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Austin president credits athletic and coaching career for steering him to the top of his field

Steven O’Day became president of Austin College, a Division III school, in October 2017. Austin College photo

Steven O’Day learned early in life how to adapt to new challenges and responsibilities: He spent four years at Millersville bouncing from defense to midfield to striker, a starter at each spot on the school’s soccer team. After graduating in 1985, he sought a law degree at Temple. O’Day had no idea, though, that his four years on the pitch would wind up shaping the direction his professional life would take just as much as the three he spent nose-deep in law books.

A circuitous career, including 11 years spent coaching women’s soccer at Franklin & Marshall, eventually led O’Day to his current role as president of Austin College, a Division III school in Texas. “I’m sorry to sound cliche about this, but the experiences that I had as a student-athlete in college were transformational for me,” he says. “At the time, I never imagined that it would someday morph into being the president of Austin College.”

Leaving the law behind

After earning his law degree from Temple in 1988, O’Day went to work alongside his older brother at a small law firm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For much of a decade, the brothers fielded a potpourri of cases until O’Day’s wife, Cece, spotted a tiny newspaper ad for the vacant women’s soccer head coaching position at Franklin & Marshall. Noticing a void after her husband’s college and subsequent semipro soccer career had ended, she nudged him to apply. Already swamped at work, O’Day resisted, but Cece’s persistence eventually compelled him to take a chance.

He ended up landing the job in 1997, balancing coaching duties with his law practice. A year later, the school offered him a spot as associate dean of advisement and as a pre-law advisor to complement his coaching duties. “At about the nine- or 10-year mark of law practice, most attorneys go through a soul-searching moment of are they going to stay in the profession or are they going to go in a different direction?” O’Day says. “And I think that was happening, and my wife observed it better than I did: ‘Well, maybe this isn’t as fulfilling as we imagined it to be.’ It was a major moment, but it was an easy decision and one that I haven’t regretted for a second.”

Back on the field

After practicing law, O’Day coached women’s soccer for a decade at Franklin & Marshall. Submitted by Austin College

O’Day coached the Diplomats from 1997 through 2007 — his 112 wins remain the most in program history. Meanwhile, he was catapulting up the school’s administrative ranks: In 2001, he was named associate dean for student academic affairs; six years later, he earned the role of senior associate dean. That promotion coincided with his last season at the helm of the soccer team. Ultimately, trying to balance a senior administrative role with his obligation to his players proved too onerous, impinging on his ability to recruit. Plus, he remembers having to field vital midpractice phone calls from other school executives. Even so, the decision to step away from the sidelines wasn’t an easy one. “Once I started coaching, that’s when I really discovered a calling to work with college students,” he says. “It was such a blessing for me to be entrusted with, in any given year, 27 or so soccer players on the roster and help them — not just on the soccer field.”

A new goal

After surrendering his coaching duties, O’Day poured himself into his new role as senior associate dean, where he helped expand the school’s enrollment and campus housing footprint. In 2012, Lewis Thane, a former colleague who had taken over the presidency of Lebanon Valley the same year, called to recruit O’Day to be the school’s vice president of strategic initiatives.

During a four-year stint at Lebanon Valley, he managed major projects, including the construction of a $20.8 million academic facility. As his experience mounted, O’Day began rounding out a portfolio that he hoped might make him a viable candidate for a college presidency. After two years, he began checking to see if any liberal arts schools had openings, though he was careful to be selective in his search. “I wasn’t going to just pursue anything,” he says. “I really wanted it to be the right fit for me — a mission, a vision that I believed in — and Austin College fit that bill.”

Taking the top job

In October 2017, O’Day took the reins at Austin, where about 40% of the students are athletes. As part of ongoing efforts to increase enrollment during a time when many small liberal arts schools are struggling, Austin launched an esports program. Already, 39 students have signed up, and the team took part in its first competition in spring 2019. The school also has added men’s and women’s water polo teams, the sport’s first new programs in Texas in 40 years.

Though he has moved up the administrative ranks, O’Day hasn’t strayed from his athletic roots. Along with taking in regular theater and music performances, he and Cece attend every athletic event they can. “I do have a special camaraderie with our student-athletes,” he says, “but I think I have a special connection — I hope I do — with all of our students.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.