Pat Kraft wants to win. Penn State’s athletic director is an Illinois native and former Indiana University linebacker who served as AD at Temple and Boston College before coming to Happy Valley last July. An enthusiastic presence at Nittany Lion sporting events—you can often spot him court-, field-, or mat-side—Kraft earned a bachelor’s degree in sport marketing management, a master’s in sport marketing administration, and a doctorate in sport management from IU; he understands that his most effective support of Penn State athletes happens behind the scenes and requires diligence, creativity, and no small amount of fundraising. We spoke with Kraft this summer to discuss the challenges presented by the evolving world of name, image, and likeness (NIL), the dramatic restructuring of major athletic conferences, his vision for a renovated Beaver Stadium, and his goal of being nationally competitive across 31 varsity sports.

PENN STATER: What have you learned about Penn State fans in your first year on the job, and how have you collected or applied some of the feedback you’ve received?

KRAFT: I knew it was a passionate base. It is passionate and then some. It’s been incredible to be a part of this community, not just here in Happy Valley but worldwide. The fact that I can get off the plane with my family in the Dominican [Republic] and there’s a Penn State fan right there waiting in line … it’s exciting. It energizes me. Game day is one of my favorites; I just walk the parking lots by myself and feel the energy [of] being at events around our fans. Very powerful. You try to hear what everyone says. You can’t fix everything, but I think if you can be honest and say you’re trying to figure it out, the fans are very welcoming, and they understand. We just have to be better at being more transparent at why we’re doing certain things. But it’s been incredible.


Pat Kraft and family posing in front of Beaver Stadium gate, photo by Mark Selders / Penn State Athletics
RIGHT AT HOME: Kraft, his mother, Linda, wife, Betsy, and kids, Annabelle and Joseph, pose in the soon-to-be-renovated Beaver Stadium. Photo by Mark Selders / Penn State Athletics. 


PS: You and every other athletic director are trying to figure out NIL. Two years into these new rules, how has it affected the day-to-day of how you run the department?

KRAFT: From an NIL institutional control standpoint of what we can do, I feel really good about it, whether it’s the education piece to our athletes, selling jerseys, getting them up and running. We have to continue to educate. That never stops. I think we’re moving in the right direction. It’s the collective piece that’s a little more difficult, and the reason is, we’re not involved. So you hear things secondhand or thirdhand. I’m glad the two [organizations, Success With Honor and Lions Legacy Club] came together (see sidebar, p. 55). It’s good to get one message [out]. But I’ll be honest, it doesn’t take up as much time as people might think. We have so many other things we’re working through that impact student-athletes’ daily lives. That’s more my focus. But there’s always something new that you have to deal with. It’s part of the new normal. Just add it to the list of things you stay focused on.


PS: Do you envision schools eventually being permitted to be more directly involved with NIL? I know it differs from state to state …

KRAFT: I hope so. I do think so. I think what’s been so difficult for a lot of us—most everything we can control. Meaning if a kid has an issue, we’ve hired four mental health specialists to help our student-athletes, and I can get you urgent help, let’s go. [NIL] is the area where you’re like, “Can I talk to them about this? Can I not?” I do think that the more we are involved, the better it is for our own student-athletes’ well-being. I know there are some states that are changing their laws now. I think Texas just did it, to have the athletic departments having more insight in it. But it is like the wild, wild west right now; every state’s different, and you’re trying to understand why certain things happen and why others don’t.


PS: There are a few facility upgrades in the works right now, but Beaver Stadium is the biggest. How do you plan to maintain the traditions and the feel during that process and still be able to gradually upgrade it?

KRAFT: I love that building. I think it’s as iconic as anything in the country and arguably the world. I think we have to take care of the traditions. I think we have to honor the past. We have to make sure that we enhance the building, but not miss or let go of what we really are. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have really good bathrooms and concession stands and get the WiFi up and running and do all the things we should. We’re at the very beginning. A lot of the enabling projects are happening now—painting, sealing some of the cement, winterization. It’s not the most sexy thing, but it’s going on.


PS: Will you continue to search out creative ways, such as the tunnel suites, to add some revenue?

KRAFT: Oh, yeah. I think that’s a big part of the renovation for the stadium, too, and I think that we’ve got to pay for the building. You’ve got $200 million in deferred maintenance. We’ve got to find a way to generate revenue to pay for it and to keep the building going forever. I will always continue to find those experiences if we can. You look at the revenue numbers out there and what some schools do, and we want to continue to compete in every facet. Revenue allows us to do the things we need to do for the student-athletes and help their wellness, and to assign strength trainers and mental health specialists and all those things.


PS: I know you’ve got a lot of people working on that specifically, but how will your sports marketing experience help with that? Do you look at things differently than an AD who might have majored in higher education administration or something like that?

KRAFT: My staff would probably say so. I think creativity is paramount in every job you have, because creativity drives thought. And it drives people talking about what might work, and why wouldn’t we do that, and why can’t we do that? In Beaver Stadium and, really, everywhere, we’re like, “Why wouldn’t we do this?” It’s a massive building, there’s a lot of opportunity to do different things. They may not all be home runs. What I like is to continue to engage fans in the building, so we can build that younger base. Some might say it’s a problem on my staff [laughs], but I might say, “What about this? What do we think about this?” We run it all to ground, and some [ideas] stink, and some don’t, and I think that’s the fun part of the job.


PS: You mentioned student-athlete wellness. You’ve brought in additional mental health specialists. How do you track success in those areas?

KRAFT: I’m proud of our student-athletes’ [role in helping] destigmatize mental health. If they’re referring their friends, and with how busy our staff is, you know you’re doing the right thing. If we give our student-athletes a place to talk and feel comfortable, you see that in a culture, you see it evolve. I really am proud of all of our athletes who have embraced it and are not shying away from things. We continue to talk about it openly—your head is as important as your knee.

I think mental health is a piece of it, but I think it’s mind, body, and spirit, all those things go together. That’s very important to me, the transformative experience that you have here. It cannot always be sports. You need time away. You need time to be a regular college student. The regular college student has a lot of pressures, and we put our stuff on top of [that]. What a lot of our facilities are doing is trying to make their life a little bit easier, make them feel a little bit more comfortable. The [soon-to-be-constructed All-Athlete Training Table Student Wellness Center] is a perfect example; I want no offices up there. I want the athletes to have a space they can go eat, get the right food and nutrition, and just be. I’m trying to create communal areas where our buildings are. That one in particular, as we design it, I want it to strictly be a place for student-athletes to go to be able to breathe.


PS: Does the average fan realize how often things like this need to be maintained and updated to keep pace with your peers in recruiting or, as you said, simply wanting to provide that full experience for your athletes?

KRAFT: I don’t know. I think our fans are more in tune with what it takes, but I think it continues to evolve and grow, and it’s my job to continue to basically tell the truth. You know, “We’re deficient here, and we’ve got to be better at it,” and explaining why. Everything comes with a strategy. And what I want us to continue to do is be very transparent, whether it’s academics, whether it’s food and nutrition or sports performance, all the things that help the athletes achieve what they’re here to achieve, and we’ve got to get out and talk about it. There’s always someone that wants to support one of our initiatives. But if you don’t talk about it, people just aren’t going to know. You’ve got to bring it to people’s attention.


Pat Kraft on the field as a linebacker at Indiana, photo by Indiana Athletics

RISE AND GRIND: Kraft developed his determined approach as an underdog, first as a walk-on linebacker at Indiana (above), then as the AD at Temple, where he he worked with Owls head coach (and former Nittany Lion) Matt Rhule. Top photo by Indiana Athletics, bottom photo by Getty Images.

Pat Kraft talking to Temple Owls head coach Matt Rhule, photo by Getty Images


PS: Football and men’s basketball are the big revenue generators. Some say, “Why don’t you just invest, invest, invest in those two programs, and you’ll have plenty of revenue for all the other sports?” What’s your philosophy in allocating resources toward nonrevenue sports?

KRAFT: I don’t break it out that way. You give everybody what they need. And you can—we, for sure, can. Football should get what they need to be successful. So should men’s volleyball. The dollars and cents are different, just from sheer numbers. I think it’s a misnomer that you have to focus on the other two. You can do all you want for football and be at a high level, but you can also do that for baseball and basketball and wrestling. It comes down to really understanding what you’re trying to accomplish. When we go through budget meetings, we’re very specific: Does this help us win a national championship? Don’t waste money on things that don’t move the needle. And it’s getting everyone in the organization to say, “We are going to invest in things that improve the student-athletes’ experience, which helps them perform better, which helps our coaches get where they need to be.” The big focus this year is our recruiting budgets. How we travel is really important. We’ve got to help our food and nutrition. We’re going to always invest in Penn State football, in Penn State wrestling … but when you’re here, the expectation is to win in everything. They’re all their own unique animals, and you have to nurture them in different ways. But you can do it. You can do it at the highest level in football like we are, and you can also do that for men’s and women’s lacrosse. Now a lot of things that we’re doing right now—training table, health and wellness—that helps everybody.


PS: You mentioned travel expenses. The Big Ten is adding USC and UCLA next year (Editor’s Note: After this interview took place, the Big Ten also agreed to add Washington and Oregon as members beginning with the 2024 season, a move that all but confirmed the end of the Pac-12 Conference). Are we headed toward a future of two or three superconferences? And how is Penn State positioned to compete in that world?

KRAFT: I wish I could answer. Every day, you hear something. But are we prepared? Yeah, 100%. That’s the one blessing here. And that’s why when you talk about revenue, you have to continue to stay on top of it. You cannot lose sight of the little things, though. If you keep looking at these what-ifs and where’s it going, if you take your eye off the ball … I tell my staff, focus on the here and now. Let’s get really good, let’s continue to get better and invest our money in the things that help us get better, then the rest takes care of itself. The landscape is the landscape, right? It’s changed so much already. But there is nothing stopping us. We just can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. And there is no ceiling here. We can do whatever we want in every sport. We just have to keep being aggressive, keep getting better and better. I say get 1% better every day, and keep competing, and we’ll be fine.


PS: Has that been a tenet for you as you’ve gone through your career, the “aggressive” part? How has that shaped your goals here and other places you’ve been?

KRAFT: I’m very passionate about what I do. I’m passionate about the role we have in this business. And if you don’t feel energy when Max Dean puts an Iowa wrestler down for an entire period, like, are you human? So yeah, I am [aggressive], because I believe that we can be, and that we are, the best in the country. I know I’ve always had to work hard where I was, whether it was playing football in college; I had to give it 110%, and grind and grind and grind. And I try to tell people, just because you have a budget that’s large does not mean you stop grinding. It’s the little things and the details that get you to where you really want to go. And where we want to go is being known as the best, and [for] everyone to look at us like, ‘Woo, they’re really humming right now.’ I don’t like to sit around. I like to find creative ways, like we talked about, and be aggressive. Because we’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s to help the 833 athletes we have be successful and reach their goals. If they do that, we all reach our goals.