Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Gary Walters Steps Down

Gary Walters ducked his head into TigerBlog's office last Thursday morning and said he wanted to talk to him about something later that day. When TB asked what it was, Walters said he'd just tell him later that afternoon.

Now when the boss says he wants to have a few words, the mind runs the gamut from "minor issue" to "campus safety will be escorting you out and don't ever come back."

TB spent about five hours pretty sure it was closer to the first one. As it turned out, it was hardly minor.

Walters told TB that he'd be stepping down as the Ford Family Director of Athletics at Princeton at the end of the 2013-14 academic year and that he wanted to make the announcement at the department's annual kickoff meeting a few days later.

TB has spent hours and hours meeting with Walters in the AD's office. If he had to add it all up, TB imagines it adds up to multiple weeks worth of time through the years.

As Walters broke the news to TB that this would be his 20th and final year in charge of Princeton Athletics, TB couldn't help but think back to the first of their meetings, back in July 1994.

TB and Walters started at Princeton on the same day. TB was actually hired when there was no athletic director, and his second-to-last story at the newspaper was the about the press conference announcing Walters' hiring.

One day earlier in Walters' tenure, he and TigerBlog had a quasi-interview. TB had already been hired obviously, so there wasn't really much at stake in the way of actual employment.

Still, TB remembers clear as day that Walters brought him down for a get-to-know-you session. TB's biggest memory? When Walters said TB was lucky because he wouldn't have hired a Penn guy for that position.

To this day, TB isn't sure if Walters was serious or not.

There is a lot about his boss of the last 19+ years that TB is sure about.

For starters, TB has always said that had Walters come to Princeton with a things-are-going-well-don't-fix-it-if-it-ain't-broke attitude that the athletic program wouldn't be anything close to what it is today.

Instead, Gary rebuilt Princeton, to the point where nothing is remotely close to what it was before. His charge as AD was to fully integrate athletics into the larger campus community, and that's exactly what he has done.

He worked tirelessly through the years to fight for the causes he believed in on this campus and nationally, for the coaches and the athletes and the Princeton name. The harder the fight, the more he relished it.

It's easy to sum his tenure up in wins and losses, of which there have been enormously more of the first than the second.

Princeton has won the Ivy League's unofficial all sports points championship each of his 19 years. There has been at least one team or individual national champion each of those years as well. Princeton has been the highest finishing Ivy League school in the Directors' Cup 16 of the 19 years it has been awarded, and the Tigers routinely finish in the top 40 nationally, usually as the top non-BCS conference school.

Princeton has won 214 Ivy League championships in his time as AD, a total 82 higher than the next highest total in the league during that time. There have been 48 national championships.

It's sometimes easy to forget how amazing this record is. Consider that Princeton won four NCAA championships last year - four - at a school with small enrollment and the highest admissions standards of any school in the world of intercollegiate athletics. Actually in the world.

So that's part of his legacy. It's not his complete legacy. It includes:

* winning

* the ability to hire young, unproven head coaches and give them the tools and guidance to be successful. This began with his first head coaching hire, Julie Shackford, who came from a small Division III program to become the greatest women's soccer coach in Ivy League history. It includes people like Kristen Holmes-Winn, who won the NCAA field hockey championship a year ago, and Scott Bradley, who has taken Princeton to so many NCAA tournaments in baseball that TB can't remember them all, and Courtney Banghart, who wasn't even 30 years old when he hired her and watched her turn the women's basketball program into a national power, and John Thompson, who had been the second assistant with no head coaching experience when he was elevated to head basketball coach, and Kathy Sell in women's tennis and Guy Gadowsky in hockey and so many others that TB is sorry if he left out any obvious ones. In all, 17 of his hires who came here with no previous Division I head coaching experience have won at least one Ivy League title.

* the co-curricular elements of intercollegiate sports, which he refers to as "Education Through Athletics." The concept has been in place since Day 1, long before ETA became the department motto. Drawing on his own experiences here with the late (and great) Marv Bressler from his own days as a men's basketball player, Walters established the wildly successful Princeton Academic Athletic Fellows program, which has given Princeton's athletes a voice to turn to for any number of reasons and which has brought so many faculty and staff members into the inner circle of teams. But it's more than just the PAAF. He created a Varsity Student Athlete Advisory Committee before it became an NCAA rule to do so. He has met thousands of times with University committees, advocating for so many causes that impact the athletic departments and athletes. There have been victories and defeats, but there has been a constant presence on the other side of Washington Road.

* holding his staff, coaches and athletes to the highest ethical standards at all times. He has been unwavering in this respect, and he has stressed what he has always referred to as either Values Based Coaching or Character Based Coaching.

* mentoring senior staff mentors who have gone on to become athletic directors or conference commissioners. There have been no fewer than seven of those.

* a total overhaul of Princeton's facilities and fundraising. He created the Princeton Varsity Club, which supports the Performance, Values and Community of Tiger Athletics. He has worked to allow Friends' Group support to reach unimaginable levels.

* a place in the national debate in college athletics through his work with the NCAA, most notably (but not limited to) his work on the Division I men's basketball committee.

* a complete commitment to providing the best possible experience for Princeton's student-athletes.

When TigerBlog sat down in Walters' office that day in 1994, his title was Manager of Sports Media Relations. Since then he has been promoted six times, to the point where he is now a Senior Associate Director of Athletics. From that day to today, his salary has tripled.

Each time, it was Gary Walters who was doing the promoting. Walters has been very, very good to TigerBlog.

This isn't to say that there haven't been hurdles along the way. There have been many disagreements, some of which TB was able to win and most of which he wasn't.

On the whole, though, coming to work in the 19 years that TB has been here has been, more than anything else, fun. When people say it must be fun to work at a place where you go to games all the time, TB thinks that it is, but it wouldn't be at a place that didn't have the onfield success and didn't have a sense of proper values about how to achieve that success.

Gary Walters deserves much of the credit for that.

And now it will be winding down.

TB sensed that this might be Gary's last year. He had said a few years ago to TB in passing that he thought he wanted to put in 20 years. It was the only time he ever mentioned anything like that to TB, but it stuck in TB's mind.

Gary hasn't exactly mellowed or slowed in his passion and commitment to Princeton and its athletes. In fact, he even announced his recommitment to his former staple, the 7 a.m. breakfast meeting. TB doubts his 20th year will be anything different.

Walters made his announcement to the staff this morning, he started out by saying that it had been 50 years since his father dropped him off at 345 Pyne Hall for his freshman year at Princeton. He had come from Reading High School, where his basketball coach had been Pete Carril.

He spoke for about two or three minutes about that first day, and how he met his first roommate, from Hawaii. How Pyne was next to Dillon Gym, which kept him from reaching the library as much as he should have.

Then he went through the rest of the meeting.

Eventually he came to the end of his agenda, and it was time to let his secret out.

It was an emotional time for him, and why wouldn't it be? So much of who he is has been tied to Princeton, in his 50 years. As a point guard on a Final Four basketball team. As an assistant coach. And for the last 19 years as Director of Athletics.

With one more to go.

He received a long ovation from the coaches and staff who were gathered at Dillon Gym. He spoke at a podium set up on the basketball court itself, on the court where he first played 50 years ago. TB wondered, as he watched, if anyone else was struck by how it has come full circle for him.

Princeton University has seen few people in its long history who have been as loyal, as dedicated, as committed to the institution as Gary Walters.

He read to the staff from a prepared script. He spoke from the heart, and said he couldn't believe his great good fortune in life.

The staff listened intently, and when he was done, he was given a long, long ovation.

Gary is not a product of privilege. In his talk, he called himself the son of a welder with an eighth grade education.

He came to a place of privilege, and he gave every single thing he had to give.

His final year figures to be more of the same Gary. He will fight his battles. He will hold everyone to his standards.

And then in June, he will step down. There will be parties, TB assumes. There will be testimonials. There will be honors.

They have been more than earned.

Gary Walters has been one in a million at Princeton University. He has given far more than he has gotten back.

Princeton is lucky to have had him all these years. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to have been a student-athlete the past 4 years as a member of Princeton Men's Tennis. Though I didn't know him personally, I only heard great things, and he provided us with 2 of the best coaches in college tennis, and 2 of my greatest mentors in Glenn Michibata and Billy Pate. My experience as a Princeton varsity athlete was unforgettable and we will all miss Gary. GPT.