JOE ALLEVA IS remarkably unremarkable. He's uniquely not unique. He's abnormally normal. And he's exceptionally unexceptional. Now, don't take any of that the wrong way. It's just that he values virtues like hard work, loyalty and kindness. Who doesn't? He speaks in sports clichés so often that it seems that he may be a living, breathing cliché himself. He is extremely rational and eternally optimistic. He lights up when he talks about his family, about gathering around a dinner table for a big holiday meal.
He's got pictures of his three kids, his wife and his parents taped up on the wall next to his computer. The rest of his office is reminiscent of the University Store with all the Duke paraphernalia hanging on his walls. By just looking around this corner space in Cameron Indoor Stadium, you'll easily notice that there are two definite themes going on in this office-Duke and family. Would you expect anything else from the Athletic Director?
Joe Alleva is a real Duke guy. Sure, he grew up in a suburb of New York, did his undergrad and got his M.B.A. at Lehigh, but at this point, he's spent more than half of his life in Durham-30 years reporting to the same campus day in and day out. He's made his best friends here, raised his children here, watched them play baseball and soccer on these fields. And so it's really quite clear that Joe Alleva is a big Duke guy; his family, a bona fide group of Blue Devils.
It's no surprise, then, that he's got a real soft spot for this university and for the people that live, work and play here.
Rodney Andrews, coordinator of project and building maintenance, approached Alleva not too long ago with a request. One of his contractors has a young daughter who was diagnosed with a serious condition and had spent six months in the hospital. They were coordinating a fundraiser for the family and needed valuable items to auction off, and since there's no better ticket in town than one to the Duke-UNC men's basketball game in Cameron, Andrews thought he'd ask Alleva for some help. The A.D. didn't think twice about donating the tickets.
"He always does stuff like that," says Libby Price, his former assistant. "If a situation tugs at the heart strings, he really responds."
Back in 1997, when Tom Butters suffered a heart attack and subsequently announced his retirement as Athletic Director, Alleva was overseeing the department's day-to-day operations while the university launched a national search for a new A.D. The seven-month-long process was a stressful time for the inside guy in the race, and even though he was confident he had the support of virtually the entire department, this Duke guy wasn't Duke's first choice.
"Given that Joe had been the inside money and facilities guy, [there was concern about his ability to] step up to the next level," says Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, who chaired the A.D. search committee.
The committee eventually nominated Bob Bowlsby, then-A.D. at Iowa and current director of Stanford athletics. Bowlsby declined Duke's offer, and on February 25th, 1998, Alleva happily accepted the job. When prompted about Bowlsby's decision and his subsequent hire, Alleva would often say, "I know, but my wife wasn't the first woman I ever dated either." It's that light-hearted friendliness and understated confidence that captures the respect of his colleagues. It's also what makes him so effective as a fundraiser.
"Face-to-face, one-on-one, what comes across is a real sincerity," says Chris Kennedy, senior associate athletic director. Alleva's most lasting and concrete mark thus far has been his ability to raise money. And that money has gone to fund the constructions of the Schwartz-Butters Building, the Yoh Football Center, the Sheffield Tennis Center and the project at Koskinen Stadium-just to name a few. And Alleva was the driving force behind the building boom.
"We had to do things about our facilities," he says. "Whether we like it or not, 17-year-old kids are impressed by nice facilities." A businessman, first and foremost, he gets the money stuff, and it's obvious why he's so effective at bringing in the cash.
He practically exudes a genuine loyalty to and love for Duke, which immediately puts him and Iron Dukes on the same page. He can easily sit and talk about the department for hours, about how it takes time to build a winning football program, about how new buildings, facilities and equipment will attract better recruits, and about how better coaches will get them to come here. He can talk about the Duke Athletic Experience, the joys of being a student-athlete here, all of the great opportunities this place offers these kids. And with the backing of college basketball's most famous coach, it's no wonder that he was able to raise enough money to pump life back into some programs.
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"It all comes down to dollars," he says, and suddenly, the moneyman is all business. "It takes money to offer scholarships, and you can't get the recruits without the scholarships or the facilities."
To anyone with a few million dollars stashed away, Alleva makes a great pitch for forking some of that cash over to Duke Athletics: Give somebody a chance to be a part of our family, Duke's family.
And there it is again. Duke Athletics. Family.
"He is a great family person," says Kennedy. "And that quality in a person indicates a lot about how they treat everybody they come in contact with-coaches, students, everybody."
As Athletic Director, Alleva has hired more than a dozen head coaches-Jamie Ashworth, Beth Bozman, Robbie Church, Dan Colella, John Danowski, Carl Franks, Bill Hillier, Kevin Jermyn, Robyn Horner, Sean McNally, Jolene Nagel, Norm Ogilvie and Ted Roof.
More than half of these coaches had a strong Duke connection when they were hired-they are alums or former assistant coaches-and with the exception of a few, the inside hires head Duke's weakest teams.
Alleva hired Carl Franks because he is an alum and was on winning teams here as a player and coach. Former football coach Steve Spurrier, who worked with Franks, then recommended him to Alleva, saying Carl was one of his best recruiters. And Alleva, who believes firmly in the importance of recruiting, thought that would be enough. Franks amassed an unimpressive 7-45 record in five years and was dismissed in December 2003.
Critics blamed Alleva for the state of the program, and perhaps rightly so, as Alleva hired Franks on his own accord. Many believed he merely settled for Franks, even though there were other candidates-maybe more qualified candidates-vying for the job. So, when he had to hire Franks' replacement, Alleva made sure he did so on a search committee's recommendation.
"The committee was unanimous in picking Ted Roof," Alleva says. "He is a great recruiter. You can't turn a football program around in a season. It takes time."
But with about three seasons (albeit two recruiting classes) under his belt, Roof has not made much headway in terms of winning. This year's squad stinks of losing, most notably to Division I-AA Richmond at the beginning of the season.
Former baseball coach Bill Hillier joined the Duke family back in 1987 as an assistant pitching coach. He took a head coaching job at nearby UNC-Asheville in '94 and returned when Alleva hired him as head coach in 1999. Hillier's philosophy aligned well with Alleva's: Recruiting is key. Hillier brought in a couple of high-ranking recruiting classes, but injuries and transfers depleted the team.
Last year, allegations of Hillier's mistreating his team and of indirectly encouraging his players to take steroids emerged. Alleva maintains that there was no proof of coaching misconduct, and that it was understood that Hillier's status as coach depended on winning. When Hillier resigned in 2005, the athletic department looked for a coach that could lead by example. Alleva ultimately chose Sean McNally, another Duke graduate and a minor league manager. His decision immediately came under fire-McNally had no experience coaching college ball or recruiting young players. It was a bit of a departure for Alleva, who stresses day in and day out the importance of recruiting in college athletics. But McNally was a star during his Duke days and is still heralded as one of the best hitters-no, one of the best student-athletes-to go through Duke.
"We want our baseball team to be comprised of 30 Sean McNallys," Trask says. McNally cleaned up the program in his first few months, cutting a host of core players that had started more than 20 games the previous year. While it's still too early to tell if McNally will be able to turn around Duke's struggling baseball program, he had a paltry 15-40 record in his rookie season. That was not much better than Hillier's last (14-49).
Granted, some of Alleva's hires have been huge successes-Bozman has led the field hockey team to four Final Fours in her first four years as head coach. But Bozman had no prior connection to Duke. And neither did Colella, who has reportedly improved the culture of the swimming and diving program in just one season, though the results have yet to show it.
That seems to be the general trend. While some coaches find great success, others-namely those who had previously been a part of the Duke Athletics' family-have not had it go so well, as demonstrated by Franks and Hillier. There are, however, some exceptions: Jermyn, who was hired as an assistant six years ago and promoted in 2003, has led the women's cross country team to national prominence.
But there is no denying that the baseball and football programs in particular have been riddled with controversy, and Alleva's decision-making skills have been questioned by what those programs have-or rather, haven't-done.
These two sports are the two Alleva himself played in college. He quarterbacked his Lehigh football team back in the early '70s and lettered in baseball as well. He says those two sports are the ones he personally enjoys most; so why do they struggle so much at Duke?
"Duke is a unique place," he says. "There are certain standards that Duke requires of both its coaches and students." Some coaches cannot work under the parameters the University demands-namely, the parameters of the admissions office-and that in turn restricts the group of athletes they can recruit, he says. But Alleva points out that Duke's teams have won more than 40 ACC Championships, reached almost 20 final fours and won five NCAA titles under him.
"Success speaks for itself," Trask says. "The record of the department-one team and one event notwithstanding-over the last decade has been outstanding."
That one team and one event, however, made an undeniably huge impact. Last spring, Alleva says, was without a doubt the lowest point of his career. He'd skip lunch and run the track or the WaDuke trail to release stress during the middle of his day. Dealing with the day-to-day operations of an athletic department seemed secondary in the midst of rape allegations involving the men's lacrosse team. The summer months were not much better. Alleva made national news when he and his son crashed the family boat. His son was charged with operating a boat under the influence, but later pled guilty to a lesser charge of operating a boat in a reckless manner. It's an event he clearly does not like to talk about, and the incident could not have made things better for the A.D.
"If you're an athlete, and you're playing in a game, and a bad play happens," he illustrates with a predictable metaphor, "you can't sit around and worry about that bad play. You've got to move on and focus on the next play. That's the way I've always looked at it."
When he talks about last spring, he doesn't mention specifics. He cannot divulge detailed accounts of his experience regarding the ongoing case, but he stresses the importance of learning from the past, about growing from these experiences-as bad as they may be. He admits that in hindsight, he probably would have done some things differently last year but doesn't dwell.
"Duke is a great place. Sometimes things happen that we don't like, but they happen," he says. "And Duke's going to get better and stronger after this event."
The lines of communication between the Office of Student Affairs and the Athletic Department, he says, have opened up, and what was once a trickle of necessary communication has now become a flood of information.
Most notably, Alleva now receives immediate notification from Student Affairs of every student-athlete violation short of parking tickets. Noise violations? He knows. Underage drinking? He knows. Public urination? He wishes he didn't, but he knows that too.
"The first thing I do is make my coach aware of it, and we'll take action on that student-athlete within a day," he says. "But whether it's disciplinary actions or academic actions, we've always felt like our student-athletes are part of the student population. So, the first line of discipline is the University Judicial System."
This philosophy-that student-athletes are students first-has long been a pillar of Duke Athletics. Though the reality of that statement can be debated, Alleva maintains that academics have a strong place in his department-always have and always will. "We have a wonderful relationship with the academic side of Duke, with Trinity Dean Bob Thompson and Kathleen Smith, [faculty athletics representative]," he says. "I feel really good about that."
Alleva knows Duke. He lives and breathes Duke. He knows that this place offers something a lot of other Division-I schools don't-a top-quality education and big-time athletics. "I think those things don't just attract student-athletes," he says. "It attracts students in general to Duke."
Over the last nine years, Alleva has remained loyal to this school-standing by its decisions, criticisms and all. "It's kind of like watching a game. When the game is over, it's easy to criticize what went on in the game," he says.
And he's done what he sought out to do when he came in as Athletic Director-he's helped make Duke competitive in the Director's Cup (It placed fifth and eighth places in the last two years). As simple as that mission, that vision, may seem, that just may be the kind of guy Joe Alleva is.
He sets simple-but not necessarily easy-goals and works daily to achieve them. He's sincere in the things he does, and he stands by his decisions. He's open to criticism and believes that life is designed to be a continual lesson. He admits he's still learning to this day. He loves his family, and he takes pride in being a loyal person-loyal to his friends, loyal to his colleagues, loyal to Duke.