Q&A with Gary Walters

Princeton University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.3, April/May 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1503/qawalters.htm

In 1967, Gary Walters was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The senior point guard at Princeton University was one of the key components of the teamís success in that era, along with another well-known player: Bill Bradley.

Walters became the youngest basketball coach in NCAA history in 1970, when he took over the menís program at Middlebury College. A head coaching stint at Union College was followed by a return to Princeton in 1973 as an assistant to the legendary Pete Carril. Walters then returned to the head coaching ranks at Dartmouth College and Providence College.

In 1981, Walters left coaching to enter the business world. By 1990, he had worked his way up to become a senior vice president at Kidder & Peabody. But after holding a couple of other management jobs, he decided in 1994 to return once again to his alma mater, this time as Director of Athletics.

Since then, he has overseen one of the most successful programs in the country, working with a budget much smaller than most top NCAA Division I programs. Princeton finished in the Top 25 of the NACDA Directorsí Cup in 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2002óbecoming the only non-scholarship school ever to do so in consecutive years. The Tigers have also captured 10 or more Ivy League championships every year for the past nine years.

In the following interview, Walters talks about his return to Princeton, his philosophical approach to intercollegiate athletics, and the enduring success of the menís basketball program.

AM: What brought you back to athletics after being in the financial world for over a decade?

Walters: Given my background in coaching, management, and business, a number of alumni thought I had the requisite credentials to go back into athletic administration at the intercollegiate level. Princeton offered me the job, but it took me about 10 days to say yes, because I was leaving a very lucrative profession. However, given my idealism and my belief in and commitment to the holistic education of the student-athlete, I thought it would be a terrific opportunity to make a difference. So I accepted the challenge, and here I am nine years later.

Is it hard to be an idealist in college athletics today?

It depends on the environment. Itís absolutely not difficult within the construct of the Ivy League. At the risk of sounding elitist, I absolutely believe that some reduction in the national intensity and commitment to athletics would be healthy for the educational and academic development of student-athletes who are competing at Division I schools.

For example, [NCAA Division I] student-athletes in spring and fall sports allowed to have 48 days of formal practice during the nontraditional season. The Ivy League allows only 12 practice days in the nontraditional season. It would seem to me, and Iíve heard this from a number of student-athletes who attend scholarship schools, that theyíre engaged to a certain extent in overkill in the nontraditional season. To underscore my point, Princeton has been able to win championships in menís and womenís lacrosse while only practicing one-quarter of the time of our Division I counterparts outside of the Ivy League during the offseason.

Has your business-world experience been useful in your current position?

As important as my business and management background was, I rely more heavily on my experiences here as an undergraduate student-athlete and my experiences as a coach to make most of my decisions. I think I benefit from understanding the kinds of issues our student-athletes and coaches have in their day-to-day lives, as well as what the universityís issues and concerns are. I try to bridge those differences in constructive ways.

What are the keys to having winning teams?

Philosophically, I believe that, especially in the nontraditional season, less can be more. When kids have a more normal campus life and become more fully integrated into the rest of the campus community, they are fresher for the fewer practices that are conducted in the nontraditional season and for their regular season.

I donít think the current national model should require the degree of intensity that currently exists. I think that it does exist at great cost to the overall educational experience. Part of that intensity is a byproduct of the experience that many of our student-athletes have prior to coming to college, where they have a high degree of specialization already, and itís further exacerbated by our Olympic model, which would like to have our kids competing year-round in every sport they have. Thus, I think that the Olympic movement exerts pressure on the NCAA; unwittingly perhaps, but it does nevertheless.

Whatís your strategy for motivating coaches?

If I have to motivate my coaches, I donít have the right coaches. But one of the critical areas of leadership that I provide is insisting that our coaches operate in a way that reinforces our educational mission. There must be consistency between the values our coaches have and espouse on our playing fields, and the educational values that our university holds dear. And I articulate that in terms of the thoughts, words, and actions of the people in my department.

I believe the athletic experience should educate the total person. When I go out to hire coaches to run our respective programs, I hire people who share our philosophy and can coach in a way thatís consistent with the educational values at Princeton.

What are your views on the Ivy Leagueís recently enacted limits on offseason workouts?

I think the presidents in retrospect would be the first to admit that the policy is like a procrustean bedóin which a giant ogre captures different size people, and tries to put them in a bed. Those who were too small he would stretch, and those who were too big he would chop off their legs. In other words, itís a policy that doesnít take into account the different experiences that our student-athletes have in the different athletic pursuits theyíre engaged inóthe experience that our winter sports people have is fundamentally different than those involved in spring or fall sports.

Itís a one-size-fits-all policy that really should be tailored to address the original issue that the presidents were trying to address: the athletic experience being too intense. Theyíve asked the athletic directors to review the policy to tailor it to address the actual philosophical concerns that the presidents have.

Has the intercollegiate ďarms raceĒ affected Princeton athletics?

Trying to balance the sort of commercialism of big-time athletics in a way that doesnít undermine educational values is a challenge, not only for athletics but also for the academic side of the house that is dependent on corporate sponsorships to fund professorships, buildings, and the like.

The critical issue is not allowing yourself to get involved in areas where conflicts of interest can undermine your educational mission. I think there are times when a coach has a teachable moment, where perhaps one of his student-athletes got into some form of academic or social trouble that may require a benching to underscore a significant educational point. I would hope our coaches have the requisite backbone to do the right thing in those circumstancesóthat they would risk losing a game for the sake of the educational development of the student.

How do divide your time as athletic director?

Iím probably a little different from other athletic directors because I think weíre more directly involved in the educational mission of the university. So Iím totally engaged with multiple constituencies on our campus that are trying to ensure that all of our students, including athletes, are fully integrated into the life of the college. That occupies a greater part of my time than most other athletic directors.

But like most athletic directors, I spin many platters. I just came from a facilities meeting to discuss the renovation of our tennis facilities, I have a fund-raising meeting later today, and tomorrow I have a staff meeting related to coaching evaluations. One of the exciting things about being an athletic director is that itís intellectually stimulating and challenging because youíre dealing with a tremendous diversity of issues.

Are your current student-athletes aware of your collegiate basketball career?

I played in the Pleistocene Age, so I donít talk too much about it. Occasionally someone will mention that they saw me on the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 1967. But what comes up in discussion more often is my contemporary participation on the NCAA Division I Menís Basketball Committee. Thatís an area of keen interest to all the constituencies at Princeton.

Thus far, itís been a terrific experience. Iím a rookie, Iíll be going to my first tournament selection process in a month, and Iím really looking forward to it.

Do you get involved with Princetonís menís basketball scheduling? This year, you played Texas and Oklahoma, for instance.

I will help out occasionally if Coach [John] Thompson [III] wants to play one of the major schools, but those two schools were scheduled by the coach himself. Iím pretty hands-off, as long as I feel that the coaches are attaining a balance between playing some of the better schools and those we may be more competitive with, not only on the playing field but also in terms of our philosophy.

When longtime Head Coach Pete Carril left a few years ago, was it important to hire someone who would understand the basketball programís traditions?

To those of us who are part of the extended Princeton basketball family, the philosophy of the program is pretty important. I think whatís neat about basketball here is that it actually burnishes the academic image of the university. Kids play intelligently, they play hard, and they play together. Those are the kinds of attributes youíd like to see people in all walks of life achieve, so I think we certainly have a lot of pride in the way Princeton basketball is played and the way itís perceived. Most important is its effectiveness. Weíve been able to overcome tremendous odds by outthinking and outsmarting people on the court.

Can you talk about the Academic Athletic Fellows Program?

Iím enormously proud of the program, which I started four years ago. Itís based on the role that Professor Marvin Bressler, past chair of the sociology department, played as an informal educational/academic advisor to members of the menís basketball team. Marvin was so effective in his role of being a Dutch uncle to the basketball players and was so influential in our basketball playersí academic success that I decided I was going to try to replicate that with all of our teams. So we started the Academic Fellows program. We have a number of faculty members who serve as liaisons to our teams and itís been quite effective.

Fellows play a variety of roles. At the most general level theyíre expected to serve as confidants and friends to coaches and student-athletes as ways of making the educational process at Princeton more personal. The Fellows make themselves personally known to the coaches and student-athletes, so the latter feel comfortable about approaching them with any questions that may arise. Fellows can provide counsel and also help coaches and student-athletes identify resources on campus to address academic and social issues.

Most important, a Fellow can be a familiar face to provide advice and comfort, gather information, or address misunderstandings and grievances. The more faculty relationships one can develop for student-athletes on campus, the better it reasons that their overall academic performance would be enhanced.