Q and A: CSUN’s Martin gets to the heart of a comprehensive plan for the Matadors — ‘We’re not going to be doormats’

From the CSUN athletic website, Brandon Martin offers his thoughts on his first 100 days on the job as the Matadors athletic director, stressing his “Comprehensive Excellence” campaign:

What does changing campus culture look like?
It’s Dr. Brandon Martin, eight months into his job as the Cal State Northridge athletic director, standing in the middle of a noon-time rally and not bashful about letting every student and facility member within earshot know about an upcoming Matadors soccer match.
“When you market and promote, it has to come from the top,” Martin explained. “On a weekly basis, I need to go out to the campus community and pass out flyers, talk about the athletic department’s vision, remind everyone we have a team that had been ranked third in the nation at one point.
“It’s all like data collection for me. I get so much feedback from the students. They might say, ‘Wow, where’s the soccer field? You should promote that more on Facebook.’ That’s all meaningful.”
When the former USC basketball guard who once prepped at Cleveland High in Reseda decided to take his dean’s list degree in education and make it more meaningful, that entailed emerging himself in sports administration in the Trojans’ athletic department, as well as at the University of Oklahoma, to get to this point.
Preaching a theme of “comprehensive excellence” that includes a road map of sorts he freely distributes a Matador-red folder, Martin’s commitment to overseeing 18 programs and a $9 million budget has come with new opportunities to push the CSUN brand to a new level.
Most evident are introducing new wrinkles to the 1,600-seat Matadome, where basketball season has started under new coach Reggie Theus – a fresh row of VIP courtside seats, bold graphic displays and visible corporate sponsorship. Then there’s the new $1.2 million soccer plaza nearby, also wrapped in banners displaying past achievement.
Walking back to his office the other day, Martin stopped next to another building facade near the new parking lot.
“See this blank wall? There’s so much we can do just with this, to showcase our sports history and tradition, give us more of an identity,” Martin insisted.
The campus has become Martin’s canvas, and he explains how he’s been able to get things done on a rapid time schedule:

Q: “Comprehensive excellence” means . . . what?
A: The mission is to provide student-athletes with the best experience academically, athletically and socially. That’s our prime directive. ‘Comprehensive excellence’ means we want to be excellent in everything we do. It’s not just a rah-rah philosophy, but I speak on a daily basis about how we don’t want to be mediocre, we don’t want to be status quo. I give them books to read and we have dinner meetings to discuss them. It  means each day we come to work, we’re better than we were yesterday. That’s a challenge for some people and a total different shift from the old regime. But that’s the only way we can be a top 100 program nationally. That’s one of the goals.

Q: Where does that philosophy come from? Where in your past do you draw from there?
A: I’ll tell you, I’ve been in this business 14 years — a student-athlete at USC, then in administration for 10 years. At USC, all we did was win championships, not just in football, but in all Division I sports. My time at Oklahoma, too, was about championships at a highest level. I’m fortunate enough to have a pedigree that breeds championships. I understand the formula for success. The danger is trying to make CSUN an Oklahoma or USC. That’s not realistic. But one thing we can do, and can control, is our daily actions, and how we prepare, our attitudes about success. We don’t want to be in the middle of the pack in the Big West. We want to be at the top. So that means there’s accountability. That’s a core value. We have to continue to grow and develop as a staff, and that’s what I push for.

Q: You’ve grown up in this market with USC and UCLA, and seen how they drive Southern California college sports. But then there’s this tier with Northridge, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, Long Beach State. Today, trying to figure out why a kid will pick your school, how do you make yourself relevant and stay successful as a first-choice spot for athletes?
A: We want to dominate the San Fernando Valley, first. There’s 2 million people in this region and we need to be the Valley’s team. But when you expand that to the Los Angeles area, we want to be that team people talk about as well. We can’t match the history of USC or UCLA, but we want to be that third team. It starts with our campus, doing simple things like letting people know when we have games, get people to know our mission and core values. From there, we connect within a five-mile radius, so everyone from schools, churches, businesses, corporations, they need to know CSUN athletics to some degree. Once we have athletic success, then we can expand out. But we have to be realistic and very strategic in our approach. To say we’re a national contender next week, that’s not realistic. But if we stay focused on a strategy of excellence on a daily basis, there’s a compound affect. Each day, you search for excellence, and then you look up, and everyone’s talking about Northridge.

Q: It seems the only way Northridge gets any kind of attention is when that season comes once and awhile that leads to making the NCAA basketball tournament. Then you’d capture that week or two of buzz, but it would never sustain itself. How do you fix that?
A: That’s a good point, and my thought on that is: We don’t want to be an every decade-type team. My goal is for us to reach the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis. We need back-to-back appearances for people to know who we are. It’s great once and awhile to make it, but to be known nationally, that’s what we need to do.

Q: And to start that process, you had to change coaches right away, probably one of the most difficult things you’ve had to do so far in replacing Bobby Braswell (a Northridge graduate who led the program from 1996-2013).
A: I think that was a true testament to me being prepared to do this. Being an AD has challenging days. I remember attending a lecture once by former USC president Steven Sample, and he talked about how a lot of people want to ‘be’ president, but not a lot want to ‘do’ president. He talks about that in his book, ‘The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.’ I remembered that. Now that I’m in the chair, it hits me right in the fact. That decision there was symbolic. I was prepared to take this program to the next level. People might expect me to take my time, to look, listen and learn. Yes, you can’t make impulsive decisions. But in the first 100 days, there were critical decisions I had to make to show people we’re not going to be the doormat of the conference. We want to be first.

Q: In letting Braswell go, did you have to have someone else in mind before you made the decision to hire Reggie Theus in April?
A: I did so much planning on the front end to get this job in the first place. You have to do it in stages. I knew since we don’t have football here, basketball is the flagship sport, the way the nation would rally around us. It’s so tangible. You see Gonzaga, Butler, even San Diego State as a national brand. So why can’t CSUN do that? Our standard is to be more national, be those kinds of schools. The reason we can get there is, first, the support of the new president (Dianne Harrison, who assumed the role in June, 2012) . She is fully vested in our athletic success. And I have the conviction to get us there. And now we have the right coach in place to get this done.

Q: Who do you root for now on Tuesday night, CSUN or USC, when they meet on the basketball court?
A: I believe I’m a Matador now. I’ll be rooting for the Matadors. I’m excited about it being a homecoming for me, being back at the Galen Center. I’ve been a Trojan since I was 18 years old. That’s meaningful in itself. But for those 40 minutes, I’m a Matador.

Q: This week, you were named to the L.A. Sports Council’s board of directors. That has all kinds of interesting connections, for the campus attracting events and including CSUN in the bigger picture of L.A. sports planning. How do you see that relationship?
A: The goal for president Harrison and me is to host NCAA events, regional and national. We want events the Sports Council might have in mind. We need people to be exposed to our facilities, exposed to our brand. That’s what we want. I’m excited about being involved in a network of sports and business leaders in Los Angeles that can help me promote comprehensive excellence here.

Q: Does it also work as a way to mesh with the entertainment community, when a studio or network needs a pool or a gym or a soccer field? Can you work with Hollywood and be accessible to things like that without compromising your goals?
A: Anything is possible with something like that. That’s why I’m thrilled to be part of this council. The networking opportunities are vast. Hollywood would be a natural fit and welcome that kind of exposure. For so many years, Northridge was an afterthought. Now people are starting to know who we are in a short amount of time, because we’ve been aggressive in our vision. What we want, if you look at the San Fernando Valley, there’s no real prime entertainment venues. We want CSUN to be the central location for entertainment, whether it’s sports, a drama, a concert.

Q: When you were hired in April, CSUN made it clear they were proud to have an African-American running this department. They even promoted the stat that only seven percent of all Division I athletic directors are African-American. Is that an important distinction for you? Does it help or distract in any way?
I don’t think it distracts or helps. My goal is to be the best athletic director in the country, period. Yes, I’m aware of the percentages and lack of representation of African-Americans nationally. I’m proud to be one of the few. But my goal is not to be the best African-American AD in the country, but the best I can be, period. I know the stats. My focus has to be on excellence. I’ll always go back to that. It’s not about filing quotas. What’s important to me is advancing this department, the student-athlete experience.

Q: Do you have any hurdles to overcome as far as budgets or exposure to get to where you to go?
A: My perspective has never been from a deficit standpoint. If I focus on a budget or where the department was before I got here, I’ll never be successful. I have to focus all the energies on what I can control – my pursuit, and my staff’s pursuit, of excellence. That’s what we’re going to do.

Q: With your personality, I’d think you’d be a great fundraiser, seeing how that has worked at the other schools you’ve been involved with.
One of the first things I did was meet 100 donors in 100 days. That was ambitious, but we’ve been able in just eight months to raise over $1 million, so there was an immediate payoff in that. It’s not just the financial rewards, but the awareness people have. Well beyond the San Fernando Valley. We went to San Diego, San Francisco, the Central Valley, donors all across California, and we plan to go national to touch people who haven’t been connected to the university. Just because it’s that important. And the athletic success will speak volumes. But until that happens, we have to go door to door and tell people what we’re trying to do. One of the visits we made in La Jolla was to Dick Enberg, and he’s sponsoring a post-graduate scholarship now. It’s a major gift, and to have him involved, for him to know our vision and willingness to give his time … who doesn’t want Dick Enberg as an ally? It’s the right things to do – he was a professor here, a coach here, he needs to be connected to what we’re doing.

Q: Did you get Dick Enberg to commit to building you a new football stadium then?
A: (Laughing) He hasn’t committed to that.
Q: Is that even on your radar?
A: I can say my job is to focus on the 18 sports we have now. It’s no doubt in my mind over time we will be national contender in what we sponsor, and that’s it.
Q: You don’t need a football program to be successful? For someone who came from USC and worked at Oklahoma … it’s kind of a cool thing to have, isn’t it?
A: I think it’s institution specific. There are folks in the community who miss football. I respect the interest in it. I know it hasn’t been here since 2001, and it was a great thing at that time. Right now, I’ll go back to the 18 sports. It’s not to say one day we won’t go back and explore that.
Q: You’re not about to convert that soccer field into an on-campus football stadium?
A: Well, you know …
Q: I’m not being serious. I’m trying to get you to laugh.
A: You can imagine the questions I get all the time about that.
Q: You probably get that as a serious question then.
A: Well …

View Tout.com video of Brandon Martin talking about his goals and achievements so far in his first eight months.

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