Dave Maggard was advised by friends to avoid the University of Houston at all costs.
It was a dead-end street, he was warned. Apathy raged. The football and basketball programs, once great, were broken down. The place had become a graveyard for coaches and administrators. Don't go there, friends pled.
Maggard went there in 2002.
"Ced Dempsey (former NCAA president and Houston athletic director) said there was no possible way I'd stay there over two years," Maggard said Wednesday. "I saw him at the Final Four last year, and I said, 'Well, it's been five years.' "
Maggard, 68, welcomes tough jobs like Donald Trump collects hotels. He's revived collegiate athletic programs (Cal, 1972-91), run the Olympic Games (Atlanta, 1996) and begun a National Hockey League franchise in the Deep South (Atlanta Thrashers, 1997).
None of these tasks were guaranteed successes. They required the touch of a man who has competed in the arena and overseen the arena. It's why Maggard, the Cougars' athletic director, remains one of the nation's most respected sports administrators, a man shaped by the valley. Maggard graduated from Turlock High, carried the football for Modesto Junior College and placed fifth in the shot put in the Olympics (Mexico City, 1968).
Then again, he speaks like a man who's never left Stanislaus County. He easily recalls stories about Joe Debely of Turlock and Stan Pavko of MJC, old-school coaches who molded their willing student.
"I had my mitt in my hand and was ready for the first day of baseball practice at Turlock when Debely stops me and asks, 'Where are you going?' " Maggard remembered. "I said, 'Baseball, Coach, I'm a pitcher.' He said, 'The heck you are a pitcher. You're going to be a shot putter.'
"Looking back, you might say that was an important change of direction for me."
Is that when Maggard developed a fondness for fresh challenges? It would be difficult to prove otherwise. He's never shied away from the next hurdle, but he shocked all observers by taking on Houston athletics.
The program that produced Bill Yeoman in football and Guy Lewis in hoops, the school that made Phi Slama Jamma a basketball trademark in the 1980s, was a hollow carcass.
Maggard rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He hired football coach Art Briles, who won a Conference USA title in 2006 and returned the Cougars to bowl games. When Briles moved on to Baylor, Maggard replaced him last month with Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin, Texas' first black head football coach in NCAA Division I-A.
In basketball, he signed coach Tom Penders. Houston (13-3) defeated Kentucky this season and drew 8,517, its largest home crowd in seven years. Today, Maggard raises funds for a $30 million end zone facility, featuring suites and offices, for the stadium.
"I've worked harder here than any time in my life. There was so much to do," Maggard said. "I've stayed longer than I thought, but I kept starting these projects to get this program back to where it belongs on the national level."
He's always been drawn toward long-shot causes. Cal, his alma mater, was mired in athletics debt and stuck on NCAA probation when he took charge. On the day he was hired at the University of Miami (1991), the school was rocked by the Pell grant scandal. Before he was done two years later, he created a $6 million surplus for 20 men's and women's athletic programs.
Maggard approaches his 70th birthday, however, with another priority -- a desire to return to California, his roots. He's talked about this for years. He and wife, Carolyn, still own a home in El Dorado Hills from his tenure as a consultant for the Sacramento Sports Commission and UC Davis Medical Center. Their three children also reside in California.
"The kids and the grandkids will be magnets," he said. "I suppose what will happen is that I will wake up one day and I'll need something else."
"Something else" always has lured Maggard, the ultimate do-er.
"You always hope you can leave the job better than when you took it," he says. "If you do that, you've made some headway."
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.