clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

System was too big for one man

Rondo Fehlberg always had a soft spot for Brigham Young University. He couldn't help himself. Four years ago he quit his job as a corporate attorney for Pennzoil to become BYU's athletic director. In the process, he cut his salary in half and gave up more than a million dollars in benefits, not to mention exotic travel and golf outings with world leaders.

To the outsider, it was crazy. Pennzoil told him to name his price, if the issue was money, but Fehlberg left anyway. Which was just like him. As a high school senior, he gave up full wrestling scholarships to the glamour wrestling schools (Oklahoma and Iowa) to accept a partial scholarship to BYU. Years later, as a corporate attorney, he remained the ultimate Cougar fan. While living in London, he arranged to have videotapes of BYU games shipped to him. While living in Houston, he would search for the highest freeway overpass and park his car there to receive KSL Radio signals of BYU games.When Fehlberg took over the job as athletic director in 1995, he was in heaven. "This job means something to me because I know what I gave up to get it," he said at the time. Fehlberg was energetic and passionate about his job. He was always BYU's gee-whiz guy, a fan in charge of an athletic department.

But the fun didn't last. On Friday, Fehlberg stepped down as athletic director after four years on the job. He had never planned to stay long, but certainly his waning enthusiasm and the harsh realities of his job and big-time collegiate athletics hastened his departure -- if school president Merrill Bateman himself didn't (does anybody wonder why Fehlberg would leave without having another job lined up?).

Fehlberg was full of pie-in-the-sky ideas when he came to BYU, but in the end he discovered he was probably naive. College sports, he lamented on Friday, "are more of a business than a game now." He was worn down by the realities of money and sports and Title IX.

"He's been surprised by the job," said a friend. And not pleasantly.

He had planned to change things at his beloved alma mater. He was going to introduce new blood to the old football coaching staff; he was going to get the blue-chip Mormon athletes; he was going to preside over athletes who met BYU standards; he was going to improve the basketball schedule; he was going to improve dwindling attendance; he was going to polish the image of an unpopular basketball coach; he was going to address the old problem of conference affiliation to bring the Cougars to the doorstep of the big time.

It didn't happen. None of it.

Left to his own considerable talents, Fehlberg might have pulled it off, but the system was too big for one man, and his timing couldn't have been worse. He oversaw an era of hard times at BYU over which he had little control. Taking over the Cougars four years ago was like being handed the keys to a leaky boat.

During Fehlberg's watch, there was a record number of honor-code dismissals of BYU athletes. The football team posted season records of 7-4, 14-1, 6-5 and 9-5 and made just two bowl appearances. The basketball team was worse: 15-13, 1-25, 9-21, 12-16.

Along the way, Fehlberg had to do BYU's dirty work. He had to fire Roger Reid, an excellent basketball coach with a knack for PR disasters. Title IX forced him to cut superb minor sports -- gymnastics and, much to his personal regret, wrestling.

The truth of course was that Fehlberg wasn't really the one who made such decisions. It doesn't work that way at BYU. The orders came from the administration (read: Bateman), but he was the one who bravely accepted responsibility and endured the inevitable fallout, and that proved painful to him.

"I've always said an AD's job is to hire the coaches and to fly air cover for them," he said Friday. "I have to tell you that this flying air cover is not easy."

He took heat over the timing of "his" firing of Reid (just before Christmas, in the middle of a season). He took even more heat for cutting the minor sports. Much to his credit, he never ducked the criticism or the perception that he was the bad guy -- which he wasn't. The cuts to the minor programs were devastating to him personally.

What's maddening is that the university allowed Fehlberg to fall on the sword for the school. He was made out to be responsible for carrying out the orders of others. He was the fall guy.

Some might question Fehlberg's performance on the job, given the Cougars' sour performance on the field, but in some respects he not only performed his job well, he did it too well.

Previously, the Cougars might have looked the other way when star athletes broke honor-code rules, just as they did for quarterback Jim McMahon, but Fehlberg and his bosses enforced them. They dismissed, among many others, the best running back the school has ever seen, Ronney Jenkins, for an indiscretion that wouldn't have even drawn notice at another school.

Fehlberg had no qualms about any of it. His love of BYU was a mix of religion and athletics, both of which he embraced.

"No one comes to a place like BYU to make money," he once said. "You come here for other reasons. . . . BYU athletics is the second most visible missionary arm of the church and a showcase for a set of values that are increasingly rare. The more I have lived and traveled, the more I appreciate how unique and unusual this university is and what an extraordinary thing it is."

On Friday, he severed his ties to the school, but one suspects his love affair with the school will continue.