New Hawaii athletic director Ben Jay has a knack for finding workable solutions to critical situations, his colleagues say
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 19, 2012
In Ben Jay's boyish dreams, the first NBA point guard of Chinese ancestry wouldn't have been Jeremy Lin.
It would, instead, have been the middle son of immigrant parents who owned and operated Crestview Market on the north side of Columbus, Ohio.
There, just beyond the bounds of The Ohio State University campus, Jay fancied himself a basketball player nearly 40 years before anybody heard of Lin.
Jay was convinced basketball was his game — right on up to the time when his mother barged into his second practice with the Crestview Junior High team and dragged him back to the market, where there was work to be done.
Two years later, following the intercession of an older brother, and recovery from a knee injury, Jay's mother relented and let him go out for his high school team, whereupon the new coach cut him and, for good measure, "(he) told me I had no business playing basketball and told me I wouldn't amount to much in sports," Jay said.
Undaunted, Jay recalls, "(it) started me on my path to prove that I could put my mind to anything."
A determined path, it turns out, that also brings the 46-year-old Jay to town for Thursday's public introduction as the new University of Hawaii athletic director.
WHO DOESN'T LOVE ‘MAGNUM' AND ‘FIVE-0?'
In the Jay household it is known simply as "The Jay Adventure" — Ben, his wife Ling, daughters Taylor and Olivia and son Bryan — piling into the family car on a whim and taking off, direction and destination unknown.
"We just go somewhere (for the day), there is no planned destination," Ling said.
Ben will ask the kids whether to turn right or left and, after a while, they stumble upon a destination.
"We just hope we'll end up somewhere exciting," Ling said of the format they've followed.
In a career that has taken him to California to work for a minor league baseball team, to Cleveland as the Indians' operations director, to New York for a job at Bloomingdale's, assistant AD at Fairfield (Conn.), back to California for a position in the then-Pac-10 administration, back to Ohio State and, now, Hawaii, Jay's career has been about exploration.
That Hawaii would fit in there somewhere beyond the honeymoon on Maui 22 years ago has long been the hope. "Like I told the search committee, I've always had this attraction to Hawaii since growing up watching ‘Magnum P. I.' and the old ‘Hawaii Five-0' on TV," Ben said.
He applied for an assistant AD position at UH in the 1990s, got an interview, but not a job offer.
When UH advertised the AD opening in August, Jay's was said to have been one of the first applications received.
At his alma mater, Ohio State, where he earned two degrees, and has been officially listed as the executive associate athletic director for finance and operations the past six years, they have a different title for Jay. "The money guy" is how AD Gene Smith frequently introduces him.
Jay oversees 35 teams and a budget of $131 million — about $100 million more than he will work with at UH, when he moves into his office next month.
"People assume that, at Ohio State, we have all this money and are just looking for ways to use it," said Don Patko, assistant AD for facilities operations. "And, that's not the case at all. We also have to stretch what we have. Every dollar counts."
That often makes Jay the athletic department's "no" man, the official in charge of saying "no" to projects and expenditures that don't fit the resources or budget.
Texas Christian athletic director Chris Del Conte, who knew Jay in the Pac-10 when Jay controlled the purse strings, said, "We all get told ‘no.' But it is how you get told ‘no,' that you understand the individual," Del Conte said. "He has a great way of articulating things and working with you."
Which is why Patko said he was impressed early on with Jay. "He has a way with being able to look at a situation critically and come up with the best solution. He doesn't just tell you ‘no,' he'll work with you. He tries different angles until he finds what works. For example we wanted to put this chain link fence around a soccer field and it was going to cost us more than we wanted and was also going to involve getting some variances, a pretty arduous process," Patko said.
After studying the situation and researching variances, Jay determined that if they made the height of the fence six feet instead of eight they would not require variances and could save months — and at least $15,000 — in the process, Patko said.
"Everything doesn't have to be the Taj Mahal, that's been my mantra there," Jay said. "We're gonna deliver something the student athletes and coaches are going to like but do it in a very economical, sensible way."
FINDING THE WIN-WIN
Ohio State's plan to build a boathouse for its women's rowing team flanking the Griggs Reservoir and idyllic Duranceau Park a few miles off campus met with neighborhood opposition and became the subject of an intense two-year battle.
Signs in the area beseeched city officials to "Save Our Park."
"Ben took a lot of flack and grief, undeservedly," Pete Hagan, an assistant AD, said. "The project wasn't communicated very well at first and people thought it would ruin their neighborhood."
But Patko said, "one of Ben's strengths is that he is very personable and able to work with people. He listens and tries to find something that will work for everybody."
"He went to a lot of meetings and tried to smooth things out, listening to people's concerns," Ling said.
Hagan said, "when Ben got involved he was able to communicate with them, address their concerns and see the project through" to city council approval last year.
Gretchen O'Loughlin, a community activist who fought the project, told the Star-Advertiser Tuesday, "it is not that bad, I will say that."
Beverly Stephens, an opponent of the project, told the Columbus Dispatch, "It's still a pleasant area. I'm not as upset as I thought I would be."
A glance around Jay's office at Ohio State leaves the impression he oversees mission control at NASA, not an athletic program.
"I think you could land a (shuttle) from there," Patko said. "There are lots of TVs, lots of (computer) monitors on in there. He's got CNN on, weather channels, security cameras, you name it."
Jay said, "I like having the information flowing around me. I'm a little techie. Not a nerdy one, I hope."
SPORTSMAN AT HEART
Jay's parents put everything into making a life in the U.S. for their three sons, including their names.
"After coming to America they wanted to take on more American-sounding names," Ben said. ‘That's why we are John, Ben and Dan."
And, for good measure, the surname was changed from Chin to Jay.
"All of us have the middle initial ‘c' — no middle name, — just the initial, as a reminder," Ben said.
In time the parents also came to understand that their sons needed to go their own ways and follow thier passions. "For my older brother, John, there were the arts and an advertising (career). For my younger brother, Dan, it was about finance. And, for me, it was always about sports," Ben said.
Yet, there was a time, after suffering through a 102-loss season as operations manager of the Cleveland Indians and seeing people around him laid off, Jay had his doubts about staying in the profession.
"I got an offer to work in operations for Bloomingdale's in New York at twice the money and took it," Jay said.
"That was the only time in his career he got out of sports and he missed it so much that he decided to get right back in because that's where he wanted to be," Ling said.
DAD WOULD BE PROUD
Jay's father died 25 years ago, just as his son's career in sports management was beginning to take off.
"The one thing that he was able to see was opening day for the Indians in 1985, when I was director of operations," Jay said. "I think that was a proud moment sitting behind home plate and knowing his son was in charge of all that."