Vahe Gregorian

New UMKC athletic director is an inspiring fit, but will have to prove himself again

UMKC introduces new athletic director Brandon Martin

New UMKC athletic director Brandon Martin talks about the job ahead of him during his introductory news conference on Nov. 14, 2018.
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New UMKC athletic director Brandon Martin talks about the job ahead of him during his introductory news conference on Nov. 14, 2018.

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Brandon Martin will tell you, posed challenges and compelled crucial choices. Amid what he called “a gang-infested environment, a drug-infested culture,” many around him lived with a “survival-type mindset.”

“You make a decision if you’re going to succumb to that, which a lot of people do, and it’s easy to do,” he said.

Buoyed by the example and work ethic of his father, Earl, who drove a delivery truck for the Los Angeles Times for 28 years and dearly wanted him to have a college education, he envisioned a “different way to do this” through academics and athletics ... and one particular guiding notion.

“I had to make it happen,” he said.

It’s a mindset that explains how the engaging, energetic and highly educated Martin, 44, came to be introduced Wednesday as the new athletic director at UMKC — and how he makes for a galvanizing, promising fit for a job with numerous challenges as he starts over himself.

“The time for excuses and the time for negativity is over …,” he said in an interview with The Star. “We have to rise above what happened in the past, we have to start fresh and move forward.”

Certainly, that was the vibe Wednesday at Swinney Recreation Center, where hundreds, including numerous student-athletes and Martin’s family, greeted the new leader — who doesn’t officially start work until Dec. 3 but started to make his imprint earlier in the day when he met with coaches and athletic staff for the first time.

With a call to be “locked-in with locked arms,” he made it known he’s not here to be a placeholder but to provide more resources and push the envelope — and expects all in the department to be fundraisers and brand promoters.

UMKC athletic director Brandon Martin Vahe Gregorian

Martin, who suggested he will try to meet with 100 donors in his first 100 days as he did to raise a million dollars after he took over in 2013 at Cal State Northridge, practiced what he preached as soon as the subsequent news conference ended: When a local TV man told him his wife was a UMKC grad, Martin smiled and immediately wondered how often they attend events at the school.

As UMKC comes out of a review that included consideration of whether to remain in NCAA Division I, it’s perhaps audacious to think Martin can transform a landscape that hinges greatly on the success of men’s basketball. The program that currently plays in the Western Athletic Conference hasn’t earned an NCAA Tournament berth since becoming a Division I member in 1987.

But you have to appreciate his “why not us?” perspective that is grounded both in urgency to become a top 100 program and first-things-first practicality.

For instance, asked about any need for a new arena just as the men’s team will move from Municipal Auditorium back to Swinney for WAC games, Martin suggested building blocks are more significant than, say, a 15,000-seat facility.

“If we don’t have the right product and we don’t have the right recruits, we’re going to have dismal attendance. That’s not what we want. That doesn’t help our brand,” he said, instead emphasizing the need to sell out Swinney’s approximately 1,600 seats and adding, “We want people to get excited about that first. And then we can move on and do some other creative things that maybe I can present to” Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal.

When Martin was presented to Agrawal and the search committee with the consultation of former Missouri A.D. Mike Alden, his own brand spoke for itself. Not the least of it was the education of Martin, a former University of Southern California basketball captain who played basketball overseas in China, Spain and Venezuela.

Martin earned his master’s degree and doctorate at USC, where his work was recognized as outstanding dissertation of the year by USC’s Rossier School of Education.

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He also comes with endorsements from many prominent figures in college athletics, including UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby; Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell (“a rising star in our industry. His tenure at CSUN was nothing short of extraordinary.”) and Oklahoma A.D. Joe Castiglione — with whom Martin worked for three years and calls the biggest influence on his professional career.

As “a sponge” around Castiglione, he said, he learned everything from “how to manage multiple stakeholders, some of the nuances of fundraising … about marketing, structurally how a department is supposed to run. You don’t get a better guy to teach you that.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Castiglione raved about Martin and amplified the words he had shared for a UMKC news release.

“UMKC is getting a dynamic leader but an even better person,” wrote Castiglione, who called on Martin in the search process that led to the hiring of basketball coach Lon Kruger. “He possesses the ability to convey a vision, create energy, collaborate with stakeholders and inspire a culture of integrity and success with the focus on student-athletes. Brandon will connect and engage with everyone who can support the Roos.”

Not shared publicly but also meaningful in the appointment of Martin was what a source called “a very positive letter of reference and support” and a phone call to Agrawal from president Dianne Harrison of Northridge, where under Martin’s leadership athletics donations increased by 453 percent and men’s basketball attendance went up 71 percent.

Martin said he resigned in March after a verbal altercation with men’s basketball coach Reggie Theus when Martin fired him. Theus filed a battery complaint against Martin with the school’s police department. No arrests were made, but a day later the school announced neither would return.

As he reflects on the incident, Martin says he’s not proud of what happened, which he says never became violent, but that the most important question is what he learned from it. In hindsight, he wishes he’d reported it immediately to Harrison, who he said among other administrators had been in agreement about firing Theus — who was 53-105 in five years and had raised other concerns with Martin.

Best those involved in the search can tell, Theus was the aggressor in this. And while Martin believes he could have been supported better, his prevailing takeaway was “how do you bounce back? How do you move forward?” Citing author John Maxwell’s “Failing Forward,” he found himself doing a lot of introspection and making lists of things he could do better as a man who prides himself on being a role model.

“I’m grateful for it,” he said, “because it’s going to make me a better A.D. here.”

Now, as ever, he just has to make it happen — starting fresh and moving forward.

“All of this will take some time,” he said, “but it starts today.”

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.