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Ex-Bear Chris Zorich eager to tackle challenges as Chicago State AD: 'I didn't take this blindly'

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/8/2018 Shannon Ryan

As of Tuesday morning, Chris Zorich had not yet seen his Chicago State athletic director’s office. He hadn’t been given keys or the figures in the athletic budget.

Once he found the office, he would find a stack of applications for the men’s and women’s basketball coach openings — hires he needs to make soon.

a man wearing glasses © Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

The challenges are not small, but Zorich said he’s ready to tackle the job.

“I consider this as on par with when I was drafted by the Bears,” said Zorich, 49, a Chicago native and defensive tackle on Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team who played for the Bears from 1991 to ’96. “Folks felt that they had enough confidence in me that I could run an athletic program in Chicago, not too far from where I grew up — that’s awesome. I’m so excited and so honored.”

After serving as athletic director at Prairie State — a community college in Chicago Heights — since 2015, Zorich was hired last week to replace interim AD Tracy Dildy at the South Side university.

Chicago State is in a state of flux as it attempts to hire a new president and find solid financial footing. The school was among the hardest-hit public institutions during the state’s budget crisis, and trustees declared a state of financial emergency in 2016.

The lack of state funding led to layoffs, and the university’s accreditation agency issued sanctions while graduation rates fell to around 11 percent and the freshman class dropped to 86 students. The athletic department has scrimped to save money during the crisis.

“I didn’t take this blindly,” Zorich said. “All I know is what I’ve read in the newspaper — and there were some crazy things written in the paper. I want to change that. I want people to know we’re open for business. It’s frustrating because when you read those, there weren’t the positive ones. We have some amazing stories.”

Zorich’s own financial issues raise questions about his overseeing the finances of the athletic department at a university with a history of budget issues.

The Illinois attorney general’s office launched an investigation into his foundation after a 2010 Tribune report found its finances in disarray. In August 2012, he agreed in court to pay back more than $300,000 in unaccounted funds. In July 2013, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for failing to file federal income tax returns from 2006 to ’09.

Zorich’s three-year probation was dropped after a year once he completed his community service and paid a fine.

“Those mistakes, I learned from them,” said Zorich, wearing a Chicago State 150th anniversary pin on his lapel, a pen clipped between buttons of his shirt and his Notre Dame championship ring. “Those financial issues, those were not because of a lack of financial acumen. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t in charge of that aspect. I took full responsibility.

“I enjoyed the work. I went through hell for it. We’re talking about X’s and O’s and being successful when we’re talking about raising funds and supporting student-athletes. What happened with me was my mistake and my fault. I learned from it. I owned up to it. Now I’m ready to go to the next step in my life. I’m excited about the future.”

Zorich said he learned “that I have to sign every check. I have to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’ Unfortunately, that was a hard lesson to learn. ... I’m thankful for Chicago State. They had the confidence in me. We had the conversation. They feel this is something I’ll be successful at.”

Zorich’s charity was known for handing out turkeys to low-income Chicago families at Thanksgiving and helping underserved youth. He said he’ll bring that same spirit of giving to the job at Chicago State.

He said he is bursting with ideas outside of traditional athletic success, such as using NCAA-allowed money for senior gifts to go toward purchasing suits and dresses for job interviews and starting a mentorship program with area grammar schools.

Among his first to-do items will be hiring men’s and women’s basketball coaches. The women’s program, coached by Angela Jackson for 15 seasons, lost a Division I-record 59 games in a row over the last three seasons before ending the streak in February. The men’s program let go of Dildy after the Cougars went 3-29 in his eighth season.

Zorich said he has received calls about the men’s job from coaches with NBA experience.

He said his experiences on the opposite ends of college athletics’ financial spectrum will shape his approach at Chicago State. At Notre Dame, where he served for two years (2008-10) as the athletic department’s manager for student welfare and development, Zorich said the budget felt almost unlimited. At Prairie State, he was tasked with cutting two programs to help save money and did everything from overseeing the department to driving the soccer team’s bus in his first season.

“I really think this is a hidden gem,” he said of Chicago State. “I’ve had the opportunity to be around some successful cultures. I’ve seen what success looks like and what you have to do. … It’s going to take time, and I’m willing to put effort into it.”

sryan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @sryantribune

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