The dream was always Wenatchee High, located along the Columbia River in Washington state.
Jim Livengood could have been named the school’s athletic director, called it a day and lived out life with his wife and two children in such a picturesque setting.
The end game was never about running a collegiate athletics department. It wasn’t about college at all.
“I loved teaching and coaching high school football and basketball,” said Livengood, the former UNLV athletic director. “Those were some of the greatest times of my life.”
But before a serious run could be made at internal happiness on the eastern foothills of the Cascade Range, an offer came in 1980 from Washington State. He would begin by running its renowned Cage Camp for basketball.
The gig came with a $7,000 pay cut, a career move which wife Linda OK’d.
And so began one of the most successful collegiate administration careers in history.
Livengood remembers those days fondly now.
Open heart surgery will do that.
This wasn’t the June he envisioned months ago.
Livengood is this year’s recipient of the James J. Corbett Memorial Award, the highest honor in collegiate athletics administration.
If you began writing the significant positions and committees and boards on which Livengood has held or served, hand cramps would set in days from now.
But the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics convention in Las Vegas, where he was scheduled to receive the Corbett, was canceled due to COVID-19.
Livengood speaks about being humbled by such recognition — “I tell myself they got to the end of the list and couldn’t find anyone else,” he jokes — while recovering in Arizona.
In February, doctors replaced a valve and repaired an artery that had grown to twice its size. They also discovered an irregular heartbeat, leading to 11 days in the hospital, including five in intensive care.
But if a good life is indeed a collection of happy moments, Livengood is the child who walks into Disneyland for a first time. He is 75 and still exudes as positive an outlook as one could envision. You can’t even make up how hopeful he is.
“I’m feeling awesome,” he said. “The heart is good. The energy level is good. But as great as my doctors were — and I was blessed to have the very best — it’s still open heart surgery. You just never know what could happen.”
Full disclosure: I wrote in 2009 that Livengood was the wrong choice for UNLV. That he wasn’t young enough. Questioned his commitment. Wasn’t sure how motivated he would be to embrace an incredibly difficult job after running athletics at Washington State and Arizona.
Full disclosure II: I couldn’t have been more wrong, and not because we have grown to be wonderful friends.
“Honestly, I would have been saying the same things,” Livengood said. “Here comes a guy who is going to be 65 and has been in athletics for a long, long time. The natural thing is to think he’s going to sit around and collect some money.”
What he did was give UNLV a national presence not before seen from the athletic director’s chair, a name as respected as there was across the collegiate landscape. Livengood planned on staying at UNLV for two years. It became 3 1/2.
He tried like anything to keep Lon Kruger as men’s basketball coach in 2011 and not lose him to Oklahoma and millions of dollars. Livengood says his superiors at UNLV wouldn’t budge on, well, the budget.
“I knew then that I close to retiring,” he said. “I held on hoping we could get football and men’s basketball going. I’ll never regret going to UNLV. I was shocked at how much better a school it was than I imagined. I met some great people there. UNLV is a wonderful university with so much potential.”
A servant leader
It was the late 1990s and Chris Del Conte was working maintenance for Washington State athletics. He was painting fences and mowing grass. His boss had told him the importance of beginning one’s administrative career at such a level, that he too had learned the most important lessons as a servant leader.
“He taught me that working one’s self up through those teachable moments, I would one day be an athletic director,” Del Conte said. “I’m not sure I believed that when painting those fences.”
His boss was Jim Livengood.
Today, Del Conte is Vice President & Director of Athletics at Texas.
He recently signed an extension through 2027 worth $18 million.
“I owe all of this to Mr. Livengood,” Del Conte said. “He is one of the all-time greats of our business. He has always seen the light through the forest. When you can’t find your way thought the tunnel, he’s always there for you. When things get tough, I just close my eyes and hear his voice. Just an incredible person.”
The dream was always Wenatchee. It would follow time as a teacher and coach at stops like Oroville and Ephrata high schools across the state, of having to begin football practice at 5 a.m. during harvest season. His players had apples to pick.
But then Washington State called, and a gig with a $7,000 pay cut began the career of one of the finest administrators college athletics has known.
One who has now been delivered its greatest honor.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.