Episode 22: Paul Schlickmann, Fairfield University

Cody Junot 00:00
Welcome to a New Gameday powered by Nevco, changing the game in scoreboard, displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot, and in this podcast series, we talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new game day as we work towards thriving in a new world. We’ll discuss what that new game day is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic administrators are already adapting to our changing world and society. Our guest today just started his fourth year at the helm of the Fairfield University athletic department. I’m pleased to be joined by the Stags’ AD, Paul Schlickmann. Paul, thanks for taking the time. How’s everybody at Fairfield?

Paul Schlickmann 00:50
Thanks, Cody, great to be here. Really appreciate you having me. And the Stags are doing okay, we’re getting through the semester and doing the best we can given all the circumstances just like everybody else.

Cody Junot 00:59
Yeah, fighting through, taking things day by day. And that’s something that we really been doing go all the way back to March, right? And that’s kind of where I want to start our conversation is let’s go back to March. And while that is eight months ago, it seems like maybe eight years ago for some folks, right, just depending on how much you’ve been dealing with. And so, I want to start there. And let’s talk about the communication process, and how you were able to communicate with fans, student athletes, coaches, to keep everybody aware of what’s going on, or what was going on at that time, and how you’ve been able to do that up until this point?

Paul Schlickmann 01:37
It’s funny when you talk about that eight-month, nine-month journey. I think I’ve referred to that so many times as of late and thinking back to when this really hit and I’m sure my colleagues across the country have similar stories. But I harken back to being at the MAC basketball championship in Atlantic City and having that cut short. And then on the heels of that having the spring season taken away, and just a series of events that went through a 36-48-hour span unlike anything that you know any of us have ever experienced. So fast forward to now, and I don’t think any of us thought we would still be in this situation, as acute as it is dealing with all the complexities and trying to get over the hurdles and the challenges that we face. But nonetheless, we are, and I like to think we’ve all really pivoted and adapted really well. And you mentioned communication, which I think anyone in my shoes in our world would agree has been of paramount importance to how we’ve been able to function effectively throughout this journey, if you will. It’s always important. You talk about leadership and management and everybody will always say communication is probably the most important thing to do and do effectively as a leader, but it has just become, you know, just exacerbated by virtue of the circumstances we face. So we all had certain rhythms and cadences that we followed with our communication, be it you know, as an AD, be it upwardly with senior leadership, be it within your department, be it with your external constituents, certainly with your athletes. I think we all really had to kind of double down on that if you will, and either increase the frequency or increase the effectiveness and do it in a means that was not face to face. We all have become, some of us more than others, depending on your IT acumen, and I don’t put myself high on that list by the way, but we’ve all become relative experts in Zoom and trying to make the most of that or the various modalities that we have at our disposal, but kind of viewed this as a flowchart in terms of the flow of communication and my responsibilities within it. You know, going back to March, again, you hearken back to that. The University established a task force right away to deal with what we thought would be a short-term issue and has become an ongoing issue. I’ve been part of that. So, I’ve had a front row seat to that. So, I felt a great responsibility to be a university leader and take part in it from that perspective. And then make sure I’m doing a good job of relaying information to our staff and our coaches and our student athletes and being an effective conduit for the ever-changing circumstances and environment that we’re in; wanting to make sure that we are in a really difficult space where we’re not able to communicate with athletes as much on a day to day basis, or not engaging in competition. It’s abnormal, how do we communicate with them effectively? And how do we make sure our coaches are doing so as well? And then external constituents. So it’s really kind of those buckets that I see it in and we’ve done a number of things that we can kind of break down if you want, but a number of things that needs space to try and do that effectively and substantively, but I think that’s the basic framework that I’ve really kind of seen it in to attack it in. And then at the same time, you know, I’m fortunate to be our MAC rep on the NCAA Council and have my subcommittee’s responsibility be the men’s basketball Oversight Committee. So that’s another layer to this in terms of relaying information, again, changing sometimes by the day, in the national environment, national pace of college athletics, and making sure I’m doing a good job of conveying that, as well. So multifaceted, multi layered, long answer to your short question, but can break it down any way you want if you will.

Cody Junot 05:39
I think what I’m interested in is how, you know, you go back to March, and you mentioned being at the MAC Basketball Championships, I think everybody kind of has the Jazz-Thunder Rudy Gobert, kind of in their mind, right. And from the communication standpoint, and you mentioned all the different facets of it. How much more have you had to focus on that than ever before to make sure that everybody understands, especially, you know, given your responsibilities being on the University Council and being with the NCAA committee maybe having more information than others? How much more have you had to focus on sharing that message and have you and your department had to change the way in which you were communicating, especially to your external constituents?

Paul Schlickmann 06:18
Again, it’s always been critical, but more so than ever. And in terms of, I guess, one barometer of that, one indicator of that would be percentage of my days spent on it. I’d say it’s probably 90%. Either by way of engaging in those communications and meetings, be it a university task force, be it an NCAA committee, multiple layers to that, be it with townhall meetings with our coaches, be it with our captain’s council, engaging with them, engaging with our sac group, engaging with all of our student athletes in in one cohesive zoom call, engaging in sport by sport alumni calls with our coaches; touching all those bases that I alluded to, trying to understand/process, all the information that’s changing day to day, and convey it in a very straightforward, honest, forthright manner to each of those constituents. So, I think the hallmark of this time period we’re in is just uncertainty, right? And some of the anxiety that goes along with that, or the tension that goes along with that. And so, the more you can provide up to date information in a very consistent, succinct manner, I think, has just been key. And that’s been my focus almost every minute of every day trying to make sure that we’re doing a good job of that.

Cody Junot 07:44
Yeah, absolutely. As we turn each day of the calendar, and it’s hard to believe that basketball season is just two weeks away. As you look around, and you prepare for a game day, and whether you’re going to have any capacity at all to start and maybe move forward, or you’re going to be at 25, whatever the percentage is. As you’ve looked around the country and talked to your colleagues that have hosted events here over the last two or three months or so, what are some of the things that you’ve been able to learn from other departments that you guys are going to have to implement in your game day operations?

Paul Schlickmann 08:21
Sure, I think that piece is still evolving. I think we’re really just honing in on that now. So if you look at the vast majority of division one, absent the power fives, and/or the group of fives who’ve been playing football and some Olympic sports, in some cases, they’ve been able to test run some of these game management protocols. But a lot of us haven’t had the chance to do that. And so, a lot of it is formulating the operational plan, understanding protocols, trying to put it in a narrative and articulating a plan for it, and then creating the right infrastructure, right? So we’ve all had to make facility adjustments in anticipation of that, some infrastructure adjustments in order to be prepared for, again, the complexities and the nuances of the health and safety protocols that we all have to try and tee our teams up for success. And so, we haven’t had a chance to test those waters yet. But I do feel as though we are very prepared. So, our first test run is going to be in the men’s and women’s basketball space. The information that has been put forward. And I’ve been privy to it by virtue of my place on the men’s basketball oversight committee in the development of gameday protocols and what we’re doing with officials and every aspect that goes along with running a game from the time teams enter the building to the time they leave and all the testing protocols that are going to go along with it, by the way. I credit the sense of urgency from the NCAA perspective with the committee structure with developing a cohesive set of guidelines that standardizes it to some degree, makes it easier for all of us. I credit our conference for processing that and figuring out what makes sense for us and every nuance there might be to some of those guidelines that makes sense for the MAC at our level. We filtered it through that way. And I think we’ve arrived at some solid plans. Actually, going to do a walk through with our operational team tomorrow. They’ve been really hard at work, really mapping out everything in our venue. We traditionally play at two different venues or have historically played at two different venues: Webster Bank Arena and Alumni Hall here on our campus. Webster Bank Arena is up in Bridgeport up the road. We made a pivot to play everything at Alumni Hall, just to facilitate ease of operation, and only have to develop one arena that creates safety in one venue. So, we’re going to walk through that tomorrow. And we’re probably three weeks out from our first home game. So, I feel like we’re in a good spot. But we’re all going through the same thing. So, we’re ready to test run, but it’s unlike anything any of us have ever had to prepare for.

Cody Junot 11:03
What are some of those operational changes that you and your team are running through from being 15 feet away from the playing surface to spacing teams out? What are some of the things that you guys are having to change that traditionally, you would have never had to touch?

Paul Schlickmann 11:16
Right. So, you know, again, probably not unlike what a lot of schools or conferences are doing. So before arriving at the arena, we’re testing that each of our member schools and our opponents have adhered to our testing that we’ve agreed to as a conference. So that’s before we even get there, providing them with appropriate space in the best space we can with locker rooms. Protocols with all with officials. There’s a whole separate protocol for officials in terms of how they communicate with coaches and how they communicate with captains pregame and what that’s going to entail. Spacing of benches, spacing of your table staff, ff you’re going to allow media, where are they going to be placed, the wearing of masks by coaches. I mean, just a lot of different, some operational, some specific to the venue. So, I think we’ve all had to try and make appropriate adjustments to try and adhere to that template. It’s definitely intriguing. No question about it. It’s a challenge. We all like a challenge. And none of this was in the AD playbook when we all started in this business, and we’re able to be fortunate to get in it. But the nice thing is, as I think you alluded to earlier, is these circumstances are unique, the complexities are endless, everyone might feel a certain amount of uniqueness to their individual circumstance or their campus circumstance. There’s great collaboration, and I think reliance upon your peers to make sure that you’re all arriving at the same thing.

Cody Junot 12:47
Yeah, absolutely. You know, one of the other big things and as we’ve had to pivot and change, right, you go back and March that led to the domino effect of no March Madness and revenue distributions and shortfalls there. And unfortunately, many folks around the country have felt the financial squeeze. And so the inquiry that I have here is when you look at opportunity to play contests and kind of get creative and get outside the box, what new revenue opportunities or maybe different revenue opportunities that have popped up so that you can help take care of your institution, your athletic department, but also your partners and sponsors who helped make some of these things possible?

Paul Schlickmann 13:29
You are 100% right. No news to anyone who would be tuning into this that the financial impacts and ramifications of this are acute, they’re real, we’re all experiencing them proportionate to our conference, to our situation, what have you. And you’re right, it goes back to the initial impact of not having played that basketball tournament last year, and the immediate impact of that the loss of that revenue distribution. So, everybody felt that. So, there’s an external impact by virtue of that, and then there’s the university impact and how that impacts athletics in terms of the overall budget and impact. So, we’re all dealing with that, we’ve all had to go through various recalibrations of our fiscal situation for the year and in some cases, future years. So that’s ongoing. And as we’re, you know, what, four or five months into the fiscal year, it’s probably going to change a whole bunch even before we hit the end of June. So, we know that. But to your point about other opportunities, everybody is trying to make the most of those. So, you know, one of the obvious hits on the revenue side is most of us probably, or at least for the time being, you’re going to be playing without fans. So that’s an immediate revenue hit to all of us. So how do we how do we try and make that up? I think we’re all trying to be creative. So, I think it’s a combination of developing new ideas as an offshoot. I think we’ve all tried to be creative and respond to the environment we’re in. Where on the basketball side, basketball specific, we’re doing fan cutouts, like a lot of schools are and trying to generate a little bit of revenue there, were asking for the support of our season ticket holders, regardless of whether we are able to accommodate them in our home or not. So, things like that. We’re also trying to maintain some continuity with some of our staple events that have been good for fundraising. We just, three weeks ago, hosted our annual golf outing, which we actually had to pivot twice on to get to an event, get to a point where we could actually hold it with the local guidelines and the country club guidelines we had. Incredibly successful, raised a bunch of money, had to tweak the format, but our constituents loved it, making the most out of that situation and actually getting a little bit of an uptick out of it and some takeaways that I think we can move forward with. We’re doing a wine tasting event, a virtual wine tasting event with some of our external constituents and alums just to try something a little different, something that’s entertaining, and those types of things. And we’ve also engaged in some other golf outing events. You know, in addition to that, I think we’ve done a really good job of doubling down on our fundraising efforts. Not to be redundant, but we’ll go back to March and the taking away of seasons and games, which you know, first was the spring, and then it became the fall, and then a partial reduction on the basketball side. And so I think through those of us in advancement, ADs all are on our advancement teams, threw them into a little bit of a conundrum about how do you operate in that space when either you don’t necessarily have anything overtly tangible to fundraise for or in a traditional sense, you’re also trying to be mindful of people’s, the personal impact on people, and how it’s impacted their own situation. We tried to double down on the value that we thought Fairfield brought to the table and into our constituents, to our students. And it paid off. We actually had a record setting fundraising year last year. Our alums and our donors have been spectacular. They have great passion and loyalty and a great sense of obligation in support of Fairfield and what this institution is and what it’s all about and incredible support of our athletics program. So, feel really good about that. And I’ve tried to carry that forward into this year. I give exceptional credit to our advancement team and our coaches for doing an amazing job in the last nine months of stewardship and keeping our donor base engaged, perhaps doing a better job than we ever have by virtue of the technology that was afforded to us. So being able to get constituents, alums, donors from literally across the country into one space to talk to them at one given point in time and tell our story. Again, comes back to communication, but telling the story and keeping them engaged, I think has been huge. And that’s paid off for us. So, it’s a number of things. And there’s all the local vendors that we engage with and we’ve tried to keep in the loop and do as much business with them as we can. And we’ve also found some new vendors whether it’s at the university level or athletically that have created some new opportunities for us as well.

Cody Junot 18:29
No, that’s great to hear. And the last thing Paul, what’s just the one message that you’ve been delivering that you’ve been driving home as you’ve talked to fans and constituents, student athletes, coaches, as we as we gear up for just the season with so many unknowns?

Paul Schlickmann 18:44
There are probably a few layers to that. So, I’ll try and break it down because of the few things. If you pulled any one of our coaches or athletes, they’d probably be able to regurgitate it to you. And I hope that would be a good thing. One of the voices in my head again harkens back to the outset of this when we had to pivot and go virtual as a university. Our president, Dr. Nemec laid out a couple things at the outset that have been, I think, keys to our success, and overriding objectives for the university that have been directly applicable to athletics and how we’ve tried to operate. So, keys to success: two things that he has emphasized that every step along the way and is continuing to do so and I think, for good reason. The first one is we all needed to be able to display the ability to adapt to the ambient environment, and we all needed to be able to embrace uncertainty. And so I’ve tried to continually emphasize that either verbatim, the way I just did to you or nuances to that, but every step along the way, I’ve tried to convey that message to our coaches and staff and to our athletes and I do think that’s been really important because it’s not one day has been the same in the last nine months. It’s been really hard for any of us to maintain consistency and continuity in a very unpredictable time and space. The objectives he laid out for us knowing that it was going to be abnormal, maintain the academic continuity and success of our students; obviously, paramount. And optimize the engagement and experience of all our students. So those two things we’ve tried to really focus on and they’re directly applicable to athletics. That’s stating the obvious. The other thing that I’ve tried to do and personally and continue to convey to our coaches and staff or athletes is just heavy reliance upon our stated mission and our core values. That’s something that, I think, if you talk about read about, think about leadership and management, I think that’s one thing that everybody would say is key is to have a solid foundation in that for any organization and then also be able to lean on it, lean into it in tough circumstances and tough situations. And we have really tried to do that. Something we worked really hard on in my tenure thus far. I feel really good and feel great conviction for what we’ve developed in terms of a mission statement, a vision statement, a set of cultural commitments that we try and adhere to that’s our daily guidepost for everything we do. And hopefully when you do develop those, hopefully it’s structured in a way that it can be applicable to any situation that’s thrown at you, not just in the traditional college athletics environment. And, of course, we both know, this is as untraditional as it gets. So, we’ve done that, and I think it’s been really helpful to have had an established set of cultural commitments. We call them Stags compete, Stags care, Stags leads, Stags grow. Our mission is creating a courageous and compassionate department wide family culture, dedicated to personal collective best continuous improvement and whole person development. So that’s been our guidepost. And now, we’ve had to adapt how we kind of view that and the lens through which we view that and apply that. But that’s what we’ve tried to do and adhere to, and I think that’s carried the day for us to a large part. We have not been perfect, nobody’s been. But I think it’s allowed us to get to this point where we’re on the verge of completing a semester and looking towards competing in men’s and women’s basketball and creating a framework for our fall and spring teams to compete in the spring. And I’ve just tried to convey that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve been hammering that in every, we have weekly zoom meetings with our coaches, we’ve had weekly meetings with our athletes. They’ve heard me say it continuously. So, we just have to stay the course. That’s what it’s all about. The only other thing I would say is that it goes back to our cultural commitments. And that’s, we choose a theme for the year athletes do and this year, they chose one that’s embedded in our cultural commitments. And that’s one team, one family. And so, given all the various aspects of COVID impact of all the reaction and response to social justice and the issues surrounding that, the uncertainty of athletes and their seasons and everything that goes into that bucket. They chose it, we’ve tried to adhere to it. Again, when you look at the entirety of it, trying to make sure that we stay together and view it through the same lens and work toward a common goal. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Cody Junot 23:40
Yes, indeed. Paul, look, I appreciate you taking the time here this this morning to take us through as Fairfield and your team get ready for a season like any other. Really appreciate you taking the time here.

Paul Schlickmann 23:52
Thanks so much. Appreciate you having me and all the best to you.

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