Q&A with Chuck Gordon

Emory University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1402/qagordon.htm

Last spring, many folks at Emory University could be found chanting, "We're No. 1!"Emory finished fourth among NCAA Division III institutions in the 2001 Sears Directors' Cup standings, had four teams finish in their sports' top 10, and four of its athletes won NCAA individual championships. But the No. 1 claim reflects what Director of Athletics and Recreation Chuck Gordon is most proud of: Emory's 12 Verizon Academic All-Americans and seven NCAA postgraduate scholarship recipients were the most of any NCAA member, in any division, in the 2000-01 academic year.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of Eagle student-athletes last year made the Dean's List, which recognizes students in the top 20 percent of their class. All 16 teams had cumulative GPAs of 3.0 or higher, led by the women's soccer squad's 3.48. And 23 student-athletes earned a perfect 4.0 while taking a full class load.

Gordon, who was a varsity golfer at Central Michigan, has been at Emory since 1990, after working as Athletics Director at Rhodes College in Memphis and in posts at Washington University in St. Louis. He's a former member of the NCAA Council, a former chair of the NCAA Division III Men's Golf Committee, and has served as chair of the Athletic Administrators Committee of Emory's conference, the University Athletic Association.

In this interview, Gordon talks about how Emory seeks to elevate academics and athletics, its marketing program, the travel challenges of competing in a geographically dispersed conference, and recruiting at a university with high tuition costs.

AM: How does Emory succeed at academics and athletics?

Gordon: The secret is the great staff of coaches who recruit great student-athletes. Emory is an attractive place to coach. I think we have shown that we can compete nationally, both academically and athletically, the university has provided us with first-class facilities in all sports, and Atlanta is a nice city to live in. The combination of those things has allowed us to attract and retain high-quality coaches.

We don't really bend on the admissions front to take great athletes who are not great academic folks. We're searching nationwide for the student who has both. Our student-athletes also self-select to a great degree. They know Emory's academic reputation. They come in with that criterion already set or they wouldn't be considering the university. From day one in the recruiting process, the message here is we expect you to be highly successful in both academics and athletics--we don't think you have to sacrifice one or the other, and we don't want you to.

Do you seek coaches with a Division III philosophy?

What I look for is someone who's a high-quality coach, understands all the nuances of his or her sport, is going to be comfortable in a highly academic setting, and who is able to recruit students who are focused on academics and athletics, perhaps on an equal basis. I don't think that precludes anyone from any NCAA division, the NAIA, or even high school coaches. It takes a person who is going to recognize that our student-athletes have two major components to their life: academics and athletics.

Do you do anything from a scheduling standpoint to help athletes balance sports and academics?

Yes. I'll take track as an example. We run probably five or six track practices a day because we know that on any given afternoon, a certain percentage of our track athletes are going to have labs. There may a special throwers' practice at 10 in the morning because that's when three or four throwers don't have class. You'll see folks in the weight room at various times throughout the day doing their workouts because we know that they're not all going to be able to be there from three to six in the afternoon.

A lot of it goes back to the coaches understanding they have to be flexible in how they run their practices. There may be a week during mid-terms when we're going to practice basketball at 6:30 in the morning rather than 4 in the afternoon because a lot of help sessions and other things are going on then.

But our student-athletes are expected to schedule themselves, too. We certainly don't accept someone coming in and saying, "Well, I have to write a paper so I'm not going to be at practice today."The right answer is they've planned over the last four weeks to get the paper done, and it's done ahead of time, and they can attend practice.

Do you have an athletics endowment?

No. In fact we probably do less fund-raising than a lot of our peer institutions. The philosophy here has been that the institution does most of the fund-raising and has provided for us facilities and budgets that I think are very appropriate and allow us to compete. We do some athletic fund-raising, but it's not a focus of what I do.

How do you speak out for the athletic department to the greater university, to tell others that athletics is important?

I think it's all about building relationships on your campus. While I do that, the thing that makes Emory special is that I'm not the only one speaking about athletics--the coaches are, the faculty members who are supporters of the programs are, and our athletic advisory committee is. And students who participate in intramural programs make themselves heard both on campus and through the student government association. There are many voices singing the same song.

What is the "Emory Sports Promotion Team?

Over the past few years we have hired a sports-marketing intern--either a young person just starting out in the field, or a person who's in graduate school--to help us market our programs. We try to reach students on campus, faculty and staff, and others in the Emory community, such as those who are off-campus and alums.

The intern supervises the Sports Promotion Team, mainly work-study students who have a very active role both during contests as well as behind the scenes. They do things like obtain co-sponsorships, figure out who wants to give us free food for the evening, run the halftime contest, throw T-shirts in the stands, and supervise the mascot through its routines. The atmosphere at the games has gotten better through their work--it's more fun to come to the games now.

How did the idea of putting student-athlete diaries on the Emory Web site come about?

We have tried to make our Web page informative and perhaps a bit more of a recruiting tool than some other schools do. One of the ways we hit upon to do this was to make that page reflect what our student-athletes go through throughout the season. Two or three students on each team will write diary entries every week throughout the year. So if a potential student-athlete pulls up our Web page and looks at one person's full season of diary entries, they'd probably get a good sense of the ebb and flow of the season for a particular team.

The Emory women's soccer team went 17-1-1 this past season but wasn't selected for the NCAA Division III tournament. What was your role in helping the players handle the disappointment?

We did a lot of one-on-one interaction. We also organized an end-of-the-year team dinner that recognized their accomplishments. Even though they were extremely disappointed, it was the best season we ever had in women's soccer. We tried to focus somewhat on the positives of what they did, but it was obviously a very difficult time for that team, with a lot of seniors and a number of All-Americans.

You try to recognize how important athletics is to the student-athlete, especially a Division III student-athlete, on a daily level. They participate because they want to. There's no hook other than the return they get from the sport. If they're not getting something out of it positively and it's not adding to their intercollegiate experience, they won't keep playing.

How do you do both parts of the job, heading intercollegiate athletics and recreation?

Our Rec Services staff, under the direction of Dan McGee, does a great job with the program. Dan reports through me but Dan has virtually complete autonomy to run his program.

Emory's conference, the University Athletic Association, includes schools in the Midwest and Northeast, but none near Atlanta. How do you cope with the travel?

When the conference began, the presidents understood that a conference of peer institutions was going to involve some travel expense. There's no doubt it costs us quite a bit to fly across the country as we do. But I also know that it's nice to be in a conference with peer institutions that look very much like we do. We know that when we have student-athletes who are coming late one day because of a chem lab, that the same thing is probably happening at the other conference members as well.

Since Sept. 11, we all recognize we're going to be paying much more for air travel, either through security fees or higher fares. It's changed our schedule a little bit, not dramatically at this point, but certainly it's a challenge that we're recognizing is going to be very difficult for us to meet during the next five or 10 years.

What are some of the main other challenges of the job right now?

Recruiting is very difficult in the UAA. The 200 athletes who are starters and significant contributors have likely all turned down Division I rides to come to Emory because of the mix. After pitching a student about how great our campus is, the end of that discussion is, "We'd really like you to pay $30,000, versus taking a full ride somewhere else."It adds an interesting twist to recruiting.

There are a number of people who make enough money so that tuition is no problem, and we have some great financial aid for those who have big financial needs. But the middle-income folks are getting squeezed here--as they are throughout the country.

That's not a problem specific to our campus. Some initiatives are interesting. Princeton, for example, took home equity out [of the family aid-eligibility calculations] to a certain level, and I think the Ivy League institutions are going to be responsive to each other in their group as they go along. Perhaps at the Ivy League and the Division III level, the arms race isn't for new indoor football facilities. It's in financial aid.

What's in your future, perhaps a Division I program?

No, I'm very happy at Emory. My children are attending Emory so it's time to cash in on some of that tuition remission. My son's a senior at Emory, my older daughter's a sophomore tennis player, and my youngest daughter's a junior in high school who I hope will come to Emory as well.

I think I have one of the best jobs in the country. We're very successful academically and athletically. We have great facilities and excellent support from the university. And, honestly, a lot of the good Division I jobs are not available to us who are not ex-Division I coaches or superior athletes. So I'm very happy in my role. I think it's a good niche.

The Emory student-athlete diaries may be found on each sport's home page at www.emory.edu/SPORTS.