By Bill Sheehan
Jim Donovan faced a daunting task six years ago when he was hired as Cal State Fullerton's director of athletics.
Student-athlete graduation rates were far below the universitywide average, fund-raising was stagnant, and many couldn't recall the last time the school had multiple Big West championships in a single year.
He quickly rolled up his sleeves and began putting his management skills to work. "In my first six months at Fullerton, we put together a five-year plan. We brought in people from the athletics department, from the university and some donors and supporters. We primarily looked at changing the culture," said Donovan, who subsequently launched a number of initiatives that elevated the program.
Today, the school's all-team Academic Progress Rate is at an all-time high and fund-raising has grown by more than 600%. Titan teams captured a record six Big West Conference championships in the 2017-2018 season.
Donovan's accomplishments now have received national recognition.
Earlier this month, he was named an Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year. The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics named 28 winners in seven divisional categories. Donovan was honored in the Division 1-AAA non-football category along with counterparts from Florida Gulf Coast, Creighton and Gonzaga universities.
He will be honored at an awards ceremony in June in Orlando, Florida.
Fullerton President Fram Virjee said Donovan has all the traits one would want in a director of athletics.
"Jim succeeds as an AD first, and foremost, because he is a man of integrity and character. He believes that honesty, integrity and your reputation are paramount," said Virjee, who was named Fullerton's permanent president last week after serving as interim leader for the past 15 months.
"He believes our students are scholar-athletes, that they are at Cal State Fullerton to get an excellent education and that their future is even more dependent upon their academic experience than their athletic experience," he said. "And he knows how to motivate and bring out the best in people, through positive reinforcement, goal-setting and holding people accountable."
A modest Donovan thought he was being pranked
When he first received news of the award, Donovan thought someone was pulling a prank. That doesn't surprise Meredith Basil, Fullerton's associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator. "His leadership is incredible, but he is so humble."
Donovan went out of his way to credit his colleagues for the accolade. "I really believe that this award is more of a reflection on the campus administrators, coaches, staff, donors and alumni who have come together to improve Titan athletics," he said.
Paying special tribute to his top deputy, Donovan said Senior Associate Athletics Director Steve DiTolla "has done a super-job acting as our chief operations officer. I'm really grateful and thankful to Steve."
Donovan manages a department with a $19.2 million budget, more than 65 full-time and 150 part-time staff and 350-plus student-athletes. A former guard on the University of Hawaii's football team, he used a pigskin analogy to describe his evolution as an athletics administrator.
"When I was an offensive lineman, I spent all my time blocking for quarterbacks, receivers and running backs so that they could do well. When I got into athletics administration, I tried to be a really great blocker all through my career path," he said. "I'm proud and very grateful for the recognition, but I feel like I'm accepting on behalf of the university and the people that make things happen – the great blockers that I now rely on."
Donovan graduated from Hawaii with an undergraduate degree in geography and later earned an executive MBA. He arrived at Fullerton with a deep background in intercollegiate athletics administration.
He initially spent 17 years in athletics at the University of Hawaii before having a six-year run as the executive director of the ESPN-sponsored Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. He then returned to his alma mater, serving as athletic director from 2008-12 and then having a brief stint as a marketing administrator.
Donovan, whose contract recently was extended through 2023, reports directly to Vice President of Student Affairs Berenecea Johnson Eanes. "Jim is an extremely strong leader and knows how to build a really good team," said Eanes. "His years of experience working in a Division 1 athletics program has prepared him to be successful on all fronts.
Amir Dabirian, Fullerton's vice president for information technology and chief information officer, chaired the search committee that recommended Donovan. Then-President Mildred Garcia hired Donovan in December 2012.
Jim Donovan at Hawai'i.
Collaborating on a five-year plan
In his first six months, Donovan worked on the five-year plan, which aimed to increase the athletics budget, raise student-athletes' academic performance and improve facilities.
Donovan introduced the "Titan Top 10 Musts" that are displayed in every office in the athletics department. The first item on the list is that customer service is paramount, and the customers include students, student-athletes, staff, ticket purchasers, sponsors and donors.
"Good customer service isn't a budget issue, it's an attitude issue – everyone can be great at customer service if they want to be," Donovan said.
He conceived of the idea for the annual Fullerton Athletics Career Expo, or FACE, which provides student-athletes an opportunity to network with perspective employers. Associate Director of Athletics Basil manages the Expo, which bring dozens of companies and organizations to the event held at Titan Gym.
In 2014, the Student Success Initiative was approved. The SSI, which is funded by a student fee, allowed Fullerton to upgrade its athletics facilities and provide full scholarships to all student-athletes.
"We had a belief that that this would be an investment in the future of the university, and it has certainly paid phenomenal dividends for Titan athletics," said Donovan
Fullerton has raised more than $13 million for Titan athletics in the past five and a half years, exceeding the total fund-raising for the previous 56 years of the school's existence (not factoring for inflation.) Donovan credits Associate Athletics Director of Development Greg Paules and his staff for ramping up the fund-raising efforts.
Donovan has overseen many major facility improvements, including a new weight room, lights for the intramural fields, a scoreboard for Titan Stadium and renovations to the track and tennis surfaces. A project for new locker rooms, coaches' offices and meeting rooms for the softball and baseball programs is in the works.
Another one of Donovan's focuses was increasing student attendance, which has spiked by more than 1,200% in his tenure.
The vetting process for student-athletes was overhauled. Coaches interview each prospect's school and club coaches, counselors and parents and complete a two-page analysis on each
individual's character, strengths and weaknesses, and how the student-athlete will impact the team.
"The mission of the Cal State system is to provide education across the board, especially for first-generation college students," said Donovan. "We're looking for student-athletes who have the discipline to be successful. I've found that if you expect people to achieve their goals, they often do."
The staff of academic advisors has been increased and the athletics study hall program expanded. If students-athletes perform well academically, there are now bonuses for coaches, sports supervisors and other staff members.
"The university does a great job supporting our student-athletes academically," said Dianne Matias, who is in her sixth year as women's tennis coach. "Our team has an international student-athlete who struggled in her first semester, and now she's on the dean's list."
Then-President Mildred Garcia, left, Vice President for University Advancement Greg Saks, Athletic Director Jim Donovan and actor and Fullerton graduate Kevin Costner.
A supporter of academic support services, women's sports
Basil directs Fullerton's academic support services for its student-athletes. "Jim has demonstrated how to lead and support our student-athletes," she said. Basil added that Donovan promotes compliance with all Title IX guidelines and is a big supporter of women's athletics. He is currently serving on the NCAA Committee for Women's Sports.
"We're seeing talented student-athletes coming here. And it has everything do with Jim's leadership. He brings a wealth of experience. He attacks problems. I'm learning every time I'm in the room with him."
Under Donovan's leadership, the Titans have won 21 Big West titles and the Titan baseball team has appeared in two of the last four College World Series. The softball program has won three straight Big West championships, the Titan men's track and field team has won back-to-back conference titles and the men's and women's soccer teams have frequently advanced to the NCAA tournament.
"We want all of our teams to have a winning record and to have a successful season," said Donovan. "That's the ultimate goal."
Dedrique Taylor, whose Titan basketball team won the Big West title last year and reached the conference finals last weekend, said it's easy for coaches to relate to Donovan.
"He's a former college athlete, and that helps him see things from the student-athlete's experience. He listens to our needs and desires. Not that we get it all, but he gives us the necessary tools and resources to run a successful program," said Taylor, who is in his sixth year as head coach.
"Jim's sees the benefit of everyone working together. He's very good communicating, exchanging ideas and serving as a mentor."
Matias, the tennis coach, lauded Donovan's supervisorial style. "He's been a great, dynamic leader and so supportive of our program. He's given us more opportunities, with full scholarships and resources."
A move from California to Hawaii
Donovan grew up in Anaheim and attended Servite High School and Santa Ana College before receiving a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. He started on the Rainbow Warriors' offensive line alongside former NFL Pro Bowler Jesse Sapolu, who won four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers.
He met his wife, Tracy Orillo, while she worked as UH's women sports information director. They married in 1989 and have a daughter, Jackie, 26, and a son, Josh, 24.
Jackie received an undergraduate degree in finance and a master's in adaptive physical education. Josh earned an undergraduate degree in sustainability studies. Jackie qualified for the Big West championships in the javelin and hammer as a member of the UH track team, and Josh played defensive back on the school's football team. Both work in Hawaii.
The Donovans own homes in Honolulu and Orange County, and Jim and Tracy take turns traveling back and forth. Tracy, who now works on the UH public relations and communications staff, said her husband's multitasking and problem-solving abilities have paved the way for his success.
"First and foremost, Jim is passionate about athletics and loves how a student-athlete transforms throughout their journey in college," she said.
"He has a very good sense of where he needs to go and an even better sense of how to get there. He's has a very strong work ethic and is a people person."
Tracy said her husband enjoys reading and playing computer games. He does light gardening and enjoys feeding hummingbirds. He also likes hiking and riding his father's classic bicycle that he has fixed up.
Donovan has three younger siblings who are scattered across the nation. His parents, Jim and Mary, live near the Fullerton campus. He said his parents and several others have served as strong role models.
"I had some wonderful mentors in my formative years. At Hawaii, [former] UH Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw, Pete Derzis, who is a vice president at ESPN, and former Hawaii Athletic
Directors Stan Sheriff and Hugh Yoshida all helped me learn along the way. At Fullerton, I've had great mentors in Fram and Berenecea and Mildred."
Jim Donovan with his wife Tracy, daughter Jackie and son Josh.
Some life lessons from his football coach
Donovan said Dick Tomey, his football coach at Hawaii, played a big part in his success in athletics. "He taught me so much that I was able to take into my career. Coach Tomey was excellent in getting you to set goals and staying positive when dealing with adversity. Those two lessons have really helped me."
"There is no question that we strive for perfection. We understand it is an elusive, maybe an impossible goal. But to strive for it is something you can do every day," he said.
"There is an old saying, 'If you are not making progress, then everyone is passing you.' In our business, you can be making progress and they are still passing you. So, we are really relentless on continuing to improve. And we have many, many metrics that we measure -- besides wins and losses -- that help us know we are heading in the right direction."
President Virjee said one of Donovan's chief strengths is getting people to believe in themselves.
"He has inspired our student-athletes and our coaches and athletics staff to believe – to believe in their ability to succeed, to be willing to set audacious goals, and then devise, implement and execute on a plan to achieve those plans," said Virjee.
Last June, Fullerton won its first ever Big West Commissioner's Cup, which is awarded annually to the school with the best overall finishes in the conference's 17 sports championships.
"That was not one of the goals we had during my first year," said Donovan. "It seemed so far off that we didn't target it.
"Everyone here is really proud of winning the Cup. At the presentation, our student representatives from our athletic teams accepted the award, with Fram, Berenecea and I standing behind them. It was a striking moment for all three of us."