One month into his tenure as San Francisco State’s athletic director, a program that university president Les Wong told him was “at the bottom of the pile” during their first meeting, Charles Guthrie realized the university’s old basketball court was four feet shorter than it needed to be.
It was the summer of 2014, and he’d arrived from Clark College in the middle of San Francisco State’s project to revamp the Main Gym at the Don Nasser Family Plaza, and Guthrie was helping to redesign the floor without seeing what the original surface, oak wood from the 1950s, looked like. Since it was a basketball court, the length would be 94 feet. The width would be 50. And when the backboards and rims lowered from the ceiling toward their markers, everything would align perfectly.
But it didn’t. An official measurement confirmed Guthrie’s instinct. The new surface reflected the right dimensions, but dozens of inches separated the basket’s desired destination and the actual one. That meant the Division II school had designed it wrong for decades, and it became the latest issue Guthrie was tasked with fixing as an athletic director — bridging the gap that separated the goals and the reality, the “basement programs” and the playoff ones, and erasing the inches of false hope in between. By the time Guthrie purchased two of the Spalding rollout nets to serve as replacements, the old floor had turned into “a $40,000 mistake,” he said.
When Wong started as president in 2012, he started to call others around the industry to gauge interest about potential athletic director hires, and Guthrie’s name kept emerging. Wong was a “competitive president,” Guthrie said, and always donned his watch from when Northern Michigan’s hockey team won its conference championship. He wore it as a momentum of what could be done, Guthrie added, and always remarked that he wanted another watch, or even better, a ring, before his time at San Francisco State ended. “I’m going to get you something,” he’d tell Wong when he showed him the watch.
It started with the gym renovation, then the head coaching changes and investments, that in an ideal scenario, would lead to tangible success. Leaving Clark College for San Francisco State was the latest calculated step in a series of moves intended to concoct a formula with Guthrie becoming a power-conference athletic director as the solution. The level didn’t matter — he didn’t want to sit in a Power Five athletic department for years and earn promotions that way — and he embarked on a chain reaction of 10 different stops, including one at Clark, one at San Francisco State and one at Wisconsin-Green Bay as an athletic director, before arriving at Akron, his current university, last May.
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“I’ve always wanted to be the producer to let artists do their thing,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie’s just the second Syracuse graduate, with the other SU Director of Athletics John Wildhack, to actively serve as a Division-I athletic director, and he’s used an intricate web of connections dating back to an unpaid internship with the Eastern College Athletic Conference in 1998 — one where he slept in his car for a week and drove a taxi cab at night for additional money — to trigger his hiring in the decades since. And in the first year with the Zips, he provided stability to a university that cut three sports due to COVID-19, snatched Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead as the new head football coach and watched as the basketball team won the Mid-American Conference Championship to earn an NCAA Tournament berth against UCLA last Thursday.
“He’s going to be the athletic director at a Power Five school soon,” said Mark Murphy, the Green Bay Packers President and CEO who hired Guthrie in 1998 when he was Colgate’s athletic director.
“He’s a rising star.”
As Guthrie walked toward his hotel in Marco Island, Florida, his supervisor spotted someone he wanted the ECAC intern to meet. Guthrie had attended the 1998 National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics event as a quasi-scout, trying to see if he could convince customers to attend the conference’s trade show, featuring athletic directors from the east coast, that fall.
By that point, Guthrie had finished his undergraduate degree at Syracuse and started a postgraduate track at Albany, where he walked into athletic director Milt Richards’ office to inquire about a graduate assistant position for coaching and left with one for the athletic department’s administrative side instead. That prompted Guthrie to apply to the ECAC’s summer internship in Cape Cod, drive down for the interview and leave with a position that’d start once the semester concluded.
But he’d underestimated the cost of housing in Cape Cod, and lived in his white Hyundai until John Garner, an assistant commissioner, allowed Guthrie to stay at his place. “I hadn’t figured that part out,” Guthrie said. “I just took the job.” Less than a week after the conference in Florida, his supervisor died suddenly. Guthrie became the ECAC’s de facto marketing director, and at night he drove taxi cabs in Hyannis, scouting out vacationers leaving the bars to earn additional money.
At the conference, his supervisor had introduced Guthrie to Murphy, and said, “You need to get to know him,” Guthrie recalled. Murphy mentioned to Guthrie he’d applied for a grant that would allow him a position on his athletic department staff, so Guthrie went to Hamilton after finishing up the internship with the ECAC and the grant was approved.
“The ECAC paid dividends and opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said.
That kick-started the stops that followed at Columbia and UC San Diego, with the latter emerging from a connection that summer with Earl Edwards, before Guthrie decided to leave athletics for a job as the director of alumni and parent relations at Cal State San Marcos. At that point, he didn’t know if he’d ever become an athletic director. The tension deepened a few years later when he went back into athletics at Cal State Los Angeles, tried to interview for an athletic director position and was told it’d be difficult for him to get one without a graduate degree, as he hadn’t finished the master’s program at Albany. Guthrie moved back to his mother’s house in New York and finished the master’s program before returning.
But the difficulty of landing the athletic director job still remained. Joe Moeller, the then-senior associate athletic director at San Diego State, told him over lunch that it would be difficult to get an athletic director position in San Diego. So when that first opportunity emerged at Clark College, Guthrie pounced on it. Even as athletic director, he set up tables for events, cut the grass low on the machine when the soccer coach wanted it cut a certain way, swept the floors at basketball games and cleaned the glass backboards “because you want that feel of March Madness,” he said.
Under Guthrie, both basketball teams embarked on double-digit win streaks, the soccer team made its conference championship and the baseball program made the playoffs. But when he applied for the San Francisco State position, he needed to eliminate doubts attached to his lack of experience by giving Wong a complete review of the athletic department that he prepared, Wong said.
And at the Don Nasser Family Plaza, Guthrie continued to orchestrate his latest athletic department reboot. Wong wanted him to write a strategic plan for the athletic department and present a draft within the first two months, and Guthrie provided snapshots of all the coaches that needed replacing and all the equipment that needed funding.
Before Guthrie left for Wisconsin-Green Bay, the women’s track and field team won their championship, and in a ceremony that followed, with everyone packed on the gym floor that Guthrie had once helped redesign — and helped notice the wrong dimensions — Wong walked up where Guthrie stood with the team, posed for a picture and received his ring.
Will Ryan first noticed the opening for the men’s basketball coaching job at Wisconsin-Green Bay from the makeshift office he’d constructed inside his house in Wheeling, West Virginia, scanning Coaching Changes, HoopDirt or other websites that tracked staff movement in May 2020. He decided to enter his name when he was digging posts in his backyard for a shade sail, and his phone buzzed with a call from former Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, Will’s father. “Yeah, you might get a call from Charles,” Bo said.
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The jump to Green Bay in 2017 had allowed Guthrie to transition from a Division II school to a Division I program, one that didn’t have a football team, while remaining in the athletic director chair and keeping his networking web intact. Murphy, who’d become the Packers President and CEO by that point, served as a reference for the position, and his bond with Wong from when the Packers practiced at Northern Michigan ensured a smooth introduction to the fact that Green Bay could be interested in hiring the athletic director that helped rebuild San Francisco State’s department. “There’s only 350 Division I jobs,” Guthrie recalled Murphy telling him. “You should give it a go.”
Wong knew he’d lose Guthrie at some point. It was almost inevitable, he said. And later that season, in Guthrie’s first year at the new school, the women’s basketball team won the Horizon League and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Eventually he made a change with the men’s team and fired then-head coach Linc Darner before hiring Ryan — consulting Bo, and others, along the way before making the decision. He became Ryan’s “hype man,” asking which players the coach planned to recruit and watching their highlight clips and YouTube videos, and two of the players Guthrie liked earned All-Freshman honors in the Horizon League this year. Guthrie had been a part of the Black Panthers intramural basketball team at Syracuse and, “was probably the most involved AD” Ryan had ever been around.
At Green Bay, Guthrie forged the relationship with chancellor Gary Miller that continued after Miller left to become the president at Akron. Guthrie followed Miller in 2021, becoming the university’s new director of athletics, and proceeded to hire Moorhead as the Zips’ new football coach.
“I hope that (hire of Moorhead) caused people to sit up and take notice,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I don’t know many people who would have thought he could land the people he was going after.”
The latest high point came 10 days ago, when Akron defeated Kent State for the MAC title and secured a bid in the NCAA Tournament. He walked around the court postgame during the ceremony before climbing up a yellow ladder to cut down the net from in front of the clear backboard emblazoned with the MAC logo.
And that feeling of March Madness — and everything else he’d accomplished up to that point — became much more concrete, with a trip to Portland, a 16-minute drive from that first athletic director job at Clark College, needing to be scheduled for the next weekend.
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