In a wide-ranging interview, Amanda Braun discussed Rob Jeter’s controversial firing, her status as athletic director, LaVall Jordan’s arrival, and more.
UW-Milwaukee athletic director Amanda Braun faced intense scrutiny and criticism with the swift decision to fire Panthers men’s basketball coach Rob Jeter on March 17. Jeter, who compiled a 185-170 record over 11 seasons, was highly regarded by players and fans. During Jeter’s tenure, UWM has had six permanent or interim athletic directors.
Braun, a Brodhead, Wis., native, was tabbed as athletic director at UW-Milwaukee in May 2013, following a seven-year tenure as executive senior associate director of athletics at Northeastern University in Boston.
The Panthers, who had a collective GPA of 3.104 for the 2015 fall term, cobbled together a 20-13 record during the 2015-16 season and beat the University of Wisconsin on its home court for only the second time in UWM program history. Braun decided the Panthers would not participate in post-season play, which made it a two-year post-season absence, after UWM’s ban in 2014-15 due to substandard academic achievements.
UWM officials, Braun included, introduced new coach LaVall Jordan, a long-time Michigan assistant coach and former Butler player, on April 8.
In a wide-ranging, 30-minute interview, Braun discussed Jeter’s firing, her status as athletic director, Jordan’s arrival on campus, and much more.
Milwaukee Magazine: What characteristics did LaVall Jordan have that stood out to you?
Amanda Braun: He’s obviously a proven winner and familiar with our league, having been in our league as a player and a coach at the highest level. He has Midwest ties, and all those things factored in. His personality was very…you could see him in a variety of settings. Someone who would be very comfortable – a great recruiter and good with people. That was a real asset as well.
How many candidates did you interview for the head coach job?
I think we’re going to keep that to ourselves. I think that was something we decided not to share. The search firm wants to keep some of that quiet.
Was it a quick hiring process? How many conversations did you have before realizing Jordan was at the top of your list?
The process all together was probably about two-and-a-half weeks from start to finish, once we got started – not just with (Jordan), but the process in general. (We had) a lot of phone conversations about a lot of candidates with many people, and we did lots of research and review of information. Very, very thorough.
Did Jordan have a chance to meet with players before his Friday introductory press conference?
Yes, he met with a number of players Thursday night and did some individual meetings and that sort of thing. He’s getting started on that really quickly.
How did your time go in Houston, during NCAA Tournament Final Four festivities, interviewing candidates?
We talked to some really impressive people. The (hiring) process was like something I never experienced. It’s really hard to describe, this process – hiring a head coach in a high-profile sport. We wanted to get things done as quickly as we could, for our student-athletes and the program, to get started and moving forward.
You mentioned there were some challenges with hiring someone for a high-profile job. Could you tell me a few of those challenges, something you didn’t expect?
I’ve been involved in hiring two head men’s basketball coaches at previous institutions and a head men’s ice hockey coach – that was pretty high profile. But I was not the AD, I was No. 2. It’s very busy work and lots of information to go through. That part was no surprise. But the piece of it where somehow people end up with your cell phone number and the phone calls and texts and the email barrage and people wanting to advocate for others was new. Being a Wisconsin kid, you want to be thoughtful and courteous and respond, but that’s been hard to do. That was like nothing I experienced, just the traffic and information coming in (my) direction.
Is there a model program that you look in men’s college basketball that UWM can realistically match?
We talk a lot about aspirational peers in our business. They are the ones you see do it and do it right and do it without the revenue of a football program. You look at what Butler did, what VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) has done. George Mason had some success there. Certainly, Gonzaga and Wichita State, those are obvious choices. You look at how they’ve committed as a university to the belief for what athletics – and in particular, men’s basketball – can do for the institution.
Have you ever faced a similar period of adversity in your career? Or is this new territory?
Yes, this has been one of the more intense situations I’ve worked with, certainly. In my previous institutions, any time the situation impacts student-athletes in a way that they don’t understand right away or get emotional about, that creates a lot of angst.
At Northeastern, we dropped the sport of football. I was part of that decision. That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with because of the impact on the lives of the people in that program. There have been some things that have been really tough, but what you do is: you lead with your values and you make decisions you think are the right interests for the institution and your department, and move forward. That’s the way leadership works. If (leadership) were easy, everyone would do it.
Five years from now, what do you think boosters and fans will say about this chapter in Panthers athletic history? Do you look at it as a turning point, of sorts?
Yes, I think so. I hope so. Obviously, that’s why I made the decision that I did. We had a period here of 10 or 11 years, we did some good things, some good people come through the door. Some challenges. And it felt like we hit a bit of a lull. We saw dramatic decreases in our season-ticket base. From five years ago to today was close to a 60 percent decrease. And now, over the last year, a 20 percent decrease. So, when you sense some of those things, that’s when you know you need to try something new and different, hit refresh and make some decisions that might not be popular with everyone. This is a point in time for us to see if we can go to the next level and do some things that will energize our fan base and people who care about this program and university.
How do you define success for the men’s basketball program? What are benchmarks that you expect the team to reach season after season?
Generally speaking, we find our program at the top of the league; we should be in the mix. Financially, we support the program very well in our league. Our expectation to be in the top three in the league on an annual basis, barring mitigating circumstances that sometimes occur with programs, competing for the (Horizon League) championship on a regular basis, getting to the championship game and winning it. And then advancing to post-season, the NCAA, the NIT and invitation type of tournaments. That is what you aspire to, and that is realistic for us.
When did you decide that Rob Jeter shouldn’t be the coach at UWM?
It’s not one game or one month or one season. It’s: step back and evaluate where we’ve been, how we’ve progressed, what we see as the potential for our program, and whether or not we’re in a position to do that with our current staff. With one year remaining on his contract, it was a decision of time. It’s not good to leave a coach with one year on their contract. That’s pretty standard in our business. At that point we make a decision: Do we believe in extending that (contract)? Have the metrics been met? Or, is the time now to make a different decision?
You faced criticism not only in firing Coach Jeter, but also with how that decision was delivered. For instance, announcing Jeter’s departure to the team in a text message. Do you regret delivering news in that way?
Yes. That’s one part of the process we could have done better. It really was. Unfortunately, being on Spring Break and the decision needing to be made and announced in a certain time frame, that’s the way it went.
I wanted (the team) to hear it directly from me. With social media now, if you try to make 16 or 17 phone calls, that takes quite a bit of time. That’s why I sent them a note: “Please check your email.” I was very strategic about it. I will text them and let them know to check their email, and hopefully, they would do that. In the email, I let them know the decision, and how important they are to us. We would meet as soon as they got back and we would talk. They had my cell phone and I said, “If you want to talk, please give me a call.” It was thoughtful in that way – as much as you could be, given the circumstance. (With) these kinds of decisions, the people who have the least amount of control over the outcome and the decision is students. That is never a good situation to be in, and you always wish you could do it better. Sometimes there’s not a whole lot you could have done, but that’s the part that certainly keeps you up at night.
How important is it for an athletic director to have relationship with players when bringing on a coach who will impact their lives?
I let players know and talked to them, asked what they were looking for in a new staff. The relationship of an AD and a student-athlete is hard. Being an athletic director, especially in Division I, the No. 1 challenge is managing people’s expectations for every constituency you serve – your students, your coaches, your staff, your campus, your community, the athletic board. Student contact is actually one of the things I miss most. You spend a lot more times in meetings and in the community. That’s all wonderful and what I need to do, but it’s hard. I manufacture ways to be around students – go to practice and games, travel with the team when I can. I did that quite a bit with men’s basketball last year and I’m going to do it again this year. That’s fun for me, and a little bit selfish, but I hope it opens some doors with getting to know me a little bit better.
Were you surprised at how social media, or the media in general, reacted to Jeter’s firing?
I don’t read any of the boards, and I’m not on social media a lot. I’m trying to get better at that. After 11 years with a basketball staff being in a community, in makes sense that there’s a lot of emotion. There are people who build friendships and relationships, so yes, that reaction is natural to some extent. We explained why we made the decision. We believe we can do better than middle of the pack in our league. That just hasn’t been the case. I kind of wonder, are people OK with that? That’s a little bit bothersome for me. Are people OK with this, and that’s why they’re upset? I don’t know. I’m not sure. It’s not a huge surprise, given the circumstances. It make sense.
With social media, we haven’t made a coaching change in 11 or 12 years, so this didn’t exist. Everyone’s got a voice and everyone wants to use it, and that’s OK. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, so you just go about your business, leading with values and the best interests of the university and our student-athletes in mind.
Are you concerned about losing your job? It seems tenuous at times, considering what’s occurred in the past.
Sure. You make hard decisions and people want to bring that up. That’s fair and they can do that. I certainly think the move we made (firing Jeter) makes sense, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it, because I think we can do better than what we’ve done. If other people don’t agree with me, that’s OK. But I don’t lead from fear; I lead from values of conviction, not with values of convenience. I’ll continue to do that, and I’ll always be proud of the work I’ve done as long as I’m doing it that way.