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Saunders: Chris King Worthy Successor to Susan Hofacre’s Vision at RMU

Saunders: Chris King Worthy Successor to Susan Hofacre’s Vision at RMU

MOON TWP. — New Robert Morris athletic director Chris King gets emotional when he talks about Susan Hofacre.

A longtime member of the Robert Morris athletic department, Dr. Susan Hofacre’s tenure as the school’s sixth athletic director was brief but impactful.

Hofacre, who was also a member of the faculty at Robert Morris in the sport management program, started working for Robert Morris in 1989, was promoted to athletic director in 2000 and made an enormous mark on the program before she died of ovarian cancer in 2005 at age 54.

In that time period, she oversaw a massive and ambitious expansion of the Robert Morris athletic department, purchasing what has become the RMU Island Sports Center on Neville Island, building Joe Walton Stadium on campus for the football team, and adding men’s and women’s ice hockey, lacrosse and golf, women’s field hockey and rowing.

It was a huge undertaking for the university to differentiate itself by competing in sports that the other major universities in the area do not and to recruit student-athletes from beyond Western Pennsylvania in an effort to raise the national profile of the school.

Since Hofacre’s death, most of those big dreams have not been realized. After the 2013-14 academic year, seven programs were cut, including men’s indoor and outdoor track and cross country, women’s golf and field hockey and men’s and women’s tennis.

What’s left of the RMU athletic department still has Hofacre’s fingerprints on it, and one can look no further than the men’s lacrosse team, which just earned its second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid with a roster full of players from across North America.

While there were highlights of the tenure of Dr. Craig Coleman, who stepped down this spring after 13 years on the job, the big-picture dreams of Hofacre have mostly failed to be realized.

Robert Morris remains in the bottom-of-the-barrel Northeast Conference, its hockey programs have been stymied by their off-campus location and the now-20-year-old facility they share is in need of upgrade and/or overhaul.

The brand-new UPMC Events Center — the site of King’s unveiling as the school’s eighth athletic director on Tuesday — is one of the highlights of Coleman’s tenure. The on-campus facility for the school’s marquee program appears to be the top of the class in the league and beyond and not only that, was paid for solely with outside money.

But the 4,000-seat venue won’t do the university any good if it sits as empty as it was on Tuesday.

Andy Toole’s men’s basketball squad has continued the mostly strong play that elevated the program in the first part of this decade. The Colonials made the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2010, beat Kentucky and St. John’s in the NIT in 2013 and 2014, and went back to the Big Dance in 2015, winning a tournament game for the second time in program history. 

But two years away from Sewall Center, which was demolished before construction began on the same site for UPMC Events Center, hasn’t helped the Colonials at the gate much. They averaged 765 fans per home game in 2017-18, playing at PPG Paints Arena and Duquesne’s A.J. Palumbo Center. 

When construction delays forced the entire 2018-19 season to be played at the North Athletic Complex on campus, the Colonials sold a capacity 1,016 for every regular-season game, but that’s a far cry from filling a building four times that size with regularity.

And filling it is going to be essential. While the price tag for the building was picked up by outside donors, the potential to fill its red-and-blue seats represents the athletic department’s best hope for moving forward with big dreams.

So far, athletics have been largely spared from large-scale cuts by the rest of the university that were announced in January to fill a four-percent budget shortfall that amounted to $4 or $5 million.

So that’s the job that King will inherit when he starts on the first of June: he’ll need to keep the seats at UPMC Events Center full, find a way to lift up a struggling football program coming off three straight 2-9 seasons, get the hockey teams the facility they need to continue to be competitive and find a way to market the successful-but-faceless volleyball and lacrosse programs, all while facing a serious financial crunch that is likely going to make investment from the university a non-starter.

The athletic department is going to have to do it on its own, and if Robert Morris is going to continue to thrive at the Division I level, it’s going to take the same kind of bold, big-picture thinking that Hofacre brought to the table years ago.

The good news is that King knows all that type of thinking. As an undergraduate in the school’s sport management program, Hofacre was a mentor to King and started him on the path that led him to be associate athletic director at Central Florida and Alabama and athletic director at Texas-Rio Grande Valley before returning home to his alma mater.

“Dr. Hofacre meant an awful lot to me,” King said. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She pushed me. … We talked regularly as I was going through my first position at Liberty University and then Central Florida. She meant an awful lot to my development and my leadership development.”

King doesn’t want to be another athletic director announcing program cuts, but instead one that will oversee a program of “comprehensive excellence,” as he did at UTRGV, which is second in the WAC Commissioner’s Cup standings.

“That’s part of the audacious planning,” King said. “There’s ways to invest in your sports and not just your main sport and still provide those resources that are necessary. Men’s basketball is going to give you the most notoriety on the national stage, but again, when you recruit those (other) student athletes, if they don’t have a world-class experience, then I’ve failed them. … Dr. Hofacre believed in that. It’s something I took with me my entire career.”

The job ahead will not be an easy one, but in tapping one of her former proteges, Robert Morris has finally found a deserving successor to Hofacre’s legacy as a leader with a big-picture vision for RMU athletics.

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