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6 college presidents who played college sports

By Emily Weisman

A successful college president is a strong leader and a team player — two characteristics also found in nearly half a million NCAA student-athletes. So it is no surprise that several college presidents were once college athletes themselves. The drive and dedication they showed while on the court or field continue to serve them well today, as they lead a university and make a difference in the lives of their students. NCAA After the Game caught up with six college presidents who not only understand the student-athlete experience, but lived it. And while these leaders might differ in background, division and geographic region, they all agree on the important role collegiate athletics played in their lives.

Bud Peterson Then and Now. photo credits: Then: Kansas State; Now: Georgia Tech

Bud Peterson

Now: President of Georgia Tech

Then: Football student-athlete at Kansas State, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering in 1975 and mathematics in 1977.

Additional education: Master’s in engineering from Kansas State in 1980 and doctoral degree from Texas A&M in 1985.

How sports helped him become a leader:

“Intercollegiate sports can enhance your college experience in so many ways. You learn time management, discipline, persistence and how to work on a team — all skills that can stay with you throughout your lifetime. Perhaps one of the most important lessons, though, is how to deal with adversity — no one in sports always wins! At Kansas State, I played four years as a tight end and wide receiver while earning my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. It helps me relate to Georgia Tech’s 450 student-athletes in 17 intercollegiate sports who are balancing demanding academics with athletics. My experience as a college athlete has also helped me as an advocate for student-athletes in my role as chair of NCAA Board of Governors, including focus areas such as the concussion study, nutrition enhancements and the NCAA Commission on College Basketball.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned during his time as a student-athlete:

“You don’t necessarily have to be the most talented person on the field to win, you just need to do your personal best while helping everyone else to succeed at their maximum level. That is why we call them ‘team sports.’ That applies to so many areas of life.”

Linda Livingstone Then and Now. photo credits: Then: Oklahoma State; Now: Baylor

Linda Livingstone

Now: President of Baylor

Then: Basketball student-athlete at Oklahoma State, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and management in 1982.

Additional education: MBA in 1983 and a doctorate in management and organizational behavior from Oklahoma State in 1992.

How sports helped her become a leader:

“You develop many qualities as a student-athlete that connect to leadership, regardless of what type of leadership you’re involved in. You learn how to work as a member of a team, facing difficult and stressful circumstances together. You also learn how to work toward shared goals with people who aren’t necessarily like you, who come from different backgrounds and experiences. Finally, I believe you learn how to win and how to lose, learning lessons from failure without letting it drag you down and winning without becoming arrogant and forgetful of the hard work it took to get there.”

One of the biggest lessons she learned during her time as a student-athlete:

“You have to have resilience. As a student-athlete, you learn that sometimes you just have to keep moving forward no matter what. Playing a sport teaches you how to be much more resilient as a person because, as an athlete, you have to work extremely hard through situations that can include disappointment and difficult teammates or coaches. My daughter, Shelby, who played volleyball at Rice University, has said that was my biggest advice to her.”

William Thierfelder Then and Now. photo credits: Then: Dave Hemery; Now: Belmont Abbey

William Thierfelder

Now: President of Belmont Abbey

Then: Track and field (high jump) student-athlete at Maryland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1982.

Additional education: Master’s and doctoral degrees in sports psychology and human movement from Boston U. in 1989.

How sports helped him become a leader:

“In the beginning, you may not have developed your virtues to the greatest degree. If you have a true teacher and mentor as a coach, all that they have externally placed on you in the beginning quickly seeps inside of you. It doesn’t take very long until you find that you’ve become a more virtuous person. In other words, that virtue of discipline, instead of having to come from the outside, is actually something that’s now inside of you. Having the virtue infused into you by a good mentor, teacher or coach is certainly something that as a leader today I bring into everything that I do.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned during his time as a student-athlete:

“I learned early on that being good enough had nothing to do with being loved. I think too often athletes can equate their performance with their identity and self-worth, when really the two have nothing to do with each other. Once you learn that, you are able to put 100 percent of all your skills, talents and abilities on the task at hand. That is when you reach peak performance. If you do that, that’s as good as it gets.”

Chris Howard Then and Now. photo credits: Then: U.S. Air Force Academy; Now: Robert Morris

Christopher Howard

Now: President of Robert Morris

Then: Football student-athlete at Air Force, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1991.

Additional education: Rhodes Scholar in 1991 and MBA from Harvard Business School in 2003.

How sports helped him become a leader:

“When addressing one of our 16 DI athletic teams here at Robert Morris University, I quote Gen. Douglass MacArthur, who stated during his tenure as superintendent at West Point that ‘on the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.’ The discipline, teamwork, attention to detail, and the physical and mental toughness I learned playing football at the Air Force Academy helped to make me the leader I am today.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned during his time as a student-athlete:

“Don’t ever quit. Life is filled with a series of challenges that can seem overwhelming, but no matter what the outcome, your never-quit attitude allows you to live and lead with integrity. More importantly, others in your organization are watching you during troubling times and will look to you for hope.”

Alan Cureton Then and Now. photo credits: Then: Sterling College; Now: Northwestern-St. Paul

Alan Cureton

Now: President of Northwestern-St. Paul

Then: Football student-athlete at Sterling College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible and Christian education in 1976.

Additional education: Master’s in education from Southern Illinois in 1979 and Ph.D. in history and philosophy of education and higher education from Iowa State in 1989.

How sports helped him become a leader:

“Participating on a football team was wonderful preparation for what I do today. On a football team, as a tight end, I learned how to work with a group of individuals toward achieving a common goal. As a lineman, my primary role was to protect other positions and to provide them with opportunities of success. My success as an offensive lineman led to others’ success. If I failed, they failed. As a leader, my role is to create a pathway for others to succeed, to give them an opening, to create something that will enable them to be creative and successful, and then, to watch them succeed and receive the acclamation for their success. I learned that leadership was not about me, but about them. Putting others first. Protecting others. Giving others the opportunity to advance, downfield, so that they, and ultimately the team, could succeed. In my role as a college president, my focus is on assuring the success of our faculty, staff, and, most importantly, our students.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned during his time as a student-athlete:

“The process of working toward a goal is where the joy resides. Attaining the goal is wonderful, but the joy of the journey is the process. So, enjoy and treasure the process as you work toward a specific goal or organizational vision.”

Tori Murden McClure Then and Now. photo credits: Then: Sector Sport Watches; Now: Spalding

Tori Murden McClure

Now: President of Spalding

Then: Basketball, squash and rowing student-athlete at Smith, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1985.

Additional education: Master of divinity from Harvard in 1989, a law degree from Louisville in 1995 and a Master of Fine Arts in writing degree from Spalding in 2005.

How sports helped her become a leader:

“Basketball was my sport. My first week at Smith College, I met a legendary coach, Rita Benson. She took my measure. She gauged my character, and then she decreed, ‘You will row.’ I continued to play basketball, but following Ms. Benson’s orders, I learned to row. Years later, I rowed a boat alone across the Atlantic Ocean. I learned to cross-country ski while I was in college. Later, I skied 750 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole. My intercollegiate athletic experiences taught me tolerance for uncertainty and comfort with adversity — two things that have served me well in the expeditionary world and in leadership.”

One of the biggest lessons she learned during her time as a student-athlete:

“Roadblocks just block the road. They do not block the grass, the water or the way less traveled. College athletes face setbacks. Almost always, we are able to find a way, or to make a way, around these roadblocks. Resilience allows us to bounce back from setbacks. Endurance, persistence and resourcefulness are qualities that we value in athletics. They are valuable in all areas of life, and we learn these traits when we meet the roadblock.”

After the Game

We are proud of all our former student-athletes, and in recognition of their accomplishments after their playing days, we launched NCAA After the Game.  Our goal is simple: to celebrate the former student-athlete.

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