Syracuse University athletic director leads the daily operations of a 20-sport athletics department with more than 600 student athletes
By Lou Sorendo
ESPN, Inc. recently changed its slogan from “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” to “ESPN: Serving Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”
John Wildhack, a former ESPN executive who now serves as Syracuse University’s director of athletics, can easily adopt that new phrase for his own use with a bit of tweaking:
“John Wildhack: Serving Syracuse University fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”
At SU, Wildhack leads the daily operations of a 20-sport athletics department with more than 600 student-athletes, a role he has held since July of 2016.
ESPN is the leading multinational, multimedia sports entertainment entity featuring the broadest portfolio of multimedia sports assets with over 50 business entities. It is based in Bristol, Connecticut.
Wildhack, 62, said his more than 30 years of experience at ESPN proved extremely helpful in transitioning to his role at SU.
Grateful for his lengthy tenure at ESPN, the Jamesville resident said it proved to be an “unbelievable experience.”
He had the opportunity to relate and negotiate with all of the Power 5 Conferences, which includes the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“I got to know the Power 5 commissioners and several athletic directors in each conference,” he said. “That gave me a very broad overview.”
When he arrived on the SU campus, he told his new colleagues at his first staff meeting that he had more to learn than anyone in the room, and would commit to doing exactly that.
Wildhack is returning to his roots in many ways. He is a 1980 alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at SU with a degree in telecommunications.
Prior to taking over the AD’s position, Wildhack served as the executive vice president of programming and production for ESPN, and had oversight of all domestic and international production at ESPN as well as acquisitions, audio and the talent office.
He had oversight of all ESPN and ABC game, event and studio production work for domestic and international television and radio, as well as programming acquisitions, rights-holder relationship management and scheduling. He managed all league and conference relationships, negotiated all live sports television rights and was responsible for 50,000 hours of on-air content annually.
He oversaw more than 2,000 employees, or about half the ESPN workforce in the U.S.
How busy is ESPN?
In 2019, ESPN presented 24,749 live events and 83,340 total live hours of studio and event programming — TV and digital combined.
“That experience coupled with my earlier years at ESPN really helped me develop my leadership philosophy and hopefully my ability to be an effective leader,” he said.
Focus on collaboration
Wildhack, a native of Buffalo, said it is essential to be collaborative as a leader.
“I encourage and demand collaboration between individual units and divisions,” he said. “I welcome good, healthy and respectful debate, and don’t like to be surrounded by a bunch of ‘yes’ people.”
“At the same time, once a decision is made, everyone owns it and is responsible to execute it,” he added.
Wildhack said it is vital to “surround yourself with people that are smarter and have greater knowledge in the area that they oversee than you do.
“That’s what you want. They are the experts.”
“A leader also needs to set an example in terms of how to conduct oneself and it is paramount to treat everyone with respect and dignity, he added. “It’s OK to have fun, just do so responsibly,” he noted.
A leader is also charged with creating a culture where everyone is valued and where people can grow and develop, not just from a career standpoint, but as individuals.
Wildhack succeeded Mark Coyle, who abruptly left SU in 2016 after less than a year at the school to pursue a job at Minnesota University.
Two close friends and fellow alums approached Wildhack about the opening. However, he matter-of-factly said he was not interested and had no intent on uprooting his family from their home and lives in Connecticut.
“The kids were doing great in their schools and my wife and her family are from Connecticut,” he said. “We were fortunate to be in the position we were in.”
Nonetheless, Wildhack did agree to meet with a headhunter, and a one-hour lunch turned into three hours in the Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters of ESPN.
His interest piqued, Wildhack then delved into research and met with SU Chancellor Kent Syverud.
“What sealed the deal for me is when I met with the chancellor one-on-one. You always want to respect the individual you are reporting to,” he said. “Just his vision for the university was something that really enthused me and piqued my interest.”
Wildhack told the chancellor it had to be a unanimous decision at home with his wife Amy and their two sons, Tommy and James.
“We had a great family conversation and ultimately, it turned out to be a 4-0 vote. We told our sons these are really good conversations to have, and there are no wrong answers. We were very fortunate and told them they should not feel pressured. Everybody said yes, let’s do it, so here we are,” he said.
Wildhack is also the father of a son, M.J.
For Wildhack, coming back to SU is indeed returning home. His brother and sister-in-law reside in the area, as well as a sister.
His family also has a summer residence on Sodus Bay, a retreat family members have enjoyed for generations.
“To be close to that was very appealing,” he said.
“I’ve always had affection for the university. Most of my family went here, and I stayed connected after graduation through my work at ESPN being on the advisory board for the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, which I am still on,” he noted.
He’s always has had a connectivity with the university.
“I’m very thankful because Syracuse gave me the foundation and helped me build the foundation that when I left here and went to ESPN, I was prepared to compete and have success,” he noted.
Wildhack and his staff have experienced competitive success across a number of sports since he became AD.
In Wildhack’s first three years, 39 teams have represented SU at national championship events, including 36 NCAA competitions. In 2018-19, a total of 14 programs qualified for their national championship. In addition, the football team returned to the postseason and captured its 16th bowl victory by defeating West Virginia in the 2018 Camping World Bowl.
The Orange has won 22 conference championships (three team, 19 individual) in that span and two national championships.
“Obviously, that is always rewarding for everyone,” he said.
Equally important is academic performance among the 600 student engaged in sports.
“Our graduation success rate and our academic progress rates among student-athletes are both at all-time highs,” he said. “We are also proud of our coaches for their commitment and support of academics.”
The Orange had a record seven teams post perfect four year scores in the 2019 release of the Academic Progress Rate, and the university’s four year average of 987 is the highest since APR tracking began in 2006. As a group, the Orange student athlete body achieved better than a 3.0 cumulative GPA in 2018-19, the third year in a row they surpassed that benchmark.
“We can compete at a very high level, which one does in the ACC, but we can also have great success in the classroom. I think one of the things I am most proud of is just seeing some of those who graduated since I’ve been here go on and begin to really build their careers and have professional success in a variety of different fields,” he noted. “I think it’s motivational for all of us.”
“At the end of the day, when people ask ‘What do you really do?’ I say we’re in the business of developing young people to their fullest potential, both academically and athletically,” Wildhack said.
Just as valuable as great performances on the playing fields is excellence in the classroom, he added.
“If our kids are not doing well in the classroom, that is not going to serve them well down the road,” said Wildhack, noting that only 2% of college athletes go on to compete professionally.
For the majority, when their college career ends, so does their competitive athletic career.
“We have to prepare them for life after Syracuse,” he said.
Wildhack said many who graduate and enter into professional careers serve as an inspiration to their former teammates.
“When they come back to campus and interact with their former teammates and share stories about life in the professional world, that is invaluable to our current student athletes,” he said.
Only as strong as team
Wildhack addressed the keys to successfully managing the athletic department.
“You’d better have really good head coaches and coaching staffs, which we do. Again, they want to compete at the very highest level. We recruit very aggressively, but we do it the right way,” he said.
He also relies heavily on his individual unit heads within the department, whether it involves academic support, strength and conditioning, sports medicine, compliance or marketing and financing.
“I’m fortunate we have a terrific staff. They are absolutely instrumental in our success,” he noted.
Wildhack said there are challenges inherent in any job.
“You have to identify what the challenge is, confront it and try to solve it to the best you possibly can,” he said.
He said there are obvious challenges on the field of play, where the quality of competition is at its highest level.
The ACC is not only noted for its superior men’s basketball and football programs, but also women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer.
“It’s a challenge to compete against schools that at times are going to have more resources than you do,” he said. “That means we need to be a little more creative, entrepreneurial and innovative in the things that we do.”
Developing own content
Wildhack has also been instrumental in helping to develop the Syracuse Athletics Production team, formed in the fall of 2017.
In its first two years, the in-house production unit broadcast 205 live events and was responsible for more than 700 hours of content for the ACC’s digital platform — ACC Network Extra.
“It’s really been critical for us, and it’s not just tied to the launch of the ACC Network, which occurred in August of 2019,” he said.
ACC Network Extra is a streaming-only option and is offered exclusively through WatchESPN and the ESPN app. It airs many of the games not shown on the ACC Network.
“The Syracuse Athletics Production team and our creative services group are producing so much more content now, and that content promotes our student athletes, teams and coaches. In a lot of cases, we distribute that content across our platforms,” Wildhack said.
“It’s a way to build our brand and engage our fans, community, alumni and donor base,” he said.
The Syracuse Athletics Production and creative services teams are important because “we can’t just rely on traditional media coverage. We’ve got to be in the content creation business ourselves, and we are now,” Wildhack said.
The Syracuse AD said the use of social media in general is beneficial.
He said it’s important from both a fan engagement and recruiting perspective.
“It’s all part of our overall content strategy. We look to be very aggressive across all digital media platforms,” he said.
Birth date: Oct. 23, 1958
Current residence: Jamesville
Education: Syracuse University, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, 1980
Current affiliations: Advisory board member, David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics
Family: Wife, Amy; sons Michael, Tommy, and James
Hobbies: Golf, boating, summers at the family home on Lake Ontario (Sodus Bay)
Workout Helps Clear Mind
Syracuse University Director of Athletics John Wildhack is an advocate of getting a jump on physical activity early in the day.
“I want to be as well prepared as possible. My workouts are first thing in the morning, and it helps me clear my head before the day starts,” he said.
He works out nearly every day of the week, and his regimen consists of a variety of cardio, light free weights, core exercises and stretching.
Wildhack watches his diet carefully.
He eats very little red meat and fried foods, but enjoys a lot of salmon, chicken, fruits and vegetables.
“I’ve been told I’m a ‘boring’ eater,” he said.
A recreational golfer, Wildhack will occasionally play in club tournaments.
“My philosophy regarding golf is I’m outside at someplace nice, with people who are friends or family and the weather is good. If I play well, that’s a bonus,” he said. “I do enjoy friendly competition.”
He added golf is a sport that if healthy, one can play for a long time.
Wildhack noted he has never thought about the “ideal” retirement scenario.
“When I’m done working, the one thing I know is I’ll be active in a variety of ways,” he said.