In first year as Indiana AD, Scott Dolson has chance to fix what's been broken for decades

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

BLOOMINGTON – Less than a year into his tenure, Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson — an IU lifer who has spent virtually his entire career working for his alma mater — now has to make his toughest call. The upside is also enormous. 

Dolson made what was in itself a difficult decision Monday, relieving Archie Miller of his duties as men’s basketball coach after just four years in Bloomington. Fan anger was peaking and the Hoosiers were undeniably trending in the wrong direction under Miller’s leadership. But Dolson also enjoyed a strong working relationship with IU’s now-former coach, and the kind of political capital Dolson had to spend to raise the money to pay Miller’s $10.35 million buyout can only be earned back one way. 

If he gets this hire wrong, it will weigh him down for the rest of his tenure. If he gets it right, he will have the chance to preside over a period of almost unprecedented success and prosperity for Indiana athletics. Those are the stakes. 

Dolson wasn’t necessarily presented with a good option here. 

Doyel:IU gambled, lost on Archie Miller. No more gambles. Get a sure thing. You know his name.

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Indiana University Director of Athletics Scott Dolson stands inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Bloomington, Ind. Assembly Hall is one of six Indiana venues hosting 2021 NCAA March Madness tournament games.

Retain Miller, and he’d risk 12 months of program atrophy and escalating fan apathy. Fire him with university money, and he’d have to justify spending that kind of cash during a pandemic-prompted financial cataclysm that could yet see IU athletics forced to take more drastic measures like borrowing against future television earnings, or worse. 

In the end, Dolson chose a third option. An extensive statement announcing his decision, released at lunchtime Monday, more or less confirmed that boosters raised the money for this move. 

“Given the university’s very tight financial situation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, private philanthropic funding has been obtained for all transition costs and obligations related to the change in leadership,” a portion of Dolson’s statement read. “We worked to secure the necessary private support following my recommendation to (IU) President (Michael) McRobbie, ensuring that there would be no charges to the university budget.”

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A one-time director of the Varsity Club, the fundraising wing of IU’s athletic department, Dolson’s personal relationships with the kinds of donors who could raise this money is marrow deep. He will have served on boards and committees with them for all manner of purposes over the past three decades. It would not have been a question of whether they trusted him. 

But asking anyone to help gather funds at this scale is not done lightly. You can’t do so without calling in a fair few favors, and it’s highly unlikely those donors would part with so much cash without some assurance Indiana is not just walking blindly into the coaching market

Which made the conclusion of Dolson’s statement Monday all the more interesting. 

“While I will not establish a formal search committee, I will consult within the university and with trusted experts in the state and around the country as I seek out and recruit a new coach,” Dolson said. “The work to find the next leader of Indiana basketball will begin immediately, and I will seek a chief executive that I can partner with to reestablish the brand and national presence of Indiana Basketball.”

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How IU is paying Archie Miller's buyout:'Private philanthropic funding.' In other words, boosters

IU fired Archie Miller after four seasons in Bloomington.

There’s a remarkable — one might even say telling — amount of first-person in that sentence. 

It’s not a vanity exercise. Anyone who knows Dolson well will testify to that. 

What it is, is Dolson taking immediate and total ownership of the search process, the hire it yields and everything that comes after. He will seek close counsel. He might even retain the help of a search firm (the release doesn’t mention it and Dolson doesn’t speak until 4 p.m. Monday). Remember, those firms exist largely to give both sides plausible deniability in times like this. 

But make no mistake, Scott Dolson wants you, me and anyone else who cares to see this as his hire. Risk and reward walk hand in hand for him now. 

Broadly speaking, everything else in his remit is in a good spot. His finances are a major issue but they’re a major issue everywhere, for a uniting reason, and once that reason is off the table for Indiana’s competitors, it will be for Indiana as well. 

Fred Glass used his tenure to correct a lot of the infrastructural mistakes that had piled up over the previous two decades, renovating or replacing nearly every athletics facility in Bloomington. Glass’ stewardship also saw substantial steps forward competitively in programs like football, women’s basketball and baseball, plus the restoration of elite national brands in their sports (men’s soccer, swimming and diving). 

The department enjoys relatively dysfunction-free day-to-day operation. Improvement in football in particular could change the long-term financial outlook. There is one puzzle left to solve. 

Dolson has charged himself with solving it. The easiest solution to his problem would have been to back Miller for one more season, let the buyout come down and the finances balance themselves out, and endure a winter of frustration and anger before addressing the issue in 2022.

Instead, Dolson pulled the trigger now. He called in the chits he needed to do it, and without committing money he needs to make sure his next hire can address the problems Indiana’s last one couldn’t. 

Scott Dolson handed himself an almighty task here, and then he backed himself to do it right. He more than anyone else will know every single constituency he has will be watching intently. It’s almost as though he wants the chance to land this hire. A challenge wrapped in an opportunity, and a fascinating few weeks ahead.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.