When Judy MacLeod was named the commissioner of Conference USA in October, she became the first woman to lead a Football Bowl Subdivision league. At first, she didn’t think about the historical significance. But then, the wave of congratulatory messages started to arrive.
“When I got notes from people that I had only met once or had never met at all telling me about the impact my hiring had on them, it makes you take a step back and go, ‘Whoa,’ ” MacLeod says. “For me, it is about doing the best job I can for our members. No one can put as much pressure on me as I put on myself. There is some extra responsibility not to screw up.”
When the Division I conference commissioners meet to discuss issues surrounding the College Football Playoff, MacLeod has a seat at the table. But being the only woman in the room isn’t unusual for MacLeod, who also served three years on the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, from 2012 to 2015.
“To me, college athletics is a people business,” says MacLeod, who worked 15 years at The University of Tulsa, including 10 as the director of athletics, before starting at Conference USA in 2005 as an associate commissioner. “It is about treating everyone with respect. I haven’t had a lot of issues or haven’t chosen to focus on the ones that have come up through the years. I use my energy to help our student-athletes and our school or conference.”
Getting her start
After earning her degree in economics at the University of Puget Sound, where she played basketball, MacLeod planned to go into the finance industry. But instead, she was invited to become an assistant women’s basketball coach at Seattle University, a job she worked part time for four seasons while managing a physical therapy office’s exercise gym as her full-time job.
In 1990, she served as the sport manager for judo and team handball at the Goodwill Games in Seattle. “Through that job, I decided that I was interested in getting into athletic administration,” MacLeod says.
At age 25, MacLeod moved to northeastern Oklahoma to be a graduate assistant at Tulsa, where she planned to work on a master’s degree in sports administration. She split her duties between ticketing and compliance; a year later, then-Athletics Director Rick Dickson hired her to a permanent position. “I was able to learn the business on a small staff, and it exposed me to everything,” MacLeod recalls. “If you were willing to work, there were places where you could jump in.”
MacLeod was 30 years old when she became the interim athletics director, which led to the full-time job. “We grew up together and learned together,” MacLeod says of her colleagues, including then-President Bob Lawless, who hired her as athletics director. “A lot of that was due to Dr. Lawless and having the relationship I have with him to this day. There is trust, and we had great discussions behind closed doors. You don’t always agree, but when we went out after a decision was made, we supported each other.”
During her 10 years as Tulsa’s athletics director, other campuses reached out to gauge MacLeod’s interest in running their departments. She always declined, but in 2005, she got a different kind of call: Then-Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky asked her to recommend someone to fill the position of C-USA associate commissioner for governance and national policy. Five minutes after hanging up the phone, MacLeod called back and said she would be interested. She joined C-USA in 2005.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, but sometimes you get to a point where you wonder what else you can do at a place,” MacLeod says. “I thought this was a good way to make an impact on a national level. I had only been at Tulsa in my career, and I was able to see how other schools did things.”
A year later, MacLeod was promoted to C-USA associate executive commissioner and chief operating officer. She oversaw sports services, compliance, academics and business affairs, in addition to conference operations.
Becoming the commissioner
In September, after Banowsky left C-USA for a role on the College Football Playoff staff, MacLeod was named interim commissioner. A month later, as she was preparing to conduct the league’s board of directors meeting, she was asked to leave the room. She remained outside the doors for about 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer to her.
“It felt more like two hours,” says MacLeod, who is also chair of the NCAA Division I Nominating Committee. “I knew they would tell me if I got the job or not, but I also knew that I had to run the board meeting. I was wondering what they were talking about. They brought me in and offered me the job. It was a really good day.”