Former Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen finds an ideal fit at Arkansas State
Tom Bowen was enjoying a career as a consultant to college athletics programs.
He had transitioned from his job as athletics director at the University of Memphis in the spring of 2019 and had opened offices in Germantown and the San Francisco Bay area. He had built his business in a short amount of time, dealing with nearly two dozen universities and relying, mostly, on word-of-mouth promotion.
Then, an ideal opportunity intervened. A Mid-South area collegiate program decided he was the right fit to lead its athletics department and Bowen, who had no intention of returning to the role of athletics director after departing Memphis, decided it was the right fit for him.
In the spring of 2021, Arkansas State named Bowen its AD, roughly two years after he left the U of M. He replaced Terry Mohajir, who accepted the same position at UCF.
Talk to Bowen and it becomes apparent he has stepped into an attractive situation. He seems energized by the support and the program’s trajectory.
“There’s a lot of excitement here in Jonesboro,” Bowen said. “Things are really happening in this town. I’m seeing a lot of people (returning as fans). They are excited. This town loves Arkansas State and the town is starting to come alive – the corporations, the community leadership, the city council, the mayor. It’s been a collective wave of excitement and it keeps building.”
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After going through the interview process, Bowen realized Arkansas State was the perfect next step in a career that has included more than 20 years in college athletics. Bowen spent seven seasons at Memphis and was at the helm during the most successful stretch for the Tigers football program: postseason bids under coaches Justin Fuente (2014 and ’15) and Mike Norvell (2016, ’17 and ’18). At the time, five straight bowl trips represented a school record. Memphis has currently appeared in seven straight.
What impressed Bowen as he talked with ASU officials were the facilities, the staff and the vision of the department, which had been led by Mohajir, a close friend of Bowen’s. Mohajir and Bowen began their AD runs at Arkansas State and Memphis at the same time.
“We’d always talk,” Bowen said. “And I’d drive up (from Memphis) all the time and see his progress on his indoor practice facility, his football operations building and his capital improvements, which have been extraordinary.
“All the (athletics) facilities here are connected together. They are state-of-the-art and, in my opinion, are in the top five of all Group of 5 facilities in the country. There are many Power 5 schools that don’t have these kind of facilities and this kind of perfect design. I am very blessed to be here.”
Mohajir said Bowen’s strengths as an AD will be an asset to the Red Wolves program. Bowen brings not only experience, but a reputation as a sound money manager.
“Having someone with experience to take it to a totally different level is really important,” Mohajir said. “The school has really fantastic facilities now. What they need is to help build a budget. Having someone that has experience on how to fiscally manage an athletics department and hire coaches and manage staff was paramount in who they were going to hire. That’s why he was attractive.”
Dr. Charles Welch, the Arkansas State University system president, was impressed by Bowen’s “strong track record of managing and leading” university athletics departments and how the ones he directed “excelled at every level.”
Bowen, 60, became more familiar with the Arkansas State operation when he visited the campus on occasion during the past two years doing projects for the Red Wolves as a representative of his national college athletics consulting company: Bellwether Athletic Leadership Strategy. Bellwether provided leadership strategies for college athletics programs, among them feasibility studies, strategic plans, fundraising expertise and organizational design and efficiencies.
“So I was really familiar with what was happening at Arkansas State,” Bowen said. “I feel really honored now to carry (the athletic program) forward and grow it."
Bowen inherits the oversight of a football program led by first-year coach Butch Jones, a former coach at Cincinnati and Tennessee. The Red Wolves won in Jones’ debut last weekend, a 40-21 victory over Central Arkansas.
Bowen said he was familiar with Jones, from his time at Tennessee and in the American Athletic Conference with Cincinnati.
“When I got the opportunity to apply for the job, I called Butch right away,” Bowen said. “I talked with him every day for about two weeks to get the lay of the land of what he was going to do and his vision and how he saw the program moving forward after (previous coach) Blake (Anderson).”
The Red Wolves, Bowen said, have a proud football tradition. The program has been to nine bowl games in the past 10 seasons.
Saturday, Bowen’s present collides with his recent past as Arkansas State plays host to Memphis at 30,000-seat Centennial Bank Stadium. It should provide an interesting atmosphere. Mohajir said he and Bowen scheduled Saturday’s game when they were at their previous jobs.
“He’s been a (Football Bowl Subdivision) AD at two different institutions, now three,” Mohajir said. “Experience matters in these jobs. He’s seen it all, from playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl (the 2019 Cotton Bowl) to having a really good basketball program and hiring Hall of Fame coaches. He definitely has all the experience you need to run a department.”
Bowen said his time at Memphis was instrumental in his development as an AD. He cherishes what he accomplished at the U of M.
“I loved every minute of my time at Memphis,” Bowen said. “I root for Memphis every week I can except (when the Red Wolves play the Tigers).”
Bowen played a key role in the formation of the American Athletic Conference, which began July 1, 2013. He also served as vice chair of the AAC Athletic Director’s Council. While at the school, Bowen helped Memphis establish records in academics and fundraising.
“It was a very special place for me and Mia (his wife) and our kids,” he said. “We loved it very much. We have many dear friends who are still there. I was very much supported by the university. (Former U of M president) Dr. (Shirley) Raines took a chance on me and that was a blessing.”
When he left his job as AD at Memphis in 2019, Bowen said he received calls about two open conference commissioner positions. He also was approached about different business opportunities. But he looked forward to running his own company, one that he knew could be successful and impactful.
“I’d always wanted to build forward an idea I always had,” Bowen said. “I wanted to run my own company, be my own boss. I was very excited. I knew, from being familiar with this industry, how I could find my way to build my own strategy and consulting company.
“My work was for every level (of college competition) and for presidents and chancellors and vice chancellors. I worked with commissioners. I worked with athletic directors. I worked with various institutions at all levels throughout the South and it migrated all the way to California.”
He had 21 colleges and universities as clients when he decided to step away, close the company, and re-enter college athletics as the Arkansas State AD. He said he didn’t want to take “just any AD job.” He wanted one that was the right fit.
Now that he’s here, his goal is to make the Red Wolves the premier program in the Sun Belt Conference.
“I felt really good about where I was and I enjoyed the flexibility and the freedom (at Bellwether),” Bowen said. “For me to come back, it had to be a special place with the right people and the right formula. I think this is it. It’s going to be an extraordinary time for us.”
Freelancer Phil Stukenborg is a former staff writer and deputy sports editor for The Commercial Appeal. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org