MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As Laird Veatch sits down in a restaurant booth on the bottom floor of the Peabody Hotel, he points out the last 36 hours had been a whirlwind.

Veatch, Memphis’ athletics director, had arrived back in town after watching his team in the Cotton Bowl against Penn State in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 28. The week prior, his family — wife Brandy, daughters Taylor and Sydney and son Dru — had finally moved up to Memphis from Gainesville, Florida, where Leatch had been the University of Florida’s executive associate athletics director for internal affairs since July 2017.

“They finished school in Gainesville — the semester — on the 20th, drove up on the 21st and then we flew to Dallas on the 22nd with the team,” Veatch said, “and just got back.”

The family immediately started unpacking. Yet there was fun on the docket: Veatch, a graduate of both Manhattan High and Kansas State, went to the Wildcats’ pep rally the day before the Liberty Bowl. Veatch also attended the game itself — a 20-17 loss to Navy on Dec. 31 — and a K-State donor event “to see some friends.”

Veatch has manned Memphis’ AD post for barely three months. He started Oct. 1 and hit the ground running. In that short time, dull moments have been few and far between.

The football team was the highest finisher among Group of 5 teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings, which earned the No. 17 Tigers their spot in the Cotton Bowl. Before the game, however, Leatch saw his former head coach leave (Mike Norvell took over at Florida State) and hired a new one (offensive coordinator Ryan Silverfield earned a promotion). The men’s basketball team, under the guidance of legendary alum and former NBA superstar Penny Hardaway, welcomed one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in the country — and saw the most acclaimed member of that group, James Wiseman, depart after being suspended by the NCAA.

The Mercury discussed all of these hot-button topics, and more, during a sitdown interview with Veatch late last month.

Hardaway — and Wiseman, for a time — bring notoriety back to men’s hoops

Despite the recent rise of the football program, Memphis’ athletics identity historically has been tied to its men’s basketball team. When it still was known as Memphis State, it made Final Four runs in both 1973 and 1985. John Calipari took them to dizzying heights in the early-to-mid 2000s, winning 30-plus games each of his last four seasons — a period in which they also made the national championship game, falling to Kansas in overtime in 2008 — before becoming Kentucky’s head coach.

But after Calipari moved on, Memphis began to fall from the pinnacle. Calipari’s replacement, Josh Pastner, won 30-plus games just once, and never made it beyond the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Tubby Smith then had an uninspiring two-year tenure from 2016 to 2018.

Everything has changed with Hardaway back, though.

“He’s just elevated us in so many ways,” Veatch said. “It’s really fun to watch and be a part of. It’s very unique to have someone, just by the nature of who they are, who brings that much more exposure and attention and credibility to your program. It’s been great.”

Hardaway’s reputation and recruiting connections helped him land one of the nation’s best freshman classes. Wiseman’s name was at the top of the marquee. The 7-foot-1 center, widely expected to be one of the top picks in the 2020 NBA draft, elected to stay in state and play for Hardaway and the Tigers. Just three games into his freshman campaign, however, his career was put on hold. The NCAA handed down a 12-game suspension, ruling that an $11,500 payment from Hardaway to Wiseman’s mother in 2017 — which occurred before Hardaway became Memphis’ coach — amounted to an improper benefit. Instead of serving the length of the suspension, which he was scheduled to return from Jan. 12, Wiseman decided to withdraw from Memphis to begin focusing on his professional career.

Veatch admitted dealing with the NCAA during the Wiseman drama isn’t the type of situation “you want to walk into,” especially given how little time he had been in Memphis.

“For anybody, whether it’s me or anybody involved, it’s not something you want to have to deal with or manage,” he said. “But I am proud of the way we stuck together on it, the way we were aligned internally, from the president to me to Penny and everybody else involved. We communicated really well. We tried to do, every step of the way, what we felt was the right thing. You just continue to do that.”

Veatch just wishes Wiseman, who averaged 19.7 points 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks a contest in his three-game career, had stayed longer.

“We’d love to still have him here with us,” Veatch said. “That’s unfortunate as well, but that’s part of the world you’re in.”

Football on upward trajectory

Once Norvell officially filled Florida State’s vacancy, Veatch had to make his first major hire. Many nationally respected college football writers touted it as arguably the best job on the market. It’s no surprise then, when Veatch said there was “a lot of interest” from coaches around the country.

In the end, he went with an in-house option in Silverfield, who made headlines prior to having his interim tag removed with his brash confidence, believing he would be Norvell’s successor.

“Let them go search the country,” Silverfield said.

Veatch said that’s just what him and the other members of the search committee did. (“It was truly an open search,” he said.) And they ultimately determined Silverfield was the best candidate.

“I went into it with a fully open mind, as did the small group of people who I surrounded myself with to help me with the process,” Veatch said. “People recognize now that Memphis is, competitively speaking with our peers, positioned really, really well from a recruiting standpoint, from a support standpoint, from a community standpoint — geographically, our brand overall and the support of the university and the president — everything is really well aligned here. Coaches see that and they know they can have success. We had a ton of interest in the job and we went through a very genuine, rigorous process to determine who the right guy was.”

Silverfield outright “won it,” Veatch said, for multiple reasons, from his knowledge of the current roster to the relationship they already had fostered.

“It’s clearly more of a known commodity when you have somebody internally, especially when the program is going so well,” Veatch said. “You want to maintain that culture and the momentum. The trajectory we’re on is fantastic. But at the end, we were going to hire the best person and he just out and out won it.”

What Silverfield didn’t win, however, was his first game as head coach. Penn State was simply too powerful, handing Memphis a 53-39 loss. Still, the Tigers set a single-season program record for wins (12) and captured their first outright American Athletic Conference title in 2019. The setback in the game itself, Veatch said, didn’t tarnish the overall bowl experience.

“It’s incredible. We went there in 2012 with K-State, so I got to know the folks there,” Veatch said. “Carl Ice is the chairman this year, so it was really kind of neat. There was very much a K-State flair about the event, because of Carl and Mary. Coincidentally, they’re inducting Jonathan Beasley and Bill Snyder into the (bowl’s) Hall of Fame. ... Overall, it was a great experience.

“The Cotton Bowl is very known in our industry as the best of the best when it comes to hospitality and service and how they take care of you. They are over the top, really really good. It makes it a lot of fun for everybody.”

Veatch: ‘We’re getting a lot of bang for our buck’

Veatch laughed the moment the word “expansion” came up. That, in concert with “realignment,” are two words he hears all the time. The next time the conference expansion carousel starts spinning, Memphis is expected to be in the thick of it, potentially making a TCU- or Utah-like move from a smaller conference into a Power 5 league.

Veatch receives queries about this topic “a lot,” he said. In fact, he even fielded it during his interview to become Memphis’ AD. He conceded that though it sounds “like ‘a canned answer,’” he forcefully believes expansion will happen again.

It’s a matter of when, not if.

“Will there be expansion? Yes, in some way, shape or form, based on history,” he said. “The conferences have been realigned for decades. So it’s only appropriate to expect that. You just can’t predict exactly when. You can estimate based on television contracts coming up and those kinds of things, but you can’t necessarily predict exactly how it will happen, because there’s a lot of ways this thing could evolve.”

How Memphis will proceed under Veatch’s leadership is the same way he’s gone about every position he’s ever held: He just wants to make sure the athletics program keeps doing as well as it possible can.

“That is the right answer,” he said. “Now you have to be networked. You have to manage your brand. You have to, from an athletics department standpoint, continue to invest in our programs. You need to be successful in high-profile sports. You need a university that’s doing well academically, which we are. You have to have a president who’s very engaged, and we do. And you’ve got to continue to invest in your infrastructure, because so much of it is sort of how you look. Do you fit with your peers? So the best thing we can do is position ourselves for when, whenever that time comes, we’re the most attractive option out there.”

Those who support the Tigers, Veatch said, should “have every right to expect” things will continue humming along as they are now.

“But we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and not fall off of that, because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen,” he said. “But I think maintaining that focus and then continuing to be networked and having a network where the president or I or others who are here can pick up a phone and at least have real conversations with people when that time comes (is key).

“You have to stay connected and stay aware of the landscape and continue to manage our brand. Let people know who we are, what we’re about, what we have to offer. We’ve done a really good job of that here and I think that will continue.”

What makes Memphis such an appealing school to poach by a bigger conference when the time comes is that it boasts arguably the best 1-2 punch in the country — in those most crucial of sports, football and men’s basketball — among non-Power 5 universities. When the two sports were crossing over, they were one of the few schools in the nation, Power 5 or otherwise, to have both ranked among the top 15-20 teams in their respective Associated Press polls.

That led Veatch to do some digging.

“We’re one of maybe five,” said Veatch, referring to the football/men’s basketball rankings feat. “I went and did the math, every one of those other schools has well over twice the budget of what we have. We’re at about $51 million and all of those (other) schools are well into the hundreds, some of them three times our budget. So we’re getting a lot of bang for our buck.”

Lessons learned

While Veatch enjoyed the pep rally — being among fellow K-State alums — and attending the game, there once was a time he might have stepped foot into Liberty Bowl Stadium on Dec. 31 in a different capacity.

As K-State’s athletics director.

After John Currie, who then held the post, left to take the same position at Tennessee in February 2017, Veatch was tabbed K-State’s acting AD. Veatch also was a candidate to take over the job full time. Instead, K-State hired Gene Taylor.

Being passed over, Veatch admits, “was tough.” But he’s moved on.

“In meetings I told people after it happened, while it was emotionally very challenging when you want something that badly and it doesn’t happen, I had a lot of peace,” Veatch said. “I knew it was God’s plan. There was a reason why this was happening. Almost literally immediately, that Florida door opened and that was the right thing. That’s led to this and I feel like there’s a reason why my wife and family and I are here.”

Veatch had no relationship with Taylor prior to his arrival in Manhattan. Once Taylor started, Veatch said they “really connected” well.

“He was great to me from the beginning, and very much encouraged me to stay, but it was the right thing for me and my family to move forward,” Veatch said. “But we’ve still kept in touch, still text periodically and talk at events, that sort of thing.”

As their relationship deepened, Veatch said he noticed how Taylor’s personality came to the fore. What you see is what you get from Taylor — like it or not.

“Yeah, he just is who he is, which I think particularly at a place like K-State, you’ve got to be genuine,” said Veatch, noting Taylor took that approach when he had to find Bill Snyder’s replacement. “I think he made a great hire, and I told him that immediately when he got (Chris) Klieman. It’s a hire that really fits that place, which is so much the key to those roles: finding somebody who can really make it work at your place. They don’t have to make it work every place, but they need to be able to make it work at yours. He seems like a fantastic fit.”

Though Veatch no longer is part of K-State’s athletics department, the lessons he learned during his tenure there — which stretched from 2009 until he left for Florida in 2017 — have paid dividends in the past two years.

“We had a lot of internal infrastructure challenges when we first got there,” he said. “So many of the things — you always talk about ‘a model intercollegiate athletics program,’ and I think we helped build that there. So that was really fun with the facility projects, obviously the success in football, men’s basketball, other sports as well.

“You learn a lot about the sort of nuts and bolts of running a department. It’s a lot of little things that you pick up, much of which, from my perspective especially at Kansas State, was how we interacted with and engaged donors with a real vision and asked them to invest in the right ways. People really bought into that. We saw a lot of improvements on the facilities side, which I think will be helpful for K-State for many, many years.”

Always home

After his playing career at K-State ended — he was a four-year letterman for Snyder from 1990 to 1994 and was a team captain as a senior — Veatch knew he wanted to remain in college athletics. Somehow. He knew coaching wasn’t an option. Owing to his strong Christian faith, Veatch couldn’t reconcile how he would be able to balance family life with work given the around-the-clock schedules football coaches adhere to daily. Of course, he joked, being an administrator in an athletics department isn’t exactly “an 8-to-5 gig,” either.

“But you have a little bit more — eh, quite a bit more — control of family time than you would in a coaching position,” Veatch said, “with everything they have to manage with recruiting, etc.”

With coaching off the table, Veatch had to discover an alternative that still would allow him to remain around college athletics. During the summer between his junior and senior seasons, he worked at various Catbacker events — noting that was “back when you could hire student-athletes to work the summer circuit” — alongside his fellow team captains, Kirby Hocutt (now, ironically, Texas Tech’s athletics director) and JJ Smith.

“I got to know Max Urick at that time,” said Veatch, referring to the man who served as K-State’s AD from 1993 to 2001. “That’s what really helped me see what the administrative side is, because most student-athletes really don’t have a clue what administrators do. I was one of those. So I went through that, and that gave me insight into another path of staying within college athletics.”

Before going into the administrative side of the business, Veatch said he always thought he’d either stick with sports or become a salesman of some sort. After meeting then-Texas AD DeLoss Dodds in the mid-1990s, Veatch landed a job in Austin, assisting with the development program as well as working in external affairs while earning his master’s degree in sports administration.

“That was my entry into the profession,” he said.

Yet for all his determination to make a career out of it, Veatch said he never could have imagined just how it would unfold. He said he never would have thought he’d one day work at Florida. Or Memphis.

Life is funny sometimes.

“I would say I’d probably be surprised at the exact locations and the timing and all that, just because you never know how things are going to work,” he said. “But this was certainly the kind of path that I wanted to be on.”

It’s a path that doesn’t let him return to Manhattan as much as he would like, however. His parents, as well as his wife Brandy’s parents, still live in the Little Apple. As does his oldest daughter, Jordyn, who is a freshman at K-State. Now that they are closer to Manhattan — Veatch pointed out moving to Memphis from Gainesville has cut the distance in half — he hopes to visit more often.

The time away from Manhattan has only strengthened the bond Veatch feels for Manhattan — and that’s doubly true for his family.

“For our children, that will always be where they grew up and that’s going to be home for all of us forever,” he said. “That’s where my kids, if you ask them where they’re from, they’ll say, ‘Well, we’ve been in Florida the last couple of years, but we’re really from Kansas.’ I think that’ll always be part of our fabric.”

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