An Interview with New Athletics Director Harry Sheehy

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By Harry Greenstone

TDR: The Dartmouth Review would like to join students and the community in welcoming you as the new athletic director of Dartmouth College.  What are some of your initial impressions since you began last month?

Sheehy: At least my hope that this would be a wonderful place to work, at least that’s my initial impression.  I said in the press conference that Dartmouth has good bricks and mortars but it’s about people and the people here have been outstanding, really one of the most welcoming communities I’ve ever been a part of.  Other initial impressions—people are working really hard here in athletics to make this as good as it can be and I think we have some work to do but I think we’re on our way to doing it.  Those are just a couple initial impressions.  Obviously, beautiful place to be, beautiful place to work in terms of the environment, so really, really a great start.

TDR: You have been well regarded as a student athlete, coach, and athletic director at Williams.  What kinds of influences did those roles have on you, and how do you see that experience impacting your leadership of Dartmouth’s athletic programs?

Sheehy: I think that’s a really good question.  I think those things tend to get compartmentalized in a person’s life, so you get student-athlete, coach, and athletic director.  What I’ve really tried to do in terms of how that impacts my role at Dartmouth is remember how interconnected they all are.  So while the student-athlete experience at a place like Dartmouth is somewhat unique, it crosses over with coaching and administration everyday.

So all those things go toward me trying to have a perspective where we can help our students and coaches, and frankly the people I work with in the administration and department to have the best experience they can.  Its really easy in these jobs—it would be really easy for me to get stuck in the office, so I want to make sure that I get out and watch practices and just walk into coaches’ offices and see how they’re doing. I greet student-athletes as they come through the building, to try to remember that this is really quite a well integrated experience if you’re willing to look past these definitions of player, coach, administrator.

TDR: In overseeing 34 Division I varsity programs at Dartmouth, what are some of the major differences that you have encountered over the past month compared to Williams’ Division III programs?  How are you starting to see opportunities and challenges develop?

Sheehy: Well, our program at Williams was 32 teams – almost as broad based.  There are more club teams here, so that’s a wonderful activity to have on our campus.  All the things that appealed to me at Williams are at Dartmouth, so I wanted to be at a place where I was really excited about running a Division I athletic program, but being at a place where when I put my head in the pillow at night, it’s philosophically in tune with who I am.

So I’m not going to have to make decisions that sacrifice the experience of the student here, because the way that this fits together academically and athletically is one of the great draws of the College for student-athletes.  I had three Cross-Country recruits in here this morning and what I said to them was, “The great thing here is you’ll be able to run, and run to your potential, but you’ll also be able to be pre-med.”  While that’s true at many places, it’s not true at every place.

As far as challenges, I think the main challenge is that we had this thing pretty well figured out at Williams, so we had put all our programs in a place where they could contend for the conference championship.  I think we’re working on that here, I think the challenge is to enjoy broad-based success so that these are not only really good programs to be a player in, but also good to be a coach.  So that’s always a challenge, and that’s a daily challenge. Even once you achieve it, it’s always a challenge. It doesn’t really go away.

TDR: This year, it seems that many students are more excited than ever about our teams in light of some good early results.  What have you noticed regarding the involvement of the campus in supporting our teams and the general level of spirit?

Sheehy: I’m new, coming in from the outside, so my first experience at a weekend where football was involved was the Sacred Heart game, and I found the spirit to be outstanding.  Now I know that there are spirit initiatives run by some students, and I think we’re accepting the good results of that—the work that the students have done.  This is a place with great tradition and really good students that are interested in lots of things, so I would think that the spirit here should be really good.

Now I know that, frankly we talk about how do you market teams a lot, well the best way you market a team is to win.  So if football wins, if basketball wins, if hockey wins, if soccer wins, if those folks win, that people are going to be there, people are going to come watch.  So when students ask me about marketing, or folks in my own department, I tell them my part in marketing is to help these teams win.  That was a great Saturday, it was really outstanding and it meant a ton to the player.

So I would say this—we’re really going to build some programs, and we need the students desperately to hang with us while we’re doing that.  We really need the students to be invested in this, and not just, if we lose a game, disappear on us.  We really need the students to be invested in supporting their classmates and their friends so that as we move forward that kind of spirit can continue, and then we will get results eventually, but I would love for the students to understand the critical role they play in helping us build it.

Sheehy, a fierce advocate of balancing athleticism with scholastic achievement, is the coauthor of “Raising a Team Player.”TDR: What are some of your thoughts about football’s strong start to the season, and what other teams have attracted your attention so far this year?

Sheehy: Because I’m new, every team has attracted my attention.  But I’m thrilled with the football guys—obviously we have lots of work to do there and this game coming up with Yale this weekend is an immense game for us.

We stood toe-to-toe with Penn, lost in overtime, and Penn obviously is the defending champ and has been picked to win it again this year.  I think that we’re starting to see the fruits of the hard work in the program, so I’m thrilled for them.

Cross-country is off to a terrific start, both [teams]; field hockey is off to a terrific start—those are programs that we’re excited about and we’re thrilled for those student athletes.  It’s really a challenge at a place like Dartmouth that has such a broad-based program to create an environment where everyone can succeed, so that’s our challenge going forward.

And obviously this business is a little cyclical, so you can’t go 20-0 every year—everybody is going to have a mediocre year.  But our goal is to put our coaches in a recruiting position where we can be strong perennially.

TDR: Looking forward over the next few years, how do you see Dartmouth’s athletic programs evolving and what are some of your overall goals?  What sports might be at risk in the coming years?

Sheehy: I think over the next few years, the overall goal again is to create a structure where coaches—smart coaches—and smart student athletes will be perennially strong.  What I’m really not interested in is two or three strong programs and a bunch of mediocrity.

I think the overarching goal is excellence across the board.  That’s what President Kim wants for the institution, and frankly, that’s why I’m sitting here.  That was the challenge of the job, to help create an environment where coaches can succeed and that’s always a challenge.

One of the questions at my press conference was, “You’re leaving a big dog, Williams, where you won all of the time, to come to a small dog, where the school has struggled occasionally athletically.”  I never have viewed it that way—I see Dartmouth as a tremendous move for my family and for me and I don’t have to come here and create tradition—the tradition is here.

What we have to do is help it become good again.  I want to make it clear that I am simply a helpmate and I am going to have good people doing this with me as a team, from the coaches to the administrators.  So the overarching goal is excellence across the board, and jobs that are good jobs for coaches so that this is a good place for student-athletes to be.

Teams at risk—I haven’t had that conversation with anybody.  I know that is always out there, and it depends on what you mean by risk—[whether] you mean teams will not exist in the coming years, that’s one risk, whether you mean teams being supported less, that’s a different risk.  But I would tell you this—I come here thinking about our athletic program from a position of strength.  So I’m not looking at teams at risk, I’m looking to help every program reach its potential.

So that might be a question you want to ask me in a year or two, but right now I wake up everyday and I’m not viewing it that way.

TDR: With three-fourths of undergraduates at Dartmouth participating in organized sports, the College has continued to reinforce the important role of athletics in student life.  How do you see club sports and intramurals developing over the next few years, particularly in terms of the opportunities for competition and improvement for these teams?

Sheehy: That’s a great question.  Club teams are basically student energy driven.  So to some degree the folks in the clubs will be responsible for the level that they reach; however, without us creating an environment for them to do that, they won’t be able to reach their potential.

We need to again create the environment where these activities are valued.  It’s not enough to just say that we have these clubs—we need to provide the support where we can.  There are some issues that have been brought to me, and I’m trying to think of them in new ways.  I’m trying to help the people in the department think of these challenges in new ways—from how we service these teams, to who’s on them, to what kind of competition they have, and some clubs want outside competition while some clubs want to be on campus as an activity.

You might make that distinction between activity and club, but whether or not it’s a varsity team, it’s a Dartmouth student, and that Dartmouth student deserves to be supported in appropriate ways.  [These clubs] are great activities to be doing and [are] particularly important in the history of Dartmouth and mov[ing] forward.  With President Kim wanting some type of well-integrated, thought-out role of [club sports] in our community, it’s incumbent upon us to think about these [clubs] and the central part they play in students’ lives.

TDR: Dartmouth has some unique programs such as skiing, with its tradition of sending both Nordic and alpine athletes to the Olympics, and recent successes such as Andrew Weibrecht’s bronze medal this past year.  How do you see Dartmouth continuing to support such strong traditions of excellence, while at the same time developing new areas of strength?

Sheehy: I think the key there is that you don’t develop key areas of new strength at the expense of your already solid programs.  So when we do something we’re not going to take a sport that is successful and take resources away from it to make someone else successful, because then all you are doing is spreading mediocrity.

I have no desire in spreading mediocrity. So where we are excellent I want to maintain excellence; where we are not as strong, we want to become strong. And my job is to figure out how to both acquire and parcel out resources so that those programs we want to build are getting the help they need and so that we’re not stripping the programs that are already strong.  Chris Wielgus, [coaching] women’s basketball has won 12 out of 26 Ivy Championships in her 26 years here, so why would I want to take that away.  I don’t want to say to her, Chris, you’re going to be mediocre for a few years so that Coach X can be excellent.  It’s not the way we’re wired as people; it’s not what we should be doing.  Again, President Kim has asked for excellence across the board—I don’t think Dartmouth should have its hand in anything it’s not good at.  It should be trying to be good at everything it chooses to put resources toward.  One of the real dangers is putting just enough resources toward something to keep it mediocre, because we’ll live with mediocrity longer than we will with bad.  You tease mediocrity, saying it’s not horrible, so we’ll live with that, [but] if something is bad, you’ll say we need to fix it.  Mediocrity is as big an enemy of excellence as bad is, if not more so.

TDR: The strong involvement of President Kim in athletics at Dartmouth has been widely discussed.  What are some of your initial impressions working with President Kim, and how do you see his goals impacting the athletic department?

Sheehy: To be very honest, he’s a good fifty percent of the reason I’m sitting here.   If I look at Dartmouth’s program from the outside, I might say that if I were there I would do this, this, and this, but if I come here and don’t have a president who is interested, then I’m not going to be able to get it done.

To me, his goals for this program in terms of broad-based excellence allow me to do the work underneath him that needs to be done to become excellent.  I’m thrilled to be working with President Kim. I’ve spent a couple of games on the sidelines with him, and he clearly has a passion for the role athletics can play in a young person’s life.

I would say one of the things that struck the core with me is his understanding of the importance of knowing how to compete in life—not in football or field hockey, but in life.  Those other things – football, field hockey, soccer, squash – are vehicles to teach our young men and women how to compete even better.  Now, they might come to us as really good competitors, but we might be able to make them better, and that makes their lives better.  To me, we have one of the most important vehicles on this campus in teaching that.

TDR: Do you view the athletics at Dartmouth as emphasizing as a priority a return to a culture of winning, an opportunity to support a well-rounded college community, or a combination of both?

Sheehy: I think it’s a hybrid.  People asked me all the time at Williams, ‘Is it important to win at Williams?’ and my answer was always yes.  But a better way to put that is that it’s important to try to win.  So what does that mean?  It means putting resources at a level where a good coach and good players will have a chance to succeed.  So to me, yes, I think you can have really good programs with some young people having really bad experiences.  At that point, if winning is everything, then that’s not Dartmouth.  We need to win the right way at Dartmouth, with the right student-athletes, and the job that I’ve been charged with is to help folks bring the right people here, both as coaches and as student-athletes.  So yes, I think it is a hybrid, and I know that’s kind of the cop-out way, but we need to have both at Dartmouth.  I say it unequivocally—we need to have both at Dartmouth—we need to be successful, and we need to be successful with the right people in the right way.  And if we do that, the student-athlete experience is going to be a good one.  Not everyone is perfect, and not everyone is going to be happy, but with the student satisfaction surveys they have taken here in the, even in some of the sports where we have struggled, the student-athlete experience has been pretty good.  We just want to add winning to it, so they can understand it’s even better.

TDR: Finally, what do you see as the most exciting part of your new job and opportunity for Dartmouth athletics in the upcoming year?

Sheehy: I think this operates at a couple of levels.  Number one, it’s a new job for me and I’m coming to a new place, new people, so it’s just exciting.  To be honest, there wasn’t much for me to learn about Williams anymore.  I went there, and I was working there for 27 years. Here I’m meeting new people, learning new things every day, learning the challenge of what needs to be done here.

It’s crystallizing a little bit more every day. So for me, that’s incredibly exciting.  I have told our coaches that I will meet with any recruit that they have on campus who would be a great match for Dartmouth and is a talented student-athlete.  I’m already passionate about those young people, and telling them that Dartmouth is a great place to consider, because I believe it.

What I’ve told people is that Dartmouth is like Williams times two, with a Division I athletic program.  I loved Williams. I’ve grown to love this place very quickly. I love the people I work with, I’m here early and I stay late, because I love it.  To me, that’s the exciting part of this—taking on a new challenge.   And I would say this—knowing that we have the potential to win the battle in the end is huge.  Here I feel like there is great energy now. Some of our coaches have landed some really good recruiting coups already this year that I’ve been able to help with a bit.

The last thing I would share is that the Dartmouth alums are really passionate.  I said in my press conference that [the alums] are equally irrationally attached to this institution as Williams alums are to Williams, and I love that about the place.

To have people who graduated from an institution like Dartmouth, if they weren’t engaged with the place afterword, that would really be a shame.  Now not everybody is who graduates, but I meet [alums] on the road, and the level of caring about this place and the level of optimism and hope for our athletic program going forward, everywhere I’ve gone — I’ve travelled a bit already for the school — has been really encouraging.  So, I’m here because it’s a great job, and I’m really happy to have it.

TDR: Thank you for your thoughts, and best of luck as Director of Athletics.

Sheehy: Thank you very much. I’ll take a little luck.