Sullivan: Joe Manhertz has big-time experience. Can it help him lift St. Bonaventure athletics to the next level?

Jerry Sullivan

Joe Manhertz, left, has the right experience to lead St. Bonaventure’s athletic department. Will he be able to take the Bonnies to new heights across the board? (Images courtesy of St. Bonaventure Athletics)

Joe Manhertz said he laughs about it to this day. In 1998, while working on his master’s degree in sports management at Ohio State, he interviewed for a graduate assistant position at the university.

“I had all these interviews for GAs in compliance, marketing and facilities, the ice rink,” Manhertz recalled. “There was one in development.

“I remember sitting there, looking at the woman and saying, ‘Wait a minute. You mean I can talk sports and money for a living?’ She started laughing. I look back and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Manhertz found his calling in development and fundraising. He spent seven years at Syracuse, where he helped raised contributions to the football program threefold. He went back to Ohio State, where he served as director of development and brought in some $4.5 million in new donors.

Then Manhertz went south to Duke, where as director of development and assistant athletic director he directed a “Building Champions” campaign that raised more than $200 million for Duke athletics.

So, it was understandable that Dr. Joseph Zimmer, the acting president at St. Bonaventure, called Manhertz a “perfect fit” when he was hired as the university’s new athletic director in August.

Zimmer said Manhertz was the right person to “take St. Bonaventure athletics to the next level,” and to spearhead a strategic plan that involves a “real examination” of the university’s athletic program.

It didn’t hurt that Manhertz was a native Western New Yorker. He’s from Fairport, a village outside Rochester. He played high school football for a Fairport team that beat Jamestown for the Far West title at Rich Stadium in 1991. He played college football and basketball at Colgate.

Of course, Bona didn’t hire Manhertz because he’s a loyal Bills fan. They hired him because he knows how to shake the money out of the trees. He raised money at some of the most esteemed athletic departments in the country. Now he needs to do it at little St. Bonaventure, which has the second-smallest enrollment in the Atlantic-10.

Manhertz said he needs to prove himself as an athletic director, not simply a fundraiser. He has to be an evaluator of the programs and an advocate for the athletes.

“You’ve got to show up for the kids, number one,” he said. “Two, set a vision and plan for the entire department and create a culture. We’re empowering people. This is about people, not process. Just make sure people enjoy coming to work and set that plan, a case of why we get the support.”

Still, he acknowledges that the role of a college athletic director is changing. It’s no longer being simply the top jock on campus, overseeing all the teams and showing up at the games.

“It really has changed,” said Barb Questa, the deputy athletic director at Bona and a 30-year veteran of its athletic department. “It’s not just ‘Roll the ball out and play, I’ll come to some games and watch.’ This is such a small part of the job now. It really is the relationships and getting out there, the fundraising, it’s the brand recognition, the excellence overall.”

They talk about “internal” and “external” leaders. Manhertz said the internal work was done by the previous ADs, Steve Watson and Tim Kenney. What St. Bonaventure needed was someone to go outside and engage the alumni and other people in the community and get their support.

“There’s nothing wrong with the fundamentals of the department,” he said. “Now we need someone to come out, spread the word, spread the cheer, try to get more people on the bandwagon.”

There’s no shortage of cheer for the men’s basketball team, which has become one of the top mid-majors in the country under head coach Mark Schmidt. The Bonnies won the A-10 regular-season and tournament titles last season and went to the NCAA Tournament. Manhertz inherited a hoop program that entered the season ranked for the first time in 50 years.

“I’d love to take credit,” Manhertz said with a chuckle. “But I’d be an idiot if I did. It’s for me to help keep the momentum going. What they’ve built here is awesome. They’ve done it brick by brick.

“Being able to watch practices and what (Schmidt) does and how meticulous he is, and what he’s teaching these young men, is awesome. I couldn’t be happier he’s still here. Having a guy like that makes me look like a good AD, so he can stay as long as he needs to.”

When Zimmer talked about taking Bona sports to the next level, he wasn’t talking about the basketball team — though making a Sweet 16 run would be nice. Manhertz praises his predecessors, but if you removed the men’s hoop team, St. Bonaventure would have a strong case as the worst record-wise athletic department in the Atlantic 10:

The women’s basketball team hasn’t won 10 games since 2016; the baseball team was 7-24 last season and hasn’t had a winning season since 2017; the women’s soccer team went 7-8-4 this fall, its best finish in 10 years; men’s cross country was last in the conference; the softball team went 2-26 and hasn’t had a winning season in 15 years; the women’s swimming and diving team was eighth out of 10 in the last A-10 championships.

You get the picture. No reason was given when Bona didn’t renew Kenney’s contract as AD. But when you hear about the “next level” and look at the record, it becomes clear that Manhertz was brought in to raise money and the competitive level of the entire athletic department.

Barb Questa, St. Bonaventure’s deputy athletic director

“Absolutely,” Questa said. “I couldn’t agree more. We have 19 programs. Two of those are basketball. Those are vitally important, but at the same time we have 17 other programs that have more athletes combined than the two basketball teams.

“We do need to focus on what we do in men’s basketball,” she said. “That is the front door for us. But all the people who live in that house are from all these other sports. We need to continue to enhance what we’ve done over the last five years.”

Questa said there has been progress in other sports, including more coaching positions and upgrades in some facilities. But they need more funding to catch up with the rest of the conference. That means seizing the moment and taking full advantage of the success of the men’s basketball team.

“We need to capitalize on that,” Questa said. “That success benefits all the rest of our programs.”

Manhertz is well aware of that. “Basketball is important,” he said. “We all know that. Basketball’s our engine. We’re not going to do anything to get in their way. But it doesn’t mean I can’t support and ask for things for other teams. I think that’s the most important thing.”

In Manhertz, the Bonnies have a dynamic leader, a man who believes in relationships above all else. He has rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in college sports. Jim Boeheim. Mike Krzyzewski. Jim Tressel. Prominent ADs like Jake Crouthamel, Gene Smith, Mike White.

Manhertz knows what success looks like. He loves to talk about 2003. He was there when his old employer, Ohio State, won the national football title. Three months later, he saw Syracuse win the NCAA basketball championship when he worked there. He remembers being on the floor of the Superdome when they won.

“I was on the court giving out T-shirts to coaches’ families in the stands,” he recalled. “I couldn’t give Carmelo Anthony’s mother a T-shirt because it would have been an NCAA violation.”

So, he had a championship ring made for Mary Anthony. The next season, when Anthony was an NBA rookie, he flew to Denver and had dinner with him. He told Carmelo to tell his mother he was sorry she didn’t get a tee shirt and handed him the second championship ring.

“At that moment, I asked him if he would give back to Syracuse $40,000, which was about what his scholarship cost at the time.”

Anthony didn’t donate at the time. But a few years later, he made a $3 million gift to SU toward an on-campus basketball practice facility, known as the Melo Center. It was one of the largest donations ever made by an active professional athlete to his former school.

Media arrive at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center for in Syracuse, N.Y., Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

“So, he more than made up for it,” Manhertz said. “But I like to say I planted the seed. I was the first one to ask him to give back to Syracuse.

“It’s been a great journey for me,” he said, “going back to Ohio State after Syracuse and winding up at Duke for the last 11 years. So many great people I’ve worked with internally and externally. I have friends from all type of institutions that I’m still close with today.

“It’s a people business, and it really is a kid business. We’re here to educate kids and help them learn and grow and become successful young men and women.”

That’s the sort of man you want leading the way at a critical time for your athletic department, when you’re trying to capitalize on a rare and presumably short window with the basketball team playing on the national stage and drawing attention to the entire school.

Questa said the alumni are fired up. There was an emotional ceremony on Tuesday night at the opener, when Schmidt’s team got to play before fans at the Reilly Center for the first time since March 2020. She said about 600 Bona alums will show up when the Bonnies compete in the Charleston (S.C.) Classic from Nov. 18-21.

“We’ve got some great events surrounding men’s basketball,” Questa said. ‘It sets him up to get out there, meet those people, talk to them, find out what motivates them and take the passion that people have for this place and transfer that back to their financial support to the university.”

“It’s going to be fun,” she said. “We talk about it all the time, how we’re going to have fun. This is an exciting time.”

The question is whether Manhertz’s experience in the big-time will translate to Olean. It won’t be for lack of time or effort. Manhertz says he’s all-in. His wife, Pamela Koehler, is living in Indiana for the time being. His teenage sons are living in North Carolina with his first wife.

Manhertz said this is his dream job, one he’s been preparing for since he graduated from Colgate a quarter century ago. Talking about sports and money for a living. How do you beat that?

“Exactly,” he said. “And to do it two hours from home, I pinch myself.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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