The late-fall day was overcast and windy. Stray raindrops spattered the windows, blurring a picturesque view of Texas A&M’s campus.
It was still pretty to Eric Hyman. Looking the same as he did when he headed South Carolina’s athletics department from 2005-12, Hyman gestured to his new surroundings.
“We had issues at VMI, we had issues at Miami of Ohio, we had issues at TCU, we had issues at South Carolina,” Hyman said. “There were parts of it that were broken, some more than others. Here, this place was not broken.”
Fifteen months since he left USC, Hyman is doing what he has done at every stop in his career as an athletics director — discovering what the glaring problems are and how to go about correcting them. A fixer throughout his journey, Hyman likes where A&M is, but it can get better.
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Making it better is what he’s always done. The sweeping changes at USC — the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center, the Rice Athletics Center, athletics improvement nearly across the board were either completed or budgeted under his watch — are testament.
He had his critics, as all leaders do. But Hyman recognized that USC wanted to be a player in the SEC, and that the old way of operating wasn’t going to accomplish that.
“The two things I was so sick and tired of hearing, was the defeatist attitude of ‘Wait til next year,’ and ‘the Chicken Curse,’ ” Hyman said. “Whatever you think you can be, you can be. One of the greatest things was burying those two expressions.”
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He was hired to little fanfare. There was so much more attention on one last hire by outgoing AD Mike McGee — football coach Steve Spurrier, starting his first season the following fall.
Hyman found a department starved for success. He also found a department in debt and used to settling for mediocrity.
“I asked the board the first time I met them, ‘What do you want competitively?’ ” Hyman said. “They said they wanted a Top 25 program. To be able to do that, we had to stretch. If they didn’t want to do that, we could be a top 50 program.”
Changes began to come. As Hyman knew they would, some took offense. The YES seat-licensing program ruffled feathers, and a 2006 decision to not take USC’s pep band and cheerleaders to New York for the NIT Final Four lit up message boards.
Hyman knew it was necessary. As for the pep band, the department was in debt and didn’t have the money to spend. For the YES program, while it caused some long-time donors to give up their tickets, it was necessary to compete in today’s SEC.
“There were times that were, frankly, painful,” USC Board of Trustees member Chuck Allen said. “Not everybody could make the transition because of the raise in ticket prices, and we lost some good people. However, because of what was being done financially, it was something that if you really analyzed the top echelon of the league, the contenders, we needed to do what they were doing.”
Criticism, Hyman said, comes with the territory. Hyman knew that the “old boy’s network” wasn’t going to cut it anymore and went about changing it.
“It’s not a popularity contest,” Hyman said. “I’m trying to do what’s right, not to win fans. What you had to do, I thought, if you were sincerely committed to excellence, you had to make changes.”
The changes caused consternation, but they began to produce. Williams-Brice Stadium is still sold out on Saturdays, and the cash flow has greatly enhanced USC’s coffers.
“I know that was very difficult for him, and a lot of our fans were extremely upset,” said Ray Tanner, in the unique position of having worked under Hyman and then succeeding him as AD. “I increased ticket prices in my first year, and I don’t think it ended up being quite as painful as what he went through. It’s not anything we want to do, but if you look at the dollars generated in the SEC right now, we’re not in the top half.”
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The love-him-or-hate-him reaction from some never bothered Hyman. He kept working to improve the department, through some of the boos he received at various athletic events.
“Any time you’re in a position of leadership, you’ve got to make decisions,” longtime BOT member William Hubbard said. “I always felt like he felt that he did the best job to make the decisions with the information that he had available at the time, and he was comfortable with the decisions that he made.”
Things began to turn. USC began seeing a profit instead of losing a million or two dollars a year. Everybody loves a winner, and when the women’s soccer team won the 2009 SEC tournament, notice was served.
The PapaJohns.com Bowl loss led to more detractors, even a T-shirt left on the front step of Hyman’s office that read, “Wait till Next Year,” but more success was on the horizon. Tanner took his team to its first national championship that summer and won another crown the next season. Dawn Staley, a coach that Hyman hired and faced some backlash for, advanced to the Sweet 16 soon after.
In summer 2012, Hyman had his master plan in place, and many teams were competitive for championships. He steered USC through an NCAA investigation and had seen his vision come to life. Life was good.
But a call turned into a decision to leave.
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“I’m more of a builder. I’m not really a maintainer,” Hyman said. “My strengths matched up to what South Carolina needed. It was time to face another challenge.”
He left a much-improved department and an interesting legacy. Some will forever complain about the pep band, the Roundhouse, how he handled the Stephen Garcia situation and the infamous “war chest of credibility” quote about Dave Odom.
Others see nothing but a lasting impact.
“I had a wonderful relationship with Eric,” Hubbard said. “I always felt like everything he did was done with the highest integrity.”
“I think Eric had a fresh perspective,” Allen said. “We had to change the atmosphere around the campus and in athletics.”
Hyman’s office at A&M features several mementos, from a football commemorating the Gamecocks’ SEC East championship to baseballs from the back-to-back national champions. He has worked on improving the communication within the A&M athletics department and already has seen some results — a recent result from Public Policy Polling revealed that 22 percent of fans said they were Aggies while 20 percent said they were Texas Longhorns. The last time the poll was conducted, Texas led 23-15.
Hyman’s USC plans are still being completed and have given Tanner a foundation to build upon. While Tanner has his own style from working in administration and from coaching, he has adopted some of Hyman’s ways.
“At the staff meetings, he would share a lot of things that were going on, budget-wise, and otherwise, and things that he didn’t really need to share as a director of athletics,” Tanner said. “But he did, because he wanted all of us to understand and take ownership in what was going on as well. I try to share as much as I can with the rest of our employees, because he did that. We’re enjoying the fruits of what his vision was all about right now.”
Hyman wanted updates on Staley and Frank Martin, his last major hire at USC. He said he was comfortable with the job that he did at USC, and he still considered himself a Gamecock.
“We got South Carolina out of their comfort zone, and that was hard for South Carolina,” Hyman said. “You had to do things where maybe there was a rhythm people were used to, that rhythm had to change. I’m at peace with myself.
“To see South Carolina achieve, there’s a piece of all of us that’s there, that’s always going to be there. I’m very proud of South Carolina.”