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NCAA emerging leaders learn, connect and dream big

Leadership development seminar brings together aspiring college sports professionals

The stage and podium in Christine Grant Ballroom in the NCAA national office wouldn’t suffice for Meg Stevens. She was to deliver the keynote for the 2015 NCAA Emerging Leaders Seminar and wanted to be at eye level with the some 220 aspiring athletics administrators. She chose to stay off the stage, and hit the floor

She paced between the round tables with brief pauses, placed her hands on her hips like a coach would. She was ready to coach them for success and prepare for the hard work ahead; she was coaching them for life.

“I want you to dream big,” said Stevens, director of athletics at Division III’s Averett University in Virginia. “It’s not going to be sunshine and rainbows as we get there. It’s OK to dream big.”

There was nary a dull moment in Stevens’ career path. One hand alone can’t count the roles she assumed to reach her current post. She welcomed each job with open arms, she says, and left them better than she found them.

“I’m a builder,” she told the eager group of interns and graduate assistants, emphasizing that opportunity is what one makes of it and that success should be measured by one’s own metric.

Stevens’ journey helped shape her values and philosophy -- first as an intern at the Eastern College Athletic Conference, then as a lacrosse coach for 11 years, building a new program from the ground up, and eventually as senior woman administrator at Buffalo State, State University of New York. Today, Stevens exercises her principles daily at her job and continues to build and coach those around her – including the attendees at the seminar Jan. 28-30 at the national office in Indianapolis.

The annual professional development event welcomes graduate assistants, interns and fellows from the three NCAA divisions, as well as affiliated organizations such as the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and the College Football Playoff. During the three-day program, the participants went through a personality assessment using the DiSC personal assessment tool, participated in a group project and had opportunities to learn from industry professionals.

Aside from the business card exchanges and firm handshakes with professionals, attendees connected with each other. Between the networking bingo during registration and the team dynamics project, Margaret Wilkins and Kristin Willeford created not only a professional relationship but also a friendship.

Wilkins, a graduate assistant at the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and Willeford, a graduate assistant athletic trainer at Illinois State University, met on the first day of the seminar, learned they would be on the same team dynamics group and then discovered they were roommates.

“I feel so inspired and good to know there are others in the world like me – that I’m not the only person that thinks this way and there are others that have this same passion,” Wilkins said.

The first full day of seminar programing began with NCAA President Mark Emmert discussing the Association with the large group. He said he recognized the potential in the room and told them that the future of college sports can be shaped by administrators, coaches and even faculty – all of whom work together to govern college sports through NCAA membership.

Karen Stromme, associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at the University of Minnesota Duluth, recently finished her tenure as chair of the Division II Management Council. Stromme spoke at the seminar on the varying roles in college sports, from coaching to administration to serving in the NCAA governance structure. And she issued a challenge to participants to learn how to get involved on an NCAA committee and become leaders.

Group breakout sessions put participants in front of industry experts who speak about academics, life skills and student-athlete development. The attendees also heard from leaders in business and finance; communications and marketing; compliance; facilities and event management; and fundraising and development.

A new seminar challenge in 2015 involved a team project. Participants were divided into 18 teams and tasked with developing and presenting homecoming weekend for Sunshine State University, a fictitious school that mirrored an NCAA institution and included the functions and leadership of an athletics department.

Teams spent one night mapping out a weeklong homecoming event. The operational plan included a budget; marketing and promotions; facilities and operations management; compliance for student-athletes and donors; academics; and student-athlete development.

“I was excited to take on a project that involved multiple facets of departments that I haven't really experienced before,” said Steven Romo, assistant academic counselor at the University of Michigan.

When it was time to delegate roles, some groups did introductions first, while others quickly assumed jobs and got right to work. A handful of teams spread out around the rooms as if they were working in their own office while a few stayed together around one table, collaborating and discussing plans.

The next day, groups got creative in their presentations to local athletics administrators and NCAA staff, pitching visuals and branding such as “The Glory Rays” and even making a mock Sunshine State University Twitter handle.

“The thing that really stood out to me was the feedback,” said Romo. His group pitched a plan inviting local children to be ball-shaggers during the Sunshine State games.

“They thought that would be a great idea to rally a community and bring in schools, parents or kids who may not have stopped by otherwise,” he said.

Seminar participants had the opportunity to meet roughly 80 professionals at a networking lunch, with NCAA staff and persons from the membership involved. Julie Dunn Hammer, assistant athletics director for career enhancement and employer relations at Northwestern University, met with seminar participants on the final day, sharing her “Me Speech” philosophy, a variation on the elevator speech, to help achieve next steps in the career progression and create relationships while networking.

NCAA leadership development and members from the Association selected the participants for the Emerging Leaders Seminar. The department, which is located at the NCAA national office, coordinates and facilitates cutting-edge education and customized training for student-athletes, coaches and athletics administrators from NCAA member institutions, conference offices and the national office. To learn more about NCAA leadership development and other programs like Emerging Leaders Seminar, visit: