Leadership Launchpad: Transformative programs. Skilled athletics leaders. Thriving student-athletes. How NCAA leadership development works to meet these goals and prepare athletics departments for what comes next. By: Greg Johnson

Providing the tools to help identify and hone the skills of future leaders in college sports is the primary goal of the NCAA leadership development staff.

That goal is accomplished through more than a dozen programs the department conducts throughout the year. Each program focuses on a specific audience — student-athletes, coaches or athletics administrators — to help them launch a career or advance in their current profession.

Many of the programs were started to help women and people of color reach leadership positions in the NCAA structure. To help these underserved populations grow, leadership development is committed to preparing candidates for those roles.

“The programs and services make an impact on the members we serve and the student-athletes we support,” says Katrice Albert, who oversees the leadership development staff as NCAA executive vice president of inclusion and human resources. “The essence of leadership development is to give a consistent culture on professional development and an Association-wideleadership engagement strategy.”

These efforts can go unnoticed by sports fans who passionately follow on-field competition. But behind the scenes, they are providing the foundation for future decision-makers in college athletics.

Here is a look at some of the programs leadership development offers and the impact they have had on participants.


Pathway Program

Brian Baptiste completed the Division I Pathway Program in 2017, when he was deputy director of athletics for capital projects and operations at Northwestern.

The Pathway Program is designed for senior-level athletics administrators to gain the skills necessary to thrive in their current roles and elevate themselves to roles as athletics directors or conference commissioners. In other words, it was perfect for Baptiste.

The group convened four times over a calendar year to enhance participant leadership capabilities, connect with high-level mentors across the NCAA membership and prepare administrators for the challenges ahead as organizational or departmental leaders.

Peter Roby, the former director of athletics at Northeastern, works as a consultant with the NCAA leadership development staff and helps plan the Pathway curriculum.

“We’re trying to help them see what leadership looks like and what it entails,” Roby says. “We make the connection through lots of case studies, exercises and conversations.”

Doing a self-assessment and asking yourself why you want to lead an athletics department or a conference are important details of the program. The participants are asked to play different roles in exercises, so they can see the connection between leadership and creating a culture. Baptiste found this part of the agenda invaluable.

Baptiste was named athletics director at La Salle in June. But like many others who work in athletics, Baptiste had to go through some tribulations before reaching that goal. A year before he was hired, Baptiste made it through the first round of interviews for a job but didn’t advance in the process. He used that experience to prepare him for his next opportunity.

“I left that conference room feeling like I really didn’t leave it all out there,” Baptiste says. “There were things that I should have touched on based on my experience, but I didn’t. So, when I interviewed for the position at La Salle, I felt much more prepared.”

Through the Pathway Program, he developed a lasting relationship with senior-level mentors and has continued to take advantage of those. For Baptiste, some key relationships included UCLA Athletics Director Dan Guerrero and Old Dominion President John Broderick.

Pathway, which also offers programming for athletics administrators in Divisions II and III, gives participants the chance to experience governance meetings firsthand. Those meetings can include the Division I Council and the Division I Football, Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball and Competition Oversight Committees, which are influential in the NCAA legislative process.

Through Pathway, Baptiste, who has a law degree from St. Thomas University in Florida, honed his skills in mock media sessions and experienced what it would be like to be interviewed by search firms, which are often used to find an administrator who fits a particular school or conference.

“Those sessions help you find where your blind spots are,” Baptiste says. “It made you vulnerable because you are doing it in front of your peers. But you also knew you had a group that was there to encourage and support each other.”

“The camaraderie we built as a cohort is strong. I can pick up the phone and talk to anybody in my cohort. There are individuals who have ascended to the athletics director chair.”
Brian Baptiste, director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation, La Salle

Brian Baptiste

  • Current Position: Director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation, La Salle.
  • Education: Computer information systems degree from Towson (2005), law degree from St. Thomas University in Florida (2008).
  • Career Path Highlights: Worked nearly seven years at Northwestern, where he served as the deputy director of athletics for capital projects and operations, worked three years as associate athletics director for compliance at Delaware and worked as an assistant director in athletics at Georgetown.

Student-Athlete Leadership Forum

“I am really big on doing things outside of basketball. This was an opportunity for me to go to another city and learn about leadership skills.”
Satou Sabally, Oregon student-athlete

Satou Sabally

  • Current Position: Junior forward on the women’s basketball team, Oregon.
  • Education: Majoring in general social science with a minor in legal studies.
  • Career Path Highlights: Helped Oregon reach the 2019 Women’s Final Four by averaging 16.6 points and 6.2 rebounds and shooting 41.1% from 3-point range. She is a member of the German national team.

Growing up in Berlin, Satou Sabally had basketball skills so advanced that she often had to compete on older teams where she was the youngest player. Even though she was talented, it was challenging to persuade people they should listen to someone who wasn’t the same age as her teammates.

“I didn’t see myself as a leader,” says Sabally, a 6-4 junior forward who helped Oregon reach the 2019 Women’s Final Four. “Once I got around people that were around my age, I realized that I am a leader. I’ve developed that throughout my life. I think it has always been in there.”

Sabally sought to hone those leadership skills at the 2019 Student-Athlete Leadership Forum in Orlando, Florida.

The Student-Athlete Leadership Forum is designed to have participants return to campus with leadership skills and a clear understanding of the relationship between personal values, core beliefs and behavioral styles.

They also develop the support of a close personal network of like-minded peers to provide continued connection and dialogue after the program concludes. Besides the student-athletes, conferences or campuses send an administrator to take part in the programming.

The experience serves as an opportunity for student-athletes and administrators to build a leadership toolkit and develop vital self-awareness to help realize their potential.

Attendees are assigned to teams of about 30 participants, where they engage in open discussions regarding leadership and its many components.

“I remember a topic would be on the board, and we had to say whether we thought an athlete should or should not speak up about it,” Sabally says. “I felt like I was on the side that felt a college athlete should speak up. I’ve always felt like athletes have a platform, and they need to be aware of social issues and what’s going on around them.”

Being in the group setting also helped Sabally develop another important leadership trait.

“I learned that I should listen first before responding,” Sabally says. “I’ve imparted that for sure. I also learned about my core values. Family is important to me, and I try to keep that above everything. I view my team as my family. We are a super close group.”

Sabally is majoring in general social science with a minor in legal studies. She plans to play professionally in the WNBA and overseas after her undergraduate days conclude.

Once her basketball career is over, Sabally may attend law school, where she could focus on civil rights issues.

Until then, she is focused on being a strong leader on and off the court.

“The forum was a life-changing experience that has helped me develop my leadership strength,” she says. “I like to be around other people who would like to make changes in the world.”


NCAA Postgraduate Intern Program

Richard Zhu can attest to how competitive the application process is for the NCAA Postgraduate Intern Program.

The first time he applied, he was among the 1,000-plus hopefuls wanting a chance to learn firsthand about intercollegiate athletics at a national level. Zhu had just graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Santa Clara, where he was a distance runner who competed in cross country and track and field.

But he didn’t receive any traction. So instead, he found a job as a digital marketing analyst with Microsoft in San Francisco.

He applied again the next year and made it through the telephone and in-person interviews.He was selected to be the office of inclusion intern for the 2013-14 academic year.

One part of the interview process that stood out to Zhu was an exercise where intern candidates were asked questions about the Association by national office staff members. The interviewees had to be quick on their feet to answer the inquiries.

Zhu also was asked how the NCAA could improve. Through prior research, he knew Simon Fraser had become the first Canadian university to join the NCAA and knew there were discussions about schools in Mexico joining Division II.

“That was my favorite part of the interview process,” Zhu says. “Going through the interview process prepared me to effectively communicate to an audience. You had to come up with a thoughtful answer without much preparation.”

One of the highlights of his internship was working on the Division III Institute for Administrative Advancement. This was a program that highlighted minority administrators and provided professional development opportunities for the participants. The goal of the program was to encourage attendees to further their careers in Division III.

After his internship ended in the summer of 2014, Zhu worked in the NCAA research department temporarily before he applied for and earned a job as assistant coordinator in the office of inclusion. Once hired to a staff he was familiar with, the then-24-year-old Zhu played a major role in planning the NCAA Inclusion Forum.

“I took the initiative and took ownership of the event,” Zhu says. “Through my experience at Microsoft and my intern year, I knew the ins and outs of how to conduct events and which people I needed to work with in the national office to get things done.”

In his current role with the Patriot League, Zhu oversees the league’s sports committees, including the implementation of policies and procedures related to the governance of the conference’s sports, and serves as the primary liaison to the Patriot League’s Sports Management Committee.

“Being at the NCAA gave me a breadth of knowledge about how intercollegiate athletics are structured,” Zhu says. “The Postgraduate Internship Program also taught me about the professionalism you should have and the way you should conduct yourself.”

“My experience as an intern in the national office helped me gather a holistic view of intercollegiate athletics.”
Richard Zhu, director for sport management, Patriot League

Richard Zhu

  • Current Position: Director for sport management, Patriot League.
  • Education: Political science degree from Santa Clara (2012), where he ran cross country/track and field, MBA from Indiana (2017).
  • Career Path Highlights: Worked at Microsoft for a year, worked in the NCAA office of inclusion for nearly four years.

Dr. Charles Whitcomb Leadership Institute

“I learned how to do reflection and looking inward. I started making sure that I knew my values before I imposed values on anyone else.”
Natasha Wilson, vice president for athletics and student life, Central Methodist.

Natasha Wilson

  • Current Position: Vice president for athletics and student life, Central Methodist.
  • Education: Sports management degree from Winston-Salem State (2005), master’s degree in coaching and athletic administration from Concordia (California). Played two years on the women’s basketball team at Lees-McRae.
  • Career Path Highlights: HelWorked for six years at Johnson C. Smith, where she was associate athletics director/compliance coordinator, worked six years at Lincoln (Pennsylvania) as assistant athletics director for compliance and later as associate athletics director.

Self-awareness proved to be an important characteristic that Natasha Wilson took from her time participating in the Dr. Charles Whitcomb Leadership Institute.

The program is named after the late Whitcomb, the founder of the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association.

Leadership Institute participants are ethnic minority administrators who receive programming over a calendar year centered around self-reflection. The learning is intended to assist with the strategic mapping of their career trajectories within college athletics.

Before reaching her current position, Wilson worked six years as the associate athletics director and compliance coordinator at Johnson C. Smith. Before that, Wilson worked for six years at Lincoln (Pennsylvania), where she was an assistant athletics director for compliance and was promoted to associate athletics director in 2010. She was the senior woman administrator at both schools, which gave her a seat at the table when major decisions were made.

Those experiences, combined with the Leadership Institute programming, provided the spark for Wilson to advance her career. She started work in July at Central Methodist, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school.

“Before looking for a new position, I honed in on what my values were,” Wilson says. “I knew that any institution that I worked for, that my values had to match their values.”

Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management at Winston-Salem State, found the type of position she was seeking. She says Central Methodist President Roger Drake is supportive of athletics, and she enjoys how the small campus atmosphere allows her more direct contact with the student-athletes she’s trying to develop.

“I can talk to them on a daily basis,” Wilson says. “It’s not like I’m far removed from them. This is a tightknit community.”

The Leadership Institute prepares the participants to advance their careers. Through case studies, attendees gain skills in budget management, development and marketing, and they gain the confidence to present to executive staff in a clear and concise manner.

During a week of in-person activities at the beginning of the yearlong program, participants are encouraged to speak openly with one another to develop relationships that can offer support and guidance when navigating the industry’s challenges.

Bonding with those in her class was another key element of the programming for Wilson, who went through the Leadership Institute in 2018. Of her 18 classmates, 14 since have received promotions and expanded responsibilities.

“It is constructive to hear your peers give you feedback,” Wilson says. “You know that it is all coming from a good place. Seeing myself on video was helpful because it was all eyes on me. It’s like the nervousness and anxiety you feel when you go into a job interview.”


Champion Forum

When he was a standout basketball player at Northwestern, Tavaras Hardy never pictured himself stalking the sidelines as a coach.

After playing professionally in Finland, Hardy worked in corporate America for JPMorgan Chase & Co. He wanted to show that basketball, despite being a huge part of his life, didn’t define him. Things were going well, but to scratch the basketball itch, he helped coach a summer travel team.

Seeing the impact he could have on young people from his coaching position changed the course of his career.

“It turned into a passion that I never knew existed,” says Hardy, who led Northwestern in blocked shots and rebounding three straight seasons while earning a political science degree in 2002.

From 2007 to 2018, Hardy worked on the basketball staffs at Northwestern, Georgetown and Georgia Tech. While he was an assistant, he applied to participate in the 2017 NCAA Champion Forum for Basketball, now called the Champion Forum for Men’s Basketball because leadership development has since added a Champion Forum for Women’s Basketball.

The program offers a unique professional development opportunity for current NCAA college basketball coaches to acquire a realistic view of the administrative preparation it takes to become a head coach.

High-potential coaches are selected to develop effective communication and messaging techniques, discuss the relationship between coaches and the athletics director and college president, refine their understanding of implementing a culture of excellence, and define their coaching philosophies to reflect student well-being on and off the court.

“I came out of the forum with an extreme level of confidence as it became obvious that I would be able to go after some head coaching jobs,” says Hardy, who is in his second season at Loyola Maryland. “I had a couple of interviews before I was hired at my current position, but this was the first one where it got this deep into the process.”

Hardy says he is wired to look at situations from a big-picture perspective. The Champion Forum reinforced that idea of keeping the main priorities in mind while dealing with the details.

Hardy was challenged to examine every aspect of what goes into being a college head coach. As he put together his plan for Loyola Maryland, he wanted to make sure he did not deviate from that path.

“I put a lot of thought and time and preparation into this,” Hardy says. “I know I’m thinking about things the right way. … I have been able to stick to my plan, and it is working fine.”

“It’s not about being ready as an X’s and O’s guy, but things that people don’t talk about enough. It was eye-opening for me.”
Tavaras Hardy, Men’s basketball coach, Loyola (Maryland)

Tavaras Hardy

  • Current Position: Men’s basketball coach, Loyola (Maryland).
  • Education: Political science degree from Northwestern (2002), where he was a member of the men’s basketball team. He was a four-year letter winner and voted the team’s most valuable player three times.
  • Career Path Highlights: After playing professionally in Finland, he worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co. He was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech (2016-18), Georgetown (2013-16) and Northwestern (2007-13).

Leadership Development Programs

Ready for the next step? Leadership development offers professional development programming to more than 1,500 student-athletes, college coaches and athletics administrators each year.

Achieving Communication Success Workshop

Audience: Senior-level ethnic minority athletics administrators. Leadership development staff consults with member-led NCAA committees and affiliate organizations to select participants.

What it is: A three-day immersive educational experience in which administrators craft and perfect their personal messaging, this program helps participants develop communication skills vital to expanding their leadership capabilities in college sports. The program strengthens skills they need in their current roles and prepares them for future opportunities.

Basketball Coaches Academy

Audience: College men’s and women’s basketball coaches from all three divisions at NCAA schools.

What it is: During the academy, the NCAA educates and trains selected participants in a variety of areas that encourage effective coaching at the intercollegiate level. Topics include effective communication with campus and community constituents; the importance of building a culture focused on the overall success of student-athletes; budget management of a basketball program; and coaching strategies.

Career in Sports Forum

Audience: Junior and senior student-athletes who are nominated by their school or conference.

What it is: This annual educational program brings together 200 selected NCAA student-athletes to learn about and explore potential careers in sports, particularly college athletics. The four-day forum helps student-athletes chart their career paths.

Champion Forum

Audience: High-performing, high potential ethnic minority assistant coaches in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

What it is: The Champion Forum provides current coaches with a transformative opportunity to gain a realistic view of what it takes to become a head coach at the collegiate level. Leadership development staff executes three separate iterations of the program each academic year: Champion Forum for Football, Champion Forum for Men’s Basketball, and Champion Forum for Women’s Basketball.

Dr. Charles Whitcomb Leadership Institute

Audience: NCAA member school or conference office employees who have three years of experience in college athletics and now serve in mid- to senior-level positions.

What it is: The institute provides tailored programming to assist ethnic minorities in strategically mapping their careers in athletics administration. The program includes two separate weeks of professional development: one at the beginning of the year and one at the conclusion. Participants benefit from in-person sessions, continuing education resources and a well- connected alumni group.

Effective Facilitation Workshop

Audience: Employees at NCAA member schools, conference offices or affiliate organizations.

What it is: This annual interactive professional development experience offers administrators and coaches personalized feedback on their leadership styles and teaches skills in active learning and engaging facilitation. Participants will learn to apply their facilitation skills to create meaningful group discussions with student-athletes and run effective meetings for department staff.

Elite Student-Athlete Symposium

Audience: Select student-athletes in high-profile sports who have a high likelihood of being drafted. Spots are available by invitation only.

What it is: The symposium provides college athletes with information to help them make decisions and understand issues surrounding a professional career in their sport.

Emerging Leaders Seminar

Audience: Current interns or graduate assistants within an athletics department at an NCAA member school, conference office or affiliate organization, or at the national office.

What it is: This professional development event provides leadership, educational and transitional programming. The three-day program educates, develops and connects selected participants and equips these young professionals with the skills necessary to accelerate their career progression in college sports.

Leadership Academy Workshop

Audience: Athletics administrators from any NCAA member school or conference office who have backing from a senior-level staff member who pledges support for developing an on-campus student-athlete leadership academy.

What it is: Programs train athletics administrators on how to develop an effective, comprehensive leadership curriculum for student-athletes and department staff.

Lessons in Management

Audience: New managers and first-time supervisors who work in college sports. Twenty-four women, eight from each division, are selected for the program.

What it is: The program provides support for women who are transitioning into supervisory roles. It focuses on building foundational skills needed to succeed as first time managers.

NCAA/NFL Coaches Academy

Audience: College football coaches at NCAA member schools.

What it is: During the three-day academy, consultants and staff members from NFL Player Engagement educate and train selected participants in a variety of areas that encourage effective coaching and focus on the holistic well-being and development of the student-athlete.

Pathway Program

Audience: Senior-level athletics administrators ready to pursue the next step of directing an athletics department. Applicants must have a minimum of eight years of experience as an administrator or coach.

What it is: This yearlong program has two iterations: The Division I Pathway Program and the Divisions II and III Pathway Program. It is an intensive, experiential learning opportunity. Since 1997, more than 100 people have participated in the Pathway Program (formerly the Fellows Program). Nearly 25% of the participants have gone on to become directors of athletics, while more than 60% have received promotions in their careers.

NCAA Postgraduate Internship Program

Audience: Applicants must be graduates of an NCAA member school.

What it is: The program annually provides on-the-job learning experiences at the national office in Indianapolis to college graduates who are passionate in their pursuit of a career in college sports administration.

Student-Athlete Leadership Forum

Audience: Student-athletes in all three divisions who have been nominated by their conference office or school. An administrator from the conference office also attends.

What it is: More than 5,000 student-athletes have participated in the Student-Athlete Leadership Forum since it was created in 1997. Students leave with elevated leadership skills and a refined understanding of the relationship among personal values, core beliefs and behavioral styles.