From Sweats to Suits

When a coach is interested in becoming an administrator, what is the athletic director’s role in the process? Here are some concrete ways to mentor them through the transition.

By Dr. Robert Bunnell & Jennifer Hughes

Robert Bunnell, EdD, is a Senior Associate at Alden & Associates, Inc., an intercollegiate athletics consulting firm. He is a former Director of Athletics at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, Kenyon College, and Franklin & Marshall College and can be reached at Jennifer Hughes is a PhD student in Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts and a former Assistant Women’s Soccer Coach at Colgate University.

Athletic Management, 16.5, August/September 2004,

What did you do before you became an athletics administrator? If you’re like most, you were a coach first and became an administrator later on. Was there someone along the way who helped you make the transition? If so, your transition was probably easier than those of us who “made it up” as we went along.

Is there a coach in your department now who has expressed an interest in becoming an administrator, or a coach on your staff who has the potential to be an outstanding administrator? Have you considered helping that person make the transition from coach to administrator?

With so many items on your plate, it’s easy to overlook the professional development of your staff. But it’s an important aspect of being an athletics director, keeping staff members motivated and helping your department become the best it can be. Yes, a coach you train to be an administrator may someday leave your program to take an athletics director’s job elsewhere. But in the meantime, your commitment to this coach’s professional growth will be repaid by loyalty and hard work.

You might ask yourself what would possess someone to want to become an athletics administrator! It’s a hard job with long hours and lots of pressures. This is an ideal time to think about what attracted you to being an administrator—and what still makes it a wonderful job (hint: working with great student-athletes and coaches, the feeling of team, institutional spirit, and unity.) Mentoring a coach to become an administrator is a good way to revisit the details of your job, which is always a great exercise in keeping yourself motivated.

Chances are, the coach with an eye toward administration is attracted to the job for the same reasons you were. Plus, they probably think they can do a better job than you’re doing! And there’s nothing like a little competition to keep you on your toes.

Coaches can make good administrators for several reasons. First, they have already had the responsibility for administering their own team and its program. Second, they are, theoretically speaking, “team experts,” having had to use the same team-building, motivational, and nurturing skills with their student-athletes that they would need to effectively manage their departmental staff.

However, coaches can also be very poor managers if they lack some other important qualities. If they have tunnel vision, are sloppy with details, or don’t take direction well, they may not be suited for an administrator’s position.

How do you go about determining if one of your coaches is a good candidate to someday become an athletics director? Let’s take a look at what it takes to be an effective athletics director and see if your candidate matches up.

To start, an administrator in educational athletics must have integrity, honesty, and commitment. As ethical issues in sports become increasingly important, and athletics directors are called upon to provide a moral base, it is critical that any future administrators have the welfare of the student-athletes as their top priority.

Next, an effective athletics director must possess a basic understanding and working knowledge of each unique function within the department: finance, personnel management, facilities, compliance, development, marketing, and so forth. At the same time, an athletics director has to recognize the limits of his or her expertise regarding each function and be able to delegate responsibility accordingly. Does the coach you have in mind seem interested in things like fund-raising and human resources? Does he or she delegate meaningful tasks to his or her assistant coaches or team captains?

It is also important for an athletics director to be forward thinking and to have a clearly articulated vision. This vision should reflect the big picture—the institutional mission, organizational structure, faculty interests, and long-range plans of the college or university—and serve as a rallying point for the athletic department staff. Does the coach you are considering seem aware of what is going on around them, or is their entire focus on their own team? A myopic view can be a detriment to one’s ability to lead and manage.

Along the same lines, athletics directors must by keyed in to what their bosses—upper-level administrators—want out of them and respond accordingly. Some coaches have issues with authority, figuring that no one should be able to tell them how to run “their” program. Someone who resists authority should not be looking to move into an even larger, more complicated bureaucracy.

The ability to rally athletic department staff around common goals is another important ingredient for a successful athletics director. The first step in garnering that support is to foster good relationships with other coaches and administrators. This requires the ability to motivate a diverse group of people with a variety of interests. Does the coach you have in mind relate well to many different types of people? Is he or she able to motivate athletes in different ways depending on athletes’ personal needs?

Finally, it is important for an athletics director to have strong organizational skills. Organization increases efficiency and productivity and enables the athletics director to manage daily tasks and have time for larger, more visionary projects. Obviously, if a coach has a history of poor budget management, compliance issues, or scheduling conflicts, you might question his or her ability to effectively oversee an even bigger area of control.

Take a good, honest look at the coach who aspires to become an athletics director. Does that person match up with the above characteristics? Have you seen those behaviors, skills, and attitudes as he or she has worked within your department? And, finally, can he or she take some time away from coaching duties to be mentored in administration? If so, the next step is to ask them if they are interested in taking on additional duties in the department.

Assuming they say “yes,” what do you do next? There is no easy answer, because there is no obvious path for either you (as a mentor) or the coach to follow to reach his or her goal. What works for one person may not work for another. Each person is different, with his or her own strengths, weakness, interests, and idiosyncrasies.

What you can do, however, is give them tasks that help them test out the waters of administration. The list below offers some suggestions:

Train the coach to look at the big picture. We put this first because it will probably be the hardest, and failure in this area can often be fatal. From the first time the coach tells you that he or she wants to be an administrator, you must impress upon him or her that the department is only a part of the entire institution, and that there are forces both inside and outside the department that will interact to create some very interesting, and sometimes unexplainable, dynamics.

Coaches frequently resort to isolation so they can focus with intensity on the chores at hand: recruiting and coaching. Administrators have to remove the blinders and scan the entire horizon so they can predict what forces are at work that might create dissonance for the department. Otherwise, they may falter in their planning.

To help your coach understand this complexity, give him or her assignments to investigate how the various units in the institution interrelate. Ask your coach to identify key collaborations within the institution. The idea is for the coach to understand the relationship between athletics and academics and the tension that frequently occurs between them on college campuses.

Let the coach “shadow” you. Watching people do their jobs is a great way to get a sense of the range of duties, people, and challenges inherent in each position. Consider allowing the coach to shadow you or another administrator during parts of the day or week.

Let the coach be an intern. Give the coach an opportunity to actually work in each of the administrative areas within your department, such as budget, facilities, athletic training, sports information, scheduling, fund-raising, and compliance. As an example, you could have the coach-intern work as a supervisor in the athletic training room, helping to get student-athletes checked in and assigned to athletic trainers. They might intern in sports information by serving as a statistician or spotter for some contests, reporting results to the media, or working media relations for a tournament.

Invite the coach to meetings. As long as they are not privy to any personnel-related matters, coaches can sit in on an occasional departmental senior staff meeting, which will give them insight into the kinds of issues, concerns, and decisions that are part of the department.

Give the coach some administrative responsibilities. You might want to start them out with something not too meaty or controversial, such as compiling departmental statistics or reports. Certainly don’t put them in a position where they might be supervising any of their coaching peers. An assignment that could be very instructional is to ask the coach to compile the department’s Equity In Athletics Disclosure Act survey.

Give the coach some reading assignments. Share good articles, books, and Web sites that deal with intercollegiate athletics administration. Pass along professional periodicals that you receive, and ask the coach his or her opinion on topics that are covered.

Have the coach attend home contests with you: Invite your administrator-in-training to attend several different athletic events with you so that he or she can see them through your eyes. Most coaches have not had to worry about all the peripheral things that take place at an event, such as ticket sales, concessions, crowd control, parking, officials, locker room assignments, media, announcers, etc., and this would be a great opportunity to be educated in the “game behind the game” that you have to deal with all the time.

Appoint the coach to departmental committees. A good training ground for prospective administrators is committee work. Learning to be a good committee member calls on a different set of skills than coaches are used to using. Help make the coach aware of the differences, and ask them to evaluate their work and the quality of the committee’s work. If this goes well, assign them to chair a committee. Eventually, you might ask them to chair a search committee, since it overlaps with other parts of the institution.

Assign the coach a specific administrative task. As the coach begins to progress, you might assign him or her a specific task, such as coordination of transportation, officials, or student workers. This will allow the coach to begin to have some ongoing administrative responsibility, and it gives both of you a chance to assess their administrative competencies.

If this goes well, the next step is to give him or her tasks in the “big three” areas of departmental administration: facilities, budget, and personnel. For example, event supervisory responsibilities can give a coach a taste of some of the challenges of facility management. Involving the coach in discussions about planning a new facility is also good experience.

Asking the coach to perform budget-related tasks can be tricky since access to the budgets of his or her coaching colleagues can be sensitive. So, do this mentoring work with care. For example, you could involve the coach in some of the data-gathering work that takes place as the departmental budget is developed each year, or in managing some part of the budget throughout the year, such as tracking the expenses of student employees or maintenance staff.

As far as staff supervision is concerned, the coach has likely had to hire, supervise, evaluate, and maybe even terminate his or her assistant coaches. Having a coach supervise his or her peers is very dangerous, however, unless he or she has an ongoing administrative role and title in addition to coaching duties. It is possible, however, to have a prospective administrator supervise staff who are not in a peer position, such as employees in the strength center, equipment room, or maintenance area.

Involve the coach in decision-making and planning. Once the coach reaches a point where you feel comfortable with his or her depth of understanding and competence, seek out ways to get him or her involved in important discussions regarding your department. If the training has gone well to this point, you will have an additional set of eyes to assist in the ongoing evaluation and planning of your department’s policies and procedures.

With the whole world now seemingly involved in strategic planning, it is also imperative that any athletics administrator have experience in the process. You can help your coach learn about strategic planning by appointing him or her to committees or work groups (perhaps even chairing one) that involves thinking strategically about the department and your institution.

Allow access to opportunities. Whether it’s NACDA, NACWAA/HERS, or NCAA seminars, allow your coach to experience some of the professional development opportunities within the industry. They need to be exposed to the latest trends, policies, and practices that are taking place in athletics administration.

Appoint the coach to committees outside the department.

If you feel comfortable doing so, allow the coach to represent your department on institutional committees and committees within your athletic conference. This will be a good test of how well the coach understands and can communicate the values, practices, and needs of your department.

Encourage the coach to seek other leadership opportunities. The best way to become an effective administrator is by practicing. Any leadership opportunity, even chairing a neighborhood group or leading a youth sports group, allows the coach to hone his or her skills.

Now that you’ve helped your coach learn to be an administrator, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your collective efforts. You may now have a coach who has a tremendous understanding of administration and applies that understanding to his or her work as a coach. You may have someone who can assume an administrative role within your department and make a great contribution to the department. Or, you may have someone who is ready to move and lead someone else’s athletic program.

Whatever happens, you have done a noble thing and helped one of your staff learn and grow. You can and should take pride in the role that you have had in their development and the role you have taken to provide a new leader to the world of athletics administration.

Sidebar: Can You Teach Leadership?
When I was coaching college baseball, the father of one of my players called me up to express his concern that his son was not a leader. The father asked me to “coach” his son to be a leader. Simple enough request, right?

Part of being a leader is understanding the dynamic of the group. This young man, despite being a very bright, talented player, did not exhibit the leadership traits that were valued by his teammates. While he was exceptionally knowledgeable about baseball, he was also very selfish and moody about his performance. He did not have the ability to put his own interests aside and give of himself to the rest of the team, and the other players sensed that.

When he was playing well, this young man was generous with praise and encouragement, and displayed a confidence that drew people to him. When he wasn’t playing well, however, he retreated into a shell and became hyperfocused on his own performance. How do you teach the concept of selflessness to a 20-year-old in the two hours a day that you see him, along with coaching 24 other players?

The point of the story is that some people have it and some people don’t. There are basic skills that people have or can acquire, but there are some things that come from a different place, like one’s values, ethics, and soul. Leadership is one of the primary requisites to being an outstanding administrator, and selflessness is one of the primary requisites to leadership.

While I consider myself a fairly accomplished mentor, I wasn’t able to teach this particular player how to be a leader, and our relationship actually suffered from my efforts to do so. My suggestion is that you be very discriminating in whom you agree to mentor to be an athletics director—don’t set the coach (and yourself) up for disappointment because you couldn’t see his or her basic shortcomings. Even the best of intentions don’t always make for the desired results.
— R. Bunnell

Sidebar: Working For Change
I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring several women and minority coaches into administrative roles in departments that I have overseen. There are additional issues, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, that need to be addressed head-on with women and minorities who aspire to leadership positions. We have to admit that sexism and racism still exist in intercollegiate athletics. Not only must we admit these truths exist, but as educators and professionals we must try to make things different.

As a mentor, it is incumbent on you to discuss with those coaches what you perceive to be the issues facing them, and also what they perceive to be the issues. A mentor should not only give advice and counsel, but act as a mirror for the person being mentored. You must also understand that sexism and racism are extremely difficult to navigate and they will need extra guidance at times.

The best mentoring relationships are those which are mutually beneficial, in which the mentor learns as much or more than the person being mentored. I have learned so much from listening to and observing women and minority coaches with whom I’ve worked, and I am constantly reminded that as a white male, I can’t possibly know what it is like to be in their shoes. I’ve learned that I need to be understanding, purposely supportive, and instructive.
—R. Bunnell