MARIOMORRIS-Q and A-MAY-01-05122016154401

Mario Morris is Wisconsin's associate athletic director for business operations and oversees a budget that exceeds $100 million annually.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Like others in the University of Wisconsin athletic department, Mario Morris oversees a team.

Morris' group, however, is more interested in avoiding red ink than wearing red uniforms.

As UW's associate athletic director for business operations, Morris, 44, oversees a department that manages an annual budget in excess of $100 million.

Thanks to recent upgrades and additions, the athletics finance department now has budget development software and a director of data analytics position to help keep the Badgers budget on track.

"We want to make informed decisions so we've added some people that have a lot of capability," Morris said. "We're really trying to become more efficient so we can create that capability of our staff to not just push information but really to be able to analyze information and give good advice to our senior leaders so we can make good decisions."

There's much more to Morris, however, than just the financial side of college athletics. The Decatur, Alabama, native sat down with the Cap Times to discuss that and his work toward a doctorate, a program to prepare student-athletes for life after college sports and starting for Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.

What changes have you seen in the UW athletics budget since you started in 2010, and how has it affected the way things run?

Well, with the advent of TV (contracts), that's probably been the largest contribution from what I can see. It's a big driver of revenue. It also changes the way that many things are done as far as scheduling and those types of things, so it's had an impact on how we operate.

The expansion (of the Big Ten), we knew that would come with an additional cost as far as traveling and those types of things. We just saw the student-athlete initiatives, the cost of attendance, the meals initiative. (In 2015-16, schools for the first time were allowed to pay for the full cost of attendance in athletics scholarships and to fully subsidize meal programs.) Those were costly initiatives and I think ones that were well needed and we're very supportive of. Those have changed things quite a bit.

There's always this future landscape of athletics that we're looking at and those things that are out there as far as the litigation. (The NCAA is involved in legal battles involving pay for student-athletes.) And the continued investment in the initiatives, I think, are things in the future that we'll continue to have to deal with.

How do you think college athletics funding would change in a system where student-athletes were getting paid more than just the cost of attendance and something more along the lines of a salary?

There's a lot of speculation there. It could fundamentally change the model of athletics. We're very proud of the system that we have right now where we provide opportunities for men and women to participate in our sports and we fully fund those sports. And I wouldn't want to see a day where that wasn't the case.

When you added in the full cost of attendance and the meals this year, how much of a challenge was it to fit those into the budget?

Every year when we create the budget, there are priorities. We have to prioritize our spending. And those became top priorities. So we had to take a look at the other things. As far as capital projects, we were fortunate enough that we had moved through a phase of a lot of our capital projects. Our revenue streams are doing well. We have tremendously loyal fans and donors, and they really contribute to our revenue streams and contribute to what we do.

You're involved with the Beyond the Game program at UW. Can you describe that?

This is something that I'm really, really proud of. The Beyond the Game program began back in 2010. I was asked as a part of my Ph.D. program, I had a research assistantship and I was asked to help create this program to help strengthen the postgraduate careers of student-athletes. We wanted it to really be a holistic program where the student-athlete really focused on building a separate identity from their athletic identity while they were on campus so when they got ready to leave they had a network, they knew how to go out and get a job, they had other interests and they could articulate that very well.

So I partnered with Doug Tiedt and Bridget Woodruff in the athletic department and we spent over a year developing that program. The program originally was an initiative out of the University of Pennsylvania, where they were trying to conduct some research and trying to fund projects that would help strengthen the educational aspirations of young black males. And Dr. Jerlando Jackson, who's done a lot of great work here, who's my adviser, chose me to help spearhead that project. So we put together this project and we expanded it once we really got into it. We really wanted to help all of our student-athletes in addition to our young black males. We really wanted all of our student-athletes to be able to participate in this. And it has just grown and flourished.

What's the focus of your doctoral work?

Sort of combining some of the things that I've learned in my past, I'm taking a look at the contractual relationship between student-athletes and universities. It's combining my legal training with the athletics and the experience of being a student-athlete. I can remember when I signed my National Letter of Intent, I had no idea what it was. I was so excited to sign it, I really didn't care. But i think it's really important for the university, the athletic department and the student-athlete to understand what their rights and obligations are. I know that sometimes it can be a little bit complicated, and I think if we have a better understanding of what those things are as we go into the agreements, I think it can yield better outcomes.

I also think it would be easier to compare options between universities if there was maybe a standard form where the university disclosed the benefits and disclosed the obligations. Long term, that's something I would hope to see. It's a really interesting topic. I get fired up every time I start thinking about it.

Has anything surprised you in your work on the topic?

One of the first things that has to be done is you have to define the contract and what's involved. After reading through the documents, you understand that all the terms of the contract just aren't located on the documents. You quickly realize that a lot of the provisions are included by incorporation. All of the conference rules, all of the university rules, team rules — none of that's spelled out exactly in the contract itself but they're incorporated in there.

So that's going to be one of the more challenging things is, how do you convey that information and convey it in a way that people can understand it? And convey the most important things? You're not going to put every NCAA rule in a contract for somebody to sign. But how can we convey the most important things that we want people to know?

What made you decide to pursue a law degree?

I graduated in finance from the University of Alabama and worked in financial services for a while. I was in Nashville, Tennessee, and my mom got sick with breast cancer. And she ended up passing away; she was 44. From that experience, what I learned was life is short so if there's something that you want to do, you'd better go do it. And something I always wanted to do was go to law school. And at that time, I said, you know what, this is what I'm going to do. And I did that and really enjoyed it.

I clerked for one of the larger law firms here in town and really had a great experience, but I learned that I probably didn't want to be a courtroom attorney and I was probably more of a transactional guy. After I finished I really wanted to go back into financial services and I thought maybe I could become a corporate attorney or something like that. But I stayed in that until the recession happened, and that caused me to think what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And I really wanted to contribute.

I volunteer coach over here at West High School for the football team, and that really gave me a spark that I really wanted to be able to contribute, utilize the skills that I had attained over the past few years and contribute back to someone's life. So I had an opportunity to join the athletic department because I believe in our mission. We provide opportunities for student-athletes. We provide opportunities for students like me who wouldn't have been able to afford college. Where I came from, the options were you go into the army or if you were fortunate enough to earn a scholarship to play sports, you can do that. And I did that. But I really wanted to contribute to an organization that did that. I'm really excited with what I'm doing and where I am.

You were a sophomore linebacker on the 1992 Alabama football team that won the national championship. Can you describe what it was like being put into the starting lineup for the Sugar Bowl?

Just going back to that season, I probably had one of the best offseasons anybody could have and the coaches rewarded me. I got a chance to start that first game (of the season), and I think I made like six tackles. But the guy who I was battling positions with came back and intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown. I'm like, jeez, give me a chance! So for the rest of the season we sort of battled it out and I ended up becoming the nickel linebacker basically for the rest of the season.

I did an article with the local paper Christmas eve and I got a phone call Christmas morning saying my teammate had been in a car accident, and are you ready to start? I was like, yeah, that's what we prepare for. So we got down to New Orleans and it was my position to go in there and be ready to start.

It was pretty exciting. That whole week, we came into it very businesslike. We were playing against Miami, and Miami has that reputation of being sort of carefree and a little arrogant, and they were. We came in with our coat and tie and sort of just did our business. We dominated the whole game. We had some stars on our team but we didn't have any individuals. We really had a cohesive team. I can remember our defense being one of the best defenses I've ever seen, and to have been a part of that is something that I'm really proud of.

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Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.