© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

ISU Athletics: Reckoning with the past to move forward

Then-Athletics Director Kyle Brennan at the 2022 groundbreaking for the new Indoor Practice Facility.
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Then-Athletics Director Kyle Brennan at the 2022 groundbreaking for the new Indoor Practice Facility.

The future of Illinois State University’s Athletics department is very much in flux, following the resignation of Athletics Director Kyle Brennan amid questionable spending on a donor trip with Aaron Rossi. An interim AD starts May 1, and a full financial audit of Athletics is planned.

Many of those who worked under Brennan say the rebuilding must acknowledge broader workplace-culture issues inside Athletics – problems that go beyond any single junket on a millionaire’s private jet. They point to a spike in staff resignations and retirements stoked by the COVID pandemic but also by Brennan’s own behavior, including a jarring use of alcohol while on the job and his handling of personnel issues that agitated some on staff and ultimately led to at least one ethics review.

“They’re gonna have to somewhat clean house and start over,” said one former Athletics staff member who left partly because of Brennan. “It’s a pretty critical moment for Illinois State Athletics and for the university.”

This story is based on public records and interviews with 10 current and former Athletics employees who worked with Brennan, up and down the organizational chart. WGLT granted them anonymity so they could speak freely without fear of retaliation.

Their experiences suggest a tall task for interim athletics director Jeri Beggs and whoever gets the job permanently, running one of ISU’s most visible departments with 400 student-athletes and a $30 million budget.

Here’s what ISU Interim President Aondover Tarhule told WGLT about rebuilding workplace culture: “Your messaging, your actions, those are important. First, you have to be clear about what it is you’re trying to do. And you have to act as such. In some ways, that’s what we’re doing here. We feel like some of the decisions that we made didn’t quite live up to the expectations has for leadership in that area, and we’re taking actions to show what we think about that.”

From Larry to Kyle

Brennan came to ISU in January 2021 from the University of Utah, where he was a deputy athletics director. The other leading finalist to succeed retiring ISU athletics director Larry Lyons was, to many staffers, very similar to Lyons. Brennan won out in part because he was not. Lyons’ retirement following over three decades in Athletics came after he came under fire for saying “All Redbird Lives Matter” on a video call with student-athletes during 2020’s summer of social justice protests, prompting an apology.

Former ISU president Terri Goss Kinzy, former ISU athletics director Kyle Brennan, center, and Ryan Pedon are seated during the March 2022 news conference in which Pedon was named ISU men's basketball coach.
Emily Bollinger
Former ISU president Terri Goss Kinzy, former ISU athletics director Kyle Brennan, center, and Ryan Pedon are seated during the March 2022 news conference in which Pedon was named ISU men's basketball coach.

“There was genuine excitement,” one former staffer said. “There was a want and a need for change. And Kyle was representative of that.”

Brennan got off to a good start. Many staffers said they appreciated his attempt to do 1-on-1 meetings with Athletics staffers at all levels. And Lyons, an accountant, was not a prolific fundraiser, so there was hope Brennan could make progress on projects like the Indoor Practice Facility.

“We had a good team, a good base, but we were looking for somebody to come in with some new energy so we could do some new things,” said a different former staffer.

Brennan took over just nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly disrupted college athletics and caused many people to re-evaluate their work-life balance and pay. When events and competition resumed, there were new and cumbersome COVID-related restrictions.

Even in good times, Athletics can be grueling for staff, with long hours and low pay as the industry norm, especially on game days and when different sports seasons overlap. One former staffer making less than $40,000 said he endured an 80-hour workweek.

“The people I worked with directly were godsends. They were hard-working and genuinely cared about you, at work and outside of work. Those people kept me going. But that can obviously only do so much,” that former staffer said. “Kyle’s negligence to create a good culture was kind of the nail in the coffin.”

At the same time, Athletics was forced to deal with another change – new NCAA rules allowing student-athletes to make money from their own Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). Those changes around amateurism have pushed out a lot of the old guard in college sports, said Jason Belzer, a consultant who’s worked in college sports and the publisher of AthleticDirectorU.

And turnover is typically expected after a new athletics director takes over, he said.

“You have all of the factors that would create turnover in play in this situation,” Belzer said.

That happened. There have been at least 70 resignations and retirements since Brennan was hired, far more than the 21 on average every year in the previous decade, ISU personnel records show.

“If you look at mid-major institutions that have been successful in their athletic pursuits – and it’s not just mid-majors, it’s any institution – continuity matters a lot. Continuity of leadership from the university perspective. Continuity of leadership within the Athletics department. Continuity of leadership in the coaching space,” Belzer said. “If you have high turnover, usually it doesn’t work.”

One former staffer said it would have been a challenging two years no matter who was in charge.

“The best leaders have some humility and reflect and take some responsibility when needed and make changes, and they go back and don’t let ego and pride get in the way of the next decision,” they said. “There were a lot of good people who were trying to do the right thing, and sometimes they didn’t. And there some people who let ego and pride stop them from asking for help.”

A difficult workplace

Others interviewed for this story lay more of the blame at Brennan’s feet, as well as his top deputy, Mark Muhlhauser, who joined the staff seven months after Brennan. One current Athletics staffer said the middle of the staff has largely been hollowed out, leaving high-level administrators and a bunch of graduate assistants (GAs) and not a lot of people in between.

“There’s no bench whatsoever,” the staffer said. “There are a lot of people who want to work in Athletics right now but aren’t because of those two human beings.”

One common concern raised by current and former staffers was Brennan’s use of alcohol on the job, including at public events. More often than not, they said Brennan would have a drink in his hand, and he was known to drink – even shots – with his employees and GAs. It was particularly jarring for those who worked with Lyons; one former staffer said Lyons once told them never to be seen in public with a red Solo cup in your hand because of the optics.

“You’re the leader and in front of a lot of impressionable young adults,” one staffer said. “When it becomes part of the culture, that’s when it’s problematic.”

Athletics was also subject to at least one inquiry from ISU’s ethics officer during Brennan’s tenure.

That happened in late 2021 and into early 2022. Two people told WGLT that they were interviewed by the university’s ethics officer, with questions focused in part on Brennan’s relationship with one of his subordinates and how that subordinate’s duties were handled. A third former staffer said they raised concerns about that same relationship to an Athletics administrator who handled personnel issues.

An ISU spokesperson confirmed that it did receive an ethics complaint related to Athletics, but the university denied WGLT’s records request for documents related to the inquiry and its conclusion. It’s unclear if the complainant’s allegations were confirmed, debunked, or something in between.

“The University does not provide details regarding complaints, the review process, or the results of any investigations,” the ISU spokesperson said. “All ethics complaints received by the University are promptly reviewed to determine appropriate next steps.”

A few months later, Brennan was given a three-year contract extension that included a 10% pay raise and new performance bonuses by his boss, then-President Terri Goss Kinzy. Kinzy resigned abruptly in February for unknown reasons. The subordinate has since left Athletics for another job.

Most of those interviewed told WGLT it wasn’t any one factor that led to their own exits, though they say the workplace culture worsened as Brennan settled in. Several said they felt he made promises to them that never led to action – “Kyle gave me car salesman vibes,” as one staffer put it – and that his small inner circle enabled him and spawned us-versus-them tension in the office. One person who served under multiple athletic directors said it stopped being a friendly and fun place to work, so they left.

“They played favorites with who said they’re aligned with them,” one former staff said.

Brennan did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

What’s next?

Despite that friction, Brennan’s tenure contributed to some high points from which Athletics can rebuild.

He fired Dan Muller – head coach of ISU’s marquee sport, men’s basketball – and hired Ohio State assistant Ryan Pedon to replace him. Women’s basketball coach Kristen Gillespie got two contract extensions and just sent ISU’s first-ever WNBA draft pick into the league. The Redbirds won their third-straight Missouri Valley Conference All-Sports Championship for the 2021-22 season. Fans relished last December’s throwback basketball game at Horton Field House, though some lamented the renaming of Redbird Arena as CEFCU Arena as part of a $3 million, 10-year sponsorship.

Tarhule has named Beggs interim athletics director starting May 1, followed by a national search for a permanent hire which likely won’t happen until 2024.

“Dr. Tarhule, I thought, made a really good choice in an interim AD. And I have a lot of trust in him that he’ll make the right decisions,” ISU football coach Brock Spack told The Vidette at last weekend’s spring game. “We’re in good hands. I think we’ll be fine.”

The interim AD’s role is important, both to demonstrate some accountability for what needs to change and because they may be in a better position to make hard decisions than a permanent hire, said Simon Barker, managing partner with Blue Moon Consulting Group, which helps colleges and universities navigate crises.

“In the short term, you need enough information to answer a key question: Was this an isolated incident, or was it more systemic, was it more part of a cultural problem?” Barker said. “Depending on how you answer that question, it can lead to a different range of things that the institution needs to do to remedy it.”

Aaron Rossi faces a seven-count complaint from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation accused him or writing unauthorized prescriptions and spending company funds without authorization when he worked at a Bloomington orthopedics company.
Eric Stock
WGLT file
Former Reditus Labs CEO Aaron Rossi made a $3 million pledge to ISU Athletics in January 2022, to support its new Indoor Practice Facility.

Brennan’s resignation came as WGLT was preparing to publish its story about the donor trip to Indianapolis for a Big Ten football championship game in 2021. Athletics spent over $23,000 on last-minute tickets and hotel rooms as they tried to woo Rossi – suddenly a millionaire due to his booming COVID testing business – into making a hefty donation. Some on the trip visited a strip club. The trip worked: Rossi made a $3 million pledge in January 2022 to support the Indoor Practice Facility, although it’s unlikely ISU will ever get that money. Rossi was indicted on fraud charges soon after and remains under federal investigation. A judge has restricted how he spends his money.

It remains to be seen how current and prospective donors respond to Brennan’s exit. Institutions can overcome moments like this if they’ve done good donor stewardship work all along, said Virginia Harrison, an assistant professor at Clemson University who has researched and practiced in fundraising and sports.

“There’s a need for listening and a need for dialogue after a crisis situation or anything that has to do with questions of ethics. When we talk about dialogue, we’re not talking about just sitting down and having a town hall,” Harrison said. “It’s this idea of using empathy, listening to what people are saying, being self-reflective, saying ‘OK, maybe there are policies or things that need to change beyond letting someone go from their job.’ What are our donors saying? What are their main concerns and how can we respond in a way that does reassure them and is not just lip service but is true and genuine.”

The permanent AD position will be an attractive job, said Belzer, the consultant. That’s partly because ISU is a well-resourced institution compared to other schools in the Missouri Valley Conference and nationally, he said. And because basketball is ISU’s marquee sport, Belzer said the new hire better have an NIL strategy. He said ISU would be at a disadvantage if the next AD responds to Brennan’s ouster by overcorrecting and being too conservative.

“Because success in NIL now requires aggressiveness in fundraising, particularly at a mid-major institution, the school is going to be behind, no question,” Belzer said. “The university administration is almost certainly not going to care about NIL when they’re trying to make sure that they’re not creating another circumstance leading to another black eye for the university.”

WGLT asked current and former staffers what should be prioritized during the rebuilding. One said hiring people who care deeply about ISU, rather than using it as a stepping stone to another job. Another said they wanted an AD who’s already earned the trust of others on campus. Still another wants to see a focus on integrity, decorum, and professionalism.

“The public will be skeptical,” one former staffer said. “It might take some time for people to come back and spend their money with the organization.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.