The role of the Athletic Director: Everything rises and falls on leadership

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athletic director leadership

The role of leadership in intercollegiate athletics is ever expanding, and you could argue even more challenging on Christian campuses as administrators must effectively fulfill multiple professional roles and endure continual evaluation of win-loss ratios, fund raising, and relationships with athletes, staff, and the community.

A day in the life of an athletic director is totally unscripted as they balance between advocating for coaches, leading staff meetings, fighting for increased budgets, meeting with a potential corporate sponsor, having a tough conversation with a student-athlete, having a tough conversation with a head coach, overseeing budgets, feeling guilty about the salaries of their staff, soliciting a donor for a major gift, checking in with game management, launching a marketing campaign, signing requisitions and the unnamed tasks included in “other duties assigned.”

Now consider an athletic department that professes an adherence to a Christian ethic. They encounter additional dilemmas as conflicts arise between their mission and the modern culture of sport.  These challenges make athletic administration a unique and complex area of leadership and marks the development of athletic directors critical to mission alignment.

Another challenge to consider is that a majority of faith based universities are small NCAA II, NCAA III, or NAIA type schools. At that level it is all too common to find athletic directors carrying multiple responsibilities. I remember asking a colleague, who was serving as athletic director and men’s basketball coach, how he managed both responsibilities. His response was brutally honest.  He shared, “you can’t manage both, at least not well, as there is just not enough time.”

These challenges are what ultimately led me on a quest to find the best practices. I wanted to know which institutions were equally committed to their spiritual mission while at the same time consistently producing teams that won championships. To begin the process of uncovering these organizational cultures I started by interviewing presidents and vice presidents whose leadership portfolio included managing athletic directors. In their own words, these were the descriptions of the ideal leadership traits needed to lead their institution’s athletic department:

  • They are a coach of coaches who should have the ability to cast a communal vision, and someone, in a pastoral way, that holds others accountable.
  • They need to have great leadership qualities, they need to be able to lead, not just manage, and have some entrepreneurism inside of them.
  • They need to be able to create win-win situations with various competing departments across the campus.
  • They are someone who sees the opportunities to mold and shape each athlete, to reinforce that athletics comes second and someone to set the tone for the coaches in this win at all cost culture of athletics.
  • They possess integrity, competitiveness, communication skills, big picture thinking, loyalty, and are self-starters, managers, and devoted Christ-followers.

Reading the list of ideal qualifications reminds of John Maxwell’s quote, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” If this is true, then both the acts of commission and omission related to the university mission being promoted in athletics resides primarily on the athletic director. It’s why leaders like Bob White at Palm Beach Atlantic can inherit an athletic department in spiritual shambles and transform its culture. Bob White proves my belief that you can do both, that is, being excellent spiritually and athletically. He is now the full time volleyball coach at PBA, where he was recently named the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Coach of the Year in leading his NCAA DII team to a 29-4 record.

The sport apologist Shirl Hoffman once stated that he believes, “evangelicals have been unwilling to wrestle with the difficult task of understanding sport and its relationship to their faith.” I don’t believe this to be true as I know administrators and coaches who have invested their careers in understanding sport in relationship to faith. Unfortunately, the media is far more interested in reporting scandals than drawing attention to individuals transforming the culture of sport. If the media is reluctant then I am more than willing to be the voice of transformational athletic directors and coaches. Below are the four strategies I observed that assisted in building championship cultures at institutions that valued their spiritual mission.


  1. Successful athletic directors promoted their spiritual mission by hiring coaches that were equally convicted by the opportunity to use athletics in evangelizing and disciplining student-athletes.

It was obvious that athletic directors and coaches alike were able to clearly articulate the spiritual emphasis of the institution. I can remember asking coaches to restate the mission of the university and it obvious they understood its purpose: “It’s to impact lives, to be Christ-like in everything we do… Whatever we do academically and athletically, then let’s use that as a mission for Christ… We are completely focused on disciplining and mentoring… It’s all about preparing world changers… We are the business of developing the whole person… We want to be a culture that is selfless with Christ as our example.”


  1. Successful athletic directors promoted their spiritual mission by holding their athletic personnel accountable to the mission.

Formally, this was reinforced through staff meetings, retreats, athletic chapels, and performance evaluations. Additionally, coaches were held accountable to engage in an active campaign of spiritual formation inside their athletic programs. While spiritual formation strategies were not prescribed, the expectation was that spiritual development was taking place within each team.  Therefore, prayer, spiritual development retreats, mission trips, service projects, Bible studies, and many other strategies were observed that reflected the coaches’ ministry to their student-athletes.

In observing these cultures I came to realize that the coaches served as a wealth of creativity for ministry ideas, accountability, and even competitiveness in honoring the spiritual mission. One president indicated that he’s even noticed accountability among the coaches, adding that he’s seen growth and even a willingness to call one another out.


  1. Successful athletic directors promoted their spiritual mission in managing coaches that boldly proclaimed the spiritual emphasis of their institution throughout the student-athlete recruiting process.

It is through this practice that prospective recruits would either be attracted to the spiritual mission or those lacking spiritual interest would know up front the values and expectations of the institution recruiting them. I believe withholding the emphasis on the spiritual mission (that is, if it is truly an emphasis of the institution) while overselling the athletic experience is everything we disdain about the stereotypes of a used car salesman. I can think of nothing worse than a student-athlete being surprised by the spirituality of a school after attending classes for the first time.


  1. Successful athletic directors promoted their spiritual mission through language in their own athletic mission statement that carried very specific spiritual expectations.

Too often in intercollegiate athletics coaches establish silos within the athletic department and see their only responsibility to build better athletes and win championships. However, the athletic departments that I was privileged to investigate were fully committed to building better athletes and pursing championships, but not at the expense of the mission. They believed the institutional mission was critical to their success and included language in their athletic mission statement to hold them accountable.

This included the following phrases: “To impact the world for Christ… To encourage spiritual growth… Transformation of lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ… The spiritual development of our athletes… To honor Christ through attitudes, sportsmanship, speech, and actions.” This revealed that the spiritual mission wasn’t a burden or the desire of out-of-touch university administrators, but was an active component of the mission within the athletic department.


In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey challenges his readers to begin with “the end in mind.”  It is based on my research and personal experience that I believe effective athletic directors should begin with “the mission in mind.” To lead an athletic department that is reflective of the university’s values, then, will require ADs to be vigilant in casting the greater mission of the university. It will also require ADs to hold their staff accountable so the mission is replicated throughout the entire athletic department, touching each student-athlete. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, “everything rises and falls on leadership.”


Next post in the series: Athletic success and spirituality: Uncovering the #1 myth in Christian athletics

Previous post: The organizational culture of athletic departments

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About Duane Aagaard // Chair and Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Pfeiffer University

A resident of Concord, NC, Duane has spent the past 15 years in higher education, 9 years as Director of Athletics at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL) and the past 4 as a Professor of Sport Management at Pfeiffer University (Charlotte, NC). He is passionate about inspiring the next generation of athletic leaders to use sport for a greater purpose in changing our world. He can be reached on Twitter at @DuaneAagaard or via email at

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