Bill Kaye does not bother with borders. He conerns himself with what's on the other side.
It’s an approach that has served him well in business over the last two decades. Now, he has turned that pioneering spirit to Vanderbilt athletics — in particular the baseball team — with the idea he can help coach Tim Corbin’s program achieve unprecedented levels of success and recognition.
They just have to journey a little further away to get it.
It was a financial gift from Kaye that provided the necessary funds for the Commodores to travel to the Far East this Saturday for an eight-day, four-game exhibition tour, one which he hopes will have an immediate and long-lasting impact.
“Vanderbilt has traditionally been somehow just the opposite of schools like Texas and Georgia and so forth, which seem to find ways to win when they shouldn’t,” Kaye said. “We seem to find ways not to when we should. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s not for lack of effort or lack of coaching or anything like that. It’s just a school that seems somehow, in a way, cursed.
“That glass ceiling is there. I think anyone who’s been following the school and cares about its programs for any length of time will recognize this.”
It’s not a coincidence that Kaye’s donation included the provision for a trip to the Far East. The actual gift was for $500,000, a little more than half of which was used to help pay for recent stadium renovations. The rest went to finance the upcoming tour.
Kaye has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1991 and from there has helped reshape the global financial landscape.
He started the first major private equity company that invested in mainland China when he raised over $400 million U.S. dollars to help privatize an auto parts production facility. That venture grew into a company called Asimco, which still operates.
More recently, he has worked in asset management as a senior official with The Pacific Group Ltd., which offers hedge funds or more conservative prospects.
“I did have a particular interest myself in giving the kids an opportunity to see an area of the world that I think is important and that I’ve lived in since 1991, and an area of the world that is increasing in its geopolitical importance,” Kaye said. “It’s also an exciting area of the world and where baseball is becoming much more prominent.”
He has watched from afar in recent years as Corbin, who was hired in 2003, has transformed Vanderbilt’s baseball program into one of the country’s best. Many mornings Kaye has gotten out of bed at 3 a.m. to watch VU baseball games on the Internet, and each of the past three years he and at least one of his two children have traveled to the United States, attended the Southeastern Conference tournament and then followed the Commodores to the NCAA regional.
Corbin calls Kaye an astute observer and marvels at the depth of understanding Kaye has in regard to the players and the team as a whole.
“It’s an unbelievably generous thing for him to send all of us out there,” senior infielder Andrew Giobbi said. “I hope he enjoys it as much as we are going to. I’m sure I can speak on behalf of the team in saying ‘Thank you’ to him for giving us this opportunity.”
There is a generation or more that finds it impossible to equate any sort of athletic success with Vanderbilt. For Kaye and those who lived, worked, studied and partied on West End Avenue at the same time he did, it’s impossible not to think in those terms.
In the calendar year 1974, Larry Schmittou (baseball), Roy Skinner (basketball) and Steve Sloan (football) all won at least one SEC Coach of the Year honor.
Skinner’s basketball team went 23-5 and won the conference title behind captain Jan van Breda Kolff.
Schmittou led his bunch to 37 wins (at the time a school record) and into the NCAA tournament.
Sloan’s bunch went 7-3-2, including a 24-10 victory over eighth-ranked Florida, and earned an invitation from the Peach Bowl.
“We were pretty competitive in everything in that era,” Kaye said. “I think it yielded a different group of graduates. … I never lost that. I’ve always been a competitive person myself, not good enough to play for Smokey Schimttou in baseball or any of the other sports.
“It’s something you don’t forget and it’s something that you always take with you.”
Yet even as he enjoyed financial success in the years following his graduation, Kaye refrained from significant support of Vanderbilt athletics “outside of being fairly generous with the National Commodore Club.”
It was his feeling that university leadership lost its way in regard to athletics, a trend that he believes finally reversed itself in recent years under the direction of former chancellor Gordon Gee and current vice chancellor David Williams.
That’s when he started to look for an opportunity not just to donate but to create maximum impact.
As always, he sought out the boundaries and tried to figure ways to the other side. In the two highest-profile sports, he saw obstacles that were particularly daunting.
“The way that (football) has evolved and the way the NCAA governs the sport … I’m not convinced that Vanderbilt is going to have a fair shot at competing, particularly from a recruiting standpoint in sports like football,” he said. “To a lesser extent, I can make the same argument for basketball.”
In baseball, though, the possibility for a breakthrough seemed much more imminent.
“(Corbin) has already shown the ability to compete with the best schools in the country, all over the country, for the best kids. He’s recruiting the right kinds of kids. Kids from the right programs. Kids who can do the work at Vanderbilt and who graduate.
“So when I was trying to sort out how I could do something useful, something constructive and something big for the fact that Vanderbilt put me on a path to be successful, baseball just made a lot of sense.”
Kaye said he would underwrite such a venture for the baseball team annually, if NCAA rules allowed. Instead, programs are limited to one overseas, off-season trip every four years.
Still, there are obvious benefits of this trip for the 2010 Vanderbilt baseball team. Obviously, the experience gained playing talented teams in Japan should carry over through the season.
First, an additional 10 days of practice in the fall are permitted for baseball teams that participate in such international tours. Then there are the games themselves, which in this case will take place in the greater Tokyo area on Nov. 23, 24 (a doubleheader) and 25.
After that, players and coaches hope to build camaraderie and gain a greater understanding of a different culture with three days of travel and sightseeing, including two days in Kaye’s adopted hometown of Hong Kong.
“When you’re trying to mold a team into potentially being a champion and going deep into the NCAA tournament, all these types of experiences are pretty useful,” Kaye said. “We’ll see, but hopefully as we get into February when the real season begins we’ll see a lot of things crystallize, we’ll see development that might not have occurred — particularly in some of the younger players — we’ll see benefits as the kids grow up and benefit from these types of experiences.”
Under Corbin, the Commodores have advanced to an NCAA Super Regional once, and twice in the last three years played in the championship round of the regional tournament.
It’s Kaye’s hope that a trip halfway around the world will help the team go even farther.
“I think it’s a program that has a high ceiling at a school like Vanderbilt, assuming that the elements are in place,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know Tim, and my assessment is that he’s the right guy at the right school. We’re lucky to have him. What he needs is backing, not just from me but from other people.
“He has a chance to do something long-term, I think, very special at the school, and that’s why I want to help out. … This trip is one way I thought I might be able to help give a push, so to speak, to help the school get through that glass ceiling.”