Center director ready to score: Ball State’s new entrepreneurship chief has big plans for top-rated program

The 6-foot-6-inch Cox visited the Indiana University campus on Dec. 24, 1974, as a member of the Nebraska Cornhuskers basketball team. The starting center scored 15 points and pulled down five rebounds in a 97-60 loss to the thenmighty Hoosiers.

His team took solace in a free meal from a local fast-food joint that gave each ticketholder a burger, fries and shake every time IU won by 30 points or more. After scavenging the stands for discarded stubs, the ‘Huskers dashed to the diner, where the skeptical college student behind the counter-aware of their gangly gaits-chided the players that they threw the game to get the grub.

A post-college trek to Indiana led Cox to his bride, Elly, whom he met while attending a program at Butler University.

Now Cox, 51, is hoping his stay in Muncie will prove just as fruitful.

“Ball State obviously has this incredible tradition of entrepreneurship,” Cox said. “It is a great program to come into, but I come in with some interests of my own.”

The university in August tabbed the Nebraska native to direct its Midwest Entrepreneurial Education Center, which is routinely rated among the top entrepreneurship programs in the nation.

Cox is confident he can measure up to the tall task of succeeding Donald F. Kuratko, who left in January to steer IU’s entrepreneurship efforts. Kuratko led the Ball State program since its inception in 1983 and is credited with building it into a national player.

Kuratko considers his successor a friend whom he has known since the early 1990s, when Cox directed the University of Nebraska’s Small Business Institute. Kuratko once tried to recruit Cox for a job within BSU’s entrepreneurial center and even helped pick Cox for the top spot after joining IU.

Cox’s academic and business credentials, in addition to his work at the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Kansas City, Mo., made him an ideal candidate, Kuratko said.

Both men hold director positions on the board of the Indiana Venture Center and intend to remain close despite the potential for rivalry.

“I don’t see any competitiveness at all,” Kuratko said. “We’re good friends, and I look forward to collaborating with Larry on a number of things as we go forward.”

Cox earned three degrees from the U of N, beginning in 1976 with a bachelor’s in business administration. A master’s in management information systems came in 1990, followed by a doctorate in business policy and strategy in 1995.

The years between his academic achievements are sprinkled with a bevy of business interests. After one-year stints at the Nebraska Department of Revenue and the U.S. Small Business Administration, Cox changed paths and directed campus ministries at Iowa State and Drake universities for eight years.

In 1985, he got the entrepreneurial itch and started his own business, U.S. Petrolon Industrial of Colorado Inc., which sold industrial maintenance equipment. Cox said he enjoyed the camaraderie with customers, but lacked the aggressiveness to close deals. He and his investors abandoned the venture after two years, essentially breaking even.

After returning to school and earning his master’s degree, Cox led the Small Business Development Center and Small Business Institute on the campus at Lincoln. He left in 1994 to take a post as an assistant professor at Florida International University, where he stayed until 1998.

He spent the next five years at the Kauffman Center, where he held the titles of manager of research and director of programmatic research. In 2003, Cox became director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Cox was drawn to Ball State by its stellar entrepreneurial program and the opportunity to become a tenured professor, something he couldn’t do at Wisconsin.

“He’s just such a great complement to the system and what we already have going,” said Lynn Richardson, dean of Ball State’s Miller College of Business. “What we wanted to do was find someone who could build upon that. He was really kind of the classic perfect fit, if you will, for me.”

Cox is teaching one class, Introduction to Entrepreneurship, this fall and at some point plans to add another. Much of his time the first few months has been spent meeting the people who can aid his programs.

One of those is Steve Beck, director of the Indiana Venture Center, in which Ball State, IU, Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame and Rose-Hulman University are partners.

While Ball State certainly mourned the loss of Kuratko, Beck thinks the university could benefit from a shake-up.

“Don had accomplished about all he could at Ball State, and he needed to move on to bigger and better things,” Beck said. “Ball State needed a shot of fresh air, because I think it was taking Don for granted.”

Beck thinks Kuratko can now elevate IU’s entrepreneurship center. Ball State’s program placed fifth on this year’s U.S. News & World Report “America’s Best Colleges” list, and IU followed in sixth.

With two top-tier entrepreneurship programs-not to mention Purdue’s efforts to launch startups at its Discovery Park-Indiana is poised to reap the rewards, Beck said.

Both Purdue and IU have initiatives to mold university research into business ventures, and Cox is hopeful BSU can boast a similar program soon.

His vision, dubbed Ground Floor, would bring entrepreneurs, students and professors together to determine what types of businesses the various technologies at Ball State could support. Startups might stem from the strong education, telecommunications and media programs Ball State boasts, Cox said.

“The part I’m interested in is when entrepreneur meets idea, and how do you facilitate that?” he said. “There are people doing research here who are doing some good stuff.”

Conversely, Cox has no plans to tinker with the program’s famous “spine-sweat” New Venture Creation course, in which seniors present and defend a business plan before a panel of professionals. If the evaluators deem the plan feasible, the student receives an A for the course. If not, the student not only fails the course, but does not graduate that semester.

About three-quarters of students pass on their first try.

If Cox could have shot baskets at that rate, he would have been a sure-fire All-American. As it was, his field-goal rate of 67 percent was a record in the former Big Eight Conference, now the Big 12.

But if he can help churn out startups with equal success, his tenure at Ball State should be a slam-dunk.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.