Now in his 13th year as vice-president and athletic director at the University of Toledo, Mike O’Brien has helped shape the UT Athletics program into one of the very best in the Mid-American Conference. Whether embarking on ambitious capital projects or nurturing the athletic and academic achievements of UT’s student-athletes, O’Brien has left a legacy of success that few can match.
O’Brien, who has the second-longest tenure among MAC athletic directors, received national recognition for his accomplishments from the National Association of College Directors of Athletics at the NACDA Convention in June of 2012 when he was named the Football Bowl Subdivision Northeast Region Athletic Director of the Year. Just a few months later, O’Brien accepted the 2011-12 Cartwright Award, given annually to the MAC athletic program with the highest degree of excellence in academics, athletics and citizenship.
Perhaps the best word to describe O’Brien is “builder.” He has been an instrumental force in initiating some of the most ambitious construction schedules in school history. No fewer than five major projects have been completed during O’Brien’s reign, as well as numerous smaller ones.
O’Brien has also been a builder in an even more important sense. He has guided the Rockets into position as one of the strongest programs in the Mid-American Conference, both on the field and in the classroom. The Rockets have won or shared 27 league titles in nine different sports under O’Brien’s watch. And in the classroom, O’Brien’s emphasis on academics has led to record-breaking report cards for the department.
The building boom of capital projects under O’Brien’s reign began shortly after his arrival at UT in 2002 and has never relented. First on the agenda was the renovation of the outdoor track, tennis courts and soccer field. The soccer field project was completed in the fall of 2004, while the tennis courts and track were finished in 2006.
O’Brien next secured significant funding for the Athletics capital campaign for the new Charles A. Sullivan Athletic Complex and Savage Arena renovation project, including a $5 million gift from Chuck and Jackie Sullivan. The $30 million facility, which debuted on Dec. 3, 2008, can rightfully claim to be one of the premier facilities of its kind in the country. Changes to Savage Arena included a new seating configuration, improved fan amenities, new locker rooms and offices, new suites and loges, as well as a new video scoreboard and sound system. The Sullivan Athletic Complex features a beautiful glass atrium entrance to Savage Arena, a new ticket office, the Varsity ‘T’ Hall of Fame and “Rocky’s Locker,” a merchandise store devoted exclusively to selling Rocket gear and souvenirs.
The next addition to the Rockets’ building spree was the completion of the Fetterman Training Center in 2010. The Fetterman Training Center is a 90,400 square-foot indoor multi-sport practice facility that features a 100-yard Field Turf playing surface, a regulation basketball/volleyball court, sprinting lanes and a long jump pit for track, a golf practice area and new golf locker rooms. As part of the project, improvements were also made to the adjacent UT Outdoor Track, including new permanent bleacher seating, a press box and elevated viewing platforms.
In August of 2014, a $5.5 million renovation of the Larimer Athletic Complex was completed. Highlights of the renovation include an upgraded academic center that will be used by all student-athletes; an enhanced locker room area; a larger, more modern weight room; renovated offices; and new coaches’ meeting rooms. In addition, a dynamic new entryway into Larimer was constructed on the east side of building.
O’Brien’s term as athletic director has been more than just bricks and mortar. Since becoming the school’s 13th athletic director on Jan. 22, 2002, the Rockets have won or shared 27 MAC division, regular-season and tournament titles in the sports of football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, women’s cross country, men’s golf, women’s soccer, women’s swimming, baseball and women’s volleyball. In that same span, UT has made six bowl appearances in football, three NIT appearances in men’s basketball and five WNIT appearances in women’s basketball, including a WNIT championship crown in 2011. In addition, women’s soccer has advanced to the NCAA Tournament four times, while men’s golf has competed in the NCAA Championships twice. UT women have qualified for the NCAA Championships in either track or cross country a total of 16 times and received All-America recognition nine times since 2002. In women’s swimming & diving, four Rockets have qualified for the NCAAs, with one earning All-America honors on two occasions.
In 2011-12, the Rockets took home the Jacoby Trophy as the MAC’s top women’s athletic program for the first time in school history.
In the classroom, UT has produced overall department grade-point averages above a 3.1 in each of the past 11 semesters. In the 2014 spring semester, UT student-athletes achieved a combined GPA of 3.181, the third-highest in school history. The record GPA of 3.210 occurred under O’Brien’s leadership in the spring of 2013.
In 2011-12, UT won the Mid-American Conference Institutional Academic Achievement Award, presented annually to the school with the highest grade point average, with an overall athletic GPA of 3.171. It was the first time that the Rockets won the award. A year later, the Rockets repeated as the league’s GPA champions, this time with an even mark of 3.200. The UT men’s program earned the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) Academic Achievement Award for having the overall highest grade point average rank in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Among O’Brien’s other accomplishments are adding Ohio State, Miami (FL), Colorado, Purdue, Arizona, Missouri, Navy, Fresno State, Boise State, Wyoming and Cincinnati to the home football schedule; securing Savage Arena as a site for the first and second rounds of the NCAA women’s Basketball Championships in 2014; working with the Inverness Club to bring the 2009 NCAA Men’s Golf Championships to Toledo; and securing a multi-year deal with Learfield Sports to increase UT’s advertising revenue.
O’Brien has served as the chair of the Mid-American Conference Athletic Director’s Committee, and is currently the conference’s athletic director representative to the College Football Playoff Committee (formerly the Bowl Championship Series). He also has served as a member of the NCAA Division I Football Issues Committee, and currently chairs the MAC Football Coaches Committee.
Previous to his appointment at UT, O’Brien had 15 years of experience in athletics administration at four universities, Kansas State (associate A.D., 1997-2001), Lamar (athletic director, 1993-97), Pittsburgh (director of development 1989-93) and Ball State (marketing and development, 1986-89).
A native of Iowa City, IA, O’Brien earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Missouri Valley College in 1975, and has master’s degrees in education from Wisconsin-River Falls in 1982 and in sports management from Western Illinois in 1986. Prior to his administrative career, O’Brien was an assistant basketball coach at three different schools from 1982-1986.
O’Brien and his wife Michelle have a son Jack (12).