In Athletics, the Right Person for the Job

Glenn Matsumura

This spring, Stanford hired University of Iowa athletics director Bob Bowlsby to succeed Ted Leland, PhD ’83, as Stanford’s director of athletics. Finding someone to follow Ted, given the success of the athletic program under his guidance, was not easy. But in Bob Bowlsby, I have no doubt that the search committee found one of the few people in the country up to the task.

This is not just my own opinion. We heard the same assessment from many quarters after the announcement was made—from athletic directors across the country, from coaches and sports journalists, and perhaps most importantly from a Stanford perspective—from faculty and students.

As Provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, who chaired the search committee, said, “Bob Bowlsby represents the best professional and personal values when it comes to student-athletes. He understands that the success of an athletics program is not simply measured in wins and losses, but in the academic achievements and character of the young women and men who work so hard on the field and in the classroom.”

The provost’s words reflect a long-held view at Stanford and came as no surprise to me. But I was particularly pleased in what Bob Bowlsby had to say to a reporter’s question about his decision to move to Stanford after such a long and successful tenure at Iowa.

“Stanford is the only place that I would have considered going,” Bowlsby said. “It is a place where athletic excellence and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive and it is a model for intercollegiate athletics.”

We all know, however, that such a reputation comes with a great deal of responsibility. The reputation—and responsibility—seem to grow each year. As I write this column, Stanford appears on the verge of winning its 12th consecutive Directors’ Cup, given by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics each year to recognize the best overall athletics program in the country. At the same time, NCAA violations, abysmal graduation rates, scandals and nu merous ethical transgressions have occurred in universities and athletic teams across the country. How do we continue to excel at the former while avoiding the latter?

The arrival of a new athletic director provides a good opportunity to revisit how Stanford has achieved excellence with integrity and high academic standards for so many years. The first reason is axiomatic and central to the culture of the University: the term “student-athlete” is not a metaphor or marketing term for us. It reflects a basic assumption shared by students, faculty, coaches, University leaders and, just as importantly, the director of athletics.

That is not to say that there isn’t some inherent tension in the term. Our student-athletes face an enormous challenge in balancing the scholarly and athletic demands. But they exhibit the qualities necessary to achieve at the highest levels in both areas—discipline, focus and dedication to both goals. In fact, I have often said that our student-athletes are our most organized and disciplined students; they are, after all, the only undergraduates I usually see when I traverse the campus before 8 a.m.

Faculty also play a very important role. They must help student-athletes keep a balanced perspective. It is our responsibility as teachers and leaders to convey the institution’s principles clearly and offer support to ensure that our student-athletes’ priorities remain steady despite the many competitive pressures they face. And coaches and administrators not only provide guidance on athletic endeavors, but also must instill the pride and integrity that have always been associated with representing Stanford.

There is another very important part of the equation—the role of the athletes’ fellow students. Unlike some universities, we are committed to the notion that student-athletes are an integral part of the whole student body. That is why we do not segregate them in separate dorms, special dining halls or athlete-only classes. Just like talented musicians, brilliant mathematicians, groundbreaking engineers and gifted artists, it is important that world-class athletes be a part of the stream of University life.

In the end, though, I believe the secret to Stanford’s success in this arena, as in others, comes down to values and expectations. The Fundamental Standard, established in 1896, describes the values in the statement that all Stanford students will show a “respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens.” We also set the expectation beginning with the term “student-athletes”: students first, athletes second.

Winning is certainly important, and our program’s performance in that regard leaves no doubt about the dedication of our student-athletes. But as Bob Bowlsby understands, and as Ted Leland understood before him, playing the game with intelligence, integrity and balance is a life lesson that lasts long beyond the deserved, but ephemeral, jubilation of victory.