Zimmerman: Making a case for Oliver Luck

May 9, 2012, 1:30 a.m.

Breaking up is never easy.

As former athletic director Bob Bowlsby moves on to (arguably) greener pastures by becoming commissioner of the Big 12, Stanford is now tasked with filling the hole in its heart left by one of the most successful people to ever hold the position.  It’s going to be nearly impossible to duplicate his impact in the short term–10 national titles in six years is about as unmatchable as it gets–and although things could surely be worse, he’s not necessarily leaving the throne at the best time.

Bowlsby’s successor will inherit several big-money teams in states of serious transition. The departure of Andrew Luck, uncertainty at the quarterback position and questionable calls made by new head coach David Shaw in Glendale this past January loom over a program fresh off of two consecutive trips to BCS bowls. The Stanford women’s basketball team, which has battled its way to five straight Final Fours, will have to find a way to deal with the loss of all-time great Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who was taken with the No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft. And although momentum from an NIT championship is a positive sign, men’s hoops still hasn’t made an NCAA tournament in Johnny Dawkins’ four-year tenure.

Other sports have also trended downward since the turn of the decade, and their struggles may need to be reevaluated sooner than expected. Suffice it to say that the Department of Athletics could face some adversity in the coming year. One hundred and two national championships and 17 straight Directors’ Cups are powerful indicators of prominence that could be lost without proper leadership.

Additionally, Bowlsby was instrumental in keeping the Athletics Department (which lacks in SEC-type boosterism) well funded through the robust Pac-12 television deal. That sort of business savvy is rare in today’s NCAA, especially when maintaining a program as clean and uncontroversial as Stanford’s.

This by no means is a decision that the administration can afford to rush to choose his successor. There have been rumors swirling over which direction University officials will choose to go, with certain names, including Condoleezza Rice, appearing on more than one occasion.  Although Rice’s affiliation with the school and her undying passion for the athletics program are well documented, her lack of experience on the business side of college sports leaves me worried.

Enter Oliver Luck, Andrew Luck’s father and the current West Virginia athletic director. His connections to Stanford are purely through his children, with women’s volleyball player Mary Ellen joining her brother on the Farm in the fall of 2010, but his credentials match perfectly with the most successful program in the nation. Having served as president of NFL Europe and president and general manager of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, in addition to his current role with the Mountaineers, Oliver Luck is undoubtedly well versed in the job’s responsibilities. He helped to quickly rescue a West Virginia football program that was desperate to move past the fiasco of former head coach Rich Rodriguez leaving for Michigan and is widely respected as one of the country’s premier athletic heads.

There is no question that Stanford hasn’t at least tested the waters with Luck in the few days since Bowlsby’s appointment. Oliver Luck knows he’s on the short list of candidates. The problem is drawing the former Republican Congressional nominee away from his home state of West Virginia and away from the high status of his current position. The present state of West Virginia athletics is one that he should be proud of (the Mountaineers romped Clemson, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl this year), and a quick glance at the West Virginia message boards suggests that supporters are well aware of his aptitude.

However, West Virginia is embroiled in the dramatic conference realignment and just settled a nasty divorce with the Big East in favor of the Big 12. That switch will be financially beneficial and bring the Mountaineers stiffer competition and better ratings, but rarely does a school hop into a new league without initial growing pains.

If there’s any indication that Luck will at least think about the job, it’s that he declined to comment on the Stanford opening but flat out rejected consideration for Big 12 commissioner last week, the spot now filled by Bowlsby. At Stanford, Luck would find an athletics department that boasts success in many different sports and is situated in a wealthy and stable conference.

It’s obvious what Stanford has to offer: a private university setting, less media pressure, annual team championships, national respect and the like. The question is whether that is enough to bring a third Luck to Stanford and continue the family’s charmed run in Palo Alto.

Although it’s a long shot, the Athletics Department would be amiss to not make a strong play for the most beloved football dad in the school’s history.

Zach Zimmerman just wants another decade to make “Luck” puns. Shoot him your favorites at zachz “at” stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter “at” Zach_Zimmerman.

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