Radical changes needed in ASU athletic department: Opinion

All national championships are not created equal.

Make no mistake about it. They are all great and the one recently won by the Sun Devils men's swimming team in dominant fashion is worth applauding, particularly because not long ago administration got rid of the sport.

The calendar has flipped from March to April and still, no signs of a new athletic director being named at Arizona State even though it was back in November that Ray Anderson stepped down. As soon as one is named that person needs to do everything in their power to get the school's higher profile sports the resources to be more competitive as the school transitions to the Big 12 for the coming school year.

It is nice that the school excels in the so-called minor sports. Not only is the men's swimming program among the nation's elite programs, but so are the men's and women's golf teams. The wrestling team, headed by Zeke Jones, finished sixth at the NCAA championships and boasted an individual champion in Richie Figueroa.

The ice hockey team spent much of its season nationally ranked, climbing as high as tenth. Men's track and field was fifth in the 2023 national competition. This year's meet is still to come.

Women's gymnastics and beach volleyball are nationally ranked with the beach volleyball team registering the most notable win of its short existence when it upset No. 2 Stanford earlier this season.

ASU is the reigning national champion in triathlon, sort of. It's not quite an NCAA sport yet, although that could be sanctioned as one in the next year.

The problem is that those sports fail to bring in money; they lose money. They don't bring in headlines either. You need money from revenue sports to fund others that are not self-sufficient. It's in everyone's best interest for the major sports to thrive.

The football team is working off back-to-back 3-9 seasons — the worst two-year spell in school history. The good news is that football supporters have rallied behind Kenny Dillingham, who is just coming into his second year as head coach. As a Valley native and former student at the university, he has a vested interest and burning desire to get the program back to being relevant.

The school has been woefully behind the curve when it comes to the NIL situation, which has resulted in mass player defections in the sports that matter.

The basketball programs are struggling. The women's program is a combined 19-40 overall and 4-32 in Pac-12 play over the last two seasons, although an exorbitant number of injuries have been a factor.

Men's basketball is hit-and-miss. Coach Bobby Hurley's squad was a disappointing 14-18 in the past season, but it was 23-13 with an NCAA tournament win a year ago. It has made three postseason trips in the last five opportunities, a stretch that had not been accomplished in 40 years. That hasn't seemed to appease the fan base which would like to see a deeper playoff run or a new head coach.

And it could get worse. Despite not getting a team past the Elite Eight, men's basketball is considered the premier sport in the Big 12. If the ASU program can't finish in the upper tier of the Pac-12, it will be hard-pressed to do so in its new conference.

A general view of game action between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Washington Huskies during the second half at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe on Feb. 23, 2021.
A general view of game action between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Washington Huskies during the second half at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe on Feb. 23, 2021.

The aging Desert Financial Arena is arguably the worst in the soon-to-be-extinct Pac-12 and one of the worst among all major conference programs. The fact that the venue is showing its age while there is a still brand spanking new Mullett Arena for the hockey team a stone's throw away irks those who have lobbied for a basketball arena upgrade for years.

Mullett Arena has turned a profit due to the rent the NHL's Arizona Coyotes pay as a tenant, but now that they are headed out that revenue source will dry up and that sport too will be a money loser.

Let's talk about baseball, a once-proud sport that produced the likes of Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds and Dustin Pedroia. Things don't look great there either. Yes, the Sun Devils just missed making the postseason last season but this year's entry is below the .500 mark and sinking quickly. This is a program where there is no excuse not to contend for a conference title. Former big leaguer Willie Bloomquist, a product of the program, is in his third year as coach and a third year is traditionally when you see the program get an upward trajectory after a coaching change. It doesn't appear that is happening.

Softball and volleyball may not generate revenue but those major sports are on the women's side. While the volleyball team is coming off its best season in school history, the softball team is last in the Pac-12.

ASU fields teams in 26 sports. That's too many. It would be one thing if ASU had enough deep-pocket donors pouring money into the athletic program so they could afford to have that many sports. That isn't the case, Do we really need a women's lacrosse team? Water polo? The Big 12 doesn't have those sports, so the Sun Devils will be affiliate members of some other conference.

Yes, there is a gender equity factor here in play too which complicates matters. Those sports lose money — lots of it. Why not field fewer teams so have more money to put into sports that can do something for you? It's a tricky situation and there is no right answer but president Michael Crow and whoever fills the vacant athletic director position need to address the school's performance in the sports that matter most. The longer this athletic director search drags on, the more behind ASU is going to fall in the competitive balance picture.

Getting the athletic director pick right is crucial. And maybe it's just not that desirable of a job given the obstacles already laid out here and that's why it is taking so long.

The only thing certain here is that the person eventually named will be under immediate pressure to help change the narrative around the program. And that won't be easy.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona State needs to become competitive in revenue sports