maybe a week goes by and Chris comes roaring into my office and says ‘I’ve got a hashtag for ya! Bob, what do you always say when we win something we shouldn’t win?’ And I said ‘Uh yeah!'”

That conversation started a hashtag tradition with Bob Grant . From then on, he would tweet out the team followed by #uhyeah whenever that team won.

“At first, nobody knew what it meant. But eventually, I would have student-athletes saying ‘Hey BG, we’re gonna get that #uhyeah tonight.’ … It went like jet fuel – student-athletes started really paying attention, going for SAAC athletes or All-Academic or so on.”

When asked about what’s next for him, Grant was relatively unsure.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, there’s things I want to pursue – some in the athletic space. We’ll see how it goes,” he commented about the future.

For Wright State’s future, Deputy AD and Senior Woman Administrator Joylynn Brown will hold the Athletic Director title in the interim as the university begins its search for its fourth AD. Grant will officially retire and leave the Athletic Director position on March 31, 2024.

“At this point, I think the standard is the standard … I think our culture, our mission is intact, despite any headwinds.”

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