Stop me if you’ve heard this before, Boston College is breaking in a new athletic director who has grand designs for college sports in Boston.
Blake James is the third AD in Chestnut Hill in five years. The hope at The Heights is he’ll stick around to see his promises and proclamations to fruition. That he can talk a big game and get BC to play in more of them in the revenue sports.
The 53-year-old James, who previously served as AD at the University of Maine and BC’s Atlantic Coast Conference rival Miami, insists he’s here for the long haul, saying at his introductory news conference last month he envisions retiring in this job. With the ground shifting rapidly underneath the college sports landscape with conference realignment, BC could use stability in the athletic director’s chair to steer the program through uncertain waters. James is the next man up trying to plant BC’s flag, locally and nationally.
At the Power 5 conference level, the athletic director’s job is part CEO, part fundraiser, part cheerleader, and part salesperson. You’re selling a vision as well as tickets. James, who officially started on July 1, passed that test.
“When you look at Maine, Miami, and Boston College you wouldn’t think much would be the same. Well, the reality is they’re all about 10,000 students,” said James, discussing why BC appealed to him following his “mutual” departure with Miami last November after nine years in Coral Gables.
“In talking with the leadership and just their vision, the Jesuit mission was something that just aligned with me very well in terms of what college athletics should look like … I’m not saying we can’t win a national championship in any sport. I think we can compete to win in sports. That comes in time. We have to continue to invest.”
BC’s place in the major college sports ecosystem is to serve as a way station for those on the way up. That happened with James’s predecessors, the magnetic Martin Jarmond, who left after three years to lead UCLA, and Patrick Kraft, who departed this year after less than two years for Penn State.
That reality remains difficult for some in the Eagles’ orbit to accept. But it has been that way since legendary Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy prepped at BC as football coach (1939 and ‘40). That’s part of the challenge in the AD’s chair in Chestnut Hill.
James inherits an athletic department with 31 sports. On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, BC boasts exciting women’s sports success with a lacrosse program that has appeared in five straight national championship games and won a national title in 2021 under Acacia Walker-Weinstein, and a strong hockey program.
Unfortunately, college sports aren’t a money meritocracy. The cash doesn’t come from the best-performing sports. It comes from football, where BC is middle of the pack.
“Football is a major driver of revenue in college athletics today,” said James. “And it’s important that we’re looking at what we’re doing with our football program and continuing to support that within the ACC to create the most opportunity for success for not only that program but the carryover that brings to all of the other programs in terms of what we’re able to do … There has to be an emphasis on making sure we’re doing what we can to keep football competitive, not only in the conference but on the national stage.”
The Eagles have a charismatic coach in Jeff Hafley and return quarterback Phil Jurkovec, BC’s best pro prospect under center since the days of Matt Ryan.
But Boston isn’t Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Columbus, Ohio. The greatest challenge for any BC athletic director is drumming up interest in a pro sports town where college sports exist as background noise.
“Boston is a winning town, it’s a sports town,” said James, who also had a stint in athletics at Providence College.
“Everyone loves a winner. The more we win I know it will make it a little bit easier. You have the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, the Bruins, there is so much history and success in the town it’s important for us to make sure we’re doing our part to be the very best program we can be at BC and then making sure people are aware of the opportunities that exist.”
Market size and market relevance are important with radical conference realignment. Jarmond steered UCLA into the Big Ten on the strength of the Los Angeles market.
When all the moving, shaking, and backroom deal-making is done, BC could be left with its nose pressed against the superconference glass.
James acknowledged the ACC trails the Big Ten and the SEC financially. There are rumors that ACC powers, past and present, Florida State and Clemson could be eying the SEC. Even a bedrock school such as North Carolina could consider leaving the conference.
Where would that leave the Eagles?
“We want to create the best BC possible, and the best BC possible in one of the major media markets in the country is attractive to whatever conference,” said James. “I have full confidence that’s going to be the ACC. But to answer your question, if the ACC were to change my job is to make sure we’re in the best position possible going forward. Again, I don’t see that being anywhere but the ACC.”
It’s not easy to follow the bouncing schools in conference realignment, but it might be easier than following BC men’s basketball. Conte Forum has become a mausoleum since the ill-fated decision by former athletic director Gene DeFilippo to fire Al Skinner in 2010.
Since that time BC basketball has two winning seasons and zero NCAA Tournament appearances.
Righting the ship in men’s basketball has to be near the top of James’s list. BC recently broke ground on a new practice facility, the Hoag Pavilion.
Bullish on BC coach Earl Grant, James cited the turnaround at Miami under Jim Larranaga. The Hurricanes reached the Elite Eight this year, losing to national champion Kansas.
James and his family are recruiting a residence in the area. They expect to close on a house by the end of the month. (Welcome to Boston real estate, Blake.)
But BC hopes he’s found a long-term home at The Heights.