A memorable day for a most memorable Hawk, Don DiJulia

JENSEN20.Don DiJulia addresses graduates during commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2018 at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Pa. on Saturday, May 19, 2018. DiJulia is retiring as athletic director for the university this year (TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer).

Don DiJulia tried to negotiate his way out of the commencement address. Almost worked, but here the St. Joseph’s athletic director was Saturday morning, inside Hagan Arena like usual — except this time there was no practice or game, just the 2018 graduation class of Hawks filling the floor, parents in the stands cheering, DiJulia on the stage in academic regalia receiving an honorary doctorate, then delivering the commencement.

DiJulia was told 10-12 minutes was best for such speeches and he came in at 11 minutes and 8 seconds. DiJulia told the graduates they’d need to be nimble, to work to be part of a team — “it’s toughest to go it alone.” DiJulia later added: “The choice is yours: spectator or impact player? Drain or fountain?” Offering advice from St. Ignatius, DiJulia said, “When he gathered his band of six brothers in his locker room to share a vision to change the world, he kept it simple.”

For 35 years as St. Joe’s athletic director before retiring at the end of the month, DiJulia did the same. His tenure goes back 42 years, but he left for a stint as commissioner of two college leagues before returning in 1988. It’s hard to believe that anyone in college sports spent more time just trying to get it right.

Whatever his administrative batting average, DiJulia’s greatest legacy may be of being present. The last Hawks sporting event on campus was baseball, a series with Massachusetts spread out over three days. The first game was Thursday afternoon, played in a steady drizzle. DiJulia, who just turned 76, planned to get over there.

Which direction would he come from?

“He just appears,” said athletic department staffer Joe Greenwich. “He might have some way he can teleport.”

Right after Hawks sophomore Langston Livingston hit a home run to get St. Joe’s on the scoreboard, DiJulia appeared in the press box.

“That was a shot,” DiJulia said.

“There are like 15 Dons every day,” baseball coach Fritz Hamburg had said before the game.

Kevin Quinn, who had coached St. Joe’s track and cross-country for 49 years and been an assistant athletic director for much of that time, said his team would be ready to get on a bus at 6 in the morning to go up to New York or somewhere for a meet when the AD would pop in and wish them luck.

“Under Don, every sport was the sport,” Quinn said. “Even the kids picked up on that.”

Of course, basketball was always the sport, the front porch of the school. DiJulia had played it, his time as a student interrupted by three years in the seminary before he returned and graduated in 1967. He had a teaching job at St. James High School in Chester, figuring he would spend his career teaching and coaching in the Catholic League, when Jim Lynam, a former teammate, called to say he was taking a job as head basketball coach at Fairfield University. Would DiJulia like to be an assistant? Why not? He’s been involved in college sports ever since.

It’s not just the fun and games DiJulia showed up for. I asked DiJulia how many viewings or funerals he gets to in a given month, since it seems like all of them.

“The number I’m going to give, I’m sure my family and staff would laugh at — they feel like it’s three a day,” DiJulia said, suggesting maybe one a week. “Five this week. That’s high.”

Of events that were important to get to, DiJulia started with St. Joe’s sports and then mentioned the university as a whole — “given how visible athletics is for the university, it is important to be at university functions, too.”

As DiJulia talked, I started drawing concentric circles. “The Philadelphia sports community, the Big Five, the Atlantic Ten, NCAA … Maybe even Philadelphia separate from the sports community.”

Then a big circle — “the personal.”

There were eight circles. You could argue DiJulia is near the center of all of them. When he first took over as AD in 1976, the athletic staff was six full-timers, he said, working with 200 student-athletes in eight sports. Now: 90 staffers, almost 500 student-athletes in 20 sports. When he began, DiJulia said, there was no compliance officer. That was him. Facility manager? Him. Marketing? Him.

Going to the conference commissioner jobs from 1981-88, he said, first at the East Coast Conference and then the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, gave him much more perspective on the bigger picture of college sports. He remains a go-to person for administrators and even the media for describing that big picture, with a pretty good ability to see around corners.

Camera icon David Swanson
With director of athletics Don DiJulia, (L) and president Mark Reed, Jameer Nelson talks about graduating from St. Joseph’s this weekend, Thursday May 17, 2018. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

His staffers might tell you, DiJulia said, that he sometimes takes too long to come to a decision, as he tries to parse out the right thing to do. As a boss, he wasn’t afraid to tell his staff how it was going to be. The toughest calls, he said, were when a student-athlete or administrator or coach had to be asked to leave. There were several scandals to deal with, plenty of alumni to try and reason with, burdens that came with sports and especially hoops being so integral to the St. Joe’s mission.

If it sounds like he’ll be missed as he tries out an assignment as assistant to the president of the university, no argument. Best-of-the-best types don’t come around all the time. A smart move now would be to make DiJulia director of the Big Five, a job currently filled on a rotating basis by Big Five athletic directors. Such a position might be more ambassadorial these days, but a perfect fit. Nobody ever showed up at more functions at other Big Five schools than DiJulia.

Attempting to negotiate his way out of the commencement address was almost a typical DiJulia move. When he was approached in February about giving the speech, DiJulia gave SJU president Mark Reed a few names, what if he could get one of them?

According to DiJulia, Reed looked at the list and said if DiJulia could get Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, he was off the hook. This was right after the Super Bowl.

“He kind of fits what we stand for,’’ DiJulia said of Foles.

So he tried. “Not available,’’ DiJulia said, and he began working on the speech, writing down random thoughts. Saturday, he delivered, explaining to the students what they had done for him all these years. It was appropriate that if rain would fall and commencement would head indoors to the hoop court, it would be on the year Jameer Nelson, greatest Hawk player, would be back to receive his degree, and DiJulia, in the running for greatest Hawk in any category, would have his role.

Camera icon Tracie Van Auken / For the Inquirer
JENSEN20.Jameer Nelson crosses the stage to receive his degree during commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2018 at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa. on Saturday, May 19, 2018. Nelson currently plays in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons, and was named national college player of the year in 2004 while playing with the St. Joseph University Hawks. .(TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer).

When DiJulia announced his retirement, he made sure to call Lynam, the former Hawks and 76ers hoop coach who had started him on this path.

Lynam told him, “If I think of what we can do for the next 50 years, I’ll get back to you.”