Why the Athletic Director Wept

Sometimes we give up our small ambitions to engage with those of the institution.
By Steve Aicinena

He wept. He sobbed uncontrollably and unashamedly. The six-foot-ten twenty-two-year-old did so in front of hundreds of onlookers in the middle of the gymnasium floor.

He cried not because the weight of the sins of the world had been placed upon his shoulders. He hadn’t lost a loved one or suffered wounded pride or a season-ending injury. He did not have a broken heart.

No, the weeping was the result simply of his having gained the opportunity to continue on as a collegiate basketball player for at least one more week. He would be able to practice, sweat, travel, and spend time with his coaches and teammates for a precious few more days.

He will graduate next fall and continue on to earn his master’s degree. There are other aspects of his life far more important than a basketball game, but few things provided by a university can evoke such an emotional response from a student.

As I observed him weeping on the hardwood floor, my eyes also welled up with tears of empathy, tears of joy. Because of my affiliation with his school, I felt some of the happiness and elation that he was feeling. In fact, in that moment following the homecoming game and its associated festivities, I realized why I cared about sports at all.

I had, you see, been wondering.

For days and months, I had experienced a crisis of faith. Because I had believed sports were beneficial for the university and the young athletes who participated in them, I had willingly invested seventeen years of my professional life in the administration of the athletics program. Had my efforts and sacrifices been worthwhile? If I continued to work in athletic administration, would I be wasting the most productive years of my professional life? I was tired and frustrated, and I had contemplated resigning my position as athletic director.

Admittedly, I had found satisfaction over the course of the previous two days, during which it had become apparent that athletics were important to the university, community, and the general student body. At the time, I needed to see and feel the importance.

The program board, the student life office, and the student senate were all involved in planning and conducting activities before, during, and after that homecoming game. For the first time, fraternities and sororities participated in organized homecoming festivities. Many members of the Greek organizations were athletes, and many athletes served as both organizing members and officers of the homecoming committee.

A recruit was visiting campus in advance of the homecoming game. She commented that spirit and pride in the university were reflected in what she saw and in what she heard as she interacted with students and others on campus.

I wanted to cry at that moment as well. In fact, I had to wipe my eyes after hearing her comment. Before questioning my mental stability and strength of character, please be aware that this was the first time in seventeen years that a recruit had commented on our institution’s spirit and pride. Actually, the comment was twenty-four years in the making.


Building an Athletic Program

In 1988, I accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Before taking the job, while I was still toiling away on my doctorate, I imagined that I would attend athletic events and support the teams representing the institution at which I would eventually work. Disappointingly, I found that I was to work at a university that had no athletic program. There was no campus spirit, and there was no campus life.

When I state that there was no campus spirit, I mean that, on campus, there was little going on except for classes—despite the efforts of several dedicated and motivated student senate and university program board members. Students came to class, drove home, studied, and repeated as needed until a degree was conferred. When the university sponsored events, such as the performance of a hypnotist, magician, or musician, few came. Those who did attend were predominantly faculty and staff members.

The university was an experiment that was failing. We offered courses for only juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Early in my time here, panicked administrators bellowed warnings each year: “If we do not reach two thousand students this semester, we are going to be closed down.” I often wondered how Texas paid me, given the small number of students I had in my classes. I believed the warning cries of the administrators were genuine.

The skeleton of what a university needed to be was present. Faculty members were dedicated and well qualified. We offered individual attention and a good education. Some even referred to the university as the “Harvard of the plains.” Yet the students did not come.

In 1991, the state legislature granted the university four-year status following the hard work of numerous community members, administrators, faculty members, and elected governmental officials. There was much fanfare, and I, along with many others, believed that our institution would begin to see a steady stream of students flowing through our admissions office doors.

The stream proved to be a trickle.

What was wrong? These days, students can choose to attend school in almost any location they wish. They make decisions based on distance from home, available majors, reputation, cost, and a variety of other factors. Prospective students could not find at our university a storied history, student life, athletics, Greek life, or many of the other social trappings associated with most well-established universities. Students have a vision of what they expect to find at a university, much as I did. It was always my belief that we offered a good education. Apparently, prospective students wanted more.

The scholastic purist might state that the education one receives is the most important consequence of the college experience. I unabashedly agree—but given an equal opportunity to achieve a similar level of knowledge, most will choose to attend institutions where opportunities to socialize and campus activities abound. They choose such institutions even if they are not going to participate in many of the activities themselves.

In an effort to transform the trickle of new students into something more like a stream, our institution initiated a limited athletics program in 1994, with intercollegiate competition beginning in 1995. If nothing else, student athletes would assist in increasing enrollment, which was so vital to our future.

Through the dedication and hard work of coaches, staff members, administrators, and athletes, the program has grown from its modest beginnings with one sport to thirteen today. Remarkably, during that time the institution has grown from 2,000 to more than 4,200 students. Athletics have been only a part of the recipe for growth, but arguably an important part.

My involvement in this story certainly has been gratifying. But that history is not sufficient to make me endure never-ending challenges coming as a consequence of poor funding, inadequate staffing, complaints based on comparisons to other institutions, regular turnover of staff and coaches, inordinately long hours of work, and unrelenting stress.

In my heart, I often wish I could spend more time teaching and conducting research. I long for an end to the constant pressure my position causes. I selfishly desire to be concerned with my needs and wants.

I pictured myself returning to the role of professor full time. I would have more time off. I would not have the responsibility of complying with federal, state, university, and National Collegiate Athletic Association rules and regulations. My problems would simply be my own. Quitting seemed a logical reaction to my serial frustration, and its consideration resulted in both my soul-searching and my crisis of faith.

But we humans are not always rational beings. Emotions stir within us. Goals call us to act and to persevere when giving up seems to be the prudent thing to do. The desire to serve something bigger than ourselves calls us to rise and face the challenges offered by each new day. It seems that values and ideals can influence who we are and what we choose to do despite what may seem easier, more attractive, or more profitable.

Having had a hand in building the athletic program certainly influences my willingness and desire to continue to oversee it. It is challenging to successfully navigate the turbulent waters caused by budgetary shortfalls, personnel issues, staff turnover, and the day-to-day surprises confronting administrators. Can I help our coaches and athletes achieve competitive and academic success?


Rewards of Sports

Challenges provide motivation, but at times I feel like Sisyphus. Keeping a positive attitude has allowed me to continue to push my boulder up the hill day after day and year after year. Yet still, I wondered if my labor meant anything at all. Why continue?

As I watched the athlete weeping in center court, the primary reasons for my continued service as an administrator crystallized right in front of my own tear-swollen eyes. It is because my meager actions help to provide the opportunity for young men and women to compete, to challenge themselves, and to achieve their athletic dreams. It is because sports add significantly to campus life.

During the homecoming game, signs made and held aloft by students encouraged all to “Roast the Goats!” Swimmers stood in support of their team sporting Speedos and nothing else. The baseball team sat together and unmercifully razzed the opponents. Members of a fraternity wore shirts expressing their affiliation with one another. Faces and chests were painted in school colors. The crowd wildly shouted, cheered, booed, and celebrated throughout the contest. The band played thunderously during the time-outs. Cheer and dance squads performed. Posters adorned the walls. Community members, faculty members, and university administrators were in attendance, some working as scorekeepers, bookkeepers, and clock operators. The game served as a site for socialization and communal focus. It was just a basketball game, but it represented much more than a game to the university community.

My crisis of faith was averted. It was made clear to me that none of the excitement, the activities, or the social interactions associated with homecoming would have gone on were it not for a basketball game. But most important, at the end of the game a young man was observed to be weeping in the middle of the gym floor. As he did, I felt privileged to be a part of an intercollegiate athletic program and the lives of so many people. Giving one’s time, effort, and energy to the betterment of a university has great rewards. And that is why the athletic director wept with the young man, though he wept from afar.


Steve Aicinena, a professor of kinesiology, is athletic director and head volleyball coach at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He has served the university for twenty-four years. His e-mail address is [email protected].