Martin Jarmond’s infectious energy shakes up UCLA with emphasis on innovation

 UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond plays around inside Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Share

Nearly a year on the job, Martin Jarmond’s body remains stuck on East Coast time. He’ll rise at 5 a.m., maybe an hour later if he’s lucky, and commence his morning routine.

First up is a four-mile run around Balboa Park or a golf course near his home in the San Fernando Valley. Next comes some quiet reflection, the UCLA athletic director getting his mind right for another hectic day by contemplating things that make him grateful. A steaming mug of green or oolong tea always helps.

By the noisy moment his three young daughters stir, the oldest usually darting down a hallway, there’s only an hour or so left before virtual meetings trumpet the start of 10-plus-hour workdays. Bedtime rarely leads to a fully restorative slumber.

“I’m not sleeping well,” Jarmond said recently. “That’s the one thing I’ve got to do better.”

Advertisement

As he approaches the one-year anniversary of his official start on July 1, Jarmond can rest easy about his early popularity rating on campus. He’s solved a career’s worth of dilemmas while endearing himself to athletes and coaches with his boundless energy and problem-solving sorcery.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond at Pauley Pavillon.
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond engaged Jordan Brand and Nike officials in talks that resulted in a new $46.45-million deal.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Sports are shut down amid a once-a-century pandemic?

Jarmond allayed COVID-19 safety concerns while overseeing a robust testing program that allowed the Bruins to return to training and participate in 390 of 400 scheduled competitions. (The football and men’s and women’s basketball teams did not miss a single game because of their own issues with the virus, and the positivity rate among all athletes, coaches and staff was a miniscule 0.23%.)

The apparel sponsor wants out?

After Under Armour informed him that it was terminating its $280-million deal with the school, Jarmond quietly flew to Oregon to engage Jordan Brand and Nike officials in talks that resulted in a new $46.45-million deal set to begin this week that has delighted coaches and athletes while potentially enticing recruits for years to come.

A national racial reckoning threatens to divide the campus?

Jarmond approved a voting matters initiative, cheered on his school’s gymnasts during a Black Excellence meet and allowed football players to wear social justice messaging on their uniforms, shining a megawatt spotlight on the movement.

The UCLA gymnastics team will wear black and gold leotards featuring a raised fist on their shoulders at Saturday’s Black Excellence meet against OSU.

“UCLA is one of the most-watched schools in the world,” defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight said, “so he used that platform to really push the cause and try to help better what’s going on in the world today.”

Advertisement

Even locally, there’s been a lot to fix in a short span. Jarmond’s job was fraught with so many challenges in its infancy that, had they all been disclosed at his Zoom interview, he might have been forgiven for abruptly turning off his camera and leaving the meeting. Now they all seem like just another mile marker he’s passed on one of his early morning runs.

Among other endeavors spearheaded by Jarmond, a program designed to help athletes navigate the nuances of profiting off their name, image and likeness, or NIL, is about to be unveiled. Graduating seniors have been invited to return to campus as part of the Den student group next school year so they can rock Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl one more time. They will enjoy improved sight lines at the latter venue after Jarmond moved the student section out of the end zone.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond poses in Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“What I like most is he’s a progressive thinker, which is something I really believe in,” said Mick Cronin, the men’s basketball coach whose approval rating is also soaring after a Final Four run. “What I mean by that is, there’s two kinds of people usually in administration — it’s, ‘This is how we’ve always done it’ and he’s the opposite, which is, ‘What’s it going to need to look like going forward for us to be successful?’ So he’s all about exploring change, which, in college basketball, this is the time of change, so that’s big right now.”

Beyond assessing potential new athlete compensation and the best way to maximize NIL benefits, Jarmond became the first athletic director in school history to tweet out live game highlights. He also befriended one UCLA fan through a chance Twitter exchange, providing free tickets for every NCAA tournament game on the way to the Final Four.

“Had I not tweeted that and Martin not seen that,” said Ryan Gesas, the fan who celebrated victories madly with Jarmond in videos that circulated widely on social media, “I’m watching from my couch.”

Jarmond’s initial bonds with fans, students, coaches and staff were formed remotely. After being lured away from his post as Boston College’s athletic director in May 2020, he worked from his Boston home because of the pandemic until making the cross-country move in September, taking up residence near Cronin’s Encino home.

With the campus shut down, Jarmond didn’t meet Chancellor Gene Block until November — some six months after Jarmond’s hiring — and he’s still met only a small fraction of the 275 athletic department staff who have mostly worked from home.

His first visit to campus was marked with heartache. Jarmond learned shortly before arriving for a photo shoot last summer that his mother, Virginia, had suffered a stroke and that he would need to fly home to North Carolina. He made it to her hospital bedside in time to say goodbye but continues to mourn her loss more than a year later.

Advertisement

Virginia Jarmond had encouraged her son to take the UCLA job, telling him it was his next challenge. He agreed after becoming captivated during his interview with school officials, learning about the many ways in which the nation’s most applied-to university and an athletic department with more NCAA titles than any other school besides Stanford were elite.

“I see me and him pretty much as the same people — high-spirited, always happy. So every time we see each other, it’s always a great vibe.”

— UCLA defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight on Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond

During the months that followed, that word kept circulating in his head. Elite. If the pandemic had one benefit, it was that it allowed Jarmond to meet with a larger swath of the athletic community more often, even if it was virtually. He hosted more than 150 online sessions dubbed “MJ Listens” to learn about what it meant to be a Bruin.

The word became a mantra in all caps, ELITE standing for energy, leadership, integrity, toughness and excellence.

“Those characteristics were always here at UCLA in our athletics program,” Jarmond said, “but I needed a way to bring it all together to where we would have a shared purpose and a shared sacrifice and that’s what ELITE is. That’s that mindset — not wins and losses, but how you approach [things] to be the best you can be.”

Those who meet Jarmond might hear another one of his catchphrases — mind right, game right — intended to serve as inspirational fodder. They also might find their encounter as one of the many lighthearted exchanges that Jarmond posts on Twitter, where his legion of followers has nearly doubled to more than 15,000 over the last year. The 41-year-old easily mingles with athletes half his age, sharing a fist bump or a quick joke.

“I see me and him pretty much as the same people — high-spirited, always happy,” Knight said, “so every time we see each other, it’s always a great vibe.”

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond attended at least one game or practice involving all but one of the school’s 25 varsity sports in his first year.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Jarmond sightings have been common. Before the end of his first year, Jarmond had attended at least one game or practice involving all but one of the school’s 25 varsity sports. The men’s water polo team presented him with the game ball from its national championship-clinching win over USC, a victory that was especially meaningful because it signified UCLA’s first NCAA title under his leadership.

To Jarmond, a former college athlete who played basketball at North Carolina Wilmington, the title also represented a triumph over the pandemic for athletes who could have easily been shut out of their beloved sport.

Advertisement

“I think about what it took to compete because there was a time where they weren’t going to be able to play,” Jarmond said. “Think about that: Those young men won a national championship and they may have not had an opportunity to do that.”

It was another reminder of the collective effort it takes to make the athletic department hum, from staffers who take temperatures to Block counseling and trusting Jarmond with the historic Jordan Brand-Nike deal to the alumni association passing along thousands of messages to the basketball team after its Final Four run. One message came from a graduate who said those NCAA tournament games allowed him to connect with his chronically ill father in a way they had not in decades.

“I’m getting goosebumps right now,” Jarmond said while relaying the message.

Jarmond described himself as proud and grateful for his first year at UCLA, but he’s not taking any victory laps. The athletic department faces a $40.6-million deficit that could further swell because of the financial fallout from the pandemic and the premature termination of its deal with Under Armour (though the university has sued the apparel company, seeking more than $200 million in compensation).

There’s also the rapidly changing landscape of college athletics that could further drain resources through additional athlete compensation, which seems inevitable in the wake of a recent unanimous Supreme Court decision against the NCAA. More glaringly, a Rose Bowl that was half-empty even before the pandemic must be filled again, the Bruins’ football team in desperate need of a breakthrough under coach Chip Kelly after going 10-21 over his first three seasons.

The athletic department is set to launch some creative initiatives to entice fans, but Jarmond knows there’s no promotion that can top winning.

After experiencing only eerie quiet on his trips to campus, Jarmond is eager to see Bruin Walk filled with students in the fall as part of another first as he learns the rhythms of UCLA life returning to normal. It might feel like a second wind for someone who has sprinted past his early challenges like a set of traffic cones left in the dust.

“I just can’t imagine being hired when he was hired with everything we were going through as a university with the pandemic and our gear sponsor,” said Amy Fuller Kearney, the women’s rowing coach. “I felt like, man, how does somebody come in and stay positive with so many hurdles and he never blinked.”

That’s not entirely true, of course. There are still those restless dawns when Jarmond would prefer to keep his eyes shut a bit longer, dreamily plotting his next big move.