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From There to Here: Oliver Luck

New in town

Oliver Luck is already a well-known name a few weeks into his new job at the NCAA national office. Of course, such recognition isn’t hampered by the fact that the beloved professional quarterback in his new hometown calls him “Dad.” But even in Indianapolis Colts country, the elder Luck’s career garners attention of its own.  

His resume reads like a sports fan’s dream: college quarterback, NFL player, president of NFL Europe, president of a Major League Soccer team, athletics director at his alma mater. And now, Luck has taken on a newly formed position as the NCAA’s executive vice president of regulatory affairs – a job that puts him at the forefront of the biggest issues in college sports.

With a few other professional stops composing his path, Luck has learned – and often tells young adults – that planning a career is difficult. Sometimes valuable skills are gained in unexpected places. “You need to take chances occasionally,” he said. 

A fast start

A Midwestern boy from the beginning, Luck grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He went on to play football at West Virginia University, graduating in 1982, then played five seasons in the NFL for the Houston Oilers. Realizing his professional football career, like most, would not last long, Luck attended law school in the off-seasons and received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. Luck moved to Washington, D.C., upon leaving the league, took a job with a law firm and got married to fellow lawyer Kathy Wilson.

Europe-bound

At the start of the 1990s, the NFL was launching a branch in Europe and needed help getting it off the ground. Luck viewed it as a chance to re-engage with sports and also tap into his family’s roots – Luck’s mother was German, and he spoke the language – and his wife attended school in Europe as a kid. “I never thought that speaking German would be a real asset on my resume,” Luck said. “But all those special characteristics certain people have – whether it’s language skills or computer skills or writing skills – those can really come in handy when you’re trying to build a career.”

For the next 10 years – seven in Frankfurt, Germany, and three in London – Luck launched and ran football franchises. “I like to say I was doing missionary work: trying to convince the Europeans of the enjoyment and the value of American football,” he said with a smile. It required a new kind of marketing and branding expertise. “I probably learned more in those 10 years about the sports industry than all of my other positions combined.”

As Luck built those franchises, he also helped build a family. By the time he and Kathy returned to the United States, they had two girls and two boys in tow. The time was ripe for a career move just as the state of Texas re-entered the picture.

A change in role

Houston’s sports and entertainment infrastructure needed revamping, and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority was searching for someone to lead the effort. With his Houston experience, law degree and athletics background, Luck was an obvious fit. He became the agency’s CEO in 2001 and worked with city and county leaders and state legislators to give the growing city Minute Maid Park (home of the Houston Astros), NRG Stadium (where the Houston Texans play) and the Toyota Center (the Houston Rockets’ arena).

One sport Houston didn’t have at the time: professional soccer. Luck was among those who spoke to city leaders about filling the void, a conversation that continued with the ownership group of a Major League Soccer franchise based in San Jose, California. When the franchise agreed to move to Texas, becoming the Houston Dynamo, the owners asked Luck to serve as president.  He continued in the role for five years, during which he orchestrated the creation of a downtown, 22,000-seat soccer venue, BBVA Compass Stadium. 

“Sometimes people would say, ‘How can you run a soccer team? You’re a football guy,’” Luck recalled. “Well, when you sell tickets and sell sponsorships and get stadiums built, it’s sort of irrespective of a particular sport. I think it’s important to have an open mind as you go into things. I certainly try to do that in my career.”

Back to school

In 2008, Luck agreed to serve on the West Virginia University board of governors as a way to give back to his alma mater. Just two years later, Luck felt compelled to make an even more time-consuming commitment to the university. The college sports world was watching the realignment of athletics conferences with a close eye. West Virginia was in a conference that, in football, was being pulled apart by those pressures. “There was a lot of concern that West Virginia would wake up one morning and find itself on the outside looking in,” Luck said. “I think conference affiliation is hugely important to the platform any school has, and certainly that was the case with West Virginia.” 

So when the university president inquired about the program’s opening for an athletics director, Luck took it. Among his biggest moves as an AD: guiding the Mountaineers into the Big 12 Conference in 2012.

Three years later, Luck is again at the helm of an evolving athletics landscape. He recently shared his thoughts on his new role:

How will your experience as an athletics director influence your actions at the national office?

Luck: I had never worked in college athletics prior to taking the job at West Virginia. And I think the benefit that I have is knowing how decisions are made with the support of members and knowing how they’re implemented on the ground at the university and college level. Sometimes there can be a detachment from policy makers and the actual execution of the policy. I think that’s something I can certainly bring to the table.

Do you agree with the critics who say the NCAA manual is simply too large?

Luck: All the rules are important, and they’re all made for a good reason. But I also think at certain times you need to revisit rules in different contexts and different circumstances to see if they’re still viable, still valid. That’s an important thing to do. I think at the institutional level, we’re allowing the rulebook to determine a lot of our policy and our behavior. As a result, we have not seen enough of what I would call “qualitative decisions” being made on campus. Every school is different – every school has its different traditions, different budgets, different constituencies that may view intercollegiate athletics a bit differently. I believe we need to push as many decisions as we can to the campus level and allow athletics directors and presidents and faculty athletic reps to make those qualitative decisions, because it may be a little bit different on campus A than it is on campus B.

Enforcement of NCAA rules is one of the areas you now oversee. Do you have any plans to help clarify for member schools the NCAA’s regulatory functions?

Luck: I’m looking forward to communicating with our colleges and universities and the public about the value of our regulatory bodies. Sometimes folks don’t see the bigger picture. I think the work that our groups do, whether it’s the Eligibility Center or enforcement or academic and membership affairs, is incredibly important for intercollegiate athletics. We’ve got great people in all of our groups, and they’ve become increasingly active over the last couple of years in getting out and speaking to folks on campus and at the various conferences. We want to continue to be transparent, to work relatively expeditiously – particularly in the enforcement side – and to be as fair as we possibly can. Also, at the end of the day, we’re a membership-driven institution, and we need to make sure we really listen to our member schools and conferences.

What’s the biggest piece of business you plan on tackling?

Luck: I’ll probably end up spending the majority of my time with academic and membership affairs staff, largely because of all the legislative changes that will be introduced, and working with the membership to make sure we have the regulatory framework in place in what will really be a changed industry. We’re crafting what really is a new amateur model for the 21st century. 

Not only are you a former student-athlete, but also you are the father of former student-athletes. How have their experiences shaped your perspective?

Luck: It was very interesting for me, a student-athlete in the late 70s and early 80s, to watch my two older kids go through life as student-athletes at Stanford University – one as a football player and the other as a volleyball player. A lot of my beliefs about the values that exist in higher education and intercollegiate athletics were affirmed by their experiences. Is it hard? Absolutely. Do they have time constraints? Absolutely. Do they learn important life lessons playing sports? Absolutely. Did they have fun? You bet. Their experiences really reaffirmed that all those traditional values that we associate with intercollegiate athletics are still alive and well.

What do you think college sports will look like in 10-20 years?

Luck: I think college athletics will be even healthier 20 years from now than it is today. I think the American public loves college athletics for all the right reasons, including the access young men and women get to higher education through athletics. I think the quality of our competition is extraordinary. I think the investment that has been made in facilities and nutrition and student-athlete health and welfare has paid off and will pay off in spades going forward. I think the enterprise may look a bit different, but at the end of the day, 15, 20 years down the road, I think intercollegiate athletics will be as strong if not stronger than it is today. And it will continue to hold a very special position within our society.

 

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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