By Mick Garry, June 21, 2018
VERMILLION – Getting down to the last hours of his tenure, University of South Dakota president Jim Abbott sorted through one final pile of assorted certificates, papers and documents in his office, an office now so barren his chief of staff Laura McNaughton had to move a chair in from the other room when a visitor arrived.
This was it after 21 years. The man who came to be known as “G.O.A.T” by students – greatest of all time – was going to leave the headquarters from which he’d spearheaded a dramatic rebuilding of USD’s campus over two decades. For the first time in those 21 years this 1970 USD grad would be leaving that office with no plans to come back.
“I’m grateful beyond belief that I had this job for 21 years,” he said from behind his desk. “I don’t think from an emotional standpoint there is much better than being the president of your alma mater. But there’s a time for everything to end, and at 70 years old after 21 years, it’s clearly time for me to be done. I won’t say I won’t miss things. I’m going to miss the people and particularly the kids but it’s time for my next chapter, whatever that is. I hope it’s not a very complicated chapter.”
Abbott and the visitor laughed at that, understanding on his last day it was OK to admit he was looking forward to a break.
In those 21 years, there was always an old building that needed a gutting and renovation. There was almost always a hole in the ground somewhere on campus where a new building was going up. The dreams and drawings of that next project, be it a business school or a med school or a fitness center or a 6,000-seat basketball arena, were always waiting on deck.
“It didn’t take a genius to understand the campus had become somewhat rundown,” he said, going back to the days when he first took the job in 1997. In the midst of a successful business career that included regular dalliances in politics, he didn’t have a road map that would guide him over the next two decades, nor did he have a traditional academic background for a college president. What he did have was the knowledge was that whatever direction he went, he’d end up at a place on campus that needed some scrubbing up.
The school’s endowment has gone from less than $50 million to nearly $250 million in those 21 years. This is in addition to funding Division I sports. And then all those buildings. The campus only vaguely resembles the one people would see on a drive down Cherry Street in 1997.
“I thought I could raise money,” he said. “And I knew that’s what needed to happen. Anyone could look at kindergarten enrollment and see what it was going to be like in 12 years. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Recruitment was going to be important. I was shocked when I started out that the office of admissions was in the basement of Slagle Hall between the bathrooms and the pop machine. That didn’t seem to me like a particularly great strategy for recruiting new students.”
He and the visitor laugh again at that. It’s a day for this kind of thing. Earlier that morning he was clearing out the last of his belongings in the dorm room where he’d been staying since February. This was after the heart attack that sent him to the sidelines for about a week.
The president’s home was going to be remodeled for his successor, and he had a choice of an apartment or a spot over at Coyote Village for his last months at USD. He chose the dorm and brought his dog “McGovern” with him. Nobody called him out on having a pet in the dorm, and nobody woke him up in the middle of the night.
Thursday morning, he was out of the dorm. He’d gathered McGovern’s bowls and bed, gave the place one more looking over, then returned the key to Michele Crawford, who was running the front desk in the Coyote Village lobby.
Crawford and Abbott exchanged a warm good-bye with Crawford telling him, much like she might a departing senior, that it was a pleasure having him stay there. A few students watched with curiosity as their president checked out of the same place they were living.
The ease of the exchanges between the president and the students is brought up again during those last minutes in the office. It was not an accident or a matter of convenience that Abbott and McGovern always went for a walk on campus rather than down some street where nobody was going to bother them.
“Students will always approach a dog,” he said. “You have to have something to talk to them about. I liked hearing their opinions. I didn’t always think they thought things through, but that’s the purpose of college. The goal of a liberal arts education is to teach you how to think. I always enjoyed talking with the students. They were always fun, and I always had their support, and I appreciated that.”
He’s proud of the school’s transition to Division I athletics and marvels still that he’d be as smitten by the sports programs as he was. He did not grow up much of an athlete or even follow sports. He still doesn’t, he said, beyond whatever is going on with the Coyotes.
The decision to move to Division I or stay at Division II became a more pressing issue in the years after rival South Dakota State made the jump in 2004. Understanding the potential benefits and challenges — as well as the long-term ramifications of doing nothing at all — became a part of the job to an extent it never had before.
As those at USD discovered, the school didn’t need a president who knows the difference between a zone and a man-to-man defense to be the man for the job.
“It was a significant challenge,” he said. “Our students, our faculty and our alums rose to the occasion. I think everybody agrees that was a good thing. We had a little bit of a saying around here when a question came up that needed to be answered. We’d always ask ‘Is it student-centered? And, is it what a really good Division I school would do?’”
His wife, Collette, died in 2016 at age 59. The seats at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center are a vivid red because she suggested it back when the facility was under construction. A framed picture of his late wife’s father sitting on a horse with other members of the Pierre polo team from the 1940s is one of the last remaining personal items in the office.
A group of men who had been moving Abbott’s things stopped by in those last few minutes and asked if there was anything else they could do. Specifically they wondered about what to do about a navy blue coat they found.
“I never really liked that jacket,” Abbott tells them. “But I guess I’ll put it in the car. I left it in the closet for 40 years.”
Chances are it doesn’t make it to Nantucket, where Abbott will spend much of the summer, or the Jersey Shore or any of the other places he plans to travel over the next eight to 10 months. He will move to Sioux Falls at some point, and he’s going to give Gestring, the former vice president of finance and chief financial officer at USD who is replacing him, plenty of room in carving out her own path.
Just before the moving men left, one of them paused and, recognizing the moment, expressed his gratitude.
“Well, thank you for everything,” he told Abbott. “We appreciate all of it.”
There have been more formal thank yous thrown his way over the last six months and there will be more yet, but this was a good one to go out on. Earnest, heart-felt and unprovoked.