Q&A: Bradley AD Reynolds talks about NIL opportunities, his goals for the Braves' sports programs
As the ever-changing landscape of college sports continues to evolve, Chris Reynolds is now in his eighth full academic year as the head of the Bradley University athletics department.
Things now are much different from when Reynolds took over the Braves programs in 2015. Athletes are able to earn financial compensation through Name-Image-and-Likeness (NIL) agreements; the transfer portal has made it easier for players to switch schools; and colleges are more frequently changing their conference affiliations.
In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Reynolds discusses how Bradley is adapting to the changes, his goals and expectations for the Braves programs, and his role as the new chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball selection committee.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
We're a few weeks into the 2022-23 academic year now. What are your hopes or expectations or goals for the Bradley athletic program for this next year?
Chris Reynolds: Well, that's a loaded question in that my hopes are always the same, whether it’s this season, last season, the next season. It's that we compete athletically to the best of our ability, and certainly the bar is high: we strive for excellence competitively athletically, and also in the classroom, and we also want to do an outstanding job in the community. So that's a staple of who we are; it's what we do. We set that bar really high for ourselves, and we push ourselves to be as great as we possibly can be.
As you just mentioned, I know you consider success in the classroom of paramount importance among all Bradley student-athletes and programs. How do you go about maintaining that priority and balancing it with having success on the fields?
Reynolds: It's a culture that we have. We have a tremendous culture in our athletics department, where we have accountability and we have expectation. When our student athletes come in from Day One, they walk into a culture where academic excellence is the expectation. It's nothing that we necessarily applaud or cheer; it’s what we do. It's interesting to see young people come into that environment, and they just begin to stretch themselves in ways academically that they hadn't before. It's such a joy to see, particularly when you see them go from freshman year to sophomore year, to junior year, and then they graduate.
We just want people to maximize their abilities and their talents, not just as athletes, but as students as well. We have this theme that we talk about all the time in the athletics department, and that is our goal is to develop the leaders of tomorrow and champions in life. So we believe that sport is a tool that teaches teamwork and hard work, and you get to work with a diverse group of young people. But it prepares you for life, and that's what we're about.
Are the daily routines with practices and training and competitions mostly back to normal now for the athletes after coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Reynolds: I think normal, it’s a word I'm not sure what “normal” means anymore. I would say that certainly, everybody is different. Certainly there are people still getting COVID across the country, so it's not as though the (disease) has just gone away completely. I would just say that, from a mental health perspective, we keep a close eye on our student-athletes. We want to make sure they're in a good place, emotionally and mentally, and we support them in that. So it just depends on the person.
It's our responsibility as administrators to make sure that we're putting our young people in the best possible position to be successful, on and off the competitive field. So we just take it a day at a time, but we don't at any time lower the bar in terms of our expectations of them. But we are very much supportive of them as young people.
When we last spoke in February, you said it was still too early to know much about how the Name-Image-Likeness changes allowing athlete compensation would impact college sports. Now the “Home of the Brave” collective has been established for the Bradley men's basketball program. Can you explain what that collective is, how it works and what it will do to benefit the players?
Reynolds: It's a great question. I would say, Steve Cicciarelli, he's the head of the collective, I believe, for men's basketball, and so the question might be better for him because that group, they're not under our umbrella. We don't dictate what they do, how they do, but we certainly have a relationship with them because we want to be aware of what's going on. But these things are happening across the country; student-athletes are able to benefit from their name, image and likeness. There's a certain set of responsibilities and, quote-unquote, jobs or events that the student-athletes would have to do in order to earn the compensation, and based upon them fulfilling their commitments, then they're able to receive compensation.
In terms of college athletics and young people being able to benefit from their name, image and likeness, it’s something that we all support, and really it’s something that is going to evolve over time. It's one of those things where I don't think anybody has it all figured out. If they say they do, they're not telling you the truth because this thing is going to be a winding road and we'll just see where it goes. But it's our responsibility, first and foremost, to make sure that we protect the university, the athletics department; that we continue to maintain our principles and values, which is always to make sure that our young people are being prepared for life after Bradley. What that means is that we're teaching and trying to instill within them qualities that will prepare them to be successful in life.
Are there avenues for Bradley athletes in other sports that can also receive NIL compensation?
Reynolds: Absolutely. We plan within the week to launch an initiative from the athletics department that will allow all of our student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness. We're really excited about this, and it's going to be something that other student-athletes across all of our 15 sport programs will be able to enjoy and benefit from.
How concerned are you that athlete compensation could widen the gaps between power conference schools and smaller colleges?
Reynolds: Not concerned about that at all. From my perspective, and I've always been this way, Bradley's going to take care of Bradley and we're going to be competitive. I would say that, as relates to teams and schools that are of our size, in the kind of conferences that we're in, we've always been competitive and will continue to be competitive. It's just going to mean that we all have to be nimble and creative, and we're going to have to do our business a little differently just in terms of recruiting.
Obviously, with the transfer portal, it brings into an element that you have to embrace, just like name, image and likeness, and you have to make it work to your benefit. But I don't have the concern; I'm not one of these “the sky's falling” kind of people. I just don't believe in that. I believe there's always going to be a way and I believe that things are always going to even out and settle themselves over time. Certainly, you have fear mongers and people that think that there's going to be this total collapse. I think it's just an evolution of time, and I think that things do change over time. But I do think that people (and) institutions will adapt over time as well.
We touched on this a moment ago, too: Is there a concern about athletes in the higher profile sports like basketball – and football at other schools – receiving more of a financial advantage than those playing the other sports?
Reynolds: I guess I can't speak to that because we'll know over time. I think that when people try to take a snapshot of something that it's in its infancy stages, we really don't know enough. So I think all we can do right now is just speculate, and I'm not much of a person who likes to do that. If there's a set of circumstances that are factual, that are in front of me – and maybe this is just my law school education kicking in – I deal with facts, but I don't deal with hypotheticals and what ifs. So I think as it plays out and we get a better picture of what we're looking at, and we get more certainties, then I think it'll be easier and I think we'll all be in a better position to separate what's fact and fiction and then be able to appropriately lead and direct our athletic departments as a result.
You mentioned the transfer portal a moment ago. How difficult has that made it to build consistency through athletic programs with students taking advantage of the transfer opportunities now?
Reynolds: I think it's been fine. I think it's just about adapting and moving forward. Certainly, coaches across the country – the thing is, everybody's dealing with the same thing. So it's not as though there's different set of rules for different schools of different sizes and different conferences. Everybody has the same set of rules as it relates to it, so it just means that coaches and administrators have to adapt in how they recruit, who they recruit, when they recruit those particular young people. Again, it all evens out at the end.
When we spoke in February, you had just recently hired Alicia Williams as the volleyball coach. Now in addition to Williams, you have another new coach for a prominent women's team with Kate Popovic-Goss as the women's basketball coach. What made her the best candidate to replace Andrea Gorski?
Reynolds: I would say, Kate is just awesome. Sometimes you really can't put it into words (but) you know it when you see it, and whether it's Kate, whether it's Alicia, they're just fantastic. It's everything about them. It's what you feel when they walk into the room. It’s their ability to lead young people. It's both of them have very strong communication skills, not only when they're talking to adults but when they're talking to their teams or young people. So both of them just bring the total package, just in terms of what it means to be a coach in 2022. You have to be adaptable, you have to be relatable to young people. You have to be able to inspire and motivate, and you have to be able to teach. They do that at an exceptional level, and we're very fortunate to have both of them at Bradley University.
You've been Bradley's athletic director now for more than seven years. For you personally, what are the daily challenges of overseeing an entire Division I college sports program?
Reynolds: I don't look at it as a challenge. I look at that as an opportunity, and the opportunities are: we don't have to go to work, we get to go to work. I get an opportunity every single morning to get up and work with outstanding coaches, work with our 212 student athletes, be able to impart what I can bring to the table just in terms of helping to develop and prepare them for life after Bradley. And so, for me, it's just been a wonderful ride over the past seven years, and I've enjoyed every moment of it.
In fact, I was just with our volleyball team as they were leaving for a trip, and before they got on the bus, we took a picture together and I talked with them for a couple minutes. It's fun; I just enjoy those moments, and it never gets old. So just to be able to be a part of their lives, it's something that I make an intentional effort to do. I just don't sit behind my computer and type emails, but I'm with our student-athletes (and) I'm with our coaches. I'm involved in their lives, and I'm invested in their futures. So for me, it's just a great opportunity to touch a life and it's why I decided over 20 years ago to get involved in this business. I'm in this to make a difference and to have an impact on young people, and I feel very blessed and fortunate to be able to do that every day.
What was the experience like last year serving as the vice-chair of the men's basketball tournament selection committee, and how did it prepare you to serve as the chair this year?
Reynolds: It was incredible. Again, it's one of those things, you can't put it into words. But that was a tremendous time in my life the last 12 months being vice-chair, and as of Sept. 1 now in the role of chair. But how do you prepare to do this? I don't know. But the past 12 months was wonderful in terms of the preparation. Tom Burnett, who served as chair, did an amazing job and it was really nice for me to be able to walk arm-in-arm with him through his processes as chair, because as vice-chair, you do get to see things that everybody else doesn't see. You're able to look under the hood and just really be a part of it, so I was just there supporting Tom and his role as chair. But I would just say the exposure to everything that Tom had to deal with in the role and all the decisions that he made and how he led the group so wonderfully, just being a part of that in the preparation meetings we had prior to meetings, just being engaged in that process for the past 12 months was tremendous preparation for me.
You say you're the chair now. What is your role or preparation in building up to Selection Sunday, from now until then?
Reynolds: Yeah, it's a long time from now, it feels like it, but I'm sure it'll go by – the next few months will go by fast. There'll be a lot of media obligations. Certainly when people think of the role of the basketball committee for Division I, and particularly the role of the chair, people just think of Selection Sunday. But there's a million other things that the committee is responsible for. We're actually responsible for the entire tournament.
You have 14 sites; you have first- and second-round games throughout the country. So we work with our television partners, we work with our corporate sponsors. The list goes on and on, just in terms of everything from an operational perspective, a marketing perspective. So many pieces: We select the officials that work the NCAA tournament, we select 100 officials. So it just goes on and on, and the responsibilities are great and it's a great group to work with.
We prepared, for example, for Houston – where the Final Four will be in 2023 – that preparation started a year ago. It didn't just start yesterday; we were preparing for Houston even while we were preparing to go to New Orleans this past April (for the 2022 Final Four). I've already been to Houston; I went last December and there was a press conference there, and the local organizing committee was there along with the mayor of Houston. I tell you, there’s boots on the ground and people had been working for months on end, and so there's a lot of work that goes into this. There's a lot of dominoes that have to fall the right way. But it's a great group to work with, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.
How hopeful are you that you'll be able to include Bradley University in those (tournament) brackets as you're putting them together?
Reynolds: Well, in my role on the committee the past four years, and certainly as chair, we check our affiliations at the door. We're about putting together the best field, based upon how teams have earned their way into the tournament. That's what we are committed to doing, and I make sure that I stay true to that because that's very important particularly as relates to how we do our business. We try to be very objective; we have to be. We have great colleagues that work together and are very mature in the way we carry out our responsibilities.