Kroner: Central grad Buhr's path leads to Washington State
Randy Buhr's dream was like that of many youngsters. He envisioned a life in sports.
From as far back as he can remember, from the childhood days spent growing up near Champaign's Hessel Park, Buhr's passion was sports.
Unlike many who seek a career in athletics, Buhr made it. His success is a testament to what determination and tenacity can do for a person, as well as what options are available to individuals if they look past the high-salaried superstars who are constantly in the limelight.
Buhr played basketball in a YMCA league but focused most of his competitive endeavors on baseball. He pitched a no-hitter for his Border League team (Champaign National Bank) but spent the majority of his playing days as a catcher.
When he graduated from Central in 1986, Buhr knew what direction he wanted his life to take.
"I mentioned to my family that I would like to work in intercollegiate athletics for a career," he said.
He enrolled at the University of Illinois and was an accounting major.
"I did not know how to actually make a career in the sports industry," Buhr said.
He had a pretty good idea he wouldn't earn his living as an athlete. He attempted to make the Illini baseball team as a walk-on. Coach Tom Dedin kept him, but only as a student manager for his final season at the school.
Graduating to a career
Along with the required classes at the UI, Buhr signed up for an elective in kinesiology. The course, taught by the late David Matthews, "changed my career path," Buhr said. "I learned there were advanced degree programs in which you could get a master's in sport management."
After earning his bachelor's degree in 1990, Buhr entered a graduate program at Ohio State in his primary area of interest. He didn't limit his learning to the classroom.
"I gained invaluable experience working as an unpaid volunteer intern in the compliance office within the Ohio State athletics department," Buhr said.
The name game
It was obvious as Buhr prepared to enter the workforce full time that he wouldn't have the credentials associated with many former athletes whose names were prominent to fans from coast to coast.
"My resume does not sparkle with past experiences as a great student-athlete," Buhr said. "I do not have name recognition in this regard. As such, I believe that I needed to make up for that with a tremendous work ethic and dedication."
The key to getting accepted in the profession is to actually get started, which can be a vicious Catch-22 for those without experience.
"I truly believe that in order to get your foot in the door in the sports industry, you have to be willing to do the little things and be willing to volunteer for numerous tasks and not be concerned about getting paid," Buhr said.
Willingness to work
Buhr accepted the reality he couldn't pick and choose his jobs. The best path, he said, was to take what was available and make the best of it.
"You have to be willing to do all kinds of work to prove yourself, even if they are menial tasks," he said. "All jobs are important and everybody's job is important to the success of the athletic department, from the custodial staff to the position of director of athletics.
"Once you get your foot in the door and prove yourself, you then realize that the field of intercollegiate athletics administration is one which you get to know a lot of people in the industry. It is a close-knit group, and for the most part, a very collegial industry."
Acting on faith
A strong resolve helped Buhr persevere through tough times when he found it frustratingly difficult to gain entrance into his area of choice.
After he completed his law degree at Illinois in 1995 (three years after acquiring his master's from OSU), "I still could not find a full-time job in the sports industry," he said.
Buhr had three degrees but zero job offers. Rather than pursue a career as a lawyer, he refused to believe his dream was unreachable.
"I ended up taking an internship at the University of Oregon in the summer of 1995," he said. "It was ironic that my first football game at Oregon (as an administrator) in the fall of 1995 involved a visit by the University of Illinois."
He moved to Eugene, Ore., on faith. His interview was handled by telephone, and the first time he saw the community was when he arrived looking for a place to live.
"It took me five days and about 2,300 miles to get from Champaign to Eugene," Buhr said.
Sometimes the key to advancement is simply being in the right place at the right time. After nine months at Oregon, Buhr was hired to fill a full-time staff vacancy.
He remained at the school until January 1999, working mainly in compliance and with the "Order of the O," the organization of the school's varsity letter winners.
Buhr also volunteered to help staff with event management functions. Like a kid in a candy store, he'd found his calling.
"It was the event management experiences that made me realize that I really enjoyed that aspect of intercollegiate athletics administration," Buhr said. "This ultimately led to a change in my career path."
One of Buhr's supervisors at Oregon, athletic director Bill Moos, made a statement that the new hiree retained and, eventually, put into practice.
"He said you need to be willing to move on to move up in this profession," Buhr said.
In February 1999 — three months past his 31st birthday — Buhr left the only full-time job he'd held in college sports to start anew with the NCAA, then located in Overland Park, Kan., but four months from moving to Indianapolis.
His duties centered around athletics certification, and he also helped to draft legislation for NCAA members to consider.
After less than two years on the job, Buhr was promoted to an assistant director of championships. He had oversight for the Division II football championships and Division I wrestling finals from 2000 to '10 as well as Division I baseball, including the College World Series, from 2003 to '11.
Buhr was happy and felt entrenched during his 12 1/2-year tenure with the NCAA. He met the woman who would become his wife at a neighborhood party on Sept. 11, 1999, and he was close enough to his hometown to remain a passionate Illini fan when off duty.
"I loved my job and the close proximity to Champaign, so I could come back to not only see my family but also see the Illini in action," Buhr said.
His mother, Arlene, passed away in 2000, but his father, Hervin, still lives in the same home where Randy was raised as an only child.
Meanwhile, Moos — the same person who encouraged Buhr to "move on to move up," — had left Oregon and was working at Washington State University as the athletic director.
"Bill wanted me to join his leadership team at Washington State and serve on his senior staff," Buhr said.
A new chapter in Buhr's stint in collegiate sports administration started July 25, when he and Susan moved to Pullman, Wash., which is in the southeastern portion of the state about 8 miles from the Washington-Idaho border. Buhr's responsibilities include overseeing the event management staff as well as the athletic maintenance staff.
He didn't wade cautiously into his new duties but jumped feetfirst. He helped organize a "home" football game Oct. 22 at Seattle's CenturyLink Field against Oregon State.
Though Seattle is on the western side of the state, five-plus hours from Pullman, Buhr said, "a great number of Washington State alumni live in the area, which is why playing a game in this area makes a lot of sense, similar to Illinois playing a basketball game at the United Center in Chicago."
Before New Year's, Buhr is organizing two "home" basketball games for Washington State at Spokane, which is 80 miles north of the school's campus.
Now 43, Buhr is in the profession from which he hopes to one day retire.
"I feel that I have plenty more good years ahead of me," he said. "I would hope to continue to grow in this profession.
"I would be open to opportunities that present themselves in the future, from staying on campus and serving as a director of athletics or a deputy director of athletics, to working in a conference office or even working again for the NCAA national office."
He is one sports fan who is thrilled to still be in the game.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, at 217-351-5232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.