Boston College’s newly-minted athletic director, Patrick Kraft, has begun settling into what he considers his ideal job as college sports is navigating less-than-ideal circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down campuses across the country in March, bringing college athletics to a halt. How sports will look in the fall remains uncertain. As Kraft embarks on the new task of building on the momentum created by former AD Martin Jarmond, now at UCLA, he is preparing for the challenges that will come with elevating Eagles athletics while also navigating the department through unprecedented times.
“Obviously, we’ve all been dealing with it,” said Kraft, who is coming off a highly-successful five-year run at Temple.
“I think, first and foremost, we have to be safe and get our athletes on campus in the right way. You’re seeing a lot of athletes have started to return. You’re seeing a lot of positive tests. We’ve dealt with positive tests at Temple and have been able to do what’s right to protect our athletes in that regard.”
Boston College announced Kraft’s hiring last week — the same day the NCAA allowed team activities at Bowl Subdivision schools. NCAA President Mark Emmert outlined several effects the pandemic could have on the return of college football, including a season that could end as early as Thanksgiving — as well as some schools not being able to fill a team. Kraft, who helped transform the football program at Temple and inherits a BC program with a new head coach, Jeff Hafley, was optimistic about the prospects for football in the fall, but aware of the hurdles.
“I can tell you this: I’m very confident about football,” said Kraft. “I’m on the [Division 1 Football Oversight Committee] and if you were to ask me that question 12 or 15 weeks ago, I would’ve been a little less confident. But I think the way things are moving — and this is very nimble, things change every single day — I’m very confident with the right rollout and protections in place, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Kraft guided Temple to to its most successful run in decades. The football program won the 2016 American Athletic Conference championship, and the men’s basketball team captured the conference regular-season title the same year. That year also marked the opening of the Temple sports complex for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and track. Also, in the past four years, donations to athletics increased by 75 percent. He said he saw the opportunity to do the same at BC, which has been searching for sustained success for more than a decade.
“There’s an incredible history and I think that’s what excites me," he said. "The infrastructure, the momentum’s there. Walking around, looking at facilities and meeting people, all the infrastructure’s there. That’s the hardest part to get going. Now it’s what can we do to elevate it.”
A major part of Kraft’s philosophy is engagement. Connecting with alumni and fans in a socially-distanced world will be tricky but critical.
“It’s going to be interesting because how will we be able to come back,” he said. “I think it’s constant engagement. We have to be able to communicate. It comes from coaches to all staff members. We have to engage. This is a very passionate alumni base. The way I go about it is engaging and hearing. Tell me what you think. What do we need to do? How do we make this experience not only great for our student-athletes, but for you?”
The instant answer is winning, but as the Atlantic Coast Conference has only gotten top-heavier in football and men’s basketball, BC has often found itself racing to the middle. Kraft believes the Eagles can crack the top tier.
“Do I think we can compete in the ACC? There’s no doubt,” he said. “We’ve got to roll our sleeves up, we’ve got to grind, we’ve got to go compete. I wouldn’t be here with you if I didn’t think there was an incredible opportunity to go win championships and compete at the highest level. That’s just how I’m wired and these are the same conversations I had when I was at Temple.”
Kraft, who made several key hires at Temple — including current Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule — threw his support behind Hafley, hired by Jarmond in December.
“It was a great hire, let me just say that,” Kraft said.
"He’s done an incredible job already. I told him this, these first years are very tough. These transition years are very difficult — without COVID. So you’ve got five spring practices and you’ve got to get up and get going and you’re competing against the best. What I will tell you is I believe in where Jeff’s mind is, where he’s going, what he wants to do, how hard he’s going to work. I can’t be more excited.”
A perpetual obstacle for BC is the reality of being overshadowed in a market dominated by professional sports. Kraftis familiar with the challenge, having led Temple in a market in which the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, Flyers reign supreme.
“I’m in Philadelphia and it’s very similar,” he said. “It’s Eagles all the time. What we did was you have to find ways to engage. You have to get your message out. You have to tell your own story. You have to communicate. This is everybody. The coaches are critical to this.
“Now, there is no magic bullet. But what you do is you engage your alumni first. We’ve got to get the younger fans in Boston to understand what Boston College is. Engage them at a younger age, let them be part of the process, so they grow up wanting to go to BC. Wanting to be part of the BC family, culture.”
Kraft’s track record as a fundraiser fits well with the work Jarmond left behind. In 2018, Jarmond launched the Greater Heights capital campaign, raising more than $100 million for athletics. Kraft spoke to Jarmond in recent days about building on the program’s momentum. As colleges nationwide face the financial ramifications of the pandemic, Kraft said creativity will be a priority.
“Really, to be very honest, the way I fund-raise is just treat people right, be transparent, and communicate with them. ‘Here’s what we need, here’s how we’re going to do it, here’s how we have to go and compete against all these schools in the country. If we want to get there, I need your help to do this.’ And if they understand and appreciate that, they get it. Through the COVID, we’re going to really break records in fundraising because people really understand the need for us right now.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.