Gene Taylor was the athletic director who guided North Dakota State from its Division II days to the ultra-successful early days of Division I. Under his watch, the Bison made a national splash in FCS football by winning three straight national titles and beating numerous FBS teams. The Bison men’s basketball team also made two NCAA tournament appearances and defeated Oklahoma in the first round in 2014. Taylor moved to a position as deputy AD at Iowa in 2014 and is enjoying the Hawkeyes’ perch near the top of FBS football. Iowa is the fourth-ranked in the FBS playoff standings and play Michigan State for the Big Ten title Saturday. I chatted with him Wednesday. Here’s an edited version of the Q & A:
Q. I’m thinking this is exactly what you expected when you brought your magic to Iowa City, right?
A. (Chuckles) I’m taking full credit. I’ve been here a grand total of maybe 14 months, never coached a down or recruited a player, but I’m taking full credit.
Q. How exciting has this been? We know what’s it like to be around an FCS program that’s having a lot of success in Fargo, but this is the big boys. If Iowa gets past Michigan State, we’re talking a major big deal in Iowa City.
A. It is a big deal, in Iowa City and really across the state. Iowa is called the Hawkeye State for a reason. It took awhile for our fans to really get on board. We had a couple of games that were critical games at home and we didn’t sell out until the Minnesota game. It’s been how many weeks now that talking heads on the sports shows have been arguing about how good or bad Iowa is. To see that is fun, it’s exciting and nobody expected it. Our kids just keep showing up and finding a way to win football games. It is different because it’s such a national issue. For me, I sit back and still ask, ‘Do I work here?’
Q. NDSU has done great things in FCS and NDSU has gotten its share of national publicity, but the college football playoffs and Iowa’s place in that is on ESPN or Fox Sports every day. It’s a nationwide sports story every, single day.
A. It is. And there’s a lot of similarities between Bison fans and Hawkeye fans. They get a little testy when you go after their teams. They get mad at the national media and I’m sure there are Twitter wars going on. There are a lot of passionate Iowa fans just like there are passionate Bison fans. But we’re the underdog every week. I typically listen to the ESPN talk-radio shows and it seems like every day, either positively or negatively, we’re the topic of discussion on some sort of sports show. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of.
Q. Was this expected or completely unexpected? There was talk last year that maybe Kirk Ferentz had worn out his welcome at Iowa. And now all of the sudden Iowa is 12-0 and Kirk is the god of all gods again. Did you see this coming?
A. I think the only group that maybe saw this coming, and I don’t know how far they thought they’d get, but that group in the locker room — the players and the coaches — kind of recommitted themselves to do some really good things this year. Externally, no. You’re right. Last year, people were frustrated with Kirk and Gary (Barta, the AD) had to come out last year many times and explain why he wasn’t making a change and why he was still supporting Kirk. Our season ticket holders sent a very strong message to the tune of $2 million worth of ticket sales we didn’t make. We lost 4,000 season tickets this year. It was a very direct message. And part of it was our schedule, our home schedule. We didn’t have Wisconsin or Nebraska at home this year. As everybody’s talked about, we didn’t play Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State. That’s going to change in the next few years. But our season ticket holders sent a message. Give credit to Kirk. He looked internally, looked at his staff and kind of reinvented what they were doing. The players bought in. There is great senior leadership on this team. It reminds a little bit of the team that went 3-8 under Craig (Bohl, at NDSU). Kind of looked at himself, look at the staff, made some changes and then they went 7-4 and made a run in the playoffs. This reminds me a little bit of that.
Q. This has to be a blast. You’re heading to Indianapolis and the eyes of the sports nation will be on, maybe not Gene Taylor, but on the Iowa Hawkeyes. It has to be a blast to be in the middle of it.
A. It is a lot of fun. It’s new to me and it’s new to everybody here, really. The Big Ten championship game has only been around for about five years, so nobody here has played for a Big Ten championship. But other than the size and scope, the feeling is very similar to what we were going through at NDSU. The buildup to the playoffs, the buildup to win the next game. If you win you get to go on and play that next game. The energy, the feel and the excitement are very similar to what we experienced, it’s just on a broader level. The feelings I’m experiencing are the same. It’s just a different color uniform and a different process.
Q. Are you keeping up with what’s going on at NDSU? Do you keep in contact with the guys and gals up here?
A. Oh, yes. Regular phone calls and text messages. I text Chris (Klieman) a lot. Actually, (wife) Kathy and I just drove over and watched Coach Richman and the boys take on (basketball) at Iowa State. It’s been fun to keep in touch with calls and texts. It’s very compliementary. Being at Iowa and Chris is an Iowa guy, so there are lots of ‘hey, great job’ type of texts. Not that I have anything to do with it, but like I said I’ll take all the credit (laughs).
Q. One of the reasons you took the job at Iowa was to get experience in a BCS athletic department so you took fulfill your goal of being an AD at a Power 5 conference school. Any movement on that front? Anything going to happen there?
A. Not that I know of right away. But there’s a lot of movement out there right now around the country and if somebody should ring my phone, or knock on my door, I’ll be willing to listen. Even though it’s only been a few short months here, I think the experience I’ve gained has been invaluable and it hopefully has shored up the resume if the right job comes along.
Q. Is getting an AD job at a Power 5 school something you could not have done with your NDSU experience? There’s always going to be that element that says you can’t go from Fargo to the Big Ten. Is that true in what you’ve seen? Has the experience you’ve gained at Iowa invaluable in making that next step?
A. When I was sitting at the desk at NDSU, I felt strongly that we could go from where we were at NDSU to another job because of the exposure, etc. I believe I could have done it, but the learning curve would have been steeper than it is now. There are just things that you do with a $95 million budget, decisions you make, that are very different than you do with an $18 million budget. The national exposure is something you have to get used to. Being around coaches like Kirk, Fran (McCaffery, men’s basketball), Lisa (Bluder, women’s basketball), coaches who get a lot of input on what they do and don’t do … it’s different. It’s very different. And that’s probably what I’ve learned the most from Gary is watching how he handles that.