Over the years, Georgia Tech alumnus Steve Zelnak has been exceedingly generous in giving to his alma mater and its athletic department. He and his wife, Judy, gave the lead $4.5 million gift on the basketball practice facility and also were behind the football team meeting room, among other donations.
His next donation might be his most unusual. As Tech’s appeal with the NCAA for penalties stemming from the men’s basketball team’s recruiting violations continues, Zelnak said he’s willing to help fund a lawsuit against the NCAA should Tech’s appeal fail.
“If the NCAA were to turn us down, I’d love to see us just flat sue the NCAA,” Zelnak told the AJC.
Zelnak made sure to clarify that it was his position, and not that of the athletic department. But Zelnak was critical of the NCAA for what he considered inconsistency in how the association has penalized member schools for infractions. It echoed the perception held by fans across college athletics that the NCAA lightly penalizes the most prominent athletic programs while treating others more harshly.
“If you look at their inconsistency in penalties and what they have done over time and how they do it, I don’t think they have a leg to stand on,” Zelnak said. “Personal view and, again, plenty of people would disagree with me. But, as you can tell, I am not a fan of the NCAA. I like consistency. I like people who do their jobs well. I don’t see that at the NCAA.”
Zelnak, it should be noted, is not a wild-eyed booster speaking off the cuff. The past CEO and chairman of the board of Martin Marietta, Zelnak has served on the boards of the Georgia Tech Foundation and the Alexander-Tharpe Fund. Beyond gifts to the athletic department, he endowed the dean’s chair of Tech’s college of business. He said he had “minimal lawsuit activity” in his 28 years running Martin Marietta.
It was clear that he has given plenty of thought to a lawsuit that likely would send shock waves through college athletics.
“The NCAA is on shaky ground, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a few schools who have been wronged, at least in their view, file suit, (and) go after it,” he said. “I think the depositions would be really interesting.”
Moreover, Zelnak said there are others who would be willing to go along with him in seeding a legal fund.
“We can raise seven-figure money in a heartbeat for that,” Zelnak said. “I’ve already worked on that some. And I’m not the only one. There are other guys (within the Tech community).”
Zelnak said that he has told athletic director Todd Stansbury that a legal fund would be available if he chose to pursue that path, but that Stansbury wasn’t entertaining the discussion as the appeal is proceeding.
“I think there’s a lot that needs to have a light shined on it,” he said. “Again, personal viewpoint.”
In the interview, Zelnak shared other thoughts and observations of the Tech athletic department unrelated to potential legal action.
Regarding men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner, now in his fourth season, Zelnak noted that Pastner had expressed his expectations of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Zelnak appreciated that injuries, notably to point guard Jose Alvarado, have been damaging, as the Yellow Jackets were 14-14 after their Tuesday night home win against Clemson.
“I’m pulling for Josh mightily, as is most everybody I know,” Zelnak said. “We all like him. And we’re very hopeful that he can have an (NCAA tournament) season.”
Of Pastner’s playing rotation, only center James Banks is in his final season of eligibility. Tech also signed a three-player class. The 2020-21 season will be Pastner’s fifth, the season that he had pinned his vision on making the tournament.
“Everybody knows he’s got two years remaining on his contract (after 2020-21) and next year is just a huge year for him,” Zelnak said.
He holds high optimism for football coach Geoff Collins.
“I know we have a coach who has a goal of being a consistent top-10 team, and I think this is a guy who pursues his goals, period,” Zelnak said. “And I think he knows what it takes to get there.”
Zelnak said he has a good feeling about Collins and liked that he had hired former Tech football players, including assistant coaches Nathan Burton, Tashard Choice and Brent Key, to his staff. “It’s hard to pick at” his staff, Zelnak said.
Zelnak said that Collins has excited donors with his vision and by making himself visible.
“(Donors) will write checks and give you more support if there is a vision that you are progressing toward,” he said. “And I see Geoff progressing toward his vision and, actually, in terms of recruiting, more rapidly than I would have expected.”
Regarding Stansbury, Zelnak said that he needed an adjustment period after his hire in 2016 to learn Tech, having last worked on campus in 1995, and his coaches.
“But I think Todd has really hit his stride and, my view, I’m very optimistic about what he’s doing, how he’s doing it,” Zelnak said. “He can sell Georgia Tech, and there’s a lot to sell. I’m quite optimistic about where we’re going.”
Zelnak praised the work of Stansbury and Jim Hall, the department’s associate vice president for development. Under their leadership, the department’s $125 million capital campaign has reached 95% of its goal and appears that it will be completed ahead of its Dec. 31 deadline.
Zelnak and his wife were particularly moved by an appeal that Stansbury made at a gathering of donors in the fall. Zelnak called it the best talk he had seen Stansbury give.
“It was from the heart, it was really impactful and I looked at my wife and she looked at me and we said, ‘You know, we’ve got to think about doing more here,’” Zelnak said.
Not long after, the Zelnaks committed to giving the lead gift for the renovation of O’Keefe Gymnasium, home of the volleyball team that finished second in the ACC this past fall. Zelnak called on other donors to “adopt” other non-revenue teams as major financial supporters in the way he and others have with the volleyball team and alumnus Richard Bergmark has with the swimming and diving team after he and his wife, Toni, endowed the head coaching position (belonging to Courtney Shealy Hart), making it the first endowed position in the department.
The sum of Zelnak’s observations and insight lead him to a place of optimism as a whole for the department. Renovating the Edge Center, Tech’s athletics headquarters, and O’Keefe will take care of two of the facilities that have gone longest without makeovers.
“I think you’re going to see us begin to win championships in various sports,” he said.
Perhaps more than it has been previously, Tech sees the leadership being more pointed to winning ACC titles and taking concrete steps to do so.
“It doesn’t accidentally happen,” he said. “You need to talk about it, it needs to be an objective, you need to recruit to it, and you need to be able to compete financially in all the sports you really want to accomplish that. And I think we’re on a track to do that. I’m not a guy who just says this stuff off the top of my head. I believe we’re in a really good place.”
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