By Bobby Curran.
There is probably no job in athletics departments that has changed as much over the last half century than that of athletics director. It was once a position where retired coaches would be planted, their days filled with courting boosters, cocktail parties and golf tournaments. In the modern day, that has shifted dramatically, with ADs, as they’re known, responsible for budgets, gender equity, conference affiliations, and the good citizenship of coaches and student-athletes who toil under their auspices.
They labor far beneath university presidents but often have a much higher public profile. The job requires both a deft touch and a thick skin. Fortunately, UH Director of Athletics David Matlin possesses both qualities.
It’s always fascinating to see what path leads a person to their current position. Matlin was born in Hawaii, where his father, Lew, was the general manager of the Hawaii Islanders, but he wasn’t here long. Within two weeks of his birth, the family relocated to Vancouver, Washington where Lew had accepted the GM job of the Pacific Coast League team there. There were other stops in Seattle and Milwaukee, before his dad settled into a 20-year run in the front office of the Detroit Tigers.
Matlin grew up in a Detroit suburb playing baseball, basketball and soccer, but his strongest sports memories were going to the ballpark and helping his dad, especially on those fan appreciation days like cap day or bat day, where he could help deliver the goods to the gates for arriving customers.
He enrolled at the University of Michigan, majored in economics with a math minor, and got certified to teach. The whole time, however, he knew his passion lay elsewhere. “I wanted always to work in sports,” Matlin recalled. “I didn’t know where or how, but it was where my passion was.”
During his junior year at UM, he had a life -changing encounter, when he met a Honolulu girl at a party. She was the former Dana Hatate, and the couple grew close quite quickly. “When you think of things that may have been destined to be,” Matlin said, “we found out we’d been born in the same hospital and delivered by the same doctor.”
Shortly after graduation, Matlin was at an event and was introduced to the President and GM of the Houston Astros, a longtime baseball exec named Dick Wagner. He must have made a good impression as soon after he got a call with the offer of an internship, and so David was off to Houston while Dana worked in HR at the Outrigger in Honolulu and joined him a year later. Matlin was assigned to VP of Marketing and Business Operations Ted Haracz. “That turned into a fantastic opportunity, as I was in about seven different departments, and about three months in somebody left, and I was hired full time,” Matlin remembered. “I was tasked with overseeing budgets, marketing operations, event planning and some sales.” At the age of 25, Matlin became Director of Sales. “Because I was all over the building, I may have known more people in the company than anyone else, which was so helpful with developing people skills and getting exposed to different personalities.”
David received an offer to run the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio, with the promise of moving to Cupertino when they opened a theatre there the following year. By this time, the couple had decided to migrate west, so the opportunity dovetailed with their long term plans. San Antonio was good for them, with Dana working for the Hyatt there as she had in Houston, and David flourishing with expanding the theatre operation. But the news that Cupertino project had fallen through prompted them to pack up and move to Honolulu.
David got a casual hire position at UH, but there wasn’t a full-time position available so he took a job with Washington Inventory Services. Less than a year later, he was hired by UH working in the ticket office for Edith Tanida. The office was computerizing the operation, and Matlin was put in charge. He also enrolled in the masters program in business and specialized in information technology, which was a great fit with his work. He ended up with his MBA from Shidler, and the information technology he learned became another tool in his ever-expanding kit.
He had met Jim Donovan when he was an assistant AD to Hugh Yoshida, and Jim had taken the job as the Executive Director of the Hawaii Bowl. When he reached out to Matlin to join him as Director of Operations in 2002, the time seemed right for a change. “The number of people in sports that I met in that job turned into a great opportunity,” Matlin said. “It was coaches, conference commissioners, television people and lots of media people.”
When Jim Donovan was hired as the UH AD, Matlin became the bowl game’s Executive Director. That position grew more complex with the addition of the Diamond Head Classic, but the experience prepared Matlin for the challenges ahead. It’s fair to say that no other AD in the Mountain West knows ESPN Vice President of College Sports Programming and Events Pete Derzis as well as Matlin does.
When the UH decided to hire Matlin in March of 2015, they had someone who hit the ground running. “There were so many elements to the job that I knew I needed some organizing principles to effectively manage,” said Matlin. “But reduced to the basics, I decided to always do what I thought was right, knowing I wouldn’t always be right, but I could sleep at night.”
In difficult times, Matlin has some impressive achievements to date. Facilities improvements totalling more than $35 million dollars have seen the practice gyms completely redone, a new surface for the Clarence T.C. Ching track, renovated locker rooms for both basketball teams and the baseball team, and court resurfacing for the Stan Sheriff Center and UH Tennis complex, with more on the way. Academically, UH has earned its highest ever Academic Progress Rate of 981, coupled with the highest GPAs and graduation rates in department history.
Financially, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on athletic departments nationwide, but Matlin has proven nimble with making adjustments. “We have had to make some very tough decisions, and there are more coming,” Matlin said. “We have not had the resources that some of the other schools have. We already know how to get by and compete with a little less, so at least it’s not culture shock to us like it is at other places.”
And he has enlisted help. “We couldn’t have done some of the things we have without donations, and support from upper campus and from the Legislature,” Matlin said.
Life in the pandemic has changed everybody, and sports has taken some body blows. “Two years ago, I didn’t really know what Zoom was; now I’m logging 30-40 hours a week.” The crisis is not nearly over. The hours are long, and stress levels are high.
Fortunately, things have gone quite well for the Matlin family. “I’m one of those people that overachieved in my marriage,” Matlin said. “Dana is so smart, and always seems to read people and situations very well. She has been the rock in our home.” Their two children are well on their way, with daughter Kisa having graduated from Notre Dame (tough for a Michigan man) and got her masters at SMU. She is back in Hawaii teaching biology and environmental science at Waipahu High School. Son Ross is a graduate of USC’s film school and next year will be in the Peace Corps.
Despite the tough times in athletics, there are a couple of things with David Matlin that you can take to the bank. He will put in as many hours as it takes, and he will absolutely always do what he believes is the right thing.