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Hold the tar and praise: Jury still out on Fehlberg Since Reid's firing, emotions have cooled

When a school's athletic program falls short of expectations - by, let's say, failing to win a national championship every season - blame is pinned on the athletic director to some degree.

Tough crowd, these collegiate sports fans.BYU's Rondo Fehlberg doesn't coach, make crucial recruiting decisions, score touchdowns or launch jumpshots, but often is the leading candidate to get the tar and feather treatment in the wake of failures, either real an imagined. He serves as a punching bag for frustrated boosters. Ultimately, the buck stops with him.

When Fehlberg was hired nearly three years ago, it was in part for his business savvy and aggressive, pro-active approach. He was also brought aboard to deal with sensitive public relations issues - a responsibility he doesn't run away from.

"When good things are happening, there's more than enough credit to go around," said Fehlberg. "When bad things happen, it's hard to hide. I'm the visible lightning rod. I'm easiest for people to identify."

Fehlberg's name has been had for both good and ill in BYU sports circles of late, particularly when he pulled the trigger on the firing of head basketball coach Roger Reid about a week before Christmas in 1996. It was a decision that polarized many Cougar fans. Some were upset over the way the dismissal was handled while others applauded the change.

Truth is, Fehlberg did not act alone in the decision. But he took the hit when the controversial move was made. After all, responding to criticism and enduring scrutiny are included in his job description. "I was confident people eventually would understand why we did what we did," he said. "It was the right thing, even though it wasn't easy."

Since that time, heated emotions surrounding the Reid incident have cooled considerably. Still, for a number of reasons, Fehlberg has not been universally embraced by BYU fans, according to a Deseret News/Dan Jones & Associates poll. While he drew a favorable response from 34 percent of Utah County residents in a survey conducted in December, 21 percent said they are not impressed while 45 percent didn't have an opinion one way or another.

Fehlberg puts the results in perspective. Though he's not out to win popularity contests, he stands by what's happened during his tenure and figures down the road, the numbers will take care of them-selves.

"I wouldn't take (those) as a ringing endorsement," he said. "But in the long run, doing what's right for the school will bring people back and will bring their support."

It's been nearly one year since Fehlberg announced the hiring of Steve Cleveland, who at the time was relatively unknown in the college basketball world. It was another decision that inspired a mixed bag of opinions. Attendance was still frighteningly low this season. Yet as Cleveland finishes up his taxing rookie year as a Division I coach, Fehlberg believes the hoop program is headed in the right direction.

"A lot of people who initially expressed dismay (over Reid's dismissal) have come back," he explained. "We've received over the last several months an enormous amount of feedback from those who were upset but say that they have watched us and have gained a greater appreciation for what we've done. Time has a way of healing wounds. The way Steve has done his job has helped, too."

Those who say they are pleased with Fehlberg's performance bring up the coaching change. "Rondo's doing fine," said BYU fan Richard Hanley. "I would say he's doing a good, close to excellent job. He has honesty and he came in, looked at the situation and decided to do something about it."

Still, to some BYU supporters, Fehlberg's approval rating is inextricably tied to the disappointing 6-5 record the football team posted in 1997. Some are simply exasperated with the overall lack of success.

"I don't know how to rate him," explained Bart Tingey, a longtime Cougar fan and former BYU student. "A year ago (after the 1996 Cotton Bowl season), I would have said good, pushing excellent . . . But he's got almost three years under his belt now, and the BYU athletic department is in the biggest funk it's ever been in. It has to start at the top.

"He came in with glamour and glitz, but I don't see anything different," he continued. "His expectations were for BYU to be top 10 in football and basketball, but they're nowhere near that. I'm holding him to what he said, though I do realize it takes time."

On the other hand, Tingey, an estranged BYU basketball fan, says he approves of the changes made in the hoop program. "It had to be done," he said. "I'm sold on Steve Cleveland. I want so bad to get back into BYU basketball, but I haven't been able to. It's going to take winning again to get that enthusiasm back."

Fehlberg is keenly, and painfully, aware of the importance of the role of fans in his grand plan.

"Some people may realize I have a fan's perspective," he said. "I have spent more time as a BYU supporter than as a BYU administrator, and I understand the hopes and frustrations of the average fan in the trenches."


Additional Information

Deseret News Poll

How would you rate the job performance of Rondo Fehlberg, athletic director, at BYU?

Excellent 6%

Good 28%

Fair 15%

Poor 6%

Don't know 45%

This poll of 405 Utah County residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Dec. 10-16, 1997. It has a margin of error of +/- 5 percent.