McGee’s Tough Style Has Stirred Up USC : Trojan Athletic Director, Called ‘Insensitive’ by Some, Reportedly Had Sought to Replace Tollner
There was a time when old college football coaches moved into athletic directors’ chairs and just sort of faded away.
They generally made decisions of no particular consequence to the public and stayed in the background.
Mike McGee is a former college football coach, but he is one of the new breed of athletic director. Not only is he actively involved in all of the sports programs, he is also a key administrator, fund-raiser and businessman.
McGee, 47, has made an impact since he became USC’s athletic director in July 1984. The waves he has made are deemed necessary by some but are viewed with genuine alarm by others.
Sources close to Heritage Hall say that morale is at an all-time low in the athletic department because of McGee’s administrative style--which has been called intimidating, insensitive and adversary. He reportedly prefers to communicate by memos to his staff, adding to an image that he’s not a people person.
By contrast, USC President James H. Zumberge, who hired McGee as a successor to Dick Perry, says that McGee is doing an outstanding job, although he concedes that the athletic director needs to develop better relationships with his staff.
Some prominent USC alumni say that McGee is just the man the private school needs to regain its once-proud athletic heritage in all sports during a time of rising costs.
There is, reportedly, a more urgent problem--strained relations, which might be an understatement, between McGee and football Coach Ted Tollner.
It is believed that McGee was searching for a replacement for Tollner midway through a 6-6 season last year that was far below USC’s annual expectations.
McGee denied that he had been shopping for a new coach, saying that he works in harmony with Tollner.
That is disputed by Darrin Moon, a former administrative aide to Tollner and a part-time coach last season.
“If (McGee and Tollner) were passing in the hallway, I doubt they would acknowledge each other’s presence, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Moon said. “I think Ted is kicking himself for having recommended McGee for the athletic director’s job.”
There was conjecture that Tollner saved his job when USC upset UCLA, 17-13, last November.
“At a coaching staff meeting after that game everybody was laughing, saying that the only person who was unhappy that we beat UCLA was McGee,” Moon said.
Tollner would not discuss his relationship with McGee, saying only: “We’re putting every bit of our energy into having a successful season, and any distractions are not in the football program’s best interests.”
It is believed, though, that Tollner considers McGee unsupportive of him and is aware that only a successful season, say an 8-3 record and an invitation to a major bowl, will save his job.
Tollner, who became USC’s coach in 1983, has three years remaining on his contract.
Even if McGee weren’t the athletic director, though, Tollner’s job probably would be in jeopardy if the Trojans falter next season, given the high national visibility that USC has in football and considering that the sport is the financial cornerstone of the school’s athletic program.
Traditionally, it hasn’t been USC’s style to fire coaches in major sports such as football and basketball. Only two football coaches, Jeff Cravath and Elmer (Gloomy Gus) Henderson, have been let go since 1924.
Basketball has even a lower attrition rate. But McGee, in his short tenure, has already fired basketball Coach Stan Morrison and eased longtime baseball Coach Rod Dedeaux into retirement.
McGee contends that Morrison merely changed jobs, since he remains at USC as an associate athletic director. It is believed, however, that Morrison did not want to become an administrator and was shocked when McGee told him before the final weekend of the season that he was out as basketball coach.
It has also been learned that McGee was inquiring about a replacement for Morrison as early as December, even though Morrison’s Trojans had won the Pacific 10 championship in 1984-85--as Tollner’s football team had done the previous fall.
The USC basketball team plunged to last place in the conference last season, however, and had internal problems, giving McGee an apparent reason to remove Morrison and hire George Raveling.
In any event, McGee has indicated that he will not be a passive athletic director, saying that any decisions he makes are in the best interests of the school.
It has been said that Tollner and McGee are two icebergs on a collision course.
Asked to comment on his relationship with Tollner, McGee said: “I don’t feel any strain in the relationship with Coach Tollner, at all. There is no problem in communicating about what the needs of the program are and what we as a department are in position to do.
“I can see where there are concerns about how things will be interpreted. We meet on a regular basis, and most meetings are in the best interests of football and the department. I think the communication is such that we’re in a position to provide full and complete support for the football program as it heads into the season.”
McGee reportedly used a former USC football player as a liaison to contact Dave Levy, offensive line coach for the San Diego Chargers, about Levy’s availability as an offensive coordinator, or eventually head coach at USC. Levy was a longtime member of John McKay’s football staff at USC and was reportedly a candidate for the head coaching job before John Robinson got it in 1976.
‘That is not correct,” McGee said. “At no time has there been any communication about Dave Levy becoming the head coach at USC.”
Levy said: “Any contact that was made wasn’t done officially. It was privileged communication.”
It’s believed that Tollner was unaware that any contact was made with Levy, but he reportedly learned of it later, widening the rift between him and McGee.
McGee said that it’s only natural in his position as athletic director to pass on names to Tollner of assistant coaches whom he might want to consider.
“But I would never be in a position to dictate who his coaches should be,” McGee said. “That’s only one man’s decision, and that’s Ted Tollner.”
It also has been rumored that McGee suggested to Tollner that he should make some changes in his coaching staff after the 6-6 season.
“In the course of discussions we had after the season . . . we looked across the board, saying, ‘What are the things we can do to be helpful to put us in a stronger position?’ ” McGee said. “In the course of these discussions, certainly, staff would come up. Coach Tollner’s response is something that should stay between us. But I want to underscore that at no time did I say that he should hire somebody or relieve somebody. That’s not my position.”
Moon, however, recalled a staff meeting in which Tollner said that neither the press, McGee, nor anybody else would pressure him to get rid of any member of his staff.
Sources close to Heritage Hall say that McGee is viewed as a hard-working administrator who sometimes makes impulsive decisions.
He is perceived by some as having a sledgehammer style of management that has a negative effect on personnel and perhaps on performance in Heritage Hall.
In fact, there is some concern that McGee’s style is so demoralizing that it will have a trickle-down effect to the performance of athletic teams in the future.
“The unrest in Heritage Hall is unmeasurable,” said a person who has close ties with the athletic department.
McGee said that there was no morale problem in the football program heading into last season. The Trojans had high expectations, but before the season began, McGee conducted a vigorous in-house investigation in conjunction with the Pac-10 when it was learned that assistant coach Russ Purnell had illegally recruited linebacker Dan Quinn from San Dieguito High School in Encinitas.
Purnell was fired by McGee, and the Pac-10 later sanctioned USC, mainly by depriving the football program of some scholarships the next two seasons. The NCAA endorsed the Pac-10’s action.
The Purnell incident, coupled with USC’s disappointing season, had an impact on morale, McGee said.
But McGee is optimistic about next season.
“Expectations were high after spring practice, and I see an increased morale,” he said. “I was involved in meting out discipline (the firing of Purnell), and those types of things create some problems. Over a period of time, I think those things will be lessened, although I don’t know if they will be solved. But I think the (football) staff is acting in an enthusiastic way with an enthusiastic group of athletes that bodes well for next season.”
McGee also said that the decision to hire Raveling as basketball coach to replace Morrison had affected morale. Morrison is a popular figure in Heritage Hall.
“People disagree with decisions that are reached, and they disagree here inside,” McGee said. “But Raveling has built a tremendous level of support both inside and outside.”
As for morale, in general, in Heritage Hall, McGee said: “I don’t think there is any doubt that in a period of transition there’s going to be some people who will agree and disagree. Some people may disagree with my style, and that’s fine. I respect their opinions.
“But the lines of communication are open. I happen to be someone who is fairly direct and quite frank, and I think that’s important in long-term relations when you’re trying to move quickly.”
McGee added that he has a smooth functioning staff at Heritage Hall, a group that feels good about one another.
He also pointed out that 10 USC teams finished in the top 10 of NCAA championships the past school year and said that couldn’t have been accomplished if morale had been low in the athletic department.
Curiously, the sports he directly administers--football, basketball and baseball--floundered. Barbara Hedges, USC’s women’s athletic director, directly supervises the other men’s sports and, of course, all of the women’s sports, which accounted for 5 of those top-10 finishes in NCAA competition.
On the negative side, USC failed to win an NCAA championship in any sport for the first time since 1959.
There are those in what is called the “USC family” who had hoped that Zumberge would hire a USC graduate, or, at least, someone who had been closely associated with the university, as athletic director--instead of an outsider like McGee.
Zumberge, who has been USC’s president since 1980, is aware of this clannish attitude.
“Mike McGee has done an outstanding job under difficult circumstances,” Zumberge said. “In essence, he came aboard with the same lack of identification with the university that I had in the eyes of those who perceive USC as being made up of Trojan family, and if you’re not born into (it), there is no way you can earn your way into it. That’s a difficult situation in any place.”
Zumberge said it is understandable that morale has been affected to some degree since McGee became athletic director.
“Any time there are changes being made, that’s a basic cause of instability and uncertainty,” he said. “I think Mike has to work constantly at his relationships with the coaching staffs and others at Heritage Hall to be sure that they are put at ease.
“He’s had a lot on his plate since he has been here and probably hasn’t had a lot of time to go around holding hands, but he has to do more of that. That’s an area I’ve talked to Mike about, and he’s very responsive to that.
“Everybody’s styles are different. Usually you judge a person in the end whether they’ve accomplished what has to be done. It’s regrettable sometimes that accomplishments and achievements are overlooked because some perceive they weren’t done in a way that was acceptable to them.”
If McGee, a former Duke University football coach and University of Cincinnati athletic director, has antagonized members of the Trojan family, he also has his supporters.
Hilton Green, a former USC football manager who has been actively involved with the school for many years, says that McGee is the best thing that has happened to the university.
“I can’t say enough positive things about him,” Green said. “I think Mike has done one hell of a job for USC. He is strong, he knows the business, being a football coach and coming up through the ranks as an administrator.
“I’ve seen him take a stand on some tough things, such as revenue splitting in football. The previous minimum guarantee on the road was $75,000. Now it’s $125,000. Mike helped to ramrod that through.”
Dave Atha, past president of the USC Alumni Assn., said that he has been impressed with McGee’s business-like approach to the athletic department and his commitment to a winning program.
Tom Hansen, commissioner of the Pacific 10, said that McGee is a vigorous administrator who comes to conference meetings well prepared.
“You expect people to be well prepared,” Hansen said. “But athletic directors have so many meetings that it’s difficult to be well prepared on a day-by-day basis. But almost without exception, Mike has done his homework.”
As for the Purnell case and McGee’s handling of it in cooperation with the conference, Hansen said: “Purnell violated basic rules of recruiting, rules that he should have had knowledge of. If McGee hadn’t acted, there was a probability of more severe penalties by both the Pac-10 and NCAA.”
So McGee is esteemed in sectors outside Heritage Hall. There were some influential USC alumni, though, who had disparaging things to say about him, but did not want to say them for public consumption.
Jim Hardy, general manager of the Coliseum, who has worked closely with McGee on projected improvements in the Sports Arena for the basketball team, was asked to comment on McGee as a person and an administrator.
“No comment,” Hardy said emphatically.
Those who believe that McGee is insensitive would be supported by Roy Gilchrist, a retired trainer who briefly served under McGee when McGee was Duke’s football coach from 1971 though 1978.
“Over the course of his seven years he ran 60 people out of the football program,” Gilchrist said. “I’m talking about coaches, graduate assistants, trainers and student managers.”
Gilchrist said that McGee was called Mad Mike by the players while coaching at Duke.
“We had a boy whose grandmother had raised him,” Gilchrist said. “She died, and the boy came crying to me. Coach McGee told him there wasn’t a thing he could do for her now and that there wasn’t any reason to go home. McGee told him that if he went (to the funeral), he’d lose his scholarship.
“I said, ‘Go to the athletic director and tell him you’re going home.’ That was just one instance of his insensitivity.”
Gilchrist also said that a Duke running back, Willie Clayton, had suffered a heat stroke on the practice field.
“But McGee wanted him back on the field the next day,” Gilchrist said. “We had a hassle about that. The boy went back out and developed blood anemia. He asked to go to the campus doctor. McGee got so mad at him that he wouldn’t let him play the rest of the year.”
Gilchrist said that he also took a copy of the football injury report home and filed it in his own handwriting because he was afraid that McGee would change it.
McGee would not respond to Gilchrist’s charges.
Frank Dascenzo, sports editor of the Durham, N.C., Sun, who covered McGee’s Duke teams, characterized McGee as a person with a large ego who couldn’t deal with criticism of any kind.
“Mike McGee thinks he knows everything about everything--how to coach every position in football, taping an ankle as well as being sort of a psychiatrist and doctor,” Dascenzo said.
Others see McGee in a different light.
Mike Gottfried, a former Cincinnati football coach who was hired by McGee and is now coach at the University of Pittsburgh, said that McGee is the best administrator he has ever been associated with.
The Rev. Bob Young, who traveled with the team as Duke’s chaplain during McGee’s tenure as coach, said that McGee is a model of integrity.
“In spite of his ego and coming on strong, which he does, the man has a tender heart and a very genuine concern for his players,” Young said. “One of the things that impressed me was the way he got to know the players’ families. He took a lot of interest in the individual players, their careers and that sort of thing.
“And he has always had a concern for academics. One of his themes was, ‘Saturday doesn’t last forever.’ But you have to train a guy, shape his values and prepare for those days when he’s not playing on Saturdays. The man has impeccable integrity, and I never saw him compromise principle.”
Carl James, now commissioner of the Big Eight, was athletic director at Duke in seven of McGee’s eight years there as coach. His perception of McGee is similar to Young’s.
“I knew him better as a player at Duke than at any other time,” James said. “He became an All-American and an Outland Trophy winner. He was a good citizen, a loyal person on the campus and assisted in trying to recruit other student-athletes.
“Mike had to work very hard as coach at Duke because of the quality of education and the availability of talent at that academic level. He ran a good, quality program.
“He treated his coaches and players like family. Our relationship was good. He was ambitious, worked hard and was always careful to work within the rules of the university and NCAA. His losses had more to do with lack of depth.”
McGee was fired after James left, leaving Duke with an eight-year record of 37-47-4. Thirty-seven is a significant number, since that figure reportedly matches the number of assistant coaches McGee went through in his tenure at Duke.
“We had a considerable turnover among our assistant coaches for several reasons,” McGee said. “At that point in my professional career I was a bit of a perfectionist. It took some growth to let things go and delegate authority.
“We had a situation where we were limited in the number of scholarships we could offer and significantly limited in budget, both in salaries and dollars to improve facilities. I didn’t let go of that many people and I don’t know of anyone who left that took a lower-paying job, or didn’t leave for some improvement.”
There’s another figure that stalks McGee. During his four years as athletic director at Cincinnati, 89 people in his department reportedly resigned, were fired or were reassigned.
“Of the administrative staff that reported to me, there were five turnovers in four years, and three of those were replaced with campus people,” McGee said. “In addition, I replaced two coaches, football and basketball, and I hired a football coach (Gottfried) who had been there previously. I also hired a basketball coach (Tony Yates), who was a graduate of Cincinnati.”
The 89 figure is fairly accurate, said Tom Hathaway, Cincinnati’s sports information director, but he added that McGee was not involved in most of those moves.
Although there hasn’t been a significant movement of administrative personnel since McGee became athletic director at USC, a source close to the department says that McGee has created an environment of alienation that can’t be remedied and that people who were once comfortable in Heritage Hall don’t want to remain there now.
A longtime supporter of the USC athletic program, who didn’t want to be identified, made this observation: “Dr. McGee has brought a notable lack of finesse and people skills to a delicate task and has alienated the majority of the administrative and athletic personnel, which includes the more qualified and talented people.
“In the perceptions of many, McGee shoots from the hip and uses intimidation as a management tool.”
There is also a segment of the alumni that wants a total housecleaning. Some members of the San Diego Trojan Club recently wrote to the USC Board of Trustees, calling for the removal of Zumberge, McGee and Tollner.
Even some of McGee’s detractors concede that he is an organized executive.
He asked the business school to conduct a management study of his department in February 1985, and extensive interviews were conducted with Heritage Hall personnel, who were assured anonymity. Those findings were never made public.
A son of a career Coast Guardsman, McGee has done many noteworthy things in his 23 months at USC, such as reorganizing his department, fund-raising, academic programming, improving facilities and complying with NCAA procedures. He says that USC is the best place he has ever worked.
But his administrative style has apparently provoked some of his co-workers, rather than inspiring them to greater achievements.
“I thought Mike McGee was awesome at first,” Moon said. “I thought he was a type of guy that was needed to change some things. But I think he’s just terrible with people.
“He creates an environment that is not fun to work in, and he’s an insensitive person. Although I love USC, I’m glad to be out. I no longer have an ulcer.”
No doubt about it. McGee has made an impact.
Times staff writer Mark Heisler contributed to this story.