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December 17, 2013

End of an Era

By: Jimmy Robertson

Citing health reasons, Tech AD Jim Weaver announced his retirement effective at the end of the year after 16 years as the head of the athletics department – and he leaves some big shoes to fill

In 16 years as the AD at Virginia Tech, Jim Weaver guided the department into two conferences, ran a fiscally responsible operation and made sure the sports teams never ran afoul of the NCAA.

Jim Weaver slowly walked up to the podium in the Merryman Center football team meeting room and got ready to address the athletics department for probably the last time.

He delivered the news that most expected, and after thanking a few people, he did something that few, if any, in the athletics department had ever seen him do.

He shed tears.

“I told myself that I was going to keep my emotions in check,” Weaver said. “Now they’re running out the damn door.”

After serving more than 16 years as the athletics director at Tech, Weaver announced plans to retire at the end of December. He leaves with two years remaining on his contract, and university president Dr. Charles Steger named Sharon McCloskey as the interim AD effective Jan. 1. McCloskey, Tech’s senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator, performed this same role 16 years ago when Dave Braine left to take the AD job at Georgia Tech.

Weaver cited health concerns as the reason for his retiring. The 68-year-old was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the nervous system that impairs speech and coordination, in 2004 and has undergone a brain surgery and numerous back surgeries in the past several years.

Two months ago, Weaver learned that he needed to have both of his hips replaced – even though his left hip actually was replaced in 2008. The pain in his hips prevented him from working full office hours, and in early September, he began talking with Steger about an early retirement.

“I started thinking about it in mid-August, and I made the decision some time at the end of September or maybe mid-September,” Weaver said. “It’s basically a situation where I can’t give 100 percent effort, and this job is a terrific job in the industry, but it demands your full attention, and unfortunately I’m not able to do that right now. It’s in the best interest of all the parties to do what we did.

“It [retiring] was very difficult, but it became more realistic as I went along. I’m absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. As much as I love the business and love the university, it was the thing to do. I have no second thoughts about it.”

Weaver leaves behind big shoes to fill. From overseeing the transition into two conferences, to administering offices and coaching staffs that never compromised on NCAA compliance, to graduating student-athletes at never before seen levels at Tech, to running a department that is as fiscally sound as any in college athletics, Weaver took the lead in every area.

More importantly, he was the supervisor of a group of people who have put together a strong foundation for the athletics department going forward.

Conference affiliation and budget woes

Weaver didn’t exactly ease into his role as the AD at Tech after spending two years as the AD at Western Michigan on the heels of a three-year stint as the AD at UNLV. He wouldn’t get that luxury.

The most pressing issue of the time centered on Tech’s conference situation. Braine had tried desperately to get the Hokies into the BIG EAST for all sports, and while league commissioner Mike Tranghese was open to the idea, the league’s presidents blocked those prospects. So Tech found itself in the BIG EAST for football, the Colonial Athletic Association for wrestling and the Atlantic 10 for all other sports.

Weaver possessed experience in dealing with this exact situation. At UNLV, he led the way, as UNLV moved from the Big West Conference into the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) for all sports.

He knew most of the parties involved with the BIG EAST office, including Tranghese. He spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone with people who could help Tech’s case, and he constantly pitched the Hokies in meetings with league officials.

“I spent a considerable amount of time on that issue,” Weaver admitted. “I had multiple conversations with people, making sure people knew what our aspirations were.”

In August of 1999, the BIG EAST invited Tech into the conference for all sports beginning for the 2001-02 season. League presidents later decided to invite Tech for the 2000-01 season.

Tech got into the BIG EAST largely because of its success in football. But it also got in largely because Weaver had begun implementing plans to make the school even more attractive.

It started with making the department a fiscally viable operation. That turned out to be a difficult chore largely because the annual payout from the Atlantic 10 Conference back then was the equivalent of peanuts. Weaver had to make some difficult choices, including the postponement of some facilities projects.

Obviously, the growth of Tech’s football program brought in needed revenue, but Weaver restructured some organizations within the department to save money, and he also cut in certain areas. Under his watch, the department ran in the black every single year of his tenure, and today, stands as one of the few athletics departments in the nation that runs in the black.

“We, as a senior administrative staff, made the tough calls to get the organization running the way we wanted it to run,” he said. “We needed to start work on facilities, and the first building I wanted to build was a new field house. As I looked over the course of time, we had to push that to the backburner because there were other things that were more pertinent.”

Though he couldn’t have known this at the time, Weaver’s ability to put Tech on solid financial footing partly led to the biggest moment in the athletics department’s history – its invitation into the Atlantic Coast Conference for all sports beginning in 2004. A lot of factors led to that invitation, including some strong-arming done by former governor Mark Warner, but because of Weaver’s strong fiscal management, his leadership on facilities projects, and his oversight in compliance areas, Weaver deserved a lot of credit for making the Tech athletics department an appealing product.

Facilities boom

While at Florida, Weaver cleaned up a compliance mess following the NCAA’s charging of the Gators with 107 major rules violations under former football coach Charley Pell. The NCAA ultimately determined that the Gators had committed 59 infractions, put the Gators on probation for two years and banned them from bowl games and live television for two years.

Weaver obviously spent a lot of time in then-Florida AD Bill Carr’s office discussing compliance issues. He got to know Carr’s administrative assistant, Nancy Gabbard, quite well, and he even enlisted her services from time to time because he did not have his own administrative assistant.

She later took another job outside of athletics, but when Weaver received a promotion at Florida, he called her and offered her a job, and she took it, getting back into athletics. Meanwhile, her husband, Tom, ran a real estate company that the two of them had started, and he had sold Weaver’s home (Weaver had built a new home). So Weaver and the Gabbards became close friends.

Within a year or two after that, Weaver interviewed for the AD job at Furman and didn’t get it. He then interviewed at UNLV and landed that one, starting in October of 1991. He put his house on the market with Tom Gabbard.

Weaver came back to Florida for Christmas that year, and he called Gabbard, wanting him to come over to the house. Gabbard thought he wanted to discuss the selling of Weaver’s home and gathered all his marketing materials in preparation for the meeting.

“What’s that stuff?” Weaver asked.

“I want to show you what we’re doing to sell your house,” Gabbard said.

“I don’t want to talk to you about that,” Weaver told him. “I want to talk to you about changing careers.”

Weaver wanted to hire Gabbard for a spot on his staff at UNLV. He wanted someone without any prior knowledge of athletics, preferring instead to teach that person his own perspective of athletics. Gabbard thanked Weaver for the offer and said he would consider it, and then he cut to the chase.

“You want your secretary back, don’t you?” Gabbard asked. “And you’re trying to find a job for the old man?”

Weaver said, “Yes, I want Nancy back.”

In March of 1992, Tom and Nancy Gabbard moved to Las Vegas – and Tom and Weaver have been building facilities ever since.

Gabbard’s experience in real estate and building construction made him an ideal person to carry out Weaver’s ideas on facilities. At UNLV, Weaver talked a lot of the high rollers on the Las Vegas scene into giving him the money needed to build facilities, and then Gabbard oversaw the construction those facilities. At UNLV, they built a baseball stadium, a tennis facility and an athletic complex, and installed a new track and renovated the basketball offices.

“His philosophy was, ‘If you ain’t growing, you’re dying,’” Gabbard said. “Jim’s always been a facilities guy. Now, certainly his strength was in compliance when he came to Vegas because he had taken Florida through all that. But he’s been a facilities guy from the very beginning.”

Gabbard decided to stay in Las Vegas after Weaver resigned and later took the job at Western Michigan. But when Weaver got the job at Virginia Tech, he called the Gabbards and convinced them to come to Blacksburg.

Together, they have spearheaded an unbelievable boom in athletics facilities. In fact, when most people discuss Weaver’s legacy, they tend to think of all the building that went on during his tenure.

Weaver and Gabbard oversaw the building of the south end zone structure at Lane Stadium and then the west side expansion of the stadium. They oversaw the building of the Hahn Hurst Basketball Practice Center, the new football locker room, the new baseball hitting facility and many other projects and renovations. Earlier this year, they received approval to build a new indoor field house for the football team, and plans call for that project to be concluded by the start of the 2015 football season.

They also took what Weaver described as a “trickle-down” approach. In other words, they found ways to benefit Olympic sports with each project. For example, when they decided to move the football practice fields to behind the Jamerson Athletics Center, they then decided to build a soccer/lacrosse stadium on the vacated space, in addition to two practice fields – one consisting of natural grass and one consisting of artificial turf. Also, while overseeing the building of the new football locker room, they included a floor for the wrestling program, and they came up with plans to create new locker rooms for the baseball, men’s soccer and men’s track and field teams in the old football locker room.

In short, everyone benefitted in some way with each project.

All told, the athletics department has committed $200 million to facilities under Weaver, including the $20-30 million needed for the new indoor field house and the renovation of Rector Field House.

“We did a lot of everything,” Weaver admitted. “You’ve got to have the right facilities if you’re going to compete with the upper echelon. There is no question about it.”

Does the Tech athletics department stop building once a new AD gets hired? Not a chance. Athletics departments everywhere are building something newer and bigger, and to be competitive, Tech needs to continue the building legacy that Weaver and Gabbard started.

Hiring coaches

In 2006, Weaver faced a dilemma. Tom Brands, the head coach of the wrestling program – a man whom Weaver had given his first head coaching job – rocked everyone when he decided to take the Iowa job. Brands also took five prized freshmen with him. He left Tech’s program in tatters, and there was talk of disbanding the program.

Instead, Weaver hired a local high school coach to oversee the program – and last year, Kevin Dresser led the program to its first ACC championship and first top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships.

“I was appreciative that he kept wrestling and also that he gave me the opportunity to be the guy here,” Dresser said. “Jim tends to make hires on gut feeling, and any time you do that, sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. I’d like to think he was right with wrestling. I think he’s made more right calls than wrong during his tenure at Virginia Tech.”

Weaver refused to box himself into a corner when it came to hiring head coaches. At times, he made the unorthodox hire, as he did with Dresser. At times, he looked nationally to fill spots and hit grand slams with the hiring of guys like Dave Cianelli, Jim Thompson and Pete Hughes. Cianelli’s track and field and cross country teams have won eight ACC titles, and Thompson has led the men’s tennis program to seven straight NCAA regionals. Hughes guided the baseball program to two NCAA regionals, including last season when the Hokies played host to their first baseball regional.

At times, Weaver promoted from within the ranks. Charles “Chugger” Adair, the women’s soccer coach, has been Weaver’s biggest success with that strategy, as Adair has guided the Hokies to three NCAA appearances, including this year’s College Cup appearance.

“Primarily,” Weaver said when asked if his hires came down to a “gut” decision. “You get to know the people and you have reasons why you need to do certain things and you match them up. If they match up, you make the call.

“I know there are some people who think I shouldn’t have done what I’ve done, but I believe in it.”

Adair had been an assistant for more than 10 years at four different stops, including a five-year stint with the Hokies under former coach Kelly Cagle. Cagle resigned in December of 2010 for family reasons, and Weaver decided to promote Adair instead of conducting a national search. He wanted to continue the program’s upward trajectory, so promoting the assistant made perfect sense to him.

“I had interviewed at mid-major positions in my career,” Adair said. “I had never gotten offered. They [officials at those schools] wanted head coaching experience, and I didn’t have that.

“I’ll always be in debt to him [Weaver] for the opportunity to be a head coach. It’s a difficult thing to get a head coaching job these days. A lot of assistants put a lot of time in. I was an assistant for 10 years before getting that opportunity. Not only did he give me a head job, but a quality head job here at Virginia Tech and in the ACC.”

Ultimately, the legacy of Weaver’s hiring choices may come down to his basketball coaches – men’s coach James Johnson and women’s coach Dennis Wolff. After firing Seth Greenberg in 2012, Weaver turned to Johnson, one of Greenberg’s assistants. Johnson’s career as an assistant took him to numerous schools, but he had no head coaching experience. His passion for Virginia Tech, though, sold Weaver.

Like Johnson, Wolff, now in his third year as the head of the women’s program, had worked for Greenberg as an assistant, serving as the director of basketball operations for a year. Weaver liked Wolff’s track record as the head men’s coach at Boston University from 1994-2009 and viewed him as a great choice to replace Beth Dunkenberger, whose contract had expired.

Weaver stands by these two, and all of his hiring decisions.

“I’m hopeful that the people who take over the leadership role will give those people the time that’s needed,” he said. “When you make a change, regardless of whether it’s inside or outside, if they [the new leadership] will give them a chance, they will be fine.”

An undeniable legacy

So much more could be written about Weaver and his impact on Virginia Tech athletics. He took the lead in adding high-profile opponents to the Hokies’ football schedule, much to fans’ delight. The Hokies have played such teams as USC, Alabama, LSU, Boise State, Texas A&M and Nebraska under his watch, and he has scheduled future games with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, and of course, Tennessee in Bristol, Tenn.

In terms of departmental infrastructure, he expanded auxiliary units, doubling the staffs in strength and conditioning, sports medicine, marketing, athletics communications and the video department. Some of these areas directly benefit student-athletes, while others enable the department to branch out toward fans.

He fought for a larger staff in Tech’s Student-Athlete Academic Support Services. When he started, the staff essentially consisted of a few people. Now, it consists of 10 full-timers, and that staff has played a huge role in Tech’s impressive rise in graduation rates among student-athletes. Tech’s recent Graduation Success Rate of 90 percent (combined all sports) ranked in the top 10 nationally.

He added women’s golf to the list of varsity sports at Tech, providing opportunities for more female student-athletes. He also made sure coaches and staff members followed NCAA rules and regulations to the letter.

He will leave with an impressive legacy.

“I’ve never worried about that,” Weaver said. “I haven’t taken the time or had the time to think about it since I announced I was retiring. I’m sure there will come a time when I will. When I get away from it, I will.”

Steger announced to the athletics department that he wanted Weaver to help him with the search for his replacement. That makes sense. After all, who better to help find the person to lead the athletics department into the future than the man who helped the department overcome the past and put them in a positive place in the present?

Weaver knows the new person will face challenges. Schools everywhere continue to deal with the realities of dipping ticket sales and donations, marketing dollars appear to be tougher to come by, and facilities seem to need to be bigger and better. It takes a special person to deal with such myriad issues.

“It takes somebody who has a strong work ethic,” Weaver said. “It takes someone who understands the realm of college athletics. It takes someone who is willing to be a good listener and not try to solve the problems right away, but rather get a grasp of the environment and then make decisions that are in the best interests of the program.”

Weaver leaves with only a lone regret. His father passed away six months after Weaver took the AD job at Tech and never made it to Blacksburg. Weaver wishes he had brought his parents down for the Miami game during the 1997 season because some dear friends of his parents had a son who played for Miami.

“I kick myself for not having him down,” Weaver said. “I didn’t because I was so busy being an AD that first year.”

That’s a personal regret, though. After decades of working in athletics, whether it be as a coach, administrator or an AD, he will leave with a clear conscience – and that’s the perfect way to depart.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “This has been a wonderful career and a wonderful way to make a living and to raise a family. I have no second thoughts.”

What they're saying about Weaver

“Jim is a terrific administrator and friend who has led Virginia Tech with great success and accomplishment. He was instrumental in Virginia Tech’s transition into the ACC and is extremely well respected throughout the league, as well as intercollegiate athletics. Jim is a courageous person, and I have a lot of admiration for him.” – John Swofford, ACC Commissioner

“Jim Weaver is one of the greats in intercollegiate athletics, both professionally and as a person. He has truly made a difference everywhere he has been. His legacy at Virginia Tech encompasses leading the athletics department through two conference transitions - all sports membership in the BIG EAST and then full membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jim’s coaching background allowed him to have a terrific feel for putting the right people in the right spots to insure Virginia Tech’s athletic success while providing the student-athletes and coaches with first-class competition and practice facilities. It is not an accident that Virginia Tech has been able to move up the conference ladder on two occasions and still compete for conference championships and NCAA Championship bids. Jim leaves some very large shoes to fill, but he also leaves a program that will be attractive to the very best and brightest athletic director candidates in the nation.” – Terry Holland, former UVa men’s basketball coach and former East Carolina AD

“Jim Weaver’s incredible career has been devoted to making things better for the student-athlete. His work ethic and integrity made him one of the giants in intercollegiate athletics. Above all, I’m proud to call him my friend.” – Mike Tranghese, former BIG EAST commissioner

“Jim Weaver is one of the most knowledgeable and professional ADs that I have had the honor and privilege to know and do business with in my 33 years of sports business. More important than that, he is a man of integrity, character and class. He will be sorely missed by the Virginia Tech family of student-athletes, coaches, students, and the administration, the ACC, the NCAA, the Bowl industry and everyone that he has come into contact with in college sports.

“I offer Jim my heartfelt attitude of gratitude for the opportunity to be his friend and wish him God’s blessings for great health and a long happy life!” – Gary Stokan, the president and CEO of Peach Bowl, Inc., which owns and manages the Chick-fil-A Bowl

“Jim Weaver personifies the adage of ‘a gentlemen’s gentleman.’ He is the type of person you quickly learn to trust. That is a high and deserving compliment because building trust is the platform for true leaders. I believe that will be a key component of Jim’s legacy at Virginia Tech.” – Dave Hart, University of Tennessee AD

“I am appreciative of the tremendous impact Jim Weaver has made on Virginia Tech and the many contributions he has made to intercollegiate athletics. He is a mentor to me, and I am grateful for the role he has played in my professional career. He provided me with a great opportunity to join his staff at Virginia Tech and offered his full support a short time later when I had an opportunity to become the athletics director at Eastern Kentucky University. He truly considered my best interests rather than his own. That is indicative of his commitment to his student-athletes, coaches and administrators and one of the reasons he has enjoyed such a long and distinguished career in intercollegiate athletics.” – Jeff Long, former Tech associate AD and current Arkansas AD

“Jim and I worked together at Villanova in the 1974-75 timeframe, so we’ve known each other a long time. There are few people anywhere that have the same love for intercollegiate athletics that Jim Weaver has. From Penn State to Iowa State to Villanova as a coach and from Florida to UNLV to Western Michigan to Virginia Tech as an administrator, Jim has been highly respected by his peers all over the country.” – Craig Littlepage, University of Virginia AD

“Under Jim’s leadership, Virginia Tech’s athletic programs took enormous strides, and the Hokies are a nationally recognized and respected brand because of his efforts. Jim was passionate about intercollegiate athletics, and the positive effects that it had on the student-athletes as well as the larger Virginia Tech community. I know when I first got the job at West Virginia, Jim Weaver was one of the first athletic directors I sought out to ask for advice, and he so graciously spent time with me. I will never forget his hospitality and his willingness to help a new person get started in intercollegiate athletics. Jim leaves large shoes to fill at Virginia Tech, and the community of athletic directors will miss his wit, humor and positive outlook.” – Oliver Luck, West Virginia University AD

“It was an honor and privilege to work alongside Jim Weaver during his time at Florida. He was very dedicated, loyal and always set the tone for doing things the right way. As much as I enjoyed our time together at Florida, I’ve enjoyed our friendship over the years even more.” – Jeremy Foley, University of Florida AD