It challenges the imagination to picture Stony Brook University, in its bucolic North Shore setting with its quaint-sounding name, competing at the top level against major public institutions that are on a par academically but far ahead in athletics. But that's the long-range vision that SBU president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley had in mind when he hired athletic fundraising expert Shawn Heilbron as the Seawolves' new athletic director.
"As we continue to push this university forward, I want someone who understands what athletics are like at our peer institutions,'' Stanley said. "That was important to me.''
With his background at public Pacific-12 schools Oregon State and UCLA and even private school SMU in the American Athletic Conference, Heilbron fit the profile Stanley was seeking to reach the next level. That's not something Stanley expects to happen overnight.
"We like to be visionary, but we're going to be realistic as well,'' Stanley said. "We don't want to jump ahead of where we should be. Shawn and I talked a lot about that. We're going to do this in a logical and strategic way.''
In Stanley's view, that starts with continuing Stony Brook's success in sports other than football in the America East Conference and helping the football program compete consistently for the Colonial Athletic Association title and a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) postseason bid. The key is growing private fundraising support to make that happen and then putting fannies in the seats for football and men's basketball.
The prospect of a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) might seem like a pipe dream now, but the idea is to position Stony Brook for such a move during the next decade.
"One can't talk about moving to FBS until one is a very successful FCS program,'' Stanley said. "I can't tell you how long it will take to get there. I'm less interested in that than I am about putting the process in place and putting the components in place to help us move up.''
That, in a nutshell, is Heilbron's job, and those who know him best say he's up to the task. His last stop was Oregon State, where he served as senior associate athletic director for development.
"I know Stony Brook is up-and-coming,'' OSU athletic director Bob DeCarolis said. "It seems like they want to get to the next level. Shawn saw a lot of opportunity . . . He brings a lot of energy to the job. He's got a motor that doesn't stop.''
DeCarolis said Heilbron "ramped things up'' in terms of relations with Oregon State's donors. He created the "Coach's Circle'' for football and basketball, providing access to those coaches for donors who gave specific gifts to those sports over and above their annual gifts to OSU. Heilbron's signature achievement was the role he played in re-branding Oregon State's primary athletic fundraising program as "Our Beaver Nation.''
Central Florida athletic director Todd Stansbury, who worked at OSU before taking his current position, called Heilbron the "driving force'' behind "Our Beaver Nation.'' Stansbury said Heilbron was able to move the "transactional giver,'' who receives perks such as preferential parking and seating, into the "philanthropic'' category, supporting the program at a higher level.
Heilbron will encounter a different set of problems at Stony Brook, which competes in a New York metro market with nine professional teams and doesn't draw from a football-oriented culture, but Stansbury says Heilbron is prepared.
"At Oregon State, you're in the Pac-12, but it's also a place you have to work,'' Stansbury said. "It's not a program where all you do is turn on the lights and people show up. At UCLA, you compete against everybody and everything.
"If Stony Brook wants to move to FBS, it's definitely possible. It's one of the premier academic institutions in the country, and it's in the New York market. There's a lot of heavy lifting, but Stony Brook can do it.''
Oregon State football coach Mike Riley said Heilbron made a major impact on his program, managing a variety of projects, including building practice fields and adding other amenities.
"He was very good at building relationships and trust,'' Riley said. "That separated him. He was very good in front of people and was able to articulate a broader vision. It was fun to work with him.
"I know he won't have one bit of trouble at Stony Brook. Coming to Corvallis from Los Angeles is culture shock, and he fit in immediately. He'll learn the lay of the land.''
At his introductory news conference on Friday, Heilbron recognized the successful foundation he inherits at Stony Brook, calling it a "launching pad'' for success. At the same time, he said, "What you do at UCLA and Oregon State may not work at Stony Brook. So I need to learn the culture, I need to know the people and I need to know the area.''
Stansbury said it's not Heilbron's style to "blow up'' the staff already in place and noted that there were few changes at Oregon State. But Heilbron will attempt to energize the athletic department and drive the fundraising necessary to move it to the next level.
"Our goal is to position Stony Brook athletics and make sure we spread the brand,'' Heilbron said. "I think there's been a lot of great work done on doing that in New York and on Long Island. I see our priority as stretching that coast to coast so that, when our coaches go out to recruit, everybody knows who Stony Brook is.''