As a junior linebacker at Kansas State in 1993, Laird Veatch helped the Wildcats to a 9-2-1 record and a win over Wyoming in the Copper Bowl, the first postseason victory in the history of the program. Veatch’s coach at the time, Bill Snyder, had taken over a program that lost 21 of 22 games (and tied the other) before he first walked the sidelines in 1989. (That first team under Snyder went 1-10.) Today, the new University of Memphis athletic director considers every member of that ’93 team — players, coaches, support staff — leaders of one kind or another.
“It was a true transformation,” says Veatch, “a change in the culture, very challenging, very hard. There were no hour limits [on practice] in those days, so we just worked. You can imagine the bonding. To see that turnaround, and the impact it had on the community, the people . . . it was a remarkable experience. I can relate to the players who were here [at Memphis] two or three years ago. It’s incredible, the impact. That’s a lot of what drove me into this profession.”
Veatch grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, the youngest of three brothers. His roots in the shadow of Kansas State run deep, his parents still living in the house where Veatch was raised, merely a block from where Veatch’s wife, Brandy, called home as a child. (Veatch delivered newspapers to his future wife’s family, who also live in the same house today.) “It was very much a competitive, all-boys, sports-oriented household,” says Veatch. “Our high school — Manhattan High — was always really successful, good at football. We played for the state championship three years, and won my junior year. But track was my first love, the 100, 200, and 400. I also played baseball and basketball until my sophomore year in high school, when I started focusing on football.”
In addition to K-State, Veatch considered offers from Missouri and Kansas. He laughs when reflecting on his decision to stay home and play for the Wildcats, noting these three programs, at the time, were at the bottom of the Big Eight Conference. “I was a recruit, but that tells you the level,” he notes with a chuckle.
Veatch was named captain as a senior, an early measure of leadership skills, but the kind not measured by statistics, or even wins on fall Saturdays. “It was a work-ethic thing,” he says. “People respect when you do the little things, show up every day, hold yourself accountable. I was never the rah-rah guy. I’d say what I thought needed to be said. Do what you’re supposed to do. Earn it.”
Upon graduating from Kansas State in 1995 where he earned a degree in business administration, Veatch took a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Texas and earned a master’s in sports administration. That set the foundation for a career that’s seen Veatch at the University of Missouri (1997-2002), Iowa State (2002-03), his alma mater (2010-17), and Florida most recently, with seven years (2003-10) at Learfield Sports mixed in, where he came to appreciate the symbiotic ties between media and big-time college sports.
Why sports administration? To begin with, athletics was the world Veatch knew best. He had witnessed the impact successful programs made beyond a college campus. So it became a matter of how best to contribute to such impact. “I didn’t want to coach,” explains Veitch, “because I didn’t think I could balance the family/husband/parent priorities in my life. I knew I’d be in constant conflict.” (Veatch and his wife, Brandy, have three daughters and a son between the ages of 9 and 18.)
Veatch welcomes the challenge of leading an athletic department outside the ballyhooed “Power Five” (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12). Minus the TV contracts those five leagues enjoy, the U of M must be creative — and intentional — in finding revenue streams to boost recruiting, promotions, and ultimately, wins on the playing field.
“While we’re not as big as some,” notes Veatch, “we do have some abilities and capacity here to do some things that others may not have. It’s a sweet spot, in a lot of ways. You can help and move the needle farther than you might be able to at other places.”
In a position to identify and hire leaders — namely coaches — Veatch takes multiple angles in measuring a candidate. “You can look at leadership from a philosophical standpoint,” he says. “I like to think of myself as a servant leader. I like to serve and support our teams, what they’re doing. Accountability is a form of service. If you care about someone and want to help them, you’ll hold them accountable.
“As for what I’m looking for in others, how do they connect with people? Is there a connectivity that you sense and feel? And do they have a presence? You want coaches that student-athletes will respect and gravitate to. But then also, genuine and real. If you have those attributes, combined with a philosophy that’s sound, you can be effective.”
Leadership to Veatch is, ultimately, a matter of decision-making, and what fuels the decisions that impact those around us. “Are we making decisions based on how we care about our student-athletes? How we support our coaches? How we serve our fans? That’s the guideline to me. Our decisions need to be consistent with what our core beliefs are. It’s hard, when you’re moving so fast, and going in different directions. That’s why it’s important to have the right people around you.”
Being new to Memphis, Veatch is in an exploratory phase, both in terms of the lay of the land and the qualities that he’ll utilize to sell Memphis — the university and the city — to other leaders. “We already have a huge piece in the recruiting process,” notes Veatch. “They’ve seen the success [i.e. Mike Norvell’s football program]. We have some inherent advantages: our recruiting base and a university that’s accelerating, constant improvement in all our metrics academically. You need to be able to sell the ability for success to a coach, but all those elements are here. I’ve got to learn more about what those are so I can articulate that.”
Veatch cites athletic directors he once called boss among the leaders who have influenced him most: Joe Castiglione and Mike Alden (Missouri), John Currie (Kansas State). And he gravitates toward the wisdom of Snyder — a 2015 inductee in the College Football Hall of Fame — when it comes to leading Tiger athletics toward new heights. “Coach Snyder was very process-oriented,” says Veatch, “very detailed. He had high expectations. Relied on repetition. His mantra was, ‘Get a little better every day.’”