Jeremiah Donati Leads Athletics Through Pandemic
TCU’s director of intercollegiate athletics talks about the new club on the east side of Amon G. Carter Stadium and doughnuts with his daughters.
You have a tremendous background in fundraising and developing relationships through the Frog Club. What does completing the new Legends Club & Suites mean to you?
It sends a strong statement about how serious we are about football and how committed we are to football. All of our sports are important, but football is really our economic driver. The expansion sends a statement that we want to be competitive for many years to come. It also sends a statement to our fans that we want to give them the best possible game day experience. I think you may find bigger stadiums, but you will not find one nicer than ours.
The façade matches the style of Schollmaier Arena, especially with the reliefs of the football players. During the early discussions about the stadium’s expansion, did you plan for the new design to create a sense of continuity between the sports facilities on campus?
We really wanted it to feel like it was always planned that way. We’ve been to some campuses where some of the facilities look different. We always wanted the stadium to match [the aesthetic of that part of campus] — almost like you could show up today and you could think that the BLUU, Schollmaier Arena and the stadium were all kind of planned at the same time.
It’s really a testament to our physical plant and planning committee, who really engineered that vision across the campus, because it really does look very consistent.
The coronavirus pandemic changed the way people can gather on campus. Did you have to come up with a new plan for the dedication of the stadium expansion?
We initially had a dedication scheduled for the spring game back in March — of course that didn’t happen. We wanted to show off the stadium to the project donors who generously helped us build it. We wanted to do something, a sign of the time so to speak, as quickly as possible and not wait for week one of the season. We did a virtual dedication. We got drones and celebrity speakers. We tried to customize a gift for them, a video that they could actually take with them and view forever.
It was just like every other dedication. We did all the same protocols for any building opening. The chancellor spoke, I spoke, and we did it in a way that was in accordance with social distancing. We had some fun with it.
We found a way to reach out to them and engage them in a way that they’ve probably never experienced before. I think that’s a challenge of ours. My team — the Frog Club team and the video team — was heads-down making this a fun and new experience. I just told them, “You know, it’s fun what you can come up with when you get creative people like yourself: the ability to just run wild on a project.” I was excited about what they came back with.
Several teams were in the middle of their seasons when the pandemic shut everything down. What are you doing to boost the coaches’ morale and set their sights on next season?
Frankly, and rightfully so, it was difficult for some of them to move on — Raegan Pebley in particular with women’s basketball and Karen Monez with rifle. Karen was in Lexington, Kentucky, set to defend our national championship, and they got called home. I was in Kansas City with women’s basketball. They were in the midst of their best season in over 10 years, and they had their dream cut short.
How you pick up the pieces and move on has been challenging, but I have to say I’ve been impressed with their attitudes. It’s been a very go-forward attitude. I’ve tried to acknowledge the disappointment but also encourage them to look forward.
Maybe there’s a lesson in there. Now it may be years down the road before our student-athletes understand that lesson, but there is a lesson. This is a hard time. And in the large scheme of things, losing out on a basketball tournament, you know, life could be a whole lot worse. There are people dying, people losing their jobs, people who are separated from their loved ones. I think when you put that in perspective, it doesn’t make the pain any less, but it does give you some comfort, essentially, in knowing that we really are in this together. We are sharing in this together, and then we’ve all got to get through it together.
Overall I’ve been really impressed by the attitude of the student-athletes and the coaches. I don’t hear a lot of complaints, and they understand that because of these cancellations, countless lives were saved.
It’s probably the most overused word, but it really is unchartered water we’re in. Overall I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve handled things.
Some sports were just starting out. Baseball was 11-4, ranked nationally and headed toward a great season, and men’s tennis was in a nine-game win streak and ranked No. 7. Fans were buckling up for the ride. Have you been in communication with fans?
Not one person has said we did the wrong thing. There’s disappointment, but you can sense that there’s excitement in coming back. Athletics is not any more important than any other department across the university, but we just happen to be the most visible. With being the front porch of our school, so to speak, comes the responsibility that we need to help folks through this time and understand where they’re coming from.
We’re working through it. I think we’ve done some neat things to interact and engage. Now more than ever, thank goodness for social media. I don’t know where we’d be without that right now, frankly. It would be much more challenging. I think our fans have a good attitude toward it, but I think they’re all starved for some live competition.
We’re in this new era of personal interaction through social media, and you provide plenty of videos and posts to keep people informed. Is that natural for you?
I enjoy interacting with our fans. I feel like if you’re going to put the time and energy into this place, whether it’s financially or with your own efforts — we have a lot of volunteers — I feel like you deserve to hear from me.
I’ve got a young family, and I like to share that side of me too. I think that’s important. I think if you can kind of humanize someone in my role, it’s a better way to connect with your fans. I think a lot of our fans are young parents too. They’re going through similar issues. It’s difficult for me to take Zoom calls at home because I’ve got kids climbing on me. And most times I’m the leader of the Zoom call, so it’s one thing if you’re just in the call and you can turn the video off and put it on mute, but when you’re running the agenda and you’ve got someone pulling at you, someone needs this, a dog’s barking and, you know, it just becomes challenging. I have the same issues everybody else does. I’m not any different.
I learn a lot from people. The easiest way to meet our student-athletes is to meet them where they’re at, which is on social media. I just have fun with it. I try not to take myself too seriously. I’m not in it to be an influencer. I’m in it to promote TCU Athletics and to promote the university in a positive light. And if I can make some people smile and make them laugh, or give them some kind of deeper engagement with me personally in this role and/or the university, then that’s great. It’s time well spent.
Five TCU football players were chosen in the 2020 draft, the most in the Big 12. Draftees include first-rounders Jalen Reagor and Jeff Gladney ’19. What does that mean for TCU Football?
The draft was a huge moment and a very positive moment for TCU Football and the campus overall. One thing that Coach Patterson doesn’t get enough credit for is that he’s an amazing recruiter, so he’s great at identifying talent, but he’s also great at developing talent. Very few coaches are able to do both well. He and his staff have done that for years. It’s certainly emblematic of his efforts here.
The young men who were drafted, to see them put in the work they did for so many years, for them to overcome some personal hardships to get where they are, it really makes what you do all the more worthwhile.
I’m still waiting for the Cowboys to get one of those big TCU draft picks, although Andy Dalton ’10 just became a Cowboy, so that’s exciting. Sooner or later one of our top draft picks will go to the Cowboys, and that will be an even bigger moment.
Women’s triathlon was set to be TCU’s 22nd varsity sport next fall. Why did you decide to delay the program?
We delayed triathlon by a year. We are still fully committed to launching the program and are excited to do so. But I can’t even interview a coach in person right now. So we’ve already kind of fallen behind on the recruiting cycle by not having that coach here. We had planned to have him or her here in March. We’ve already missed out on the recruiting cycle.
We just felt like there was no need at this point to further complicate our return to campus plan. This fall we will reengage with the head coach candidates; we had an unbelievable list of candidates for the job. We just plan on launching 365 days after the original plan.
You and your daughters get doughnuts together every Sunday. What happened during the stay-at-home order? Did you make your own doughnuts?
We have a doughnut store over on West 7th Street — A & H Donuts — that we go to every time. We don’t change it. They’re the most wonderful people. The kids walk in and they’re like little celebrities. I just love these mom-and-pop shops, and during this time I wanted to continue to support them. We probably overspend and under-consume, but I want to support the doughnut store. My kids just love it. Hopefully those are memories that they’ll have forever when they have their own kids and they develop their own tradition. It’s been really special for me. No matter how tired I am or how late the game the night before was, we try our best never to miss those if we’re in town. We’ll be there this Sunday.
Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.