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Pepperdine Athletic Director Has Waves Breaking Right

August 11, 1988|JEFF MEYERS | Times Staff Writer

In intercollegiate heaven, there's never a hint of scandal, coaches don't get fired, athletes graduate, teams always have winning seasons and the campus resembles a resort on the French Riviera.

It's the place Wayne Wright went to without the prerequisite of dying.

Wright is the athletic director at Pepperdine University, the Malibu school with a squeaky-clean reputation and a great view of the Pacific Ocean.

Every workday, he leaves his Newbury Park home, drives through scenic Malibu Canyon and settles into his hillside office, where he runs one of the country's most successful Division I sports programs and watches the surfers through a picture window.

"It's a very, very enjoyable job," he said. "I don't dread coming to work."

Neither does Wright dread the things that get other ADs fired. In his 12 years at the job, Pepperdine teams have won 29 conference championships and posted a winning percentage of .640. According to a report put out by the school, the Waves' baseball, basketball, volleyball and tennis teams have been ranked in the final Top 10 more often than UCLA and USC over the last six years.

"Athletics have helped make the name Pepperdine recognized throughout the country," Wright said. His biggest loss this season was basketball Coach Jim Harrick, who took the UCLA job, but the publicity attached to it probably created more national awareness for Pepperdine than anything the Waves did on the court.

The school's winning ways--all 13 sports teams posted winning records in 1987-88--have provided Wright with job longevity in an insecure profession.

"I got to thinking one time," he said. "ADs at schools like UCLA and USC and UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach, they don't last very long." Indeed, the turnover rate is so high that Wright, 54, is the dean of West Coast athletic directors.

Wright has managed to guide the Waves to national prominence without turning the school into a sports factory. He has never fired a coach for losing, and Pepperdine graduates 90% of its athletes, well above the national average of 50%, Wright said. Mandatory drug testing and a campus-wide ban on alcohol are only part of the reason that discipline problems are practically non-existent at the school.

"You get good people, make them go to class and keep them out of trouble," Wright said, adding that the school doesn't treat athletes differently from the other 2,500 undergraduates on campus.

When Pepperdine hires a new coach, a clause in his contract says he'll be fired for breaking NCAA rules. "We mean it," Wright said. "I tell the coaches, 'My family's too important to put my job in jeopardy over cheating.' "

Sources of potential problems, such as alumni and boosters, are discouraged from meddling. At scandal-riddled schools like Southern Methodist and Kentucky, "a large percentage of their trouble has something to do with boosters," Wright said. At Pepperdine, alumni are not involved in the process of hiring a coach.

Wright, a gray-haired grandfather who had three daughters attend Pepperdine, was gettinghis master's degree in education at the school when he was made baseball coach in 1969. Raised in Nashville, he played baseball there at David Lipscomb College and later coached baseball and basketball at a Christian high school in Georgia. His background didn't really prepare him for his present position.

"I coached 20 years to be an accountant," Wright said with a wry smile. "It used to be that colleges made the over-the-hill football coach the athletic director, but that's no longer viable. The athletic director has to be a businessman."

Money is among Wright's biggest concerns. Without a football team to generate cash from gate receipts and television, Pepperdine is at a severe disadvantage. "Competition at our level is extremely costly," Wright said. "Our costs are the same as UCLA's and USC's--we don't skimp on anything."

The annual athletic budget at Pepperdine is $2.5 million, Wright said, and sports doesn't make money for the school. "But our president and board of regents approve the budget because we've been tremendously successful," he said. "I don't think the administration would be as open to funding us if we weren't."

Over the years, there's been talk about the Waves fielding a football team, "but I guarantee we'll never start one," Wright said.

Wright credits his experience as a coach at Pepperdine in helping him "mesh a coach's problems with the institution's philosophy and goals." One of his regrets is having to give up coaching to be athletic director.

"I miss coaching," he said. "I like to compete. That's why I play a lot of golf."

One of his golfing partners is Houston Astros pitcher Mike Scott, the former Cy Young Award winner. "I think Mike would rather play golf than baseball," Wright said. Scott pitched for the Waves in 1970s and played on Wright's last team. "After losing Mike, I thought I'd better quit on top," Wright quipped.

Although Scott was so wild "he couldn't hit the screen" his freshman year," Wright said, "I felt he had as good a chance of anyone I've coached of making the major leagues. He was a very dominating college player."

Wright feels he'll stay at his job for another eight to 10 years before devoting more time to his hobby of restoring antique furniture for his wife Lynn's antique shop in Thousand Oaks. There's no chance, he said, that he'll be wooed away from Malibu by another school.

"I've had a number of inquiries about relocating," he said, "but I haven't seriously considered them."

Why should he? Looking out his office window, he saw the sun glistening on the Pacific. "I'm very fortunate," he said.

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