RICHMOND — It's a good thing Steve Lochmueller knows how to juggle two sports at once because that's what he's had to do since being named Eastern Kentucky University's new athletics director on March 27.
One of the last players to participate in both football and basketball at the University of Kentucky, he was a member of UK's 1971 "Super Kittens" recruiting class, which went undefeated as freshmen. The 6-foot-7 native of Tell City, Ind., played on Wildcats teams that won an SEC regular-season championship and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight.
Within his first days on the job, Lochmueller was tasked with hiring a new men's basketball coach. Within his first year, he'd like to move the EKU football program up from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Lochmueller, with an annual base salary of $180,000, has spent most of his career as a telecommunications executive.
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At EKU, he succeeds Mark Sandy, who left to take a similar position at Ball State.
Two days after Lochmueller was named EKU's athletics director, men's basketball coach Jeff Neubauer interviewed for the Fordham job, which he landed.
When Dan McHale was named Thursday to succeed Neubauer, the Herald-Leader caught up with Lochmueller to talk about his first days on the job. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Question: You were thrown into the fire very quickly. Did you have a chance to speak with Coach Neubauer or try to talk him into staying before he left for Fordham?
Answer: No, I didn't. I was on spring break, and the president (Michael Benson) hired me. And then two days after I was hired, which was on a Saturday, the president called and says, "Steve, we may be in the market for a new basketball coach." He said, "Jeff is going to interview at Fordham." So I said, "OK, that's going right into the frying pan." So I did not get a chance to talk with Jeff; the president did. The president and Jeff had some very good conversations. This is an opportunity that Jeff wanted. He wanted to move to the (Atlantic 10). So we're very happy for Jeff and his wife. ... He's from the Northeast, so it's something that he wanted to do, which makes it good. Because we want to see people that leave here be successful. Now, after I got back on campus, my first full day of work, I went down to the office and Jeff was down there cleaning out his office and getting ready to go to the Final Four. I went down and spent a little time with him and congratulated him and wished him the best.
Q: During the press conference, you said that Dan (McHale) stood out above all the other applicants. Can you expound on that? What about him convinced you that he was the guy?
A: We had an absolutely outstanding pool of candidates. What made Dan stand out from everybody else is when he came into the interviewing process, he had a plan. He told us about that plan. ... He told us how he was going to brand the athletics. So his interviewing process, along with the fact that this young man has grown up under a coaching tree that expects excellence, expects effort every day and expects all the people to be on one team playing for one sole reason, and always moving the bar higher. ...Everybody did a great job; I don't want to sit here and give anyone the impression that the interviewees did not prepare. They all did a very nice job. Dan just did far and above everybody else the way he prepared himself. The knowledge he had of the program today, of the players today, of the schedule for next year, of who he wanted to bring in with the two remaining scholarships. And the fact that he came from Coach Pitino's tree obviously did not hurt."
Q: How many inquiries about the job did you receive?
A: I don't know the exact number. But it's well over 30. And what we did was, we had those, we got them all together and then we sat over here on Thursday and Friday prior to the NCAA finals in Indianapolis and narrowed it down to six individuals that we thought and knew had separated themselves from the overall pack.
Q: Did you look at some people who didn't apply?
A: We looked at people that didn't apply. We are bound to do what we have to do administratively through the process online with our application process. But anybody that called or anybody that expressed interest — and we even put out a couple feelers to see if there were people that were interested. Some came back and were; some didn't come back at all. That was my No. 1 priority, was let everybody out there that had an interest, let them get their information into us. And from that pool we picked the top six people to interview in Indianapolis.
Q: During your interview process, how did you reassure the president that you were the guy even though you didn't have a lot of experience being an athletic director?
A: None. I've been around athletics all my life. I grew up in an athletic family. Obviously, I've been around the University of Kentucky all my life. But I've been down here at Eastern before; I've been to Louisville before to see games, and other places. The reason that the president chose me was, No. 1, I'm a hard worker. I came from the business world. I have a great amount of contacts, both at the state and local level, as well as the federal level, politically. I have a lot of contacts. Fifty percent of my job is to raise money and be a fund-raiser, so I have contacts. And it's because of my life. It's because I've spent most of my life inside the commonwealth. And so with my business background, having run a small public company under the scrutiny of that and the transparency that you have to do there, with my contacts and with my coaching contacts. John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Mick Cronin — all these folks are people that I know personally and I have a lot of respect for. And I pulled and tugged on them quite a bit during this process.
Q: Now that you're on the job, are you confident you can do the job or are there some butterflies and questions that you have?
A: No, I wouldn't have put in my application if I knew I couldn't handle it. I told someone when my application went in, they asked me that question when they were looking at all the applicants and I said "I wouldn't waste your time because I don't want to waste my time." When I applied for this job, I knew No. 1, I could get it done, and I could get it done quicker than anybody else.
Q: What's your vision for the program? What's the first thing you want to accomplish?
A: The first thing was to hire a basketball coach. (Laugh) The second thing is we'll take an evaluation and look at our staff. We've got a lot of great people here, so I don't think we'll be making any changes there. We'll take a look at our head coaches. My expectation is I want football, I want basketball, I want volleyball, soccer — across the whole board — I want our coaches to step it up. And it's my job to give them the tools to bring where they are up. We want to raise the standard. So that's my job, to help them. And it's their job to coach. They're in charge of the W's and the L's. I'm in charge of giving them the tools. And then the other vision is we want to raise this program up. It's out in the social media, so it's not a secret that we aspire to move up in the conference. So I will do everything in my power, working with the president and the board of regents, to raise this up a level. That's part of the reason I'm here.
Q; Raising up a level in football?
A: That's what I was talking about. There's speculation out there in social media. I have not been in these discussions yet. I will be going forward. I'll be working with the president. But when you get online you can see that they're talking about they'd like to receive an invite either to the MAC or to the Sun Belt, are the two conferences. And, of course, Mark Sandy, who left to go to Ball State, my predecessor, who did a great job here, Mark was aware of that. He was involved in that process. So we're reaching out. We're trying to get an invite, and I think with the success we've had this week with showing them we're serious about our basketball program, and obviously we've got some plans that we're looking at to upgrade some of the facilities around here. That's a vision that both the president and I have.
Q: With the increased power of the big five conferences, what type of challenges does that present for a school like Eastern?
A: Well, there's a lot going on in the athletic world today, and the big five seem to be driving the bus. But the big five also want the next five — the Sun Belt, the MAC, the WAC, Conference USA and the AAC ... the second five. They want them to be successful. They want to bring them up. The challenges that I see EKU having today is we can stay where we are, which is an FCS school, and I think things will become even more difficult. Revenue will be difficult. The sustainability of the athletic program staying at the FCS level will be much tougher going forward. And it puts a burden on our student-athletes and our university budget as a whole. So it's my job, and with my vision corresponding with the president's vision, is to move us up and raise our revenue. And, hopefully, over time the dollars that the president has to commit to athletics that come out of the general fund of the university, I'm not going to say that they'll go down, but the percentage of dollars would be my goal, to make those less. We've got to take a real hard look at moving up to the FBS.
Q: Do you have a timetable for a move like that?
A: No, sir. Maybe as I get more grass underneath my feet here in my position, maybe I'll be able to give you a timetable. But my dream — we dream big here at Eastern Kentucky University — would be obviously sometime in 2015. That would be my dream.
Q: Anything else you'd like to say about the program?
A: The only thing I would say is I came down here for a reason and that's to build value and build things. That's where I come from. That's the business world I come from. I know I have a lot to learn, but I also have a lot of good people around me. Teams are successful; individuals are not quite as successful, and you're going to see good things coming out of Eastern Kentucky University and the athletic department.