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Oklahoma athletics: How Joe Castiglione built a powerhouse by sticking to his core values

As Joe Castiglione celebrates 15 years at OU, it comes on the heels of an academic year when the university experienced unprecedented athletic success. The overall health of Sooner athletics has never been better.
by Jenni Carlson Published: August 10, 2013
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NORMAN — The framed piece of paper sits in Joe Castiglione's office surrounded by pictures from the past 15 years of Oklahoma athletics.

It goes largely unnoticed amid the eye-catching images of football championships and softball titles and basketball triumphs and so much more that has happened during Castiglione's time in Norman. But no matter how many great moments have happened or will happen, that framed paper always has a place in the athletic director's office.

On it are the department's core values.

Respect.

Accountability for self and others.

Passion for comprehensive excellence.

Commitment to continuous improvement.

Celebration of diversity.

Integrity in all our affairs.

It is his rule book.

“That is the backbone of every decision that is made,” Castiglione said. “It's about the best interests of the university.

“That's the constant.”

That wasn't necessarily the case when Castiglione arrived during the summer of 1998 — and it had created a fractured campus, an ugly divide between academics and athletics.

As Castiglione celebrates 15 years at OU, it comes on the heels of an academic year when the university experienced unprecedented athletic success. Even as football slid from its lofty heights, the overall health of Sooner athletics has never been better. There were more Big 12 titles in more sports than ever before. Men's basketball returned to the NCAA Tournament. Men's and women's gymnastics finished second in the NCAAs. Then, of course, came the crowning achievement, a softball national title team so dominant that it had historians digging in the record books to see if another team had ever been as good as Keilani Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain and their crimson-clad teammates.

And for it to play out in Oklahoma City?

It was a party for the Sooner Nation.

That softball championship was the latest reminder of the strength and the depth of the athletic department that Castiglione has built. He didn't just clean up problems. He didn't just fix football.

He built a powerhouse, an amazing front porch for the university.

“Joe has not allowed for the athletics department to be an empire separate and apart from the rest of the university,” OU President David Boren said. “He has helped us become one community.”

Athletics are often called the front porch. An entry point for outsiders. A place for alums and supports to gather. But when Castiglione took over at OU, athletics' place was skewed.

“If they were the front porch,” Castiglione said, “it wasn't connected to the house.”

He doesn't want to venture a guess as to why. He wasn't there. It isn't his place to say.

Still, he knows what he experienced when he arrived on campus.

“I sensed a huge separation,” Castiglione said as he sat in a crimson chair in a corner of his office recently. “It was mostly that the athletic department was seen on an island. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it just was seen that way.”

Those who were on campus then say that the problems had grown out of several problems.

First came the ugly end to the Barry Switzer era. Football ran amok, machine guns and gang rape in the jock dorm. The lasting image for many was quarterback Charles Thompson on the cover of Sports Illustrated in an orange prison jumpsuit.

The headline: HOW BARRY SWITZER'S SOONERS TERRORIZED THEIR CAMPUS.

Over the next decade, football struggled with the aftermath of those days. It hit an on-field low in 1997 with a second consecutive losing season.

It was the first time that the Sooners had back-to-back losing seasons since 1924.

Then came news that the athletic department was millions of dollars in debt. It owed between $12-14 million, and the money to cover those debts had to be borrowed from the university.

Worse, athletics had no plan about how to balance its budget and stop hemorrhaging cash.

There was an uproar on campus.

Finally, in the spring of 1998, then-athletic director Steve Owens resigned only a week after dismissing nine athletic department employees, including two assistant athletic directors.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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