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Michigan State AD's Mark Hollis has used his innovative mind to create some of the best college sporting events

By Jacob Feldman
December 18, 2015

Mark Hollis is Santa Claus. Literally. That man in the red suit and comically large belt, toting a pneumatic T-shirt gun instead of a bag of toys at a recent Michigan State basketball game? Yeah, that was the school's athletic director, one of the nation's most highly regarded. Actually, this was Hollis' 15th year dressing up as St. Nick, though he doesn't don the furry suit for publicity. He only does it to spread a little joy. And even when he's not Red, White, and Jolly all over, Hollis pulls off stunts worthy of a man who visits 100 million chimneys in one night.

In 2001, Hollis organized the first modern outdoor hockey game. In 2003, he brought college basketball to the center of a football stadium for the first time, and then, in 2011, took it out to sea on an aircraft carrier. He has turned a school surrounded by Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State into a national title contender in basketball and football. He's " The Wizard of Awes." And he's done it all because of what happened on one of the worst days of his life.

It was an otherwise unremarkable day during his teenage years when Hollis walked into his house in Lexington, Mich., to find his mother sitting at the kitchen table, crying. She explained that she and Hollis's dad were divorcing. Hollis's reaction to the news still haunts him: he fled. "I failed in not providing comfort to a woman who was in a lot of pain," he said. And yet, Hollis has decided to keep running, chasing happiness for himself and for those around him. "It's something that so many of us do. We step away from many of the issues that are around us and find ways to run."

Why does he spend his nights dreaming up magical events and his days working to bring them to life? Why does he turn a simple golf outing with friends into "The Classic of Boyne," complete with a PowerPoint bursting with Hollywood-ready animation? Why does he obsess over Christmas gifts every year and go incognito as Kris Kringle? To his wife, Nancy, it's simple. "He really loves to make people happy," she says. More than that, he likes to see people happy.

These days, that shouldn't be too hard to do in East Lansing. The Spartans' basketball team is No. 1 in the country. The football team just won the Big Ten and is gearing up for the College Football Playoff. And yet, Hollis, 53, is still hustling. He has to keep moving, he says, to avoid the pain he saw in his mother's eyes, and to prevent anything like that from happening to those around him now.

After seeing the cracks in his family life as a teen, Hollis turned to sports for respite, falling for Magic Johnson's Spartans in particular. That's why he enrolled at Michigan State and why, when he left, he pledged to return one day as a member of its athletic department. After stops at the Western Athletic Conference and the University of Pittsburgh, he achieved that goal in 1995, joining the Spartans as an associate AD.

One morning soon after, he explained his first big idea to Nancy: a hockey game played outside, in the middle of Michigan State's football field. "Really?" she responded. "I just don't see that happening." Then-hockey coach Ron Mason was more blunt when he heard about the idea. "You are crazy," he said. And yet, on Oct. 6, 2001, 74,544 filed into Spartan Stadium to watch Michigan State and Michigan skate to a 3–3 tie, setting a world record for the largest crowd at an ice hockey game. "After that," Nancy says, "I don't think I ever said, 'I can't see that happening.' "

Instead, she watched as Hollis's Spartans basketball team hosted Kentucky on a raised floor at the center of Detroit's Ford Field two years later, breaking another attendance record. Then came Hollis's boldest venture yet, a basketball game played on an aircraft carrier. He scouted locations on both coasts, dealt with Navy bureaucracy for eight years, and nearly had the whole event derailed when President Obama showed up late. But it ultimately went off without a hitch, except for the fact that UNC won the game.

Mike Carter/USA Today Sports

Hollis's first two events have been replicated to the point of commoditization (The NHL will play its 18th outdoor game this season, and the Final Four adopted Hollis's design for its floor model), and basketball-on-water headed in that direction, too. Four similar events were lined up for 2012, but only two managed to leap the logistical hurdles involved, and no more have been played since. Hollis has earned a National Marketer of the Year award and was named The SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily Athletic Director of the Year. Just this year, he was given the National Football Foundation's top prize for athletic administrators.

"He's a visionary," basketball coach Tom Izzo told The Detroit Free Press. "He gets a lot of credit but, to be honest, he doesn't get enough."

Yet Hollis is no boastful innovator. Far from it. In fact, Hollis credits his trendsetting ways to a unique fear of failure. He says that he's not concerned about one of his big plans falling apart and ruining his reputation. Instead, Hollis worries that one will go smoothly, but that no one will show up. That no one will smile. That one day he will wake up and realize he is running in place. That's why he feels an internal pressure to go grander with each project. And why has come to idolize one of the most successful men in the history of the smile-making business: Walt Disney.

Hollis reckons he's spent a year's worth of days at Disney parks. When Michigan State was in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Hollis took his family to the park every single day. By day six, his three kids, then in elementary school, had had enough. "Daddy, please not again," they told him. By day nine, he was alone. The fascination has little to do with the rides or the shows. It's about the joy. Often, he'll stand near the gates just to watch mesmerized families bounce in.

His obsession does not stop there. He's had the Disney Institute train Michigan State's ushers, ticket takers and police to replicate the theme park experience in East Lansing, and has read books on the company's "imagineering" process. As if he needed more proof, Hollis pulls his phone out to show a picture of him and Mickey Mouse, back to back, plastered as his iPhone background. "He's such a zealot," says Bob Chapek, a Michigan State grad and the chairman for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "Everything he does in his life has a Disney spin to it. A whole lot of people claim to be Disney superfans. He is in the top 1%."

And like Walt Disney—who announced his plans for EPCOT two months before dying—Hollis keeps dreaming. This weekend, Hollis will send his men's basketball, women's basketball and men's hockey teams to Boston to play Northeastern in historic Matthews Arena over a 24-hour span. They'll fly together, eat together, and Izzo might even show up on the bench during a hockey game.

In 2017, there's the Phil Knight Spectacular—a 16-team tournament in Portland, Ore., that honors the Nike founder, and then a barnstorming deal in 2018 that involves four basketball powers playing a round-robin across three cities. The ideas only get grander in time. In 2019, Hollis is hoping to recreate the Trojan War by pitting his Spartans against USC's Trojans in Greece. "I'm glad I'm not going to be here forever," Izzo once said, "because we'll probably be playing on the moon."

All Hollis will say about the future is this: I have unfinished business at Michigan State. Often, that work includes defending his own industry. "Intercollegiate athletics today is being challenged like never before," he says. Last month, for instance, The Washington Post reported that 28 big-time athletic departments were operating at a loss, including Michigan State. Hollis contested the finding, saying the artificial number is a result of trying to compare different, complex financial setups. But he agrees that overbuilding deserves scrutiny and that the salaries coaches in major sports receive can be criticized too.

Ultimately, Hollis argues, if you look at the student-athlete experience now compared to when he was in school 30 years ago or when he came back to Michigan State two decades ago, there is no comparison. "What we do is good," Hollis says. "We have 800 kids at Michigan State every year that have the opportunity to better their lives. That's what college is supposed to be all about." And that number doesn't include Hollis, who has been running his whole life.

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