Fiesta Bowl board close to hiring new director, bullish on game's future in expanded CFP

Randal Norton’s first order of business when he became the chairman of the board of the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl in April was to begin the process of hiring an executive director to replace Mike Nealy, who resigned a month earlier after eight years on the job.

His second was to assure the sport’s power brokers that the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t a rudderless ship heading into a season in which the game will host a College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 31 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

The strategy is about to pay off: The Fiesta Bowl expects to name a new executive director in a matter of weeks and is in strong position to remain an integral part of the sport’s postseason when the playoff field expands from four to 12 teams in the coming years.

“I met with conference commissioners from across the country, athletic directors, coaches. I met with the CFP,” Norton said during a recent interview with The Arizona Republic. “I informed them of our position from a bowl standpoint, to solidify our position as a New Year’s Six, to also just reaffirm financially how stable we were, the governance that we have in place, the staff that we have in place, the organizational integrity and that nothing is changing.

“I also wanted them to know that we were going to take some time to identify the right candidates. And from a timetable standpoint, initially, I laid out a September goal, just because that’s really when things start to ramp up, and said, ‘If we need to take longer, we will.’”

The Fiesta Bowl now expects to name an executive director by late October or early November, Norton said, which will relieve fellow longtime board member Jim Hatfield from the interim role.

Norton, a lead client service partner with Deloitte, LLP, and nearly lifelong Phoenix resident, has served on the Fiesta Bowl’s board of directors for 20 years.

He declined to name the candidates being considered for executive director, stressing the importance of confidentiality in the hiring process. But he discussed the board’s approach to filling the vacancy and the organization’s future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: It’s been six months since you became chairman of the board and seven months since Nealy resigned as executive director, a position responsible for managing daily operations and executing the organization’s long-term vision. This year’s game is a national semifinal. The college football season is underway. Playoff expansion is on the horizon. What’s the holdup?

A: “We’re taking our time as to not rush things and make sure we identify the right person, the right fit, the right chemistry, obviously the right capabilities and qualifications, and also, somebody who’s really going to be in-line with serving the community in which we live in.”

Q: What is the board looking for in the next executive director?

A: “What we want is somebody who is going to be managing day-to-day operations, execution against the strategy and the plan, managing contracts, relationships, partnerships, alliances, community, all of those things. And I think what we’re really focused on is leadership, someone that creates followers not only within our staff, our board, our Yellow Jacket committee, which is 130 members, but we have over 2,000 volunteers, as well. We have an ambassador group of 20-plus. We’re a fairly sizeable organization when you look at the concentric circles outside of just staff of 30 or 32 that we have.

“This individual really is going to be helping to establish our vision going forward, while working collectively with the board and the staff and our community, as well as executing against that vision in a really evolving environment. … I think we’re looking at somebody who is very creative, thinks outside the box, but also understands how to execute against the vision, the plan, and also brings in new technologies, new capabilities, new experiences to really keep our fans engaged.”

Q: How many candidates have been considered?

A: “Over the course of the last almost five months, (search firm TurnkeyZRG) identified probably 60-plus interested individuals. We wanted to cast a wide net. Diversity was important to us. We also wanted to look across industries. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a person from within the college football ranks. Or athletics, for that matter. You look at what the Pac-12 did hiring (commissioner) George Kliavkoff, who came from MGM but understands streaming, contracting, marketing, promotions, event management. We wanted to cast a wide net and we did identify people that were from pro sports, from amateur sports, academia, entertainment, media, hospitality, the digital space. A really, really broad selection of potential candidates.”

Q: What challenges have you encountered or do you anticipate with a change in leadership?

A: “I think whenever you have a transition of leadership, it creates challenges. Staff stability and things of that nature are not necessarily at risk but are of huge concern for us, because we want to maintain our staff and the team that we have in place. We felt that even though Mike was stepping aside, we still had a really strong foundation in place to continue to build on and take advantage of the good work that he did over his tenure with the bowl.”

Q: How have Fiesta Bowl operations and preparations continued without a permanent executive director?

A: “Right now the position is being filled by several of us, myself included, and I do have a day job. I’ve been putting in a lot of time, stepping into part of that role, along with Jim Hatfield and other board members. We’ve got coverage. Right now, there’s maybe four or five of us that are taking on pieces and parts to help continue to execute against our plan for this year and make sure that we have an exceptional semifinal experience for our fans and for those in the community. But we definitely need an executive director and leader in that role, so that board members can step back. We’re a working board, but we’re not part of the execution. We’re part of governance and strategy.”

Q: What are the plans for integrating the new executive director into the organization?

A: “The vision when we started this was to bring them in during the season so that we could on-board this individual and start to make introductions and build relationships and bring them along so that they’re part of the core time of the year, and then January, we would start to think about strategy, and then February establish the strategy and the vision and the timeline and the key activities, the key outputs and deliverables, and then in March execute. Right now, we’re still on track, and I’m confident that we will have somebody in place in late October, early November.”

Q: How do you think the College Football Playoffs expanding from four to 12 teams in the next few years will affect the Fiesta Bowl?

A: “I think the expansion ultimately will be great for college football because it creates inclusion and helps to spread the wealth a bit to schools that aren’t necessarily in the top four. And I think ultimately, it’s good for us. We could potentially have a quarterfinal, semifinal game every year.

“But the impact that it might have, if it’s a quarterfinal or semifinal, it could be that the teams aren’t going to be in town for long. It’ll be more of a business trip, so we have to think through the impact that has on the hotels and hospitality and the restaurants. But people still will travel and people still will stay and they’ll turn it into a vacation, because who doesn’t like being in the Valley of the Sun in Arizona in either December or January? It’s a great time.”

Q: How can the Fiesta Bowl ensure it remains part of the new playoff structure?

A: “I think two words: execute flawlessly. At the end of the day, we put on a football game. But attached to that is the fan experience, and what’s equally important is the experience for the student athletes, for the coaches, for the families that come up, for them to really experience the hospitality that is the Fiesta Bowl. We are renowned for that. And we want to continue to do that. We want to continue to elevate that, because that keeps us relevant in the minds of those who will be participating in our events.

“And in turn, what we do in the community as a result of that, giving back through our grant process and the things that we do around building playgrounds, upgrading teachers’ lounges, it keeps us not only relevant in the community, but it gives back. And that’s really important not only to us from a board standpoint, but outside organizations see it as well.

“There are some things we just can’t control. … But what we can control is the things that we do for the community and for the events that we put on, and make sure that they’re exceptional.”

Jason Wolf is a sports enterprise and investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic. Reach him at jason.wolf@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @JasonWolf.

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