It is obvious that college presidents can show their support for NCAA athletics on their respective campuses through the size of the athletic budget. To be sure, some huge programs operate as separate budget entities with independent fundraising and foundations. But, for the most part, presidents hold the purse strings to DI, II and III sports programs.
In my experience, monetary support is not enough. Here is a list of five ways that college presidents can evidence their support for collegiate athletics, in addition to dollars. Below, indicate how many of these five suggestions occur on your respective campuses; results of this survey will be released. And, if you have other suggestions for enhancing presidential engagement, email them to us.
Suggestion One: Presidents should be a regular presence at athletic events, male and female, across all seasons and all sports – both for regular season games/matches and for the playoffs.
Now, in most colleges and universities, this is no small feat to accomplish given the number of contests over the academic year. Also, attending games and matches cannot be at the expense of other student events which are also plentiful – poetry readings, concerts, drama productions, dance performances, art shows, poster programs on scientific research, academic honor events. The presidential scheduler needs to help with this.
By the by, attending out of town events has amazing benefits such as an opportunity to meet alums in that locale, sit with the opposing college president at the game, meet potential donors. Logistics aren’t easy though for those remote activities to be coordinated.
And, when at the events themselves, presidents should make their presence known and that can occur in several ways without disrupting the flow; in sports, disruption of pre-game rituals is a serious no-go. Cross the court or field to shake the Coach’s hand at the end of a game – win or lose. Buy 50-50 raffle tickets and hand them out to students in the stands. Show up early and mingle with the crowd – both students and community members. Attend senior nights (days) when possible. Any or all of these are possibilities.
One risk: a president needs keep track through an assistant as to how many of the games/matches for each sport are attended and make sure they are balanced in terms of gender. Early in my presidency, a second year female basketball player came into my office to talk about a variety of issues (mostly positive and in the nature of advice getting), and she said at one point, “Next season, please come to more games.” I responded immediately that I had been to many games (bad answer). She pulled out a piece of paper showing how many men’s BB games I attended and how many women’s BB games I attended. Let just say she was spot on.
Suggestion Two: Presidents should stroll through the athletic facilities unannounced. (I hope every president is recognized.) Swing by offices and chat with coaches informally. Stop into the training room and talk to the trainers and ask how the players are doing. Chat with the students on the tables. Pop into the AD’s office. Here’s a question to ask everyone: what can I do to make your life here at _______________ better? Seriously. Carry a pad of paper or an iPad. Most folks are honest and answer although some are just taken aback by the invitation to discuss their lives. One learns a lot leading by walking and listening. Once a semester or once a year even is sufficient.
One risk: avoid times of day when the facilities are packed. Try early mornings or lunch times or later in the evening. Otherwise, it is too superficial a visit. Word will spread that the president was there. This also sends a message that access to the president is not reserved for those within the institution with the biggest title or the highest academic rank or the most money.
Suggestion Three: When a team or an athlete or a coach receives some significant recognition through their conference or some other athletic organization (Player of the Year; Coach of the Year; Best Sportperson of the Year; Coach of the Week by a national rating group), the campus’ president should do something to show he/she is aware of the accomplishment. This could be an email, a handwritten note, a phone call, a reception at the president’s home depending on the magnitude of the honor. The point is to recognize and acknowledge positive role modeling. This also builds proverbial deposits in the bank so that when something goes wrong, there is a broader context in which to view the incident.
A president needs help with this – a list from an assistant and work with the person doing scheduling. It isn’t easy to keep up or keep track of and one risk is that one misses something and then someone or some team feels ignored.
Suggestion Four: Have an annual or bi-annual event for coaches and their significant others at the president’s home. First, they are often not invited to events apart from those in their realm. Second, these coaches can do the institution proud as they wear the name of the school day in and day out. Significant others often don’t get recognized for their involvement and they deserve thanks. Many by the way have graduate degrees and are meaningful mentors to students on and off the court or field.
Risk: No matter when this event occurs, some coaches will be in season and off campus and unable to attend due to a practice or a game. So, the events need to be held at different times each year — to insure that coaches from sports that are in season are not left out habitually. And, the president’s office needs to message that attendance is key for those able to make it but absence is understood for those in season. People get paranoid about what presidents think.
Suggestion Five: New coaches often have a hard transition into an institution. They need to manage their relationships with their players, many of whom played for a different coach. They need to meet and get along with their fellow coaches. They need to develop relationships with the trainers and strength and conditional coaches and the AD, of course. Then, they need to get to know others on campus: tutors, academic advisors, student health professionals, among many others.
Whenever a coach has his or her first win on our campus, I gave them a presidential owl with a handwritten note (the owl wore the school name on its chest). Owl was for knowledge; it was not our mascot. The note said some variant of: “Congrats on your first win at _________________. Thanks for doing _______________ proud.” Owls sat proudly throughout the athletic department.
These are not the only things a president can do and presidents need to do what they are comfortable doing. That said, whether it is these suggestions or others, college and university presidents need to show their support for NCAA athletics – to both thank those who are engaged in this enterprise and so they (the presidents) can understand and appreciate this aspect of what occurs on their campuses and involves so many of their students day in and day out. Coaches are teachers in every sense of the word. They need to know that presidents’ notice and care. It makes a difference.
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.