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The Residue of Design

The wandering path of Oliver Luck — former star QB, onetime congressional candidate, athletic director at West Virginia, and Andrew's dad — has led him back to where he started

A cracked, peeling game ball and a yellowing Houston Oilers cap: These are about the only things here that remind you who Oliver Luck used to be. Having never played college sports, I can only guess that meeting an administrator is rarely a memorable part of a recruit’s campus visit. Luck pours himself a cup of coffee and waits at the door of his windowless office, deep inside West Virginia University’s basketball coliseum. His navy blazer and glistening leather shoes identify him as a responsible adult presence around these parts; he’s not the one to trifle with. A member of the football staff shepherds four potential transfers into Luck’s office and he invites them to sit around a conference table, cheerfully reciting some tidbit about where they grew up or what position they play as they settle into their seats. One of them has brought an entourage of his mom and little brother. Without their helmets and pads to protect them, you remember that they’re just kids: fidgety, restless, vulnerable, averting eye contact, almost shy. “I’m the athletic director around here. The AD,” Luck says. He smiles, and, if you’ve watched football over the past couple of years, you see the family resemblance. “That really stands for ‘Andrew’s Dad.’ That’s how everybody knows me nowadays.” The players laugh. They look up from their hands.

Morgantown is perhaps the only place in America where he’s more than just someone’s dad. Oliver Luck first set foot here 35 years ago, a brainy quarterback from Cleveland with no clue whether he was good enough to compete at the collegiate level. “It was a simpler and in some respects more fun time,” he says after the recruits have left, chuckling about all the now-illegal benefits they received from local coal barons — hamburgers, mostly — back in his day. He became a school legend, breaking Mountaineer passing records and leading the program back to national prominence.

In the decades between his final game — a 1981 Peach Bowl victory over Florida — and his 2010 appointment as West Virginia athletic director, he played in the NFL and cobbled together a remarkable business career as a sort of wandering, problem-solving managerial sage. He built two successful World League of American Football franchises “from soup to nuts” in Germany before moving to London to become president of NFL Europe. From there he went to Houston, where he helped oversee the financing and construction of three stadiums and lure the original San Jose Earthquakes down south. Despite possessing only a vague grasp on soccer, he became the first president and general manager of the newly rebranded Houston Dynamo, and the team won two championships during his five-year tenure. Meanwhile, he was appointed by the governor to the West Virginia University Board of Governors. Now, Luck has brought his golden touch home to Morgantown, insofar as the concept of home holds for someone whose professional life seems episodic, almost random. His boldest victory was in 2012, when he engineered West Virginia’s move from the “crumbling” Big East to the all-hegemonic Big 12. As a result, the school was able to secure both a lucrative multimedia rights deal and, thanks to a public financing maneuver he learned while in Houston, funding for a new baseball stadium. Moving to the Big 12 also gave him a mandate to reevaluate and revamp all the athletic programs: In 2011, he ousted head football coach Bill Stewart and appointed the up-and-coming mutant Air Raider Dana Holgorsen. (He’s also done little things like ensuring that fans in the stadium can drink beer while admiring Holgorsen’s exquisite dishevelment.)

Luck’s goal is to elevate West Virginia — flagship school of a small, poor, struggling state — into a program comparable with Oregon, Oklahoma, or Arkansas. Football is the cornerstone of the college sports economy — it’s why there’s a staff big enough to handle the recruits and work with players on their conditioning, even as Holgorsen and some of his assistants are down in Dallas for Big 12 media days. The appointment of Holgorsen has, at its heights, brought a new sense of numbers-on-the-board ecstasy to Morgantown. Last year — their first in the Big 12 — they climbed to no. 5 in the nation before hitting a gruesome midseason slump. Having lost quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to the NFL, this year will likely be one of transition. They barely edged William & Mary to open the season on Saturday. Then again, three high-profile rookies playing on Sundays makes for a pretty good recruiting tool down the line. The same goes for Luck’s long-term plan to add nearby BCS opponents like Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Penn State to West Virginia’s future schedules, potentially establishing the Mountaineers as a regional powerhouse and helping with the out-of-state recruiting that is so crucial to their continued success.

There was a time when an AD’s primary responsibility was merely to ensure that equipment had been ordered for the football team. But the transformation of the modern AD into a kind of CEO (complete with hefty bonuses) or brand manager perfectly mirrors the monetize-everything trajectory of college sports, as well as the ways in which a school like West Virginia can begin to think far beyond its seeming limitations. Does the AD patrol the line between amateurism and professionalism — or is the job to make sure that line is productively blurred?

“There’s been a realization in college athletics that an athletic director really is a businessman,” Luck explains. “We have about an $80 million athletic department, and you have to figure out within your means how to compete. I think if you asked 15 or 20 years ago, there’d be a lot of ADs who would say, ‘Yeah it’s sort of a business, but it’s all about higher education and values.’ We still try to do that. But it’s really become a business.” He’s not uncomfortable with that shift. He makes no illusion of the inner workings of things. “I have positive feelings about the old days and the way you did things, but that’s sort of like feeling nostalgic for the heyday of the Detroit auto industry. Just because it was done doesn’t mean it couldn’t be improved upon.

“We always tell our student-athletes: Don’t let sports use you — you use it. You be selfish. You use it to get a free education, you use it to meet people. Don’t let it chew you up.”

It might all sound a little jaded, but Luck is here precisely because he understood all this from the beginning. College sports were always a means to an end, one that didn’t necessarily have to involve football. He was a curious and committed student who chose West Virginia over Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. He took his studies seriously and was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1981. Though he was the Houston Oilers’ second-round draft pick in 1982 and the team’s starter for the 1983 season, he describes his time in the NFL with a sense of detachment. Luck didn’t aspire for a long career and instead set the more modest goal of playing long enough to qualify for an NFL pension. The 1982 players’ strike had pressed him to think about life after football, so in his free time and during the offseason he took night-school classes toward a law degree. In 1987 he retired from the Oilers — with a pension — and received a law degree from the University of Texas. “I was healthy,” he says. “I saw a lot of guys that played 10 or 12 years who were all beat up.”

Luck is quick to point out that there was nothing unique about his extracurricular pursuits — the NFL wasn’t the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today, and a lot of guys in his day didn’t expect to get rich playing football. Still, Luck was obviously a little different: “When I knew I was going to retire, as I was getting ready for the bar exam, I thought, You know, I want to do something fun.” And so he walked away from professional football and became a lawyer.

Luck When Luck was introduced as West Virginia’s new athletic director in 2010, one of the first people he acknowledged at his press conference was Jürgen Schlunk, a beloved German professor. In Schlunk’s classes, Luck performed plays by Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka and learned to embrace an identity distinct from that of a campus hero. “I remember him saying, ‘Learning a second language can give you a second identity.’ I thought that was really interesting, particularly for an athlete. Having the ability to take yourself out of that environment and Star Trek you to a different existence is really kind of cool and probably very healthy.”

Upon passing the bar, Luck and his wife (whom he’d met in law school) moved to Germany for a yearlong fellowship for young lawyers. He worked in a small German firm and studied the effects of the European Union on local laws. They then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked in corporate law for a year before returning to Morgantown in 1990. That year, Luck ran for Congress as a Republican and lost to the Democratic incumbent, Harley Staggers Jr. Luck’s campaign was dogged by an ethics violation involving his use of a Mountaineer Athletic Club mailing list. He apologized for the incident after the election.

There’s a seeming randomness to Luck’s professional life, a sense that he is, to borrow Schlunk’s phrasing, always in search of a second, third, fourth identity. Mere days after the election, someone at the World League of American Football contacted Luck to ask if he wanted to be the general manager of the Frankfurt Galaxy. Beyond the fact that he spoke the language, he had no real qualifications. “I didn’t have any management experience. I’d never run a business.” Other than a Deutsche Bank account number and the driver awaiting him at the Frankfurt airport, he was on his own. “There was no life vest. Literally nothing had been done.” At first, it was all logistics: negotiating a stadium lease, hiring a local staff, finding office space and apartments for his players.

Somewhere along the way, it became anthropology. Luck launches into a passionate treatise on the self-regarding nature of German culture — “Kultur, after all, is a German word” — and how he catered to audiences there by offering football not as a threat to native pastimes but as “silly, cheesy” American spectacle. There’s something self-aware and almost ironic about it all, but for Luck it was all part of studying and remaining sensitive to the culture of his potential market. He realized that most foreign audiences only ever got to watch the Super Bowl, so, “We have to put on a Super Bowl every home game.” They hired a DJ, and Galaxy games became known as “Europe’s biggest open-air disco.” There were elaborate skits and pranks; a famous one involved an Oliver Luck stunt double falling from a helicopter onto the field. Then there was the time they brought 150 Harley-Davidsons to Frankfurt to buzz around the field while “Born to Be Wild” played.

In Germany, he brokered media deals and learned about sales, marketing, and branding. He did commentary for NFL games in Germany. For the next few years, his sense of curiosity guided his business pursuits. How does a stadium get built? His family moved to Houston and he got an executive gig handling the deals for the Toyota Center and BBVA Compass Stadium. What of the changing demographics of America and the dizzying multiculturalism of Texas? He took charge of the Dynamo and, like he had done in Germany, set out to try to reckon with all the tiny market segments.

Even though Luck is famous for being the ex-quarterback turned businessman, you get the sense that he still sees himself as the honors student who happened to play football, not the football player with some smarts. His office bookshelf is strangely eclectic: John McPhee, Paul Theroux, Ayn Rand, SuperFreakonomics, a biography of John Adams. His career as an athlete certainly opened doors for him, and he can play the role of the tribal hero whenever needed. But in meetings and negotiations, he sounds less like a swaggering quarterback commanding the huddle than some kind of management guru carefully studying the room’s subtexts and loose energies. We spend the better part of a day in a conference room with members of the athletic department and a local architecture firm. They page through various designs for the new baseball stadium, none of which fit within their budget. They go line-by-line through the design, eliminating training rooms, debating the merits of various HVAC systems, finding a storage space that will fit the mower. It’s absolutely mind-numbing to watch, yet Luck’s attention never wavers. He prods those around him with incisive questions. He combs through his notes, searching for a way to cut the Gordian knot.

He’s no utopian. The market forces that come to bear daily on his athletic department aren’t something Luck laments. “We gotta hire and fire coaches; there’s no tenure involved. We have to pay the bills. It’s very much unlike a traditional teaching or research part of the university.” Rather, it’s a set of problems to be solved, efficiencies to be implemented.

And so it’s not hard to imagine that he might have become a Silicon Valley executive or a successful entrepreneur. Or maybe a politician. “I’d always been interested in politics,” Luck says of his 1990 congressional run. “I was probably a little idealistic at that age.” As nomadic as his family’s life has been over the past 30 years, that moment stands out — not because he lost, but because it now seems like such an opportunistic thing to have done, moving back to Morgantown and trading on his college fame. It also stands out because, here in 2013, I can’t help but feel like he is a natural. He has a strong, diverse résumé and he is remarkably good at the part of politics that involves charming the Rotary Club, being present and engaged with total strangers, spinning anecdotes from his footballing days into management aphorisms. He is a former athlete one minute, a cosmopolitan, globe-trotting businessman the next. He never speaks in extremes. You can quarrel with his views on college athletics or the size of government but still be won over by his mellow, folksy wonkiness. Later that day, one of the recruits will tweet the “Andrew’s Dad” anecdote and note that his new AD seems like a cool dude. Even though he shrugs off the possibility of another run — too much of a time commitment, he claims — it almost makes too much sense. People are drawn to Luck, especially here in West Virginia.

Oliver and Andrew Luck Beyond the green mountains of West Virginia are more green mountains. The state didn’t earn its nickname for nothing, and as I trail Luck’s SUV east from Morgantown to Petersburg, I think about something he frequently says about WVU: It’s the flagship institution for an underdog state, one that carries the hopes of coal miners and D.C. commuters alike. “We’re not a growth area and we’ve had the same 1.8 million people for 30 years. We don’t have any professional teams. When the Mountaineers play, it’s a big deal to people all over the state. That’s their team.”

We arrive at our destination. On the outskirts of this small town of 2,500 is Allegheny Wood Products, one of the region’s titans of the wood trade. Luck is here to give a speech at an annual retreat for the company’s managerial and forestry staff. In the parking lot, Luck loops his arm through his blazer and jokes that in half a day I’ve just seen all of West Virginia. Bleary from the drive, I temporarily forget where we are until we enter the main headquarters and every surface is made of wood.

Everybody knows Luck. The company’s owner, a kind, white-haired man named John Crites, welcomes us. “I remember that game against Penn State. Oliver kept us in it for two and a half quarters. Then Paterno took over!”

We put on protective goggles and Crites and his staff show us around one of their processing facilities. Luck has convinced Crites, a West Virginia alum, to donate all the wood for the new baseball stadium. Crites’s son explains where the wood has come from and how all the lasers work. Luck nods thoughtfully, waving hello to everyone whose workstation we are invading. It would be a perfect tableau were Luck running for office.

That afternoon, we find ourselves in the Ruritan Club of North Fork, a bare-bones community center about 20 minutes from the Allegheny headquarters. About a hundred employees are scattered around four long cafeteria tables. Crites introduces me to some of the managers who have come from Allegheny’s branch office in China. Luck sips from a Styrofoam cup of lemonade and shoots the breeze with a circle of smokers. He playfully harasses one guy for being a Virginia Tech grad. Another guy interrupts them: “I have to take a picture with you.”

Everyone takes a seat and Crites rises to introduce the afternoon’s guest. He tells the story about the Penn State game again, pays tribute to Luck’s move to get beer sales at football games (cue: loud ovation), and, by way of illustrating how far back he and Oliver go, remarks that his daughter Kelly used to babysit Luck’s toddler — a future Pro Bowler named Andrew.

Luck stands up. He would have opened with the “Andrew’s Dad” line but everyone already knows that, so he jokes about Kelly having been one of the first women to ever see baby Andrew naked. He wings his way through a speech about what he is trying to build at WVU and how everyone in this room is a part of it. He talks about the importance of teamwork, communication, all the typical managerial stuff you would expect. He talks down their rivals, poking fun at the Virginia Tech grad in the crowd. He shares an anecdote about the four prospective transfers he met that morning before taking questions about Geno Smith, the NCAA (“more Byzantine than the Byzantine Empire”), and the football team’s chances this fall.

When I asked Luck earlier about where he goes from here, he laughed. “I’ve never been too good at that part.” He has no intention of leaving West Virginia, and it wouldn’t be something he would even contemplate until the baseball team was playing in its new stadium. There have been rumors, most notably about the open AD position at Stanford a couple years ago. But he has a special relationship with West Virginia and its people. He understands this place, even if he’s not necessarily of it. He weaves his way through the Ruritan Club with ease and a ready wit, and it no longer seems like he’s here on official AD business.

For a couple of hours, his responsibility wasn’t to the students or the trustees or his athletes; it was to the people in this room, some of whom are alums, many of whom just want something to look forward to on Saturdays. It remains to be seen what this constituency might become in Luck’s future. Where does he go from here? For now, he is off to a picnic, where he will shake more hands, take more pictures, and tell more tales. Nobody will ask him about Andrew. They’d rather hear about the time he almost beat Penn State.

Filed Under: Andrew Luck, Luck, People, Series, Teams, West Virginia

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Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is finishing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

Archive @ huahsu