‘Primed to be an AD.’ Meet TCU’s Ike Ukaegbu, a rising star in college athletics

·6 min read

The name Ike Ukaegbu may not register with even the most avid TCU fans. He spends his days mostly working behind the scenes, overseeing the compliance department since May 2014.

But Ukaegbu has become one of the most influential people in TCU’s athletics department. He helped navigate the men’s basketball program through the NCAA’s investigation into former assistant Corey Barker, who was linked in the FBI probe into fraud and corruption within the sport.

Ukaegbu served on TCU’s internal search committee for its next baseball coach when Jim Schlossnagle departed, a job that went to pitching coach Kirk Saarloos.

And, most notably of late, Ukaegbu is spearheading the department’s efforts regarding name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation that allows student-athletes to earn endorsement money.

All of it has led Ukaegbu from being in the background to the forefront as TCU enters a new era of college athletics. Those within TCU’s department and others within the industry understand that Ukaegbu is a rising star and feel he’s poised to become an athletic director one day.

“Ike has emerged as a true leader on our team,” TCU AD Jeremiah Donati said. “He’s someone who came to TCU and has just gotten better and better every year. He’s someone I have a ton of admiration and respect for. His future in college athletics really has no limits.

“If you’re good enough to become an AD, you’re going to get your opportunity. I think Ike is certainly going to get his.”

Grooming for success

Ukaegbu, 36, is building his resume for a top-level promotion seemingly by the day.

He was awarded the TCU Chancellor’s staff award for outstanding service in 2020, and just recently completed the NCAA’s Pathway Program. On Wednesday night, he was in charge of TCU’s event to educate local business leaders on various policies and protocols with NIL legislation being approved this summer.

Ukaegbu has risen up the ranks by turning TCU’s compliance office into something that shouldn’t be “feared.” Instead, it’s there to assist programs and student-athletes through issues that may arise.

Sometimes the compliance office has to deliver bad news, but it usually helps a program or student-athlete reach a favorable outcome such as what the men’s basketball program received this summer.

“We’ve created an environment where we have a customer service mindset,” Ukaegbu said. “We make sure we’re approachable. We’re respectful. We work hard to solve people’s problems. I think that’s resonated throughout the department and throughout our campus relationships. It’s a team effort.”

That culture shift within the compliance office is part of the reason Ukaegbu emerged as a candidate for the Pathway Program. It’s designed to elevate senior-level athletics administrators to become ADs or conference commissioners.

Ukaegbu’s mentors during the program were Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker and University of Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green.

“Going through the Pathway Program was invaluable, especially for someone who comes from an internal background like myself,” Ukaegbu said. “Folks who have internal backgrounds are getting more opportunities to become an AD. In order to put myself in position to become an AD, a program like this helps me and prepares me to create the right culture and to handle crisis.

“It was just an awesome experience.”

The program helped Ukaegbu in a variety of ways such as learning more about the external nature of the AD position from corporate sponsorships to fundraising to dealing with the media.

More important, it associated him with mentors and respected veterans such as Parker and Green. He saw firsthand how Parker handled Colorado State’s athletic department amid the pandemic. Green, meanwhile, went through the process of hiring a new AD this summer.

“I couldn’t have asked for better mentors,” Ukaegbu said. “Joe is one of the most respected ADs out there. He’s a very likable guy who’s dealt with crisis and investigations. Chancellor Green is great, too, and working with him really showed how important it is for the AD to be aligned with your chancellor.”

Ukaegbu left a favorable impression on both Parker and Green. Much like those within TCU’s offices, they feel he is destined to become an AD sooner than later.

“It was a real honor for Ike to call me and ask to be one of his mentors,” Parker said. “He’s developed strong decision-making skills. He’s a really authentic communicator. The experiences that I’ve had with him, he really works hard to understand every aspect of a problem and challenge that he’s trying to solve or overcome.”

Added Green: “I was very impressed from the first meeting I had with Ike. He’s smart. He’s aggressive. He gets stuff done. All of those kinds of things that you figure out pretty quickly about somebody. He has an interesting background in his own right too.”

Nigerian roots

Ukaegbu (pronounced ooo-Kay-boo) was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States with his family when he was 7. His dad was a sociology professor who taught at California-Berkeley before moving to the University of Wyoming and later Northwestern.

Ukaegbu considers Laramie, Wyoming, his hometown. That’s where he spent most of his childhood and fell in love with sports serving as a ball boy for Wyoming’s men’s basketball team in the mid-1990s.

“If I’m not a ball boy, I don’t know if I’d be in college athletics today,” Ukaegbu said. “That’s the first time I saw the joy, the unity, the happiness, the excitement that college sports brings to a community.”

Ukaegbu went to the University of Arizona with dreams of walking on to the track and field team as a sprinter. He ended up becoming a traditional student, studying pre-law and political science. He graduated in 2007 and then earned his master’s degree in sports management from St. Thomas University in Miami.

Ukaegbu found his niche in compliance by interning with Florida Atlantic’s compliance office as a graduate student.

“Compliance is something I knew I could potentially be good at given the attention to detail, helping coaches out, helping people with eligibility,” he said. “I picked it up pretty quick. And, to be honest, compliance is one of the best areas in my opinion to prepare you for the AD. You work with every aspect of the athletic department — coaches, staff, student athletes — and almost every aspect on campus — admission, housing, financial aid.

“I don’t know if there’s a better route.”

Ukaegbu seems to be on the right track. Donati is among his biggest supporters as well as Parker and Green from the Pathway Program.

Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham is also high on Ukaegbu’s future. The two worked together at Boise State early in their careers, and Cunningham is the one who tipped Ukaegbu on the TCU opening.

“He doesn’t need my help, but I tried to open the door slightly at TCU,” Cunningham said.

Ukaegbu has made the most of the TCU opportunity and it feels like just a matter of time before he becomes an AD colleague of Donati, Parker and Cunningham.

“Absolutely,” Cunningham said. “He’s personable, so he can do anything externally. Then he has all the internal chops, dealing with heavy topics, different situations and problem solving.

“He’s absolutely primed to be an athletic director.”

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