January 24, 2006
ATLANTA -- Athletic director Dave Braine's pending retirement signals the start of an uncertain changeover for Georgia Tech's athletic program.
Braine, 62, announced on Jan. 11 his intention to step down as the head of the athletic department. He suffers from Crohn's disease, an intestinal disorder, which leaves him fatigued and makes traveling difficult. He'll remain on the job until the school's appeal of its NCAA infractions case is complete -- a hearing should be held no later than the end of March -- and his successor is hired.
Braine came to Georgia Tech in 1997, and in nine years he modernized the athletic department. The Yellow Jackets' teams have shown improvement across the board, particularly in the Olympic (non-revenue) sports such as tennis, track and volleyball. He also oversaw the renovation of the baseball stadium and the expansion of Bobby Dodd Stadium.
As much progress as Tech has made under Braine, many Tech alumni and donors won't be sad to see him depart. Several long-term observers say the fan base is divided like never before. Many supporters are disgruntled with the school being on NCAA probation and what some perceive as underachievement by the football team. Those events happened under Braine's watch.
The next athletic director's top priority will be to reach out to those disenchanted folks. He or she will have to be charismatic, as much salesperson as CEO.
"I think leadership is what we need right now to unite our people," said former Tech football player and coach Bill Curry, one of the early favorites to succeed Braine.
Beyond the public relations side of the job, though, lies a minefield. Braine is beloved by his coaches, particularly those who lead the school's two major programs: men's basketball and football. His replacement must win over the folks in the stands and on the sidelines.
To fully appreciate how much Braine means to basketball coach Paul Hewitt, consider the two escape clauses in Hewitt's contract. One gives the coach the freedom to pursue his dream job in the NBA. Hewitt grew up on Long Island and makes no secret of his ambition to some day coach the New York Knicks. The other clause allows Hewitt to break his contract for any reason within two years of Braine's departure.
Hewitt obviously feels indebted to Braine. The AD took a chance on Hewitt six years ago, hiring a then 36-year-old with just three years of head coaching experience to lead an elite ACC program. Hewitt seemed an odd choice to succeed Bobby Cremins, who had built Tech into a power during his 18 years on The Flats.
Braine saw something special in Hewitt, though, and his instincts proved sound. Hewitt led the Yellow Jackets back to the NCAA Tournament in his debut season, the school's first trip to the Big Dance since 1996. The Jackets slumped over the next two years, going 32-32. Braine then gave Hewitt a controversial contract extension.
The following March, Hewitt guided Tech to the Final Four and the national championship game, where the Yellow Jackets lost to Connecticut.
The program has reaped the benefits of the Final Four run. Hewitt has signed three quality recruiting classes since the trip to San Antonio. This year's team includes eight talented freshmen and sophomores. Four more high school stars will arrive this fall, including Thaddeus Young, who's considered among the top five prep players in the country, and Javaris Crittenton, the nation's top-ranked point guard by some recruiting gurus.
In short, Tech wants to keep Hewitt around. The Jackets have a chance to be a national power every year, as long as Hewitt's their coach. The next AD must form a quick and strong bond with Hewitt.
Hewitt is outspoken about a college coach's need to have a strong administration behind him. Braine is in his 22nd year as an athletic director. His senior staff includes two men with similar experience. Bobby Robinson spent 17 years leading Clemson's program, and Paul Griffin was formerly an AD at South Florida and Arkansas State.
Braine's background also includes 10 years as a college coach, giving him a perspective Hewitt and his peers certainly can appreciate.
Meanwhile, by the time Tech hires a new athletic director, football coach Chan Gailey will have signed a contract that could keep him on The Flats through the 2010 season. That likely will work both for and against the incoming AD.
Tech's fan base is split when it comes to Gailey. Some appreciate the job he's done over the last four years, as he extended the Yellow Jackets' string of winning seasons to nine. Tech has won seven games each year under Gailey, while dealing with the fall-out from coach George O'Leary's embarrassing departure and the failing out of 10 players -- none recruited by Gailey -- in 2003.
Others believe Gailey is holding the Jackets back. His teams' tendency to lose games in which they're favored -- Wake Forest in 2002, Duke in 2003, North Carolina in 2004, N.C. State and Utah last season -- drives many fans crazy. A significant percentage obviously would like to see a coaching change.
The new AD won't have that option, at least not right away, which means the anti-Gailey faction won't be able to use that against him or her during attempts to unite the Tech community. He or she can blame the situation on Braine, at least for a few years.
That could backfire, of course, if the program slips. The Jackets appear to have enough talent to continue their winning ways over the next two years. Beyond that, though, the program's recent scholarship restrictions could take a toll.
Tech is set to sign a class of 17 recruits on Feb. 1. It likely will include two offensive linemen at the most, and for the first time under Gailey, the Yellow Jackets won't sign a player for every defensive position. The Jackets will face a similar situation next year, unless an NCAA appeals committee agrees to reduce the penalties.
Should Tech post a couple of losing seasons, the pressure would fall hard on the new athletic director. Gailey's an honorable man and coach and probably would resign if asked, but even that would leave the AD in an awkward position.
COMMITTEE FACES DISTINCT OPTIONS
Wayne Clough, Georgia Tech's president and the chair of the athletic director search committee, wants someone familiar with the workings of a major college athletic department as his next AD.
"It could be as an assistant athletic director, an associate athletic director, a coach, even somebody who isn't in I-A now but was previously," Clough said. "The Division I-A world is different than everywhere else."
That basically leaves Tech with two kinds of candidates: big-name former coaches such as Curry and Cremins, who would be good with alumni and donors but lack an administrative background, and experienced administrators who likely will lack the name recognition to immediately galvanize the fan base.
Whichever direction Clough and Tech select, the new athletic director will inherit a stable department that runs like an efficient corporation. That ultimately will prove to be a huge part of Braine's legacy.
"This is a very good program now. It is a good job. All the programs are in good shape," Braine said. "But it is a tough job also."