This week’s NYT’s article about the University of Maryland’s actions in the wake of the tragic death of Jordan McNair put a spotlight on all sides of this complicated situation. We at Teleos admittedly were shocked — but not altogether surprised — by the University’s decision to retire the President but to leave the athletic staff in place. And then, within hours of announcing his retirement, outgoing President Loh made a values-based choice to dismiss fast rising, 40 year- old Coach DJ Durkin who was brought on to upgrade a Football program that had recently jumped from the ACC to the fiercely competitive, big money world of the Big 10.
To unpack this situation Teleos Leadership interviewed experts in our newly formed Collegiate Sports practice, which we formed to help universities improve the leadership and culture of athletics departments.
Our two experts today are Mary DiStanislao, a career educator, former women’s basketball Head Coach at Notre Dame and Northwestern and the #2 executive at Marquette. She currently is Director of Graduate Medical Education at Jefferson Health. She is joined by Jay Paterno author, career football coach at highly competitive programs such as UVA, UCONN, James Madison and then at Penn State for 17 years, where he currently sits on the Board of Trustees.
What was your overall reaction to this situation, and what advice do you have for other Board’s and university administrations?
Mary: My response was one of shock, but not necessarily surprise. I have seen it before…a scandal, people are fired. Sometimes coaches go, sometimes they stay because so much is invested in them. What it almost always exposes is a misalignment of values, which also seems to me to be the case here.
My advice to others is to realize that while it may be a truism that “athletics is the university’s front porch”, the role of the Board, President and AD is to pursue high level thinking. Although many board members bring expertise useful to improve the educational enterprise, it can happen that some think as fans first. The chase for athletics prestige can become a distraction. There are most likely myriad reasons why Maryland decided to leave the ACC for the Big Ten. However, a move such as Maryland’s to leave the ACC for the Big 10 requires a good deal of strategic consideration. The board, the administration and the coaches have to get on the same page. A strong, unified statement of values needs to come first. This is not as easy as winning the Big 10 Lottery.
Jay: These are difficult issues that defy easy, clear cut answers. I was not surprised by the initial decision by the Board of Regents, nor was I surprised by the change in direction within 24 hours. To put this in context we need to understand that the NCAA system not only prohibits coaches from running summer football workouts but they are banned from even overseeing or attending them. That’s a systemic problem, not just the failure of an individual program.
As a former college football coach and a current Penn State Trustee I believe it is imperative that all governing boards ask for a complete review of all medical protocols and procedures for in-season and off-season workouts. Also, universities should ask for one or two football coaches to be allowed to attend and observe summer workouts to ensure that there is clearer oversight of strength and conditioning staff.
Much has been written about the apparent administrative “dysfunction” in Maryland’s athletic department. What do you feel are the hallmarks of a culture of accountability that university athletic departments should aspire to?
Jay: Having been through a situation where a player had a scare during an offseason workout, I am able to say it was handled perfectly and the student-athlete’s health was their first and only concern. In the wake of this tragedy, Maryland and other schools have the opportunity to be leaders in the conversation about changing the governance of offseason workouts and in pushing for new legislation that creates the opportunity for the head coach and coaches to be present and thereby be far more accountable for what happens at these workouts.
Mary: I think it’s important to be careful about not tarring the entire athletics program with the same brush. There are some strong programs/teams within the Maryland department. However, there appears to be inconsistency in how this department was managed. There is evidence that there was a power struggle within athletics administration which can diminish the efficacy and credibility of the leadership. The pressure to measure up to Big Ten expectations may have been too great for the infrastructure in place to support it. The message to the coaches, staff and public has to be consistent. It needs to be clear what the university sees as valuable in its intercollegiate athletics program and works toward that.
Being a new Head Coach in such a pressure-filled environment is fraught with risks not unlike those for a first time CEO — pressure for performance, meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders and the team. What advice do you have for universities and up and comers who aspire to an AD or Head Coach role on the big stage of D1 sports?
Mary: The university has to be sensitive to the fact that that there are many public demanding the attention of the coach. Resources available to the coach need to include a consistent message of values and expectations that are clear throughout the organization. If athletics is part of the university’s strategy, the coach has to understand his/her role in it and be surrounded and supported by thoughtful people.
Jay: We need to understand that the new hire often is the media darling of a big-name coach from a high-profile school or the guy that your biggest booster wants you to hire. Their reputations are built on their skill as recruiters, or as play-callers. Many of them are not immediately ready for the wide range of new responsibilities and demands from a huge number of stakeholders they are about to acquire. For first-time ADs or Head Coaches universities should have a close evaluation of them as they set out on their new position. Even some of the most veteran coaches I worked with constantly sought feedback and evaluation after decades of coaching. It is a healthy process that builds greater leadership.
Thanks to Mary and Jay for their insightful thoughts and advice. We look forward to sharing more articles like this in the future.
About Teleos Leadership’s University Athletics practice: We bring our deep expertise in social relationships, personal and professional growth, leadership and organizational dynamics to support university leadership, Athletic Directors, Coaches and their staff to build alignment with values, culture and capabilities from the Board down to student-athletes
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