Hello, everyone, and welcome to our second episode of Risk Playbook. I'm Mike Mitchell, Vice Chairman of Graham Company. Today I'm joined by Mike Buddie, the Director of Athletics at the United States Military Academy.
Not only has Mike spent over 15 years in the college administration space, but he also had a decade long career in professional baseball, which included pitching for the New York Yankees, where he was part of the 1998 World Series championship team, and the Milwaukee Brewers. He is the former Director of Athletics at Furman University and he spent significant time working at the athletic program for his alma mater, Wake Forest University.
Now, Mike is leading the Athletic Department of Army West Point, one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation. And he's doing so in the midst of a pandemic. Mike, I'm thrilled to have you as our guest on Risk Playbook.
Thank you, Mike, it's great to be here. You made me sound a lot more important in that introduction than I feel on a day-to-day basis. Well done.
Well, as far as I'm concerned, you're a big deal and an impressive guest for me to have. So, thank you again.
Let's get right into it. I'd like to start, Mike, with your career. I'm always fascinated with how people end up where they end up and the decisions they made along the way. When I think of professional athletes, most of the time, people ended up selling insurance or becoming a financial advisor, but you ended up in college athletics. How did that happen? And, why college athletics versus the front office of a major league baseball team?
All really good questions, Mike – and actually, in terms of framing our conversation, all very appropriate and good segues.
As I think about how in the world I got from Cleveland, Ohio, as a high school, three sport athlete…I played baseball, football and wrestled, but I had this passion for baseball. As I think about my career path, how did I get from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, even to Wake Forest University as a baseball player? It was because I took a calculated risk. I could have picked any school in the country to pursue my wrestling career, but I didn't want to have a career as a wrestler, I wanted to have a career as a baseball player. So, I had to bet on myself a little bit…and it paid off. That led me to Wake Forest University, where I had a pretty good career for three years, ended up meeting my eventual wife, and have lifelong friends that I met there.
After three years, I had the opportunity to get drafted by the New York Yankees, as you had mentioned, started a pursuit of that career. Frankly, I kind of thought they would have me on the roster for three or four years and realize that I wasn't as good as they thought – but I could always tell my grandkids that I played professional baseball and create some memories. My original plan, if you're giving me truth serum, was exactly that. I thought, I'll play three to four years, I'll spend my weekends shadowing some folks in the Yankees front office, and maybe parlay that into a career as a professional baseball executive.
Lo and behold, 12 years later, my career ended. It wasn't a decision I made. I threw a pitch in Indianapolis, Indiana, in Triple A for the Milwaukee Brewers, snapped my elbow ligament, had Tommy John surgery, and woke up the next morning realizing I'm 33 years old, married, two children and a full semester of college to go until I get my undergraduate degree. So, I kind of had to, again, take stock of where I was and where I wanted to be.
I looked at all of my mentors, coaches and front office folks from my days with the Yankees and with the Brewers, and if I had to put a number on it, I would say 95% of them were divorced. With a four-year-old, a newborn and a wife that I loved, and still love, I just thought, that's not the lifestyle, after 12 seasons of minor league and Major League Baseball.
That’s a really long-winded answer to just say I kind of I got lucky. I fell into it through process of elimination. I knew that being a family person, I wanted to work 9-5. That eliminated a career in professional baseball.
I went back to Wake Forest, right as the movie “Old School” was coming out with Will Ferrell, where he goes back and lives on a college campus. That's when I went back to Wake Forest as a 33-year-old, father of two, to get my degree. Then, as luck would have it, I fell into an opportunity as a fundraiser and the rest is history.
When I think of people like you, Mike, you're a professional athlete. You played at the highest level for a long period of time, you played for the New York Yankees, you won a World Series, you played in the spotlight of New York City.
I think, you know what, nothing intimidates you – you’d go into the lion’s den and fight the lion, right? But then I think, wow, going into West Point, with all these strong personalities, the generals with all the medals, the leadership – and you go in with no military experience. Was it intimidating? How did you deal with that?
Well, yes, sir. It was intimidating…and it really happened before I even got to West Point. The final round of interviews for this job was in the innermost ring of the Pentagon. That right away kind of slaps you in the face. In a lot of ways, Mike, you talk about the spotlight of New York City – I think that was a really nice piece of preparation for this job.
One of my teammates, David Cone, who is a veteran, had played for the 86 Mets. He had been under the spotlight at a very young age and made some, as he would describe, poor decisions. I remember when I was a rookie, I was 28, and he pulled me aside and said, “Hey, Mike, pretend that a documentary film crew is following you around the streets of New York, or Los Angeles, or wherever we are as a New York Yankee. If there's something that you're thinking about doing that you wouldn't do if a documentary film crew was following you around, you probably shouldn't do it.” I just never forgot that. As a son and a future father and husband, and a New York Yankee, it is a great responsibility that you're representing something so much bigger than yourself.
10 years later, to find myself in the innermost ring of the Pentagon interviewing for the job at West Point, and having a sense already of…West Point was here long before I was a sparkle in my parents’ eye and it will be here long after. There are national implications of the brand and the reputation.
There's a friend of mine, who's an athletic director at another school, who said, “We as an athletic department take up 4% of the institution's budget, but we represent 90% of the reputational risk.” And I thought, man, that really says it all. We may only take 4% of the money that it takes to operate an academy – or in his case, an institution – but 90% of the things that go wrong on college campuses, usually stem from an athletic event, or a high-profile coach or athlete.
So right away, once I left the Pentagon and stared down a couple of generals – who I now am friends with and who are two of the nicest gentlemen that I've met – but they are very, very intimidating. To go in there with that weight on your shoulders and to come to work every day realizing there are people out there, not unlike anywhere, who would love to have darts to throw at you if you have a lapse in judgment, personally, professionally, or somebody on your staff. So, we paid very close attention to minimizing that risk.
4% versus 90%, and I never thought of the reputational risk.
Let me talk about the business model. When I think of West Point, you have no tuition, you certainly have alumni donations, like others do. You have TV contract revenue, although you're not in a conference, you're independent, I don't know whether that's good or bad?
Depends on who you ask, Mike.
Then I think, do you have the luxury of the federal government as the fiscal backstop? Or, do you have to find your own way, even though it's only 4% of your budget. Nonetheless, it's probably a lot of money, right?
It is. It's a little bit of all of that. You're spot on. At Furman, at Wake Forest, one of our biggest stressors is making ends meet, finding scholarship dollars. Because without scholarships, you don't have student athletes, and without student athletes, you're dead in the water. That's a huge issue that really doesn't exist here.
While we do certainly have some federal funding to help us execute our mission and our commitment to the physical pillar – which is imperative here at West Point – we are absolutely responsible for generating our revenue, and we don't have a backstop. We can't go over the allotted amount and we can't just pull more taxpayer dollars to help our baseball team or our softball team. It's a fixed number through a government grant. Then everything above and beyond that, we have to raise.
From a business model, as you talked about, with COVID impacting our inability to host fans for football games – just like everybody last year – those were holes that we had to make up. We've had to tighten our belt, and we think that we've done it in a way that is all-hands-on-deck, without the cadets feeling like their experience has been negatively impacted.
It's just a great place to be. Somebody that I used to work with asked about my first year at West Point. He said, “Hey, what's the biggest difference between West Point and Furman?” And I remember, just having this top of mind. Our athletes at West Point, they do a lot physical training and a lot of physical exercise, separate from their soccer or baseball or tennis practice. We have water buffalos, which are these huge containers of water that are set up all over the corners of campus. And the example that I use to answer that question was, when I was at Furman, I used to deal with parents, and sometimes athletes, who are legitimately concerned that the Gatorade coolers had purple Gatorade in them, instead of red Gatorade, because they preferred red Gatorade…and how much ice was in it that watered it down. The difference is, that was the challenge at Furman with our drinks. Here at West Point, kids don't get Gatorade, they don't get ice. They fill their canteens from rusty water buffaloes – and I've never heard a complaint from anybody about it. It's a mentality that these kids have that makes me proud to be associated with.
Wow, they're a special group of young men and women.
You mentioned COVID. Not long after you arrive, the pandemic hits. I'm sure a lot of our audience knows what the pandemic meant to the restaurant industry and the airline industry, and so on and so forth. They probably don't understand what it meant to higher ed.
In your case, I think, you didn't have virtual learning, necessarily, if everybody was there in the bubble at West Point. You certainly have all the athletic issues, and you mentioned the fact that you couldn't play games and you lost some ticket revenue. But by and large, what were some of the challenges of dealing with COVID there on campus?
Our challenge was in typical West Point fashion. They were trying to keep the enemy outside the wire. Civilian institutions say things like, “Hey, we're mandating that our students cannot have gatherings of more than 20 people and they cannot leave campus unless it's for an emergency.” Of course, what we all know, I have a 21-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter. You can do all you want at Duke, Furman, Wake Forest and UCLA, but we know that there were gatherings of more than 20 people and we know that going to In-N-Out Burger on a Tuesday night when you're hungry could constitute an emergency.
All these things that West Pointers can't do, right? Because there are three points of access to post at West Point. They're guarded with military police with automatic weapons. So, when we say things like, “Hey, no one can leave campus this weekend,” we know for a fact that no one is. It actually added stress to us as faculty and staff, because we were the only ones who were physically leaving post, to go back home to our children who might be in a public school. We had to have this heightened awareness. We were trying to keep COVID outside as much as possible. And we knew that once it got in, it was most likely due to a civilian coach or faculty member. That was a little added level of stress.
But we weathered the storm probably as well as anybody, if not better, Mike, mainly because the Army at large is an all-hands-on-deck type of organization. It was not uncommon for me, as I would return to post from a shopping trip or whatever it might be, that our hockey coach is at the gate checking temperatures. Or, our English professor volunteered to get trained on how to do a nasal swab, because he's a colonel and that's what colonels do. They step up and say, “Hey, I've got time, I've got expertise.” Or, “I don't have the expertise yet, but I'll learn.”
It was fascinating to share notes with my friends at civilian institutions who are saying, “Hey, we're supposed to test 30 times a week, but I don't have the budget money.” We were able to be like, “Hey, here's what we need.” And I have a General Superintendent Williams here who just said, “We'll find a way to make it happen.” It was great to have that type of support.
You're dealing with young men and women who understand what discipline is all about, and what sacrifice means…and they follow the program, which is part of your culture.
Speaking of culture, any successful organization or team needs a good culture. At my company, we preach that all the time. Certainly, you have to adjust, but nonetheless, culture is really, really important.
I can only imagine, with 200 years of tradition, you have unbelievable culture. However, in some ways, our world has been in turmoil. There's the COVID issue, there's social injustice, there's political unrest. In athletics, there's the whole issue of Name, Image and Likeness. How do you make sure all those issues don't come in and disrupt your culture?
Yeah, that’s a big challenge everywhere right now, right? COVID has affected morale and mental health probably everywhere. West Point's not immune to those challenges.
We certainly do have a strong culture. I think a lot of our students are second or third generation West Pointers, not to mention, most of our faculty and staff. There is an attitude of “Hey, embrace the suck. We know it's going to be difficult.” Part of the creed here is to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. There are underlying senses of, “Hey, it's okay that things are going to be really difficult, because we actually prefer it that way.” Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
From my seat specifically, Mike, as the athletic director, what I know and what I love is the young men and women who choose to come to Army West Point to compete for the final four years of their, most likely, competitive athletics days. They don't choose West Point because it's going to improve their status in the draft. They don't choose West Point because we have a better weight room, or we give three pairs of shoes, or all of the reasons that some kids choose their institutions. That's not why they're choosing West Point. We certainly start with a product that has a little bit better perspective, I think, than maybe the national average college student. They have exhibited characteristics of leadership and integrity as part of our application process. So, we start from a pretty good place from a culture.
But then I would say the most important thing that I do is attract and hire, and sometimes fire, coaches…because our coaches set the tone. You were an athlete growing up, Mike. If I asked you to think about a coach who made a phenomenally positive impact on your life, you'd think of him or her pretty quickly. And if I said, “Tell me a coach who made a phenomenally negative impact on your life,” you probably could come up with one as well.
Our kids are doing summer training to learn how to jump out of helicopters or fire weaponry, they don't get to go to summer school. They don't get a fifth year of eligibility. They are here for 47 months. And they are truly here for one reason – and that's to become a commissioned officer in the United States Army. Everything else is secondary. We don't ever get that out of order. Our coaches need to know that.
A lot of times when I interview head coaches, I almost try to talk them out, “Do you really want to take this job?” Because it might be the day of the Patriot League Championship tennis match and your best player might have to do a 12-mile ruck march that morning with a 50-pound ruck on her back. And if that's going to be a problem for you, if you're going to complain about that at any point, then this probably isn't the right fit.
Because the culture here is, we are here for one reason: to educate, train and inspire this next generation of second lieutenants to become the leaders of, not only our Army, but our country. We keep that front and foremost, so that there's never any confusion that, “Hey, let's make an exception here. Let's make an exception there.” Because exceptions just don't happen at West Point. And that's a good thing. Because we don't fight them, we don't try to, and we don't make excuses.
Well, I will tell you this, Mike, as an American, it's encouraging to know that the culture can be passed on from one generation to the next. And despite all these outside influences, it’s encouraging to know the best-of-the-best are still interested in coming to West Point to be future leaders of our military.
I'd like to switch gears for a second. As you know, my company, Graham Company, we insure the Army West Point Athletic Association, so we talk a lot about insurance and risk management with your people. You talked about the 90% reputational risk. Is there another risk that keeps you up at night?
Absolutely. And again, now that I'm in my third year here, Mike, I'm starting to realize I'm picking up on some of these Army terms. We talk about risk to force and risk to mission all the time. Risk to mission is, “How do we execute what our mission is?” And for me, a lot of time that might be, “How do we get 32,000 football fans on and off post that's guarded by military police every weekend? How do we host the Army-Navy football game when we've got a President who had just been voted out of office and a president who had just been elected, but had not yet been inaugurated? And what does that mean, physically, for Secret Service and outside threats?” That's risk to force.
Some people say we're a college campus, some people say, we're a military installation. They're both wrong – we're neither and we're both, all at the same time. We talk about the risk to force all the time, which is, “You know what, if there's ever another 9/11, West Point, in theory, would make sense to be on that list.” It stems from the little things. My daughter's high school volleyball team wants to come watch the West Point volleyball match this weekend. We have to get a list of manifests of everybody on the team and do quick background checks, even though they're 16/17-year-old high school kids. That is just part of the culture and part of the process that we go through on a weekly basis.
When you distill that into how does that happen on a 32,000-fan Saturday at West Point, we have challenges and we have all-hands-on-deck. Absolutely, it permeates the culture and everything that we do. It did as the athletic director at Furman. But there's this added level of, not just the reputational risk, not just “Hey, how do our football team or our basketball team, or some of our higher profile athletes, how do they comport themselves on an aircraft, in a hotel in Annapolis, Maryland?” Because when you're wearing this emblem on your shirt, as I said with the Yankees, you're representing so much more than yourself. So, we never let our guards down.
I'm fortunate to have a lot of support from really high-level subject matter experts who can control the risk to force and the risk to mission. They lean on us too, for us to educate them on what a college game day looks like in particular sports. And they translate that into a military installation course of action, that makes sense and it's fair. A lot of times, that's trying to stick a round hole into a square peg, because we're not like Fort Bragg or Fort Sill. None of them invite 30,000 people to their installations for a weekend in the fall. Yet we do it six or seven times every fall. Very unique, but again, blessed to have really capable people understanding where we're trying to go and how to help us get there.
When you explain the real risks and threats associated with putting 32,000 people in a stadium, or even more so putting 70,000 into a stadium for Army-Navy, with a target on your back, the security must be unbelievable. And fortunately, we've never had an issue that I'm aware of, and you got the best-of-the-best looking after you.
Talk to me a little bit about recruiting. You talked about second and third generations, but like any school, you're competing for talent I'm sure, right? And you're competing for athletes. Because, as you said, the athletic program has to be self-sufficient…so you need to have a good team to put people in the stands and you need a good team to get a TV contract, right? Is it a challenge at all?
Absolutely, yeah. It's probably the biggest challenge that we have. The blowing winds of national security impact our ability to recruit. When you think about what happened three weeks ago in Afghanistan, those conversations on national television probably have a bigger impact on our ability to recruit young people than our facilities and our coaches combined.
When we are in peaceful times on a national, international or global scale, it's a lot easier to sell people on West Point. Because you can really focus on the education, the Ivy League level education, the doors that it will open, the value of the long gray line and how it will set you up for life – and the value of not having to come out of pocket – and it really resonates. But when there is headline news about conflicts anywhere on the globe, I think moms and dads, they picture where they are going to spend their five years of service commitment. And if it looks like that could be Hawaii, learning how to jump out of helicopters and staying at the ready, it's a lot different conversation than if it could mean Afghanistan or China or Russia. So, we are blown by the winds of national policy probably, other than Air Force and Navy, more than anybody on the planet.
But to answer your question at the purest sense, we have a great microcosm. I think we have the most diverse group of any young people in the Army that are recruited athletes. Because it's this great intersection of second and third generation West Pointers, who know exactly what they're getting into. Since the time that they were 11 and we're playing with Army figures, they wanted to be a Green Beret, and they want to go to Ranger School.
Then, we throw in this other group, and they're largely first generation college students, not just first generation West Pointers. And we arrive there because, frankly, we have to find phenomenal young men and women of high character. Oftentimes, they don't have any other offers to attend college – and, without a full scholarship, they probably don't have college as a realistic opportunity. Our coaches work really hard to identify people, and we use our language very carefully – that we look for young men and women of high character with great leadership attributes who are willing to serve their country.
Willing is the key word, because we know not everybody wakes up as an 11-year-old saying, “Hey, I want to be a colonel.” As long as they're willing, we have two years of educating and training them here at West Point. By the end of that second year, they need to want to serve. They don't need to show up here the first day as a plebe wanting to serve. I think we would be disingenuous to assume all these young people are saying, “Yeah, I can't wait to spend five years of my life going wherever the Army tells me at a moment's notice.” But as long as they're willing to do that, and then they allow us to engage them and train them over the next two years.
By the end of the two years, our track record is phenomenally successful. By the end of their second year, they not only are willing to serve, they want to serve. And most of our former core squad athletes, as we call them, end up serving more than the minimum of five years at a greater rate than general West Pointers end up serving. It's a great opportunity to change and impact these young people's lives for the better.
Well, Mike, we have a half a dozen guys from West Point that work at my company – we have 205 employees. I can tell you, they are the salt of the earth. The leadership qualities are off the chart and we're proud to have them.
It's understandable in times of conflict where mom and dad come into play about whether they want their son or daughter to go. But fortunately, you got a good group there.
Trying to wrap up here, other than this Saturday's game, what are you most excited about? What's the future hold for West Point?
Well, we're continuing to try to move the needle, right? Winning matters in the Army. Our Chief of Staff of the Army had a great quote during the early stages of COVID that says, “You can't telecommute to combat”, right? You have to be there, boots on the ground, training, being ready at a moment's notice. I love just the ethos, the warrior ethos that the West Point has.
We're not afraid to say that winning matters. Now, we're not going to win every football game and every baseball game and every basketball game and every hockey game. But we believe that training to win is as important as winning. So, learning how to prepare to be the best, most prepared athlete spills over into their classroom work. Because you should try to be the most prepared, ready and educated person before you take an exam…and then you should understand every aspect of all of your military pursuits.
It's this great three-headed triangle where you got your athletes, it's not just the varsity athletes that I supervise, but everybody at West Point, all 4,400 cadets participate in athletics, right? We want them to all be competitive, we want them to all be athletic, so they are in company athletics, or competitive club, or NCAA level athletes. We try to teach life lessons through physical combat, competition and success -and we train to win. Then that pairs perfectly with the military training that our Commandant supervises and teaches them to be prepared to fulfill whatever branch that they select. That's a perfect complement to the Dean and the great work that he does to educate these young people.
In theory, the better students they are, the better athlete and soldier you'll be. The better soldier you are, the smarter student, and the better athlete you'll be. The best athlete is going to make you a better soldier and a better student. We work together to pull all in the same direction to give these kids and, frankly, our country, the best chance to face success generations to come.
I want to cover my bases here. Full disclosure, we also have, in addition to our half dozen West Point grads, we have a handful of Naval Academy grads, too. They're excellent as well, equally excellent, frankly. But what I can tell you, the week of the Army-Navy game, there's a lot of trash talking going on in my office. It's a lot of fun to see these guys interact.
Listen, you're part of two of the biggest rivals in sports. The Yankees and Red Sox and Army-Navy. I think you explained to me at one point the difference is, at the end of the Army-Navy game, these competitors end up hugging one another, which brings a tear to your eye.
Let me just close with one thing on a lighter note, Mike. Derek Jeter went into the Baseball Hall of Fame about a month ago and you had the time to play with him. As an outsider looking in, we talked today about culture and high character and leadership. His nickname, I believe, was “The Captain.” He seems to emulate all of that…and I don't need to understand all of what goes on behind closed doors. But tell us about what he's like, what it was like playing with him and what he meant as a leader of a great Yankees team for many years.
Yeah, Derek was known as the captain. We were both drafted the same year in 1992. He was the first player taken, I was the second pick of the Yankees that year. One scout got promoted, one scout got fired. I won't go into specifics of which was which. But he wasn't the captain at that point, right? He was the skinny kid from Kalamazoo.
What I learned to appreciate and admire over the years was, Derek had plenty of struggles, but his quiet leadership. By then, as a pitcher who probably gave up 30 more runs in 1993 than I should have because my shortstop made a lot of errors. You couldn't be mad at him, because you can't be upset with somebody who's the first person to the stadium every day and the last person to leave every day – and, by the way, had the biggest bank account, the nicest car and probably was the most homesick.
You quickly learned that he's going to do everything he can…and when one of your leaders is putting that kind of effort and energy into things, you'll learn it at an early time. Then of course, he ascended into the Derek Jeter that became known as “The Captain” and that everybody loves.
I like to always talk about the fact that for 20 years, Derek Jeter lived in Manhattan – and this is at the time of steroid use, that he never participated in, the underground club scene and probably the height of paparazzi, right? This is when there were camera people at every Yankee game, at every corner of New York City on every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, trying to get pictures of celebrities stumbling out of clubs drunk or getting into a car with certain people. For 20 years, those people were never able to get a photograph of Derek Jeter doing that. It wasn't because they didn't try – and there were thousands of them. I remember going to random restaurants as a nobody and having six or seven people recognize me and asked me to sign things. The fact that Derek was able to navigate Manhattan, as the captain of the New York Yankees.
You know, as David Cohen once said, “Act as if a documentary film crew was following him around at all times.” He always made good decisions, continues to make good decisions. He was raised by two phenomenal people…and I think the reason he is who he is.
You love him or hate him – and people that hated him is because he wasn't on their team more often than not. He just continued to make good decisions and minimize putting himself in a position to embarrass the New York Yankees, his family or himself. I always respected him for that.
Mike, that's a great way to wrap up. This was a fascinating discussion with a lot of great insights. Thank you so much for joining me today.
And as always, thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you want to keep track of all things related to Army West Point Athletics, please visit GoArmyWestPoint.com.
Until next time, I'm Mike Mitchell, and this is Risk Playbook.