Michigan State’s Mark Hollis heard himself introduced recently in New York as the recipient of the John L. Toner Award from the National Football Foundation for superior administrative skills. His unique ideas were among the reasons listed.
Then he answered questions about his Spartans’ No. 3-ranked football team and unbeaten No. 1 basketball team. The football team plays No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoffs on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl.
And to think it all started with Jud Heathcote handing Hollis a broom.
The way Hollis told the story while at the NFF dinner, he was a Michigan State student in the 1980s desiring to serve Heathcote’s basketball program as a student-assistant. He said he begged the Spartans’ legendary retired coach seven times before he relented.
That started Hollis on a path toward graduation in 1985, returning to Michigan State in 1995 as an associate athletic director and being named athletic director in 2008. He also has served in various NCAA capacities, including vice-chair for the Division I men’s basketball committee in 2015-16 and scheduled for chair in 2016-17.
“The day I got to serve on the NCAA Basketball Committee, I called Jud and thanked him for the opportunity,” Hollis said. “I think too many times we have a tendency to forget those who helped support us. That’s an important component. I got Jud to cry and he got me to cry. It was a good story.”
Hollis was a worthy recipient with his innovative ideas. There has been an outdoor hockey game in 2001, a regular-season basketball game in a football stadium in 2003 that is now the norm in NCAA Regionals and Finals Fours, a basketball game aboard an aircraft in 2011 and a basketball game on a military base in Germany in 2012.
There is no greater validation than the number times and ways his ideas have been copied. Even the National Hockey League got in on the act with its annual outdoor games rotating around the league.
“I think as an only child you had to have an imagination in order to have joy in life as a young child,” Hollis said when explaining his ideas. “It has been an opportunity to set Michigan State apart from everything around us. By creating events that have meaning, to the men and women who protect our country to the economy of the state Michigan, we’ve been able to do some special things.”
Equally unique, although not likely to be copied, was Hollis’ football idea to “Celebrate the State” with games at Central Michigan in 2012 and Western Michigan 2015. Other athletic directors aren’t as cognizant of state economics when it comes to sharing athletic dollars with other communities within their state.
But it wasn’t just questions about the Spartans’ highly ranked teams that Hollis fielded. He was asked about former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, now with Washington’s NFL team, and former Spartans basketball player Draymond Green, who donated $3.1 million to Michigan State athletics after he signed his new contract with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
“I put athletes like Kirk Cousins and Draymond Green in the same category,” Hollis said. “I find some of my best advisors are the student-athletes we have had the opportunity to serve. Kirk Cousins did an unbelievable job not just guiding the football program, but the athletic program as a whole engaging student athletes from other sports.
“I think with the two athletes you mentioned, you like to have student-athletes that lead people and that you can look in their eyes for answers. That’s what you’re trying to develop as an athletic director, administrator or a coach. You get people to make solid decisions and people that are going to lead.”
He sounded as proud of Cousins and Green for the way they represent the university as alums as he is of the current football and basketball teams’ success with their wins over losses. One is noticed by more people, but both have long lasting value.
But you can’t tell Hollis’ story without telling the story he told on himself about failure. He volunteered as a featured speaker on April 1, 2014 at Michigan State’s Wharton Center for an event called, “Failure: Lab.” He told of the day his came home to learn his parents were divorcing. His mother told him through her tears. He’s ashamed to admit instead of supporting her, he ran from the house.
“I failed in not providing comfort to a woman in a lot of pain,” Hollis told the audience. “In many ways I feel like I’ve been running ever since. I think it’s something so many of us do. We step away from the issue around us and find a way to run.”
But by running he’s learned how to stop and build a strong athletic department that works together. Michigan State football has returned to the national stature it enjoyed under Biggie Munn in the 1950s and Duffy Daugherty in the 1960s. He played a major role in the Spartans hiring Mark Dantonio to take over the program in 2007.
Basketball coach Tom Izzo was a Heathcote assistant coach when Hollis worked as a student-assistant and was the head coach succeeding Heathcote before Hollis was the athletic director. But Hollis’ way of running things helped Izzo make difficult decisions to turn down the Atlanta Hawks in 2001 and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010.
This could be the third straight year Michigan State leads the nation with the No. 1 ranking among combined football and basketball season-ending rankings.
In 2014-15, Michigan State football was No. 5 and basketball No. 7 for a total of 12. Second was Wisconsin at 14 (12 football, 2 basketball). In 2013-14, Michigan State football was No. 3 and basketball No. 8 for a total of 11. Second was Louisville with 24 (15 football, 9 basketball).
A day before Hollis received the Toner Award, the Spartans’ basketball team was ranked No. 1 in the nation. Two days earlier his football team learned of its date in the Cotton Bowl.
Talk about perfect timing.
“We’re having a good time right now,” Hollis said. “Michigan State is a special place with great coaches. We have things rolling right now.”