Wednesday, November 26, 2014
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New Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun settling into job

Just over a month ago, M. Grace Calhoun officially took over from Steve Bilsky as Penn's athletic director. I recently had the chance to sit down with her at her office in Weightman Hall for an exclusive one-on-one interview. Here's the transcript of our conversation.

New Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun settling into job

New Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun at her introductory press conference this past March. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
New Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun at her introductory press conference this past March. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

Just over a month ago, M. Grace Calhoun officially succeeded Steve Bilsky as Penn's athletic director. I recently had the chance to sit down with her at her office in Weightman Hall for an exclusive one-on-one interview. Here's the transcript of our conversation.

So how have things been so far?

Things have been great. Penn has exceed expectations in every way. I am embracing the challenges, I am enjoying meeting the people, and it's great to finally be on campus after a couple months of transitioning from the road. 

What did you expect things to be like?

With a background in the Ivies, and being on Penn's campus many times, I expected to come into a place where I'd feel that rich history and tradition. I expected to work with first-class people and to be taking over an operation at a point in time when things are going really well. Our challenge is to continue to elevate the bar.

But what I guess - I certainly can't say it surprised me, because knowing Penn, I figured there would be this expansive alumni base that would support it teams, but when you get back into the A.D. role, to be able to feel that overwhelming support, I don't think you can grasp that necessarily as an outsider, or at different levels.

To see the outpouring of support, the love that our alums have for their programs, and how they want to give of their time and resources to see Penn's programs be successful going forward, that has just surpassed all expectations that I had.

I've now been at - what is this, institution number seven. I've seen an array of different types of institutions, different cultures of involvement and giving, but nothing to the extent of Penn. Just again, how attached the alums feel to the the school, how passionate they are about their programs, and how much they want to see them succeed. 

You talked about some of the places that you have been in the past. Back at your introductory press conference in March, you said that Penn is a place where you would like to stay for a while. 

Absolutely. As much fun as I'm having with the move, yes, I can promise you we will not look to do it again any time soon. The joys of buying and selling houses.

But when I think about the type of place that you want to be for the long term, it's certainly got to be the ideals align with your personal ideals, where you feel passionate about the approach to athletics, and where you feel like you can be stimulated for a time to come with the challenges. Everything about Penn and the Penn athletics experience just completely resonates with my values structure.

I don't know where you go from here. People have jokingly said Stanford or Duke. In my mind, those aren't necessarily better jobs anyway. The Ivies really are the ultimate for me, when you look at the purist in me and wanting to see athletics be the most educationally sound, high-quality experience it can be. I think this is the ultimate setting. So yes, I look forward to being here for the long haul. 

You went to Brown as an undergraduate and you've worked at Dartmouth, so you know plenty about the Ivy League's culture. You've worked at Indiana, which is one of the most sports-crazed schools in the country, so you know plenty about that culture. And you've worked at Loyola Chicago, so you know plenty about the culture of an institution in an urban setting.

Penn is an urban institution in the Ivy League that has a tradition of a strong sports culture. So you have the opportunity to blend those separate aspects of your background together. How do you do it? 

From the first time I was approached about the job, I felt like I was well-prepared to have a conversation about what I'd do as the leader of this program for just those reasons. I feel the advantage of having seen many different ways of sponsoring college athletics at many different types of institutions. It gives me that broad foundation.

Knowing the specific challenges of being in an urban market, and especially an urban market that has very strong professional sports teams; being at an Ivy, where there is such a diverse array of programming and choices of where people spend their time outside of the classroom; and going on from there, being at Indiana, as you said, and getting a sense of what it's like to be absolutely passionate about the tradition of a program, and wanting to see those programs be at the very top of the conference, and competing nationally year in and year out; I feel like I had all those different tastes.

Now, in coming into Penn, I think if I've learned one thing throughout, it's that certainly, there aren't solutions in this business, or really in any, that you can just come in and overlay into a new environment. To do things well, you really have to be sensitive to the culture and the nuances of the institution.

Having done that now at a variety of places - and I think having a really good eye and being a good listener, to really ask the right questions and try to evaluate what's going well, where can we make some improvements, how do we take this fantastic history and tradition, but clearly send that message that we're going to compete for championships going forward, and our future is very bright - I do think I'm uniquely positioned to do that.

I look forward to drawing on all those experiences to really figure out how to make Penn more successful. 

I know you have spent some time with Penn president Amy Gutmann. What is your impression of her so far, and of her support for athletics?

I have been so impressed with Dr. Gutmann's leadership, just in watching press conferences and reading articles from afar. Then, the opportunity to sit down with her in person, you quickly understand why she has been the highly successful Penn president that she has been. She really is an amazing leader.

I have sensed from the start very strong support for college athletics. And she's a very competitive person - I do believe that sponsoring very successful programs and winning are important to her. But what I have heard clearly from her messaging every time is that at Penn, we will always do things the right ways. That our values, our morals, and following the rules come first, but we want to find ways to be very successful.

What has always struck me about the Ivies in general, but Penn has historically done this better than most, is when you're at a place that stands for excellence, there's this broad embrace that if you're going to sponsor anything, it should meet that level of excellence, or there's a disconnect. If you're going to do something, do it well, and I think that is certainly the Ivy approach.

So I think there is that Ivy support, where we sponsor broad-based programs, we've made this broad commitment, and we want to do it well.

What's your view of the balance between revenue and non-revenue sports? Penn historically has put a high value on football and men's basketball, there's no question about it, but it also has a strong community of supporters of Olympic sports, and a history of success in them. The Ivy League clearly values every sport as being important, but not all of its programs do so in the same way. Where do you come down on that?

I have always advocated for that broad-based support, and I have always said that I want student-athletes to feel like they are equivalent and equally-valued regardless of what sport they participate in.

With that said, I also think we need to be fair about the fact that wherever you go, not just at Penn, football and basketball are flagship programs, and if we embrace them as flagship programs, you frequently hear the line that the rising tide lifts all ships.

If we get basketball healthy, keep football at the top following coach Al Bagnoli's retirement and into the Ray Priore era, that by having those teams be successful - and obviously, the women's basketball program is coming off a great year, so how do we keep them there - if we can keep those programs at the top, then I truly believe that helps lift up the Olympic sport programs.

I do want to feel like all 33 sports are positioned to compete for championships, both within the Ivies and representing beyond where we can do so without compromising our values in any way. Again, I think the support to football and basketball ultimately does nothing but help those others, because it's the way in which you do it to really position all sports for success.

You talked about getting the men's basketball program back to health, and I'm sure you have been asked about that many times by many people. What do you think it's going to take?

I can assure you it has been the most common question. What I can say at this early stage is I've been very pleased with the partnership that I feel I've been able to create with head coach Jerome Allen. I sat him down from the first conversation and said that both he knows and I know that at the end of the season, both of us will be heavily judged on how successful men's basketball was this year.

I plan to do everything in my power to partner with him to help him be successful. And then, you know, ultimately it's going to rest on his shoulders to see what happens. 

Certainly, from that press conference forward, I have been clear that we are doing what we can to give Jerome a fair chance to show that he can be a successful leader of that program. And just looking at all the things we do surrounding the program to help Jerome and the rest of the staff.

I've heard a lot about attendance and what are we doing to really work with student groups and the campus at large, because we know that when there's a great home court advantage, it helps a team be successful. What are we doing to brand and image our programs to generate more visibility and more interest in the community, what are all the things we're doing around the program, again, to help the program be successful?

want to look back at the end of the year and feel like we did everything we could to position our program to be successful, and then ultimately it's on them to do just that.

You talked about being judged at the end of next season. Do you think that's the right timeline that the greater Penn community should use to judge whether something will happen to Jerome one way or the other regarding his future?

Yeah, you know, I certainly wasn't brought in with explicit guidelines on what needed to happen, and at this early point, again, there's no way of completely gauging how that's going to play out. It's going to take seeing more, learning more, working more directly with the program.

So certainly, I think this first year will be critical in going through the season and doing that firsthand evaluating of where we stand and the evolution of our program, and what it's going to take to move it forward.

But there's certainly no timeline, no plan as to how all of this unfolds. I think it will be going through the season, and again, getting that firsthand evaluation.

As regards the football program, Al Bagnoli has built up a tremendous culture within it during his 23 years here. Now he has set up a succession plan after he retires at the end of the season, with defensive coordinator Ray Priore set to take over, in an effort to help preserve that culture. How important is that for you?

Clearly, when you look at a program that has been as successful as Penn football has been over coach Bagnoli's tenure, then you look at that and say that things are obviously going very right, and we need to continue them going in that right direction.

So from the moment I was informed of the pending plan, which I was before I took the job - as we were sitting down and talking about terms, I was informed that there was a succession plan in football - from what I heard at that time to my conversations since with both coach Bagnoli as well as coach Priore, I have nothing but confidence that all the right decisions were made.

I do think while they are different types of leaders in some ways, what coach Priore has is absolutely he is a product of that culture for 20 years. And again, it makes perfect sense in my mind that when you've found a good recipe for success, that absolutely you can continue to replicate it over time, and clearly, as with everything else, we want to keep setting that bar higher.

We want to win that championship every year, we want to heads and tails be the program people think about in the Ivy League. So certainly, it's going to be forging forward by keeping that core of what is working so well, and has been for decades now.

Al is not a particularly shy person, as I'm sure you've found out quite well already. When he announced his retirement plan earlier this summer, he seemed to indicate rather clearly that he would like to continue in the athletic department in some capacity when he has finished coaching. Is that something you are on board with?

We have not had the opportunity to talk through that yet. I think everyone's focus is to ensure we do all we can to support coach Bagnoli in going out on top and having a great season.

Certainly, I am aware of coach Bagnoli's interest. With as long a tenure as he has had with the department, and the success he has had, that certainly intrigues me to learn more about his interest and how that could potentially work.

But I don't plan to have those conversations with him until we've gotten through the season and really allowed him to focus on the task at hand, and go out on a high note.

To pivot from your earlier phrase about raising the bar higher, might that include a desire to see Ivy League teams participate in the FCS playoffs?

[Laughs] I think that is something the Ivy League presidents have no desire to talk about. I've remarked of the fact that it has cycled through on my various stops. Every couple of years, it comes back up.

And I think there is a strong sense that there is just not a desire to extend the season any longer, to get into finals period, to take a sport where the Ivies are at the cutting edge of really making sure we are keeping player safety at the forefront and adding extra games.

There's a comfort level with how the Ivy League does things, and I certainly am not sensing any appetite to re-consider the stance on that.

Football player safety is a huge issue in the NFL and on college campuses across the country. The Ivy League and the Big Ten have taken the lead on researching the links between football and brain damage. How important an issue is it for you, and what can Penn do to be at the forefront?

I was able to attend a portion of the joint Ivy-Big Ten summit that they did in Philadelphia in July, and every time I sit through presentations and learn more, I leave feeling like first and foremost, I'm very pleased that the Ivies are a national leader on this topic, and are very appropriately so.

Clearly, knowledge and information are power. So how are we assuring that we are getting all of the right data so we can plan our practices in the best fashion possible? How do we ensure that our athletic trainers and our medical staff are as educated in the latest information as they possibly can be, to ensure that we're seeing signs, we're taking preventative measures, we're doing everything we can do ensure safety?

The presentation that I saw at the summit this year was in two parts. One part was increasingly looking at hits, what the safe number of repetitive hits is before you start putting yourself in a dangerous zone. I look forward to learning more about how we're tracking that.

But I do know that this is something the Ivy League presidents expect regular updates on, and certainly pride themselves on that the Ivies took an early stance, and that we're out there helping to work with researchers, certainly collecting data on our student-athletes, and making sure again that we feel good about the fact that we're putting them in the safest environment possible.

Here's a question to pivot away from football. When the upcoming academic year begins, there will be three female athletic directors in the Ivy League: yourself, Columbia's M. Dianne Murphy and new Princeton AD Mollie Marcoux. What does the increase in female representation within that exclusive group mean to you?

I have always felt that my career has so benefited from having some wonderful female mentors. I worked for Connie Hurlbut when I started at the Patriot League. I worked for a longtime Penn employee, Carolyn Schlie Femovich, later at the Patriot League. My first boss at the University of Florida headed up the women's programs at that time. And then there were a variety that I met as my career progressed.

It has always felt to me that I think I have benefited from being of an age and generation where I didn't feel my gender was necessarily a plus or a minus in looking at different positions, but I realize that's because so many women really did the work of helping to open those doors and break down those barriers.

I am constantly amazed at how many female student-athletes come up to me and thank me for being a role model of how you can have a family and pursue a career as I have done. That means a lot to me, because as a mother of four daughters, I do feel that continuing to level that proverbial playing field, and getting to a point in time where there is that full equality, is what we'd like to see, of course.

Serving at an institution that has had two incredibly strong female presidents [Judith Rodin and Amy Gutmann], I felt very quickly on this campus that you are assessed based upon the quality of your work and how you do the job, and not other factors. That is a wonderful feeling, because I can't say I have always felt that across the board.

I did work for the first female AD in the Ivy League, Josie Harper [at Dartmouth], so I was there when that door was finally opened, and [it was] a wonderful day to see that. I know that at times, there have been more female presidents in the Ivy League than male.

So I really do feel good about the fact that the Ivy League once again is out in front of that, and is making those clear statements that they are going to hire the the best candidate and the best fit for a situation, and that male or female really is not a consideration.

You weren't in Chicago when the city bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, as it took place before you got to Loyola, but you may have heard that Philadelphia has on a few occasions considered putting together a bid. Most recently, it got fairly far along the process for 2024, but eventually withdrew its bid this past May.

Everyone knows that it would not be easy, but this city has a lot of already-built sports facilities it could put to use for the event. It also has Comcast, which owns longtime Olympic TV rights-holder and IOC bankroller NBC, and Comcast executive vice president David Cohen is the chairman of Penn's board of trustees.

So there is a lot of institutional backing to see if it would be possible to create a successful bid. I would imagine that Penn could have a fairly big role to play in a bid because of its many sports facilities, as well as its other resources in areas such as housing. Is bringing the Olympics to Philadelphia something that you would like to see?

You know, you telling me that is the first time I have heard it, so I have had no time to form an opinion or assess that. I heard of the planning process for Chicago and kind of assessment why it didn't work out.

And as an interesting aside, I served for six years on the NCAA's Olympic sport liaison committee, which really gave me a somewhat unique and up-close view of how the USOC works, and certainly gave me a view of the complexities of how cities are selected and all that goes into it.

I have seen from so many past Olympics that not only is it this monumental undertaking, but different cities have had varied levels of success. And at the end of the day, are the tourism dollars or what you're left with after the Olympics enough of a reward for all the work and disruption and planning that goes into the Olympics?

Clearly, it would take a lot of people spending a lot of time to assess the feasibility of doing that, but personally, I am someone who is absolutely glued to my TV set for the duration of the Olympics whenever they happen. Personally, I would love to see that here. But professionally, and from the standpoint of serving of the leader of this operation at Penn, I don't even begin to know what all that would mean.

Finally, it's just a few weeks now until students start coming back to campus for the start of the new academic year. How do you want to get out there and engage personally with the campus community? Will we see you at events on campus often? Do you think you'll join Twitter?

You will certainly see me at events on campus. Twitter - I shouldn't admit this to someone who has three Twitter accounts, but I will not impress you at all with my use of technology. And coming from an engineering background, that's something I feel I do struggle with daily.

But what I really enjoy, and what I feel like I have relied on to do my job well, is the personal connected-ness to the students, to the campus, and to the faculty and the community. To all constituent groups that really interact with athletics, but most importantly, to the students.

I felt like I've had to make some choices to be able to do that well, and there are only so many hours in the week. So I'm much more apt to walk the hallways and talk to staff, or to drop down to practices, or to take a trip with a team, than to do a lot of tweeting.

At past institutions I've used the general athletic department accounts to get out my messages, and certainly Mike [Mahoney, Penn's sports information director] and I will work into a system where I'll learn more about what's happening, and figure out how to best do that. But I'd like to ensure that we're using new media strategically, that will get engaged at a high level.

I think you can more anticipate to see me having those personal interactions, and really keeping a pulse on what's going on. Because I think that's critical in my management style, to ensure that I'm effectively driving priorities.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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