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Carol Stiff pivots from college athlete to ESPN executive

College sports paved the way for leadership opportunities in life.

By Carol Stiff as told to Tyler Crebar

Carol Stiff has established herself as a leader in women’s sports, having worked at ESPN for more than 20 years and helping shape espnW. Before joining ESPN, she coached women’s basketball and field hockey at Western Connecticut State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Brown University.  As a two-sport collegiate athlete, Stiff credits the lessons learned in college sports for her success in life.

Surround yourself with good people.

A good leader will ensure that everyone delivers what is expected. In college, that meant anything from staying true to curfews to guarding the other team’s best player. Stepping aside and letting the experts around you do their job is important – you don’t have to have all the answers. In the workplace, this translates well because everyone has different functions and strengths that contribute to the overall success.

Listen well. Be aware. Seek input.

I often take input from those around me before making any major decision. I’m careful about the people I interact with, and I pay attention to the situations going on around me.  For instance, when I coached women’s basketball, I had a player come to practice with a black eye. I didn’t think much of it because she said she had fallen off a stool. But then I noticed she wasn’t mingling with the other players, which seemed odd. After initiating a one-on-one conversation with her, I quickly realized she was in an abusive relationship and needed help. Had I not looked past my role as her coach and taken the time to truly listen, I wouldn’t have been able to help a person in need. 

Take risks. The easy route is not always the best option.

We face many challenges in our lives, and sometimes it may seem easier to avoid them and take the easy route. I was recruited to play basketball at Southern Connecticut State by a coach who left the school before I arrived on campus. That was very impactful for me.  After riding the bench for two seasons, I had to decide if I was going to continue as a bench-warmer or do something else. I didn’t know if I was going to stay in college. It would have been easy to put up a white flag and drop out, but I didn’t. I stuck it out and made a pivot in my life to join the field hockey team and finish my degree. If I would have left college, I would have never finished my degree and built those wonderful relationships with the women on the field hockey team.

Great teams have each other’s back. Lead by example.

During a college field hockey game, I had to guard the opposing team’s best player. I was doing a pretty good job – enough to frustrate the girl so much that she shoved me to the ground. I have never been much of a fighter, but one of my teammates swooped in and told the girl that if she wanted to fight me, she would have to go through her first. That experience stuck with me. Today, I help my employees navigate through challenges by telling them that I will always have their back.

Photos courtesy of: Southern Connecticut State University, Brown University, ESPN


Carol Stiff
Vice president, multimedia strategy and integration at ESPN

Hometown: Bernardsville, New Jersey

Current city: Bristol, Connecticut

School: Bachelor’s degree in physical education, Southern Connecticut State University, 1983; Master’s in physical education/ human performance, Southern Connecticut State University, 1989

Sports: Basketball, field hockey

Fun fact: While working for ESPN, she almost left to take a job teaching health education to seventh- and eighth-graders, but decided to stay.

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