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Q&A: Bradley's Reynolds discusses building a positive culture in the athletics department in a new era

Chris Reynolds, Bradley University Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics
Joe Deacon
Chris Reynolds, Bradley University Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics

Bradley University Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Chris Reynolds says he's optimistic about the direction of the Braves' programs as the end of the academic year draws near.

Reynolds says the strong season by the men's basketball team is an indication the Braves can succeed in a new era of college sports. He said Bradley is no different from other schools in feeling an impact from student-athletes taking advantage of the transfer portal and name-image-likeness (NIL) financial compensation possibilities.

Reynolds also says he's constantly striving to instill a positive culture around Braves athletics.

In an interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Reynolds discusses a range of topics concerning Bradley’s athletics department.

This conversation and transcript have been edited for clarity and brevity.

We are nearing the end of this academic year. How would you assess the current state of Bradley athletics, both on field and off?

Chris Reynolds: I think there's a lot of different ways to answer that question because you have programs at different levels of maturity and growth and in different places. Obviously, the men’s basketball had one of the best conference seasons that we've had in over 20 years, so (I’m) really excited about their growth and development. Obviously, being our flagship program, it's really important that they lead the way and they have. So kudos to the men's basketball staff for all the hard work that they've been able to do, and it's great when you can see productivity after putting in a lot of hard work.

But then you have programs that aren't doing so well, but that's because, for example with women's basketball, Kate (Popovec-Goss) is in her first year (as head coach) and so she's developing that program — no different than what Brian (Wardle) did during his first year. There's going to be some growing pains, and success takes time. So when you look at our complete portfolio of teams, you have programs at different stages of growth and development. But I would say overall, there's a positive feel and vibe with regards to our programs, collectively. (I’m) really excited about the head coaches that we have and what they're doing just in terms of putting in effort to move us forward. We're very positive in the athletic department; we have a great culture, and really excited about what's to come.

What about from a financial standpoint, how is the program set up right now?

Reynolds: I would say, again, it just depends on what program you're talking about, and what we're talking about. But we're very good stewards over the resources that we've been provided, and that's something that I keep my eye on, on a daily basis. I’m really excited about (Senior Associate AD for Compliance/Chief Financial Officer) Brad Chandler who leads our effort in that area. He does a really good job of staying on top of what we need to get done, and our coaches are really good at being terrific stewards over our resources as well.

We've seen recently at other institutions where questionable activity related to courting donors has drawn scrutiny (and led) to leadership changes. Where do you see the line between what's acceptable behavior for seeking financial commitments, and what's going too far?

Reynolds: I would say from a fundraising perspective, relationships are really important. I do my best to develop relationships with individuals that we see as long-term partners. Things aren't done in a vacuum; I want to make sure that, from our perspective, who we connect with, who we associate with, that it's reflective of the values of our university. So athletics is just one piece of a university, and I certainly understand that more than anybody. We just want to make sure that whatever we do, we try to do it in a way that brings pride to the university.

You mentioned workplace culture, and working in a university athletic department is often demanding and difficult. As the head of the department, how do you work to avoid a negative workplace environment?

Reynolds: Well, culture is like shaving, it's something you have to do every day and you work on it every day, and it starts with me. So as the VP for Intercollegiate Athletics, in terms of morale and culture, I'm the “chief culture officer.” What that means is: every single day, I'm spending time with our coaches and staff, and I'm talking with them about their families. I'm talking about what's important to them, getting to know them in a personal way, so that can better serve them. So, I have to set the tone, the example, not just through my words, but through my actions. I have to make sure that everybody in our building knows that I care deeply about them, and that they're very important and valuable to what we're doing.

We've discussed this before, but the landscape of college athletics has changed drastically, with the transfer portal and the name-likeness-image (NIL) rules allowing athletes to get compensated (financially). It's placed many mid-level programs in a difficult situation of seemingly having to rebuild their teams each year as players move from school to school. How is Bradley coping with these changes?

Reynolds: We’re coping with it very well, and I would take a different perspective. I don't see it as “challenging” as a program that's not a “Power 5” — they come up with these different terms, it's hard to keep track of all the different words of art, phrases of art. But I would say that when I look at schools, regardless of the level, everybody has challenges. I mean, when you look at the Power 5 schools, student-athletes are leaving their programs, too. And they have different challenges, whether it's student-athletes going to the professional ranks, whether they're transferring from one school to another school. Everybody's in the same boat.

We've been able to do very well in the (transfer) portal. So I would say, if you have a successful program that has a terrific culture that's based upon doing things the right way but also winning, you're able to reload every single year. I talked with Coach Wardle a couple of days ago, and he told me that this upcoming year, we're as talented as we've ever been. So I would just say, there's no excuses in this; there's no “woe is me.” We understand the rules of engagement. It's our responsibility to do everything we can to reload every single year and make sure that we're putting competitive teams on the court and on the fields.

For example, though, say, in a position like Bradley or other schools like Bradley, you have a player who comes in and excels for a year, still has eligibility, and a higher school could come and possibly take him. On the converse side, you have a player who comes in maybe doesn't play all that much, they would look to transfer to maybe see additional playing time or something like that. How do you build or establish program continuity when these changes can happen year to year?

Reynolds: I would just push back on that. For example, last year, let's take University of Illinois for example. I think his name was Matthew Mayer, he was one of the Baylor's best (players). He left Baylor to go to Illinois. I mean, they're experiencing the same things at that level, it's just in different ways. The University of Michigan, Hunter Dickinson is leaving Michigan and he's going to go somewhere else and play basketball. The Power 5 schools are experiencing the same things. Look at Northwestern, for example: Larry Nance — or I'm not sure exactly what his name was, Larry Nance’s son, I think — Pete Nance. He went from Northwestern to North Carolina; he was the best player at Northwestern.

The Power 5 schools are experiencing the same things that the mid-major schools are experiencing, and believe me, if anybody knows I do. I'm in it more so than anybody in the country in my role with the NCAA Men's Basketball committee. I see it every single day; I’ve talked to Power 5 ADs, and they talk with me about the challenges that they have as well. The challenges are just different, but the fact of the matter is everybody's having challenges. Everybody understands the rules of engagement, and with that information, the task is to put yourself as an institution in the best possible position to succeed.

In the past few months, there's been a lot of attention around improvements needed at Carver Arena and the management team’s relationship with its tenants. How would you characterize Bradley's relationship with Peoria Civic Center?

Reynolds: It's incredible. I really appreciate the leadership at the Peoria Civic Center; they’re outstanding. They work hard (and) they do a great job. (Civic Center general manager) Rik Edgar has been a terrific partner with us. Yvonne Greer (Batton), who heads up the operation there at the Peoria Civic Center is amazing. So, our relationship with the Peoria Civic Center in my time here the past eight years has been extraordinary.

As you mentioned, the men's basketball team had a pretty impressive season winning the (Missouri) Valley Conference regular-season title (and) drawing a big crowd for that last (home) game. What are your thoughts on how the season went and how this can translate into continued success?

Reynolds: I thought it was a really good year for us and we took a step forward. Certainly, (it) did not end the way anybody hoped. However, 16-4 in the conference season — we haven't done that in 25, 26, 27 years. So to be able to do the things that we accomplished this past year, to me it's terrific. To have Carver Arena sold out for that last home game — when I came to town, people talked about the attendance challenge, etc., etc., (they) never could see a day where we would fill up Carver Arena. Well, it happened.

So (I’m) just really excited about the forward momentum. Certainly, you're only as good as your last day and so we want to continue to push forward. We're not resting on our laurels, or anything from that perspective. But we are excited about what was done this past year. Having success is hard, and you need everybody with all their oars in the water rowing in the same direction. That goes back to my conversation and discussion about culture: It's really important that you have the right people in the right seats. So we certainly have that and (are) really excited about our coaches and staff and how they work well together.

You mentioned your role as chair of the NCAA Tournament committee, and I know you would have had to recuse yourself if during the selection process Bradley was part of that conversation. But how tough was it when you couldn't have the Braves among the field?

Reynolds: I would say from my perspective, when I'm in that room, we say, “check your affiliation at the door.” I'm just in there to do a job, and certainly, my role as chair of the men's basketball committee is completely separate from my role as the AD at Bradley. So when I'm in that role, I'm only thinking about what's best for the basketball tournament, what's best for the country as relates to my role in that in that position. It's all consuming; it takes everything out of you.

Certainly, nobody is a bigger cheerleader for the Braves than I am. However, one thing I will say, when our young people work as hard as they do — and nobody knows as hard as they work more than I do — what we ask of them is to give 100% effort on the court, in the classroom, in the community, and when they do that I can live with the result. As somebody who's worn the uniform, I know how hard it is to get into the tournament. (It’s) very difficult; a lot of teams don't get in. However, our young people, they gave us their best effort and that's all I can ask for.

How would you describe your experience being at the Final Four and being able to present the trophy to UConn? It kind of seems like you might have gotten tangled up in Jim Nantz’s microphone cord there, it looked like.

Reynolds: No, it was a great experience; I really enjoyed it. It's once in a lifetime. It's nothing that I take for granted. You know, if you would have told me five years ago (or) 20 years ago, that I would have an opportunity to do that, I wouldn't believe you. But to have that experience is something that I will always remember and cherish. I learned a lot during the time. It was something that was different, in a lot of respects. I’ve never experienced anything like that before in my life, nor will I. But it's something that will go down as one of the greatest moments of my life as relates to sports.

When you see teams that are — UConn being the highest seed that actually made it to the Final Four and being, I believe they were a 4 seed or a 5 — what does that say about how the selection process went this year, or does it say more about the parity of the game this year?

Reynolds: People have to remember that college basketball is made up of student-athletes that are 18-22, and it's just really challenging to know precisely how these young people are going to perform from one day to the next. I was front row watching Kansas State play Florida Atlantic, and if you would have taken the uniforms off the teams and traded uniforms and put them on each other, you wouldn't have been able to tell a difference from a talent perspective.

I mean, Florida Atlantic, they belonged in the Final Four based upon how they performed; it was not a fluke. Same with San Diego State: they beat Alabama, who had played well all year long. So, there is a lot of parity, and I would say probably more than that, these young people regardless of where they're going to school, they're not afraid of the “big brand” schools. There's no intimidation factor. These young people, they grew up playing basketball during the summer with each other; they know each other very well. So when they step on the court, they expect to win and they play to win. So it's great to see the parity; it's great to see young people out there performing at their best and at the highest levels on the biggest stages. It was just so exciting to be a part of it this past year, and it's something that will certainly be an experience that I'll remember for a long time.

Do you think at all that the number of lower seeded teams that continue to win throughout this tournament actually kind of elevated the fan interest in the tournament this year?

Reynolds: It depends on who you talk to. I mean, some people would prefer to have the big brand teams there throughout the tournament, particularly at the end, and some enjoy the upsets. But what I will say is the men's basketball Division I tournament brings so much excitement, so many eyeballs to the TV. When you look at the numbers of people that fill those arenas and have an interest in college basketball, it's as popular as it's ever been.

If I'm not mistaken, you're still the chair of the committee for one more year — is that correct?

Reynolds: I have about three months left to go. My term ends Aug. 31.

Quite an experience for you, though?

Reynolds: It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about the process. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a great deal about how the sausage is made. Again, once you go through an experience like that — and it's been over the past 12 months or so that I've been able to have a front-row seat to everything in terms of how the tournament’s put together — it just gives me a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to pull something like that off.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.