From the Locker Room to the Boardroom

A Q&A with Warde Manuel


He may have just started working here in March, but for Warde Manuel, BGS ’90/MSW ’93/MBA ’05, serving as the University of Michigan’s Donald R. Shepherd Director of Athletics is his homecoming.

As U-M’s athletic director, Manuel has returned to his old stomping grounds. He was a student-athlete here, playing football under Bo Schembechler and later running track. Post-graduation, Manuel served nearly a decade in various roles as a U-M athletic administrator before stints at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Connecticut, where he was the director of athletics.

The New Orleans native is now the 12th athletic director in U-M’s history, leading one of the most storied athletic programs in the country. With 31 teams, more than 900 student-athletes, and a worldwide fan base, U-M athletics transcends the borders of Ann Arbor. Beyond the scoreboards and energetic crowds, intercollegiate sports is a business. Manuel is responsible for running a $153.6 million operation as well as producing the next generation of leaders. And that is no easy feat.

Dividend sat down with Manuel for a one-on-one chat. During our discussion, he shared his thoughts on the value of an MBA degree, why he chose to attend Michigan Ross, how business and sports go hand in hand, and more.

So how does it feel to be back at Michigan?

Warde Manuel: I keep trying to think of words that really get to depth of the feeling of being back here in Michigan, in Ann Arbor, at a place I love, doing the job I love, working with student athletes, coaches, faculty, staff. I can’t find the right words so I always say awesome, joy — overwhelming joy.

You have a lot of history here at Michigan. You attended school here, played football here, got your Executive MBA degree here. Why did you decided to pursue a graduate business degree?

Warde Manuel: Well, mainly because I wanted to get a great education at the business school and also understand this world we live in. I wanted to learn the business principles that will help drive success in my career, and it’s been an invaluable part of my education. In my understanding of how to lead, I learned how to manage, how to develop and invest the resources in a proper way to make us stronger and make us better as an athletic department.

My interest in getting this degree started because when I was here, we became a part of the Sports Management Institute, which still exists — I’m on the board now. It’s made up of six universities. The athletic departments and the business schools at Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Georgia, and Southern Cal collaborate. From my participation in that program and learning from faculty, it piqued my interest in getting more education as it relates to business. So, in 2003, I applied (to Ross) and started in August of that year.

What was it about Ross that made you want to come here and pursue an MBA?

Warde Manuel: It’s one of the top business schools in the world. I didn’t even think of applying anywhere else, because I knew the depth of the faculty — world-class individuals who were teaching right here in Ann Arbor. And for me, it was a great combination of being here, working in athletics, and being able to get my MBA from Ross.

What did you learn? What was the most valuable thing you took with you that is still valuable today?

Warde Manuel: There are two things that I always carry with me. One is learning to lead. Being a part of organizations and in areas where you’re not an expert, I learned to lead by asking questions and knowing which questions to ask. The second thing I learned is the social impact — how what you do is bigger than athletics. It’s the impact you can have in the world.

Was there a faculty member who stood out to you or who really impacted you in some way?

Warde Manuel: All the faculty members were great.The person I knew best going in was Tom Kinnear. He and I are still friends to this day. He influenced me to go into this program and get my MBA from the very beginning. Len Middleton was another key person during my time here who really helped to drive the understanding of the social impact and how we can better drive success by holding that as a principle and not just producing profits. There are many others. There’s not one faculty member who didn’t impact me during that time.

Considering you didn’t come from a  “traditional” business background, can you talk a bit about the intersection of sports and business?

Warde Manuel:  First and foremost, the sports industry is a billion-dollar industry. Every dean, every administrator within this university, is operating on business principles. Even though we’re in education, we’re a multi-billion-dollar organization and a university that produces and spends a lot of resources to educate, but also on research, sports and the like. We sell. We have expenses. We put together contracts. We do customer service. We operate as any business would on a day-to-day basis; we just happen to do it in an educational environment.

What is a typical day like for you?

Warde Manuel: There are no typical days [laughs]... That’s what I see after being an AD for now my eleventh year — standard meetings, preparation to plan for events, outreach to our fans and our donors. There are events that take place throughout the week to connect with people who care deeply about Michigan and Michigan athletics. So it’s never a typical day.

With so much experience as an athletic director, how would you say the landscape of collegiate sports has changed from a business perspective?

Warde Manuel: I think in the last 30 years, between when I first got here and now, the impact of television has been significant in terms of revenue produced and aspects and ability for us to grow and support over 900 student-athletes and 31 teams. That’s probably been the most significant growth in terms of what we do. The second piece is probably the changes over time in support of and focus on the academic outcomes of our student athletes, which has always been a hallmark at the University of Michigan. But I think in the college landscape, there have been significant changes over the past 30 years in doing that. Lastly, the impact of social media, the Internet, and the visibility of what we do has really changed the way our customers — our fans — see, view, and access Michigan athletics.

Speaking of student-athletes, what advice do you typically give them when you talk about leadership, taking the initiative and being proactive?

Warde Manuel: I tell our student-athletes I expect five things: First, compete in the classroom. The NCAA came out with a commercial that said 98 percent of our student-athletes go pro in something other than sports. I want them to fulfill their dreams. And dreams may change. I want them to know that sports will end at some point, and that they need to be prepared to have a career in whatever field they choose. Second, drive success and win championships. We’re very proud of our success athletically across the board, and we want to continue that. Third, grow as young people. Go out into the world and to use athletics to help develop the skills they need to go out and be successful. Fourth, do all that within the rules. There are rules within the university, within the Big Ten, within the NCAA, within the country, that govern what they do. You’re going to make mistakes, but try to live your life doing the right things. And fifth, have fun. I don’t mean to say any of this is easy. But there’s a passion you have to find for what you want to do in life. I put my heart and soul into the things that I do.

How would you describe the Michigan brand and specifically the Ross brand?

Warde Manuel: I think they are tied together. They’re both two of the strongest in the world in terms of what they represent and what they symbolize in terms of education, excellence, preparation, and the success that they’ve produced. I think they’re tied together and linked in a very strong way, and it will be that way forever.

What are your thoughts on the football season and what can fans expect?

Warde Manuel: Well, I’m really excited to be back and start the season. We have an unbelievable coach. One of the best in the country. Somebody who is a part of us and who is a Wolverine. Someone who has a deep-seated passion for Michigan. We couldn’t have asked for a better leader for our team and we have great young men who are playing the game and are passionate about it. I’m very optimistic. I don’t predict. I’m a one-game-at-a-time guy. I never think we’re going to lose at anything when we’re going into the game. The team has been working hard, and the young men and young ladies in other sports have been working hard all summer to prepare for success and we’re coming off a great year in football and athletically throughout the department. We won the most championships last year of any university in the Big Ten. We had 20 of our programs finish in the top 25 nationally. It’s been a tremendous year for us and we’re looking forward to another great year of Michigan athletics.

Switching gears a bit. When you’re not busy in the office, what do you do in your spare time?

Warde Manuel: I read. I like to cook. I like to spend time with the family. I like to get out and golf when I can. It’s probably the only athletic activity besides walking that I still do. [laughs] I’m a pretty outgoing person and so I like having people around me, talking about ideas and interacting with others. I’m continuing to learn and I never feel that I know it all, so others around give me their thoughts and advice on how they see an issue on what’s going on in the world — in intercollegiate athletics or business.