Q&A with Tim Dillon

We spoke Thursday to outgoing Canisius athletic director Tim Dillon about the recent events at the university, regarding specifically the hockey program and the circumstances surrounding his resignation, as well as to clear up possible misconceptions and inaccuracies in the media, including USCHO.

Dillon freely spoke about the series of events that directly led to his resignation, starting with the incident that occured following a game at North Dakota in December. A school investigation, prompted by the reporting being done by the Buffalo News, determined that the situation was not adequately handled. It discovered that the discipline of the acting coach and other administrators on the scene, as well as the players involved in causing the damage to a North Dakota hotel, was not sufficiently and swiftly addressed. The fallout was the resignation of Dillon and one of his associates, who was on the trip, Marshall Foley.

Dillon was less able to be candid about the circumstances regarding the December firing of 24-year head coach Brian Cavanaugh. There are still two drastically differing stories regarding the circumstances of that firing, specifically who was ultimately responsible for the decision to do so. Some sources insist that Dillon, who had not taken action against Cavanaugh in the past, was overruled by higher administrators amid a threatened player revolt against the coach. Other equally credible sources say that Dillon was trying to deflect criticism, and actually inappropriately met with team members five days before the firing to hear their gripes without the knowledge of Cavanaugh, and that he used the planned player revolt as an opportunity to finally get rid of Cavanaugh. Because of an inability or unwillingness to directly address the issue, it’s still difficult to determine the whole story.

Dillon, though again unable to discuss the issue much due to legal reasons, also addressed the November 2000 incident between Cavanaugh and a player, Matt Coulter, in which Cavanugh hit Coulter on the helmet with a hockey stick. The severity of the hit was in contention, but a settlement was eventually reached and Cavanaugh retained his job.

Since then, there have been reports of other physical incidents between players and the coach, something Cavanaugh, an admitted hard-nosed, old-school coach, denies. Dillon supported the coach on this score, suggesting that if he was convinced those incidents occured, he would not have hesistated to fire Cavanaugh sooner.

Other than a relatively innocuous list of grievances the current players submitted to Dillon — a list which was obtained by the Buffalo News — there has not been a concrete reason ever given for the firing of Cavanaugh. It’s an issue that is still open to speculation. Was he fired simply for these grievances? Or was that used as an excuse, by either Dillon or higher-ups, to get rid of someone they saw as a problem? Did those physical incidents occur and were they a factor, or is that irrelevant to his firing?

Meanwhile, Dillon has been a lightning rod for criticism since his coming to Canisius, particularly because he was entrusted with streamlining the athletic department. The result was the disbanding of seven of the department’s programs. The handling of that situation created a lot of animosity between the old guard and new guard, with a variety of mild-to-severe accusations toward Dillon over his handling of the issue and his style in dealing with the personalities involved. But Dillon is also credited with tackling a tough situation and creating a better athletic program in the long run, streamlining the sports offered from 23 to 16, which allowed more of the coaches to be full time, better utilize the school’s resources, and thus improve the quality of play and reputation of the school.

During the course of this interview, conducted via telephone with Dillon in his office, numerous student athletes came in to wish Dillon well and thank him for the job he did in creating a better program. Towards the end, Dillon became extremely emotional while reflecting upon his critics, and the pride he took in the job he did while there.

Dillon leaves Monday for his home in Alaska while contemplating his next job in athletics.

USCHO: How do you feel about the circumstances regarding your resignation?

Tim Dillon: I am comfortable with my decision. The bottom line is, I’m responsible for this athletic program. A mistake was made and I must take responsibility.

I made the mistake back right before Christmas and basically what happened was, when the team came back from North Dakota, Marshall Foley called me to tell me there was an incident. He gave me a thumbnail sketch. He explained to me that student athletes have been disciplined, the coach [interim coach Clancy Seymour] took care of things, and it will never happen again.

I told Marshall, as long as everyone is OK with that, I’m fine. I didn’t ask any additional questions.

You can check with any AD in the country. You get numerous reports all the time, and you have to pick and choose. At some point, you have to trust people. I did not ask more questions.

I got back on the 26th and was in New York City, then I was in South Carolina, then Dallas. So I was doing my normal running all over the place.

[An investigation was spurred when Buffalo News reporter Bucky Gleason started asking questions after he noticed there were four players sitting out exhibition games on Jan. 21-22 against the U.S. national team. He started asking questions, and the school eventually decided it needed to find out more of what went on.]

Dillon: I had a chance to see Marshall, Clancy and Jon Durno. I knew he was healthy, he got his stitches out. And that was it. Then, two and a half weeks ago, I received a phone call from vice president [Ellen] Conley. She wanted to know everything I knew from North Dakota. I was heading to Colorado, but I said I’ll be right over. I ran upstairs and said, “Marshall, tell me everything.”

It wasn’t that he left it out. He had all the specific details. I just didn’t ask all the questions. But Dr. Conley, I told her, a mistake was made — so what would you like me to do. She said, “Tim, I’m going to go ahead and investigate, you stay out, I’ll let you know.”

I said, “Marshall, I love you to death, but here’s the deal. I understand the logic and get where you got there, but from what you tell me, we made mistakes.”

The team went to dinner. It was done around 11 p.m. They’re at dinner and Marshall and Clancy said “It’s only 11 p.m., what are we gonna do with these guys for a couple hours before they hit the hay?” We had a bus at our disposal at North Dakota. So Marshall says to Clancy, “All these guys are over 21, anybody who wants to go to the nightclub out there, if we go together and come back together — it’s only open until 1. There’s parents around, a variety of moms and dads.” They told the team — “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going there together, we come back together.” Marshall and Clancy sat in the corner talking … The guys — and I’ve done some checking, and there was things on the [USHCO message] board where people were complementary about how well behaved they were — Marshall said they were well behaved. At a quarter to one, they went back to the hotel. … He told them all, it’s a long day ahead, behave yourself, there’s another team here and no one is to go out of this hotel.

Around 5:30 in the morning, Marshall got a phone call from the athletic trainer. He said, “I need help. One kid [Durno] was goofing around and got himself cut.” He needed a couple stitches because he couldn’t stop the bleeding. There were four kids in the room, they were playing studio wrestling — jumping back and forth from one bed to another. There was a minimal amount of alcohol in the room that was brought in by the parents. Marshall and Clancy didn’t know about it. Durno was jumping from one bed to the other and put a small hole in the wall and broke a picture. It fell and cut him on his leg and hand.

[According to other reports, Durno’s history includes a display of drunkenness at an airport where he almost wasn’t allowed to board the plane, and being cited for knocking over garbage cans on Elm Street in downtown Buffalo.]

The total damages were 500-something dollars. Out of that, there were damages of $130 or $140 and the rest was because they had to rent out the room for two days to patch it.

Any damage is too much, but it puts it in perspective. He went to the hospital and got stitched up. The acting coach disciplined all four players. …

The problem was, I hadn’t fully investigated to make sure there were any additional sanctions. But when people say, “Oh, it was only exhibition games [that the players were suspended for],” — we had more pro scouts in our building than any other game. There were Buffalo Sabres executives there. There was one NHL guy after another. Them not being able to play hurt them. It was more than just sitting an exhibition game.

I should’ve taken action quicker, I should have gone ahead and investigated. In all my years, that’s the way I handle it. Hindsight is a little different.

USCHO: As you know, you’ve gotten criticism from various people. But when you come in and cut programs, I guess that’s always going to be the case. Talk about that time and what the decision process was like.

Dillon: We had 23 sports and only three head coaches were full time, and Brian [Cavanaugh] wasn’t one of them. So what we did was, we decided to look at our strategic plan … and make sure they get the funding they need. We went through a several month period with our senior associates, doing what-ifs and comparing being in the MAAC — what sports did we have to have, and what the impacts were, not ony financially, but with facilities. We had track and field, but no track. We had tennis, but no courts. We had hockey, but no rink. But what I was able to do was go to Buffalo State to cut a deal where that could be our home rink. They were able to cut a deal. We had our own locker room. With track, I couldn’t find an indoor and outdoor facility to use as a facility. So all those kinds of things we went through.

USCHO: To what extent were the coaches aware of the process, and could they provide any input?

Dillon: None of the coaches were aware of any of it. It was done at a level at my level and above. It was never that they [hockey] were on the board. Every single sport was on the board that we had to figure out and justify from a scholarship standpoint, and operations.

Some say, we had a football field, why drop football? When you look at Division I-AA with no scholarships, I don’t care how much money you are pumping in …

USCHO: Obviously, people like the former football coach, Ed Argast, are among the people that are not happy with you.

Dillon: One of the things we have said from day one is, Tim Dillon was AD, but Tim Dillon doesn’t have the authority to drop any sport without consultation. People need to attach a personality or person to it in order to vent their anger, and that’s what happened. It’s the same thing with our ex-track coach.

USCHO: Why wouldn’t you want to involve the coaches in the thought process?

Dillon: It’s an institutional decision. The more people they involved the less effective the process would be. It’s a private institution. It’s a little different than a public school. With a private institution, you’ve seen schools drop sports and two weeks later they come back.

To do it in a public arena is very difficult.

USCHO: I’m sure you had some say.

Dillon: I was one of the people that laid everything out. These are the things we need, we need to know the financial impact of this. Not only from hard dollars, but from a compliance issue — football vs. not having football. …

We have one outdoor facility. At the time we were trying to share between football, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, softball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, in one facility.

USCHO: There was no opportunity to build more facilities?

Dillon: We are land locked being in downtown Buffalo.

USCHO: So do you believe the criticism of you is unfair, or are there things you could’ve handled more sensitively, perhaps? [Dillon has been accused of bullying tactics, nepotism, hiring unqualified candidates to coach, micro-managing, and other things by his detractors.]

Dillon: I don’t believe they’re being unfair. They just need to understand there’s a bigger picture that includes more than their sport. College athletics is like a business and they have to understand what the bigger picture is in things. Again, I have no problem with someone criticizing me. If they come to me and say, “You know Tim, I don’t agree.” If you can convince me otherwise, I don’t have a problem with that. But I was brought in five years ago to make changes. We stunk in everything. We had great students but a lack of full-time coaches, a lack of scholarships. We needed to get a lot more dollars into those programs. As we sit here, we’re No. 1 in the league in hockey, No. 1 in women’s basketball, No. 5 in men’s basketball. We’ve never been that successful before.

We have a Student Athletic Advisory Council [SAAC]. The football coach had several players go to SAAC to overrule what he believed I had done. But SAAC said this would be better for everyone else. There’s too many people sitting around this table that want to eat.

USCHO: Let’s talk about hockey. The situation a few years ago with Brian hitting a player — Matt Coulter — that happened right after you came in.

Dillon: I came in April [2000]. That was in October/November.

[Coulter claimed he was hit hard, causing a concussion. Cavanaugh claimed he only tapped him. In the subsequent investigation and court settlement, a gag order was placed on all parties, and Cavanaugh retained his job.]

USCHO: Are you satisfied, in retrospect, that that situation was properly handled and rectified at the time?

Dillon: That’s a situation … And I know you guys don’t want to hear this, but I can’t really comment on it.

USCHO: Was the case solved?

Dillon: At that point — and there was a variety of different stories and things — a variety of other people that were involved in looking at the whole situation. When allegations that serious come up, it’s not something an AD will do on his own. I had a lot of help, from people that, one, have been around here, and two, have legal backgrounds.

USCHO: I realize you can’t say much, but what everyone is still trying to get their hands around is what exactly happened and how much Brian did wrong.

Dillon: It’s a situation that everyone wished didn’t happen. An agreement was reached that allowed Brian to continue, and I think that’s kind of where it went.

USCHO: Did you have discussions with Brian at the time that there were things he had to do differently, or act differently? Or did you tell him to be careful with the way he handled players?

Dillon: Brian and I, over the years, have had numerous discussions about where we’re at and where we’re going. Brian has always been receptive to a variety of different ideas about things we need to do and not do.

USCHO: Would you say it was a tense relationship over the last few years?

Dillon: I don’t really think so. It was more of a tradeoff, because for years, Brian’s concern was that he never had anyone here who went to hockey or supported it. And then all of a sudden, someone was here who went out of school with hockey, and by luck or whatever I was on the national committee, and that comes with its pros and cons.

I don’t want to assume what Brian felt or didn’t feel. But what I tried to do was support Brian. We had a way to do that, and we continued to do that.

USCHO: Coming to this year, there were people saying that you met with the upset players before firing Brian, and that it was an inappropriate meeting. [Some parties have accused Dillon of fostering rebellion among the players as an excuse to get Cavanaugh out, something he strongly denies.]

In general, would you meet with players by themselves?

Dillon: I have a policy in our department; if a student-athlete wants to talk about things, I don’t have a problem with that. But if they want to come in the office and complain, the first question I ask is “Have you spoken with the coach?” If the answer is no, then I show them the door. Or I assist them in how to go about getting two groups together to talk.

If they say they have, the next step is to bring the two parties together. And you sit there as a mediator and say “What are the issues and what are the problems. And me trying to stay in the background and allow them to try to work through everything.”

USCHO: Was that done here?

Dillon: That was something we always attempted to do [with Cavanaugh]. People said they were speaking and listening.

USCHO: Were you sketpical that he was listening?

Dillon: I don’t want to say I was skeptical. Any coach — it’s a tough pill to swallow when guys say, “Have you thought of this, have you thought of that.” It’s a fine line. Kids complain sometimes just to complain. I tell them, we’re not going to vote on things around here. You hire a coach — I’m not negotiating playing time for anybody. My job is to make sure things are as smooth as possible. I’m not a micro-manager. That never has been me. To some extent, that’s what got me into this position [being forced to resign].

USCHO: Then how did this player revolt come to you?

Dillon: This is where it gets dicey …

The bottom line is, and this has been through all this other stuff … This press release that was sent out about Cavanaugh [by the school at the time]. That’s the only thing I’ve been allowed to comment.

In fairness, I wasn’t involved in all the meetings. That’s why the insitution has a press release that went out.

USCHO: Whose ultimate responsiblity was it to let Brian go?

Dillon: It goes back to the things you’ve asked … Well I can’t even say. That press release is all I’m permitted to say.

USCHO: But that letter from the players to you that was obtained by the Buffalo News [listing the players’ grievances against Cavanaugh], none of it listed any egregious complaints.

Dillon: That letter, there had to be 60 copies. It was not just to me. That’s how it got out. Because I was shocked. I found out that every guy on the team had it, and some had passed it on to junior coaches.

USCHO: Had players ever come to you with complaints of Brian getting too physical with them?

Dillon: The tough part is, you have to talk to the players about that. I’m not at practice. If someone tells me a coach grabs someone around the neck and throws them against the locker, I’ll take action. You see the number of people I’ve shown the door to. I have no problem firing someone. A couple of those threads you see [on the USCHO message board], you can’t take that as all true. You see what we were dealing with.

USCHO: So it’s fair to say that you may have had differences with Brian over the years, but if you thought Brian was out of bounds with players, you wouldn’t have any problem firing him.

Dillon: That’s right.

USCHO: So what exactly led to this dismissal then?

Dillon: I stand by the press release we sent out. That’s what I’m permitted to say.

USCHO: Will you keep your hands in hockey?

Dillon: Possibly. I’ve got a couple other options. I’ll look and see what I might want to do. I had my hands in on a half dozen different bids for the Frozen Four, with groups trying to get me to help them. I’ve had to step off the ice hockey committee, but I see no reason why I can’t try to help.

USCHO: So what is the future of the hockey program there? Is the program in jeopardy of being dropped?

Dillon: My standpoint is different today than it was a week ago. I would think that it would not be in jeopardy because of what we went through a couple years ago. If we had not been through that process and we were looking at a strategic plan for what to do now, then I’d say no holds barred. But I believe the institution has made a commitment to hockey. Although we’ve been criticized because there’s no [hockey] building on campus and no full-time assistants, I think they’ve made a commitment.

USCHO: There were reports that the job posting for the head coaching vacancy was taken down, and that raised red flags.

Dillon: It wasn’t taken down. We only had it advertised for a certain amount of time. When you do a posting, there’s a start date and an ending date. The ending date was two weeks ago.

USCHO: Will your leaving make the hiring process longer to deal with?

Dillon: From what I understand, they plan on keeping the same scheduled as originally cited — keep the April 1st date.

USCHO: Can the next coach be comfortable that the inmates aren’t running the asylum?

Dillon: I can’t answer that, but if I’m one of the people [interviewing], I’m asking that question.

USCHO: Is there anything you want to say about all the criticism people have given you?

Dillon: I was brought in to make change. We only had three full-time head coaches. I was brought in to do a job. I have attempted to do that job, as we’ve increased budgets and things, put people in positions. The salary scale I’m dealing with, I’m going after the best coaches I can within a certain salary scale. Most coaches we’re hiring are young, up and coming coaches and you hope they pan out. … The next step is to continue to escalate salaries. There’s probably secretaries or administrative assistants making more money. … We have hired some young people that have a great work ethic to work whatever hours are needed to get the job done.

Any time you’re an AD, you’re going to be criticized if you’re making changes. It depends on how that change affects you, that’s how your perspective is. The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. They wanted to see change, but didn’t want to see themselves changed, or anything around their kingdom. As I stated in the beginning, I was brought in to make a difference. If anyone thinks I did those things without the blessing of my president …

USCHO: Are you concerned any of this will affect your ability to get another position?

Dillon: It’s my 25th year in athletic administration. People who know me, know me for right reasons. They know me for who I am and who I’m not. The general public who reads this or reads that, they’re going to get a perception that’s completely different. But there’s no way I can chase ghosts.

I’m just gonna keep on plugging … I’m not the bad guy [some people] want to make me out to be.