Updated: August 17, 2012 6:46AM
Dan Schumacher has a ready smile and self-deprecating sense of humor that comes with his South Side upbringing. But he didn’t laugh when asked if he’d taken the athletic director’s job at Chicago State because captain of the Titanic wasn’t available.
“Some people think I’m crazy,” Schumacher said. “But I’ve always been motivated by a challenge, and I never think anything is impossible. This is an opportunity.”
Using a teaspoon to tunnel under the lake to Indiana isn’t impossible, either, but not many people would try it. For a college athletics administrator, the task of whipping Chicago State’s program into shape is similarly daunting.
After years of what Schumacher refers to as “systemic problems,” Chicago State bottomed out with a forced departure from the Summit League, formerly the Mid-Continent Conference. NCAA membership was at risk as well, the result of an abysmal Academic Progress Rate and participation numbers so poor that athletes from other sports — basketball players, say — were being conscripted to run track and cross-country lest the Cougars forfeit scheduled meets.
Elsewhere on campus, Dr. Elnora Daniel, the university president, was forced to resign after an audit revealed her lavish spending habits. And a study found that only 12.8 percent of enrolled students were graduating within six years.
Dr. Wayne Watson, former chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, inherited a university in turmoil when he took over for Daniel in 2009. Watson was an All-America wrestler at Northwestern, and he believes a well-run athletic program has a place on a vibrant, diversified campus.
His commitment helped lure Schumacher from Lewis University, where he had spent six years overseeing a 20-sport intercollegiate program, upgrading facilities and developing corporate support.
“Lewis was a ‘safe’ job. I probably could have spent another 20 years there,” Schumacher said. “But after we won conference awards for our on-field performance and our graduation rate, I started wondering what else was there for me.”
He won’t have to look far for a challenge at Chicago State.
“There were so many little things we didn’t do,” he said. “We didn’t have a ticket machine. I bought a ticket machine.”
It’s a start.
The goal, dubbed “Chicago State 360” to signify a complete turnaround, is athletic success within the context of improved academics, a 75 percent graduation rate and greater campus/community engagement.
“As a college athlete, you’re in school to exchange your athletic ability for an education,” Schumacher said. “You do a complete injustice to kids if they come to your school to play sports and they don’t graduate. Our coaches have copies of our academic standards. One of them complained that they’re higher than those for ‘normal’ students. That’s true. Student-athletes should be held to a higher standard.”
The Emil and Patricia A. Jones Convocation Center, a sparkling 7,000-seat basketball facility they’d kill for at DePaul or Northwestern, is the centerpiece of Chicago State athletics. A new baseball field is in the final planning stages, and a nine-lane, Olympic-caliber track soon will surround a new soccer field.
“There are some tools in the toolbox,” Schumacher said. “I’m excited about where we can go.”
Schumacher is a conspicuous presence as a high-profile white man on a predominantly African-American campus. Watson has assured him his minority status is not an issue, and Schumacher doesn’t see it as one. A 43-year-old married father of three, he has been jutting his jaw out at challenges all his life.
As a 120-pound freshman football player at Marist, he was so incensed at being passed over for playing time that he transferred to Sandburg, where he grew into an all-conference wide receiver. But he never acquired the size to follow two football-playing uncles to Michigan or other Big Ten environs, so he went to Winona State and became a Division II All-American, scoring 16 touchdowns as a senior.
“I was an overachiever,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of ability, but I found a way to get it done.”
After 11 years in the corporate world, the sale of his bank left Schumacher free to pursue new career opportunities. He returned to Winona State to learn the business side of sports as an associate athletic director responsible for marketing and development.
Then came Lewis, and now Chicago State.
“This is a business position, a sales position — the days of the old coach taking over as athletic director are over,” Schumacher said. “I want to master my craft, get to the top of my profession. I’ve been surprising people my whole life, and I’m going to surprise people at Chicago State.”