Time with his family has been hard to come by for Athletic Director Mario Moccia, who just finished a month-long search for a new men’s basketball coach. But now that search is over, Moccia can go back to taking his daughter to her softball games.
Moccia also has time to resume his oversight of every sport in the athletic department on the field, in the class room and in the court room.
“Athletics can be a very challenging and a rewarding thing,” Moccia said. “We’ve won 14 championships in 11 different sports (since 2006), so I feel like we’ve had a pretty solid program across the board.”
Moccia said he’s content with the direction the athletic department is heading and he likes the energy surrounding recent hires, such as Barry Hinson, volleyball coach Justin Ingram and women’s golf coach Alexis Mihelich, along with the continued success of the track and field team under coach Connie Price-Smith.
“The mood around the athletic department is pretty optimistic right now, especially when you have a new basketball coach come in,” Moccia said. “You almost feel like the worm is turning a little bit. We’ve got a lot of positive news, a lot of energy, a lot of fun.”
Despite the department’s overall success, Moccia said most fans focus on the men’s basketball and football programs. The two sports accounted for 97 percent of ticket sale revenue in 2011, according to ticket sale information provided by Associate Athletic Director Mark Scally. SIU sells tickets in three other sports – women’s basketball, softball and volleyball.
The basketball program fell from a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007 to the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference. He said the athletic department couldn’t ignore the declining revenues and scholarship donations when they decided to cut ties with coach Chris Lowery.
Moccia said the search for Lowery’s replacement caused him stress and took up a lot of his time, while Heidi Moccia, Moccia’s wife, said the search for Lowery’s replacement kept Mario Moccia away from home and their daughter, Addie.
“I would joke that I was like a single parent,” Heidi Moccia said with a laugh.
Heidi Moccia said she knew what to expect for the hiring process because they had already gone through a similar search when Mario hired football coach Dale Lennon. She said she figured Mario’s schedule would be even more hectic than usual because men’s basketball plays at the highest level of competition in the NCAA.
She said Hinson’s hire was a huge relief because Mario Moccia could return to being a great father, instead of flying all over the country.
But even though Mario Moccia found a replacement for Lowery, Lowery’s contract still looms over the athletic department.
Moccia said they have started talks with Lowery’s representatives about the remaining $1.5 million left on his contract, but it wouldn’t be the first time the athletic department required lawyers to navigate financial issues with a former coach. When Jerry Kill left the football team in 2007 to take the head coach position at Northern Illinois, SIU fined him $57,772 for terminating the contract early. Kill sued SIU for the fine and unpaid vacation days.
Kill’s attorney at the time, Shari Rhode, said the fine was illegal because it penalized Kill for taking another job. Kill’s contract, which was signed during the tenure of former Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk, didn’t have any clauses regarding if the school terminated the contract early; only Kill.
Eventually, the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and Moccia said there’s no animosity between SIU and Kill.
“At the end of the day, a lot of times these are business decisions,” Moccia said. “It is what it is. But I respect Jerry, and I don’t think he has a problem with me, either.”
Scally said they drew up the contract of football coach Dale Lennon’s with Kill’s case in mind.
According to the termination clause in Lennon’s contract with SIU, if the school terminates the contract, SIU owes Lennon a maximum of one year’s salary. If Lennon resigns or terminates the agreement, he owes the university $100,000.
“I’d like to think we get smarter with each contract,” Scally said.
Scally said Hinson’s contract will also have more specific language in terms of termination for issues such as academics, player retention and discipline. He said the terms of the contract should be finalized within a few days.
Moccia had to deal with his own disciplinary issues when former assistant women’s golf coach Sam Sambursky filed complaints with two federal agencies alleging a hostile work environment for women. Rhode, who represented Sambursky, said in an Aug. 19 article in the Daily Register that the allegations were in response to comments Moccia made about Sambursky’s inability to recruit as head coach with a small child.
Samburksy has a two-year-old daughter with Saluki broadcaster and former quarterback Joel Sambursky.
“I’ve been almost religious in my directing people to main campus (for comments about the allegations), because I have not responded to those,” Moccia said. “My rebuttal would be this … go up and down the hall, and you tell me how many people are dissatisfied here.”
Samburksy still intended on applying for the head coach position left by retiring coach Diane Daugherty until she filed the complaint against the school, according to the Daily Register.
Sambursky declined comment and forwarded all questions to Rhode.
Daugherty reportedly said after her retirement in April the athletic department doesn’t put much emphasis on sports other than football or men’s basketball, yet softball coach Kerri Blaylock said Moccia treats softball just like any other sport.
She said she realizes the role men’s basketball and football play inside the athletic department.
“We need men’s basketball and football to do well because they are our monetary sports,” Blaylock said.
Blaylock said there was no difference in how men and women are treated inside the Athletic Department, which Daugherty reportedly said.
Mihelich was hired Aug. 5 to replace Daugherty, and the university investigation closed with no disciplinary action taken against Moccia or the Athletic Department. Daugherty and Rhode said the federal investigation is still pending, and they have no further comment.
But Moccia’s tenure has been more than lawsuits and firings. Even though Kowalczyk laid the groundwork for Saluki Way, the moniker given to the construction of Saluki Stadium and renovations to the SIU Arena among other additions to the university, Moccia secured a majority of the money and oversaw the groundbreaking ceremonies and completion of the project.
Moccia helped continue the updates of the university’s athletic facilities with a new track complex and renovations to Abe Martin Field. The new track facility was built in part because they needed a facility to replace the one in the now-demolished McAndrew Stadium, but Moccia said they also wanted to give Price-Smith a state-of-the-art facility to reward her for what she’s done with the program.
“Certainly, it helps that one of your most successful coaches is going to get a new facility and a locker room. I think all that can do is help keep (Price-Smith) here,” Moccia said. “Connie’s worth her weight in gold.”
Price-Smith said the track team is excited to have a new facility that’s separate from the football stadium, but it won’t change how they approach their workouts’ because they were already at a high level.
“The goal is to strive to remain at that level,” Price-Smith said.
Price-Smith said the new facility helps bring in recruits because it’s up to par with other schools. Moccia said the level of recruits hasn’t been a problem, thanks to the work of throwing coach John Smith. Moccia said he’s turned athletes who weren’t heavily recruited, like Jeneva McCall, into national champions and potential Olympians.
Moccia and Kowalczyk raised the student athletic fee 258 percent from where it was in 2006 to help pay for Saluki Way. Moccia said they’ll consider lowering the fee once the Saluki Way bond payments are over, but Scally said they still have another 18 years on those bonds.
Moccia said he’s heard complaints about the athletic fee from students, but the administration wants a strong athletic program.
“We know some people just aren’t into athletics,” Moccia said. “But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of students that want to be involved in athletics … and the powers that be, whether it’s the chancellor’s office, the Stone Center or the trustees, they think that athletics is an important piece to having a vibrant Division I university.”
Moccia, who received a contract extension in 2007, has a three year contract that rolls over at the beginning of each fiscal year. This means that July 1, he’ll get another year added to his employment, barring a written notice from the university ending that agreement.