During her 14-year tenure as an associate athletic director at Southern California, Lisa Love was approached again and again by universities large and small, searching for the right person to lead their department.
But for Love, there never seemed to be that right fit. So she stayed in Los Angeles, helped the Trojans chalk up 15 national championships and 30 Pac-10 titles, and waited.
"There were nice people, great jobs and places, but I was always looking for something big, that ideal situation,’’ Love said. "The one place where I could say, ‘This is it.’ "
As she spoke, Arizona State’s new vice president for university athletics stared out a sixth-floor window at Tempe Butte and Sun Devil Stadium and smiled.
"Now I have that job," she said. "This is it. It’s all going to happen here.’’
Saturday, Love became ASU’s 21st athletic director, and its first non-interim female AD — selected over two other finalists, Wyoming athletic director Gary Barta and Indianapolis lawyer Jack Swarbrick.
And while Love’s five-year contract doesn’t officially kick in until July 1, the 49-year-old former volleyball coach was already itching to start earning her $280,000 annual salary (plus academic and athletic incentives) and pushing the Sun Devils forward.
‘‘I am committed to making (ASU) consistently a nationally elite athletics program that just takes names and wins championships,’’ said Love, who held the dual role of volleyball coach and assistant AD for eight years at USC (1991-98). ‘‘I’m all about that. I’ve enjoyed my 15 years at USC, the mentality of thinking big and dreaming big. I know what it takes to build a champion.
"People at USC and around the Pac-10 have always looked at ASU as that school that could explode with success. They have already reached a high level and there are great people who have built the foundation. But now we want to go higher and reach that ultimate potential I feel is here.’’
Those who have watched Love in action warn Tempe it had better brace for the arrival of Hurricane Lisa.
"She will knock everyone’s socks off,’’ USC athletic director Mike Garrett said. "She’ll pick great coaches and employees. And she’ll manage that department in a way that people will feel very good about being at Arizona State. We’ll feel her loss at USC.’’
Love is known for attacking her job and has a reputation as a tireless worker who hates to lose. And while she talked about maintaining and improving academic standards and the college experience, on-the-field success dominated her comments.
"There’s nothing passive about competitive athletics,’’ she said. "It’s about the scoreboard; it’s not recreational.’’
Mick Haley, who followed Love as USC’s volleyball coach in 1998 and has led the Trojans to two national titles (2002-03), called his former boss an incredible competitor who refuses to be outworked.
"She looks you dead in the eye, tells you what’s going to happen and asks if you want to go along for the ride,’’ he said. "She’ll beat your butt on the golf course and have you laughing the whole day. She’ll show up at every event, have a handle on what the coaches are thinking and needing, and she’ll stay one step ahead.
"She’s aggressive, not a play-it-safe person at all. She wants to win, period.’’
ASU president Michael Crow said his search to replace Gene Smith — who left last month for Ohio State — started with as many as 50 names and was whittled to a "short list’’ of about a dozen.
But while looking for a "next generation athletic director,’’ he kept coming back to Love.
"We looked across this entire country, and Lisa was our first choice, our best choice and the best candidate for this job,’’ he said. "She had the combination of skills — master teacher, thinker, high energy, total commitment and total focus on excellence, both academic and competitive.’’
Like ASU, Love and USC have had to carve a niche in a huge, competitive sports market that includes not only major pro sports but another Pac-10 school (UCLA).
"This is very much like Los Angeles, it’s a front-runner town,’’ she said. "Competing for that sports dollar and putting people in the (L.A.) Coliseum was a chore from the very beginning. Here, it’s critical that we win football games and fill Sun Devil Stadium for the bottom line."
Love was hired at USC by Barbara Hedges — who went on to become the Pac-10’s first female athletic director at Washington — and said her gender has never been a deterrent in her administrative career.
"It’s a pretty maledominated arena,’’ she said. "But with the men I’ve worked with, it was never about gender — it was about getting an edge. If they thought I brought something to the table, nobody was concerned that I wore a skirt.’’
ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne said any skeptical Sun Devil boosters just need to see Love in action.
"If people make judgments based on her gender or experience and aren’t willing to give her a chance, then, ‘Oh, well,’ " she said. "But anyone who takes the time to get to know her or see her in action will be proud she’s now a Sun Devil.’’
Personal: 49 years old, single Education: 1978 — Bachelor’s degree in physical education from Texas Tech University. 1985 — Master’s degree in education administration from North Texas University.
Playing Career: Four-year volleyball starter at Texas Tech. All-region selection as a senior.
Coaching: 1978-1982 — Head volleyball coach, James Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas. (Overall record 79-40). 1982-1988 — Head volleyball coach, University of Texas-Arlington (Five Southland Conference titles, four NCAA tournament appearances, 1988 national coach of the year). 1989-1998 — Head volleyball coach, University of Southern California. (Overall record 205-93, nine NCAA tournament appearances, eight top 15 finishes.
Administration: 1991-2001 — Associate athletic director, USC. 2002-2005 — Senior associate athletic director, USC. Day-to-day supervision of five sports (women’s basketball, volleyball, women’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving). Served two stints (1992-93 and 2001-02) as vice president of the Pac-10 Conference.