Rhoades focuses on building champions for life
In just five years as director for Houston’s athletic department, Mack Rhoades’ success has started to roll in, but it began with putting the student before the athlete.
In 2009, Rhoades took over the helm as Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics; since then, the Cougars have been on a gradual, steady course back to national prominence.
Respect isn’t given but earned, and the Cougars’ recent accolades in and out of the classroom have demanded just that, as student athletes have continued to set GPA records.
“We want our sports programs to become nationally relevant; however, as important as that is, it’s even more important that we continue to do well in the classroom and translate that into graduation rates,” Rhoades said.
UH had 10 of 16 athletics programs reach their respective postseasons, including all six of its spring sports. This year, there will be 17 programs competing from UH, with women’s golf able to compete as a team.
Of all the accomplishments of Houston sports last year, one of Rhoades’ favorites was watching the baseball team upset LSU.
“Losing the first game and coming back and beating them twice in front of their home crowd. That was special,” Rhoades said. “That was adversity at its best that our student athletes were able to overcome.”
He also admires the turnaround Jonathan Dismuke was able to achieve with the men’s golf program, finishing No. 10 in the country. When Dismuke took over that program, they were ranked No. 175 in the country.
Rhoades is proud of the student athletes and coaches, but now realizes they have to focus on not remaining stagnant and constantly improving. Rhoades said if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.
He emphasized four key short and long-term goals of the athletic department: academics, competitiveness, facilities and fan support.
Rhoades said he believes that motivation comes from confidence the student athletes gain from succeeding in the classroom.
When members of other athletics programs witness each other succeed, a contagious hunger to win is sparked.
“By nature athletics is competitive,” Rhoades said. “Our head coaches that see other head coaches build successful programs and see them take a program that hadn’t been in postseason play for a long time, and all of a sudden they build that program to playing in the postseason. I think that motivates other coaches as well, and it certainly motivates other student athletes.”
The recognition from being televised on ESPN and being successful simultaneously in a variety of sports has helped remold the brand of UH Athletics. The department strives to continue progressing so that all 17 sports reach their postseasons.
UH wants to win conference championships and go to postseason play, and then several of the sports programs need to be nationally relevant, Rhoades said. Some sports that Houston wants to immediately become nationally relevant include football, men’s basketball, baseball, softball and golf.
“We want to make sure that every one of our student athletes has a great experience… we’ve got 400 student athletes and we want them all to have a great experience,” Rhoades said.
Another of Rhoades’ key points toward progression is building new first-class facilities. Winning doesn’t come from just having extravagant new facilities, Rhoades said, but it certainly serves as motivation.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to have good facilities to compete, but you don’t win with just good facilities,” Rhoades said. “If you have good facilities and that’s all you have, then you’re not going to win.”
“We need to continue to upgrade our facilities. People ask why. ‘We won 20 years ago and we didn’t have those facilities.’ 20 years ago, nobody (else) did either but the reality is (now) everybody else does have them.”
UH is focused on renovation and development, and its haymaker comes with its partnership with TDECU on a naming rights deal for the football team’s new stadium.
“They’re interested not only in helping athletics, but it was way beyond that,” Rhoades said. “They’re interested in helping our students in terms of financial management, our campus, our faculty, our staff.”
Rhoades is excited to partner with them, mainly because he says he believes they’re the perfect match. He said they’re a great organization that truly is committed to helping UH grow, and UH hopes to help TDECU in terms of brand recognition throughout Texas.
TDECU made a great commitment to the University beyond the stadium, Rhoades said, and as the partnership unfolds, he believes students will begin to understand why the credit union was chosen.
Some fans are skeptical because they just want to see the Cougars win, but a majority of fans are excited for this ambiance of a fresh start the new stadium grants the program.
“Playing in the stadium… I’m most happy for our student athletes, our coaching staff and our fans,” Rhoades said. “We’ve had so many fans come up to us and say ‘they never thought this day would happen’ or ‘we’ve been waiting for a long time,’ and just to hear the satisfaction in their voices is special.”
The most important factor needed is for fans to come out and support. UH has been able to grow their season ticket fan base.
Rhoades envisions broadening the tailgate fan base to surround the entirety of Houston’s campus. There will be a designated tailgate area for students and different donors.
“If you go onto a campus at another institution, you tend to see tailgating throughout the campus, and initially our tailgating has been focused right around the stadium,” Rhoades said. “We want to be able to expand and go beyond because there’s some beautiful green space on the other side of Cullen.”
Cullen Boulevard will be closed down during game day, so fans can find some great spaces throughout to tailgate.
Rhoades can be spotted running in the mornings on this very road; when his busy schedule starts to clog up his thoughts, his method of clearing his mind comes from jogging around campus.
“I do like to run because it helps me think about the same things, but think about them in a different way,” Rhoades said. “It’s a good release for me. Sometimes you just get bogged down and you have a problem that you just continue to look at and there’s not a solution. All of a sudden, I go for a jog and I’m like, ‘all right.’”
Rhoades’ positive impact has been felt since he took over for former American Olympian Dave Maggard, but he knows that the Houston Athletic program isn’t where it wants to be yet.
While building this program, Rhoades said he expects integrity, passion, selflessness and an insatiable appetite to always get better from the coaches and players.
“Part of that is being a role model for our young people, and great passion… for this university,” Rhoades said. “I think that if you don’t have those two things, you can’t work here in this athletic department.”
Everything the athletic department does, they want it done the right way, and it all begins with finding exceptional people.
“First and foremost, the thing that you need above and beyond everything is good people,” Rhoades said. “That’s probably what I’m most proud of … we’ve got good people, our head coaches, our staff and our student athletes. Not saying we’re perfect, but we have good people.”