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Q&A with Senior Associate AD Rick Steinbacher

In which we discuss Mack Brown, winning championships, tailgating, and more.

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Earlier this week I got a chance to chat with Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Communications Rick Steinbacher. Steinbacher was an All-ACC linebacker under Mack Brown, as well as a former color commentator for the Tar Heel Sports Network. He embodies the things that bring Carolina such distinction and prestige: passion, humility, community, and greatness.

You were starting linebacker and All-ACC under Mack Brown. How did you end up at Chapel Hill out of high school?

My brother is five years older than me. He played football at Carolina. Then my sister, who is three years older than me, was a swimmer at Carolina. So even coming out of high school I still thought I was going to Penn State because that’s where my dad played football. That was my dream growing up, was to go there and be a linebacker. But it just came time to visit and I visited Clemson, Carolina, and Penn State, and my head was set to go to Penn State because that was my childhood dream but my heart said to go to Carolina and that’s the decision I made. I tell people all the time that it was the best decision I ever made.

Do you still have a relationship with Coach Brown?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I used to keep up with him a little bit when he was still actively coaching, but obviously, he was so busy. But since he stopped coaching at Texas, he’s been back to Chapel Hill several times. I’ve gotten to have a meal with him, gotten to see him at a basketball game and spend some good time with him, and I see from time to time at events. I keep up with him pretty well via text. He’s absolutely the best. I love that man.

How has the football program evolved since your playing days? Is there anything you’d like to see changed or done differently compared to how it was in the ‘90s?

You know, in some ways the game has changed radically and in others ways it’s still the same game. To me, the changes are that it’s much more a game of speed. It’s much more a game of passing and spread offenses, and it’s much more about athleticism. When I played, it was still a little bit of a downhill running game. Obviously, my senior year we ran the option, so it was more of a running downhill type of sport. Now, the field is 53 yards wide and 120 yards long. You use every bit of the field on every single play. So, I think that has really changed a lot of the dynamics of the game relative to strategy and relative to who is the ideal player at each and every position. So that’s where the changes I think are really radical.

In a lot of ways, it hasn’t changed at all. It’s still an awesome team game. It’s 11 players on the field at once, up to 120 guys on a roster, and it’s all about who can be the most cohesive and the most effective unit versus having 1, 2, or 3 superstars dominating. So, in that way I think the game is very similar.

One thing, I loved playing for Mack, and I love working for Coach Fedora because Coach Brown knew how to coach football—he’s from Oklahoma—and this is back when I played for him, and he just knew the schemes that we needed to have to be successful when I played. When I look at Coach Fedora now, he knows the schemes that need to be used to be successful now. So, they’re very different scheme wise, at least Mack when I played versus Fedora now, but they’ve got the exact same approach. They’re both incredibly great people that build a positive, upbeat, enthusiastic environment, and then within that environment they challenge every single player to the best they can be academically, socially, as a leader, character-wise, and then on the football field.

So, in many ways, the game has changed, and in many ways it’s the exact same that it was when I played.

You were the color commentator for football for years. What was your favorite moment on the sidelines?

You know, I love game day. I love everything about it. The competition, the fans, the crowd, the excitement, so it’s hard to pin down one moment. I have many. When we beat Florida State in 2001, that was really neat. When we beat Miami in 2004 in Kenan, that was awesome. The run that we had under Coach Fedora in 2015, it was so neat for me to be able to watch how he handled that, because the year before, he had a really rough loss to NC State then played really poorly in the bowl game. The way that he just immediately handled that team and turned what could’ve been a negative into a huge positive and a huge springboard into that 2015 season—it’s hard for me to pick out one but we won, what, 11 games in a row? That whole run collectively was probably one of my greatest, if not my greatest memory.

These last seven years have been trying times but Carolina has still found immense success athletically. And just in my lifetime, Carolina has won 3 national championships in basketball, but this 2017 one feels a little different. Just how important was that team and that championship to the University?

I’d say it was incredibly important. To me, it’s a testament, kind of a crown jewel, to how amazing our student athletes and coaches are, because, as you alluded to, the past seven years have had some pretty huge challenges off the field. But in spite of all that, what our student athletes have done on the field is miraculous. Field hockey Final Fours to men’s lacrosse and women’s lacrosse winning national championships in a span of about 36 hours to men’s tennis winning their first national championship, women’s tennis winning the national championship… the way that our coaches and student athletes have just focused on doing what they need to do in the classroom as students at Carolina, becoming leaders and developing character then winning championships in spite of all the other stuff, it’s really, really incredible. So, I think the men’s basketball championship back in April was kind of the crown jewel of that.

It reminds me of what you and I were talking about before, about why football to me hasn’t changed versus when I played. I can say the same thing about the basketball team. What I love about this team is that it was a team. There was no one superstar… I don’t know, they didn’t have egos, they were great student athletes, they loved to play together, they loved to play for Coach Williams, they loved to play for Carolina. In spite of all the challenges that, specifically, our basketball program has had over the last few years, they hung together and won a championship as a team. And it was awesome. Every single one of them are excellent human beings that you’d love to be around. They’re friendly, they’re humble, they’re caring, and as a team, they were the best team in the country. So it was a lot of fun.

You’re the Senior Associate Athletic Director, so, from your point of view, what does the future hold for UNC athletics? What are some things you’re excited about and what are some hurdles that we will have to face in the coming years?

You know, what I’m most excited about is the amount of success we’ve had over the last several years in spite of a lot of challenges. The reason I’m excited about that is I think the challenges have made us stronger. Just in terms of the athletic department, the university, whether it’s having policies and procedures in place or having checks and balances in place or simply being a strong, sound university and athletic department—we’re in the best shape we can possibly be in. We’ve built that, and I think Bubba Cunningham and Carol Folt have done an awesome job of doing that. Even as we’ve built that, we’ve had great success, so now I think the future is incredibly bright, in so many ways. I mean, look at any of the key indicators: wins on the field, championships won, overall student athlete GPAs or academic progress rate percentages, community service hours, number of student athletes getting meaningful careers, all of those key indicators are strong and growing. I think we’re poised for a great future with Carolina.

To me, that’s the most exciting part. The most concerning one is that we do have 21 head coaches at Carolina and it is, in my opinion, the greatest collection of head coaches anywhere in college athletics. I don’t think any of them are going to retire next year, but Anson Dorrance can’t coach forever. He’ll try, but he can’t. I think Roy Williams will coach for a very long time, but he can’t coach forever. Same thing with Mike Fox, with Donna Papa in softball, with Karen Shelton in field hockey. We’ve just got some awesome coaches who have had amazing success. So I think sometime, not in the near future but the mid-to-longterm future, we’re going to have to replace some of them. They’re not going to be easy to replace because they’re great people who do things right and win at the highest level.

One other challenge, I wouldn’t call it a problem, is the thing that makes Carolina athletics so unique, and I love it because it’s what Carolina is and it’s what Carolina believes in, it’s so much what Bubba Cunningham believes in… and that is that college athletics is about education and opportunity. That’s why we have 28 teams instead of 17 or 18. That’s why we have 750 student athletes instead of 450. There are a lot of schools in the SEC and even the ACC that don’t provide nearly as many broad based opportunities as we do. I think a lot of the things that you hear in the media about, whether it’s paying student athletes or changing the economics of college athletics, you know, I think that’s a threat to our model. So I think that’s the other big challenge that we have to really stay focused on.

Now I want to know about what the future holds for Rick Steinbacher. Personally, I think you’d make for a heck of an AD, but have you ever considered coaching?

I did, when I was in school. It was my initial dream, in junior and senior year of college, and I chose not to do that, mostly for family reasons. My wife is a Carolina grad, she has a great career, and, not for everybody but a lot of the times early on in coaching, you have to move around a lot, especially when you’re young. It’s more important to me to get married to my wife and start a family, so that drove me away from coaching and into the corporate world. So I spent six years with Proctor and Gamble and I’m just so blessed that I found a way to blend business, which is what my degree is in, with sports, which is what my passion is. I love athletic administration. It’s awesome. I get to work with coaches, I get to be around student athletes, I get to be a part of delivering game day experiences to our fans. I just absolutely love it. I would almost say I’m blessed because, when I was a junior and senior in college, it’s not what I intended to do but within seven or eight years or graduating I found a profession that was absolutely perfect for me.

Lastly, I’d like to ask you about the tailgate tent partnership and if there is any possibility of it expanding to Polk Place.

I don’t know exactly where it will grow to yet. We are thrilled with it and excited about it, and where it came from was we’ve done a lot of surveys from our fans both in 2015 and after games in 2016. We asked them a number of things. We asked them to basically rank a whole bunch of factors relative to game day, and we said first ‘how important are these factors?’ and then ‘how satisfied are you with it?’ From that, we identified six or seven areas that we wanted to focus on improving. One of them was tailgating close to Kenan Stadium. Obviously, for years we’ve known that that’s an opportunity for us, but the survey really focused our efforts. And don’t get me wrong, there’s great tailgating in Chapel Hill on game day, but it’s kind of spread out and further from the stadium, and we started thinking about how can we make tailgating available right there at Kenan. At about the same time we asked ourselves that question, this industry of turnkey tailgating started to explode, and one particular company—Tailgate Guys—has a lot of success and experience with doing tent tailgating on grassy areas. It was almost the perfect combination.

So, we’re thrilled to get launched. I absolutely expect it to be a huge hit, and I expect it to grow. Where we’re starting it is around the football center, around the bell tower, and around Kenan Stadium. I do not think those areas are going to be big enough in the near or at least midterm future, so we will have to grow. Where we will grow it to, I don’t know. We just don’t know until we get into it and learn how it is. I mean, Polk Place is an awesome location, but it’s also a core historic quad of the campus, so before we talk about growing there we have to make sure that what we do in the area is what we’ll think it will be, a great tailgating opportunity. By doing it with this firm, we’ll be able to take great care of the grass, we’ll be able to make it a first class, sort of high end, nice, family, community type of experience.