This was the day before the first round of the NCAA tournament last year at Dayton. La Salle was on the floor practicing, and Mark Hollis was there, as a member of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. But what was he doing crying into his cell phone?
“I had called Jud [Heathcote] to thank him for giving me the opportunity to be standing where I was at that very moment,” Hollis said 11 months later. “I just sat there and wept.”
An explanation might be in order. Hollis is a Michigan State man, true green. Now, he’s the athletic director, and the think-big administrator who came up with the idea of playing a hockey game in the football stadium and a basketball game on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
But once upon a time, in the 1980s, he was a student manager for Heathcote’s Spartans. Also, by the way, Tom Izzo’s roommate. It has been a successful journey for him in college athletics, and what he learned then still echoes now.
“Jud taught you to anticipate problems, he taught you to over-prepare and always have the answer,” Hollis said. “If there’s one person who’s impacted me beyond my family, it would be Jud Heathcote.”
Hollis spent time in the Western Athletic Conference, then Pittsburgh, then back to East Lansing, where he has been Spartans athletic director since 2008. He still remembers then-WAC commissioner Joe Kearney telling him, “that you’ll love your alma mater more than it loves you.” But things have worked out pretty well. The Spartans overall program seems the picture of health, from the football team winning the Rose Bowl to Izzo’s perennial basketball powerhouse.
“You deal with things a little bit differently when it’s your school,” Hollis said. “The passion and extra hours and the hard work seem to go a little bit easier. You’re kind of representing those that stood next to you as a student. It’s a blessing.”
He has a purpose in his ideas, such as getting 74,554 to a college hockey game, or scheduling a basketball game at a military base in Germany or on an aircraft carrier, so the Spartans could entertain and interact with members of the armed forces.
“The ability to make memories for student-athletes, to create experiences they will remember the rest of their lives,” he said. “My father was a minister and K-through-12 administrator and lobbyist. When I took this job, I said I was going to be an educator first and athletic director second, and that’s what we’ve tried to instill here at Michigan State.”
He also teaches a class in communications every Monday night. It’s a full plate, especially given the long hours of the basketball committee. But Hollis cherishes the committee experience.
“It’s a bond of professionalism,” he said. “When you’re an athletic director, you don’t have too many people you can call and really lay a level of trust and confidence in, in different issues on your campus, or in your personal life. The group that you’re with for those long periods of time become that support group. If there’s a personal takeaway, that’s the greatest takeaway from being associated with this great group of people.”
Speaking of associations, how was life as Tom Izzo’s roommate?
“Jud threw us together because neither one of us had very much money. He ended up being the best man in my wedding, so we’ve been pals since ’83,” Hollis said. “We had a couple of bean bags and cinder blocks and two-by-fours, but we had great audio-visual equipment. Tom loved his TVs and his sound system. He was also a heck of an Italian cook, as long as it came out of a jar.”