Any outsider hired into Texas athletics will spend months learning how to swim in the Longhorns’ ecosystem. Drowning is always possible.
That’s likely why men’s athletic director Mike Perrin is going with a UT veteran to oversee student services, a department with challenging depths and unpredictable currents.
LaToya Smith, a Texas ex with a Ph.D in higher education administration, will be named senior associate athletics director for student services, Perrin told the American-Statesman.
Smith has worked at her alma mater since 2005, serving as the associate dean of students and most recently as the school’s Title IX coordinator. Campus life is one thing, but it’s a totally different world on the east side of San Jacinto Blvd.
“She’s just been well-known across all units of campus,” Perrin said. “I felt that gave us as a department the advantage of her hitting the ground running and not having a learning curve of people, personalities, colleges, academic units, etc. She was totally familiar with all of that, having worked with every unit on campus.”
Perrin said Smith had informal talks with many head coaches, and the AD heard promising feedback. “Her announcement is not going to be met with resistance in the athletic department,” Perrin said.
In a statement, Smith said she was excited to lead the “accomplished student services department into the future.”
“Texas is a special place that transforms lives,” Smith added. “I look forward to working with our staff to provide a structure and support system that can help our student-athletes thrive in their educational pursuits.”
Smith will assume one of the hottest seats inside the athletic department. At various points, coaches lean hard on academic staff members to get talented recruits with marginal grades admitted to the university. Roping athletes into study hall can be challenging, too. She’ll also be charged with monitoring tutors to watch for improper behavior.
Unfortunately, most die-hard fans could care less about Smith’s primary job function, something many consider too inside baseball to worry about. That is until athletes turn up ineligible for postseason bowl games or lack proper credit to maintain their eligibility for the next semester.
The reality is that Smith will serve as UT athletics’ top cop in the classroom. On the surface, there appear to be few problems, based on the most recent data. In May, all 20 UT sports scored a 975 or better as judged by the NCAA’s annual academic progress rate formula. Three teams scored a perfect 1,000 — men’s tennis, women’s basketball and women’s swimming and diving.
The university announced that 263 athletes had a 3.0 grade point average or better and 26 landed a 4.0.
But this department has also been the source of massive headaches for UT administrators in recent years.
Randa Ryan, an executive senior associate athletic director, took over in 2005. Over the years, her hard-charging ways delivered undeniable results. An almost 50-page manual was crafted, one that covered everything imaginable for student workers, tutors and those who came within Ryan’s orbit.
The manual went so far as to describe how Ryan “must drive several hours each day.” Her car was to be stocked with “water bottles, snacks, Armor All Leather wipes, and Clorox wipes,” according to the manual. UT administrators where aghast to learn about that page, which was removed in 2013.
In June 2015, UT President Gregory L. Fenves ordered a top-to-bottom review of student services in the wake of cheating allegations. Alabama lawyer Gene Marsh, once the chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, cleared UT of any wrongdoing. However, the 49-page report — again, widely ignored by fans — was viewed internally as a vicious takedown of Ryan’s shop and its leadership.
One of the biggest issues addressed by Marsh was this belief there was too much emphasis on high grade point averages and not enough on progress toward a degree. Also, there was an over-concentration of athletes in the College of Education and that Ryan may have too much on her plate.
Smith will have a more executive role, not necessarily a hands-on approach with athletes the way Ryan did. Perrin called it a “direct resort of the Marsh report.”
At most schools, the director of student services is easily accessible, a person that administrators would be eager to tout. Ryan was not made available for interviews to the American-Statesman her last three years. Her top lieutenant, Kat Richer Hastings, eventually took over day-to-day duties as Ryan stopped coming into work in the north end of Royal-Memorial Stadium.
In August 2016, UT officials confirmed that Ryan would be allowed to remain on salary through this past January and then would “retire.” Just after the start of the new year, a school spokesman confirmed Ryan was no longer on the UT payroll. Her base salary was almost $260,000, according to UT payroll records.
In February, Herman acknowledged his disappointment in how the football team’s grades slipped the last two years under former coach Charlie Strong. “I’m used to hovering around a 2.9 or 3.0,” Herman said. “We’ll get it there. I’m not panicked, but it was surprising.”
The school hired Brett Wohlers from Ohio State to work directly with football athletes.
The Longhorns had a 2.55 team grade point average during the fall semester of 2016. Thirty-four football athletes posted a 3.0 GPA last spring, and the team posted a 2.86 team GPA — the highest semester in team history. “The best is yet to come,” Herman tweeted.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.