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‘My Job Clearly Isn’t Done’: Entering Fifth Year as Athletic Director, Sheehy Still Seeking Successes

  • Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy congratulates former Big Green women's soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo after a home victory in 2012. Sheehy said he supports his coaches aspiring to positions at higher-profile programs such as Notre Dame, where Romagnolo was hired earlier this year.<br/>Valley News file — Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy congratulates former Big Green women's soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo after a home victory in 2012. Sheehy said he supports his coaches aspiring to positions at higher-profile programs such as Notre Dame, where Romagnolo was hired earlier this year.
    Valley News file — Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy speaks with a Big Green supporter during a pregame tailgate party at Butler last year. Sheehy begins his fifth academic year at the college.<br/>Valley News file — Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy speaks with a Big Green supporter during a pregame tailgate party at Butler last year. Sheehy begins his fifth academic year at the college.
    Valley News file — Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy congratulates former Big Green women's soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo after a home victory in 2012. Sheehy said he supports his coaches aspiring to positions at higher-profile programs such as Notre Dame, where Romagnolo was hired earlier this year.<br/>Valley News file — Tris Wykes
  • Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy speaks with a Big Green supporter during a pregame tailgate party at Butler last year. Sheehy begins his fifth academic year at the college.<br/>Valley News file — Tris Wykes

Hanover — It’s been a busy summer for Dartmouth College athletic director Harry Sheehy. Normally, June, July and August are somewhat relaxing months for the Big Green’s boss, but as Sheehy prepares to enter his fifth academic year at the helm, there’s a lot on his plate.

After firing his men’s heavyweight rowing and lacrosse coaches, promoting his women’s rowing coach into an administrative position and seeing his softball coach depart for Stanford, Sheehy and his lieutenants have been busy identifying, interviewing and vetting replacement candidates. At the same time, there’s a growing sense inside and outside the department that Sheehy’s leadership and initiatives need to soon bear more visible fruit.

The Valley News interviewed Sheehy, who was previously the longtime athletic director at his alma mater, Massachusetts’ Williams College, at his office on Thursday. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Valley News : Have you become better at quickly identifying the right coaching candidates?

Harry Sheehy: I’m going to say yes, but without any empirical data to back that up. If I don’t know the sport as well or I’m not as attuned to its culture, it’s harder for me to make that leap. But there are some similar pieces when it comes to a coach’s ability to articulate his or her mission and vision and values.

We’ve had some young coaches come through and they’re not fully formed yet. When you ask about their mission and vision and values, you sometimes get very superficial answers. Most younger coaches haven’t been through the wars enough. When you’ve been coaching a while, you know who you are and how kids are going to respond.

VN: Do you accept that some coaches you hire will see Dartmouth as a stepping stone to bigger programs?

HS: I’m absolutely fine with it. At Williams, there were people who thought it was such a special place that every coach we hired should stay until they were 95. That’s a bunch of bunk.

I care if you leave after one or two years, but if you leave after four years and the program’s better, I don’t care. If it’s a good move for you and your family, you won’t hear me say boo. If you look at (former softball coach Rachel Hanson) and Stanford or (former women’s soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo) and Notre Dame, those are no-brainers. I told Rachel to go because it was a lifetime opportunity.

But I also love having a guy like (baseball coach) Bob Whalen, who’s been here a long time. I think there’s room for both kinds of coaches in a department. Young coaches energize things with new ideas and really good questions that our older coaches can answer.

VN: Are you happy with the job done by the coaches you’ve hired here? Romagnolo and Hanson worked out well, but former women’s golf coach Janet Coles was only here one season and volleyball coach Erin Lindsey is 13-29 in three seasons.

HS: I feel pretty good about the people who have come here. The situation with our previous women’s golf coach was just a bad marriage, a bad fit. Erin had a really good first year but has struggled since then, but I think she’s a good coach. She played a bunch of freshmen last year, and I think we’ll have improvement this year.

There have been culture issues on the team about where the focus is, and I think she’s working through those with the kids. Rachel brought kids here who had a desire for softball to be important to them. It hasn’t been as easy in volleyball, to find kids who want to be a student and a volleyball player without a social life that’s going to detract from their sport. That’s not the only sport where we’re fighting that battle, by the way.

VN: What about Paul Cormier and men’s basketball? He was hired before you arrived and is 31-83 in four seasons.

HS: We’re better but not as much better as I’d like us to be. He’s got time to continue to fix this thing, but this is a very important year for men’s basketball. Last year we won (10 Division I games) and that’s the first time in a lot of years, but now it needs to be 16 or 17, and I’d like to see us .500 in the Ivy League. It’s a hard sport to get good in, because the Ivy League opposition is so good.

VN: Can we expect a new men’s lacrosse coach soon? This is the height of that sport’s recruiting season.

HS: I think that will happen shortly. It’s a huge time in lacrosse (recruiting) right now, but we have to get the right guy and if it costs us a recruiting year, I’m not worried. We’re in such bad shape right now that we just need to be absolutely sure we get the right guy.

My nexus of disappointment was at the Cornell game this season, where we just were not competitive. We just weren’t getting better. Andy did a decent job of bringing in better kids than before and we worked on the team culture, but we can’t pass and catch and that drives me nutty.

VN: How difficult is it to fire coaches?

HS: You have to really believe in your heart that you’re doing things for the right reasons. I work for Dartmouth College. I don’t work for any one of our programs, so my objective is to make the whole (athletic) program better, and sometimes you have to make really hard decisions.

We get simple and easy-confused all the time in this country. When I look at some of the decisions I’ve made, they’ve been pretty simple, but they haven’t been easy. You’re impacting people’s lives, and it stinks sometimes. I go home and I agonize and I don’t sleep, but I know in my gut what I consider to be right.

VN: Do you agonize less now that you’ve been doing this job for so long?

HS: Yes, because I know if someone is ill-suited to a job, you aren’t doing them any favors by keeping them in it. As hard as it is to look at someone and tell them they’re losing their job … you honestly believe you’re doing the right thing for the institution.

VN: You seem deft at gently ushering coaches out the door. Not all the ones who have left since your arrival did so completely of their own accord.

HS: You have to give the person time to reflect on whether they’re really all-in. Because most coaches who don’t make it are the ones who aren’t. I want coaches to come here who are energy-givers and who are teachers and who enjoy what they’re doing. We need to be part of the educational process here and when coaches don’t get that, things don’t work.

Coaches have told me they’re confident they can fix their program’s problems, and I’ve had to come back and say, “No, I don’t think you can. That’s my professional judgement, and you have every right to disagree with me. But the problem for you is that I have to make the decision and I don’t believe we can get there.”

I asked a coach recently if they were enjoying going to practice, were they having fun? In reality, that person was in hell and not connecting with the kids. It was time for a change.

VN: Wendy Bourdeau was recently promoted to a senior administrative position in your department, shortly after her husband, Topher Bordeau, was fired as men’s heavyweight rowing coach. Was that awkward?

HS: It’s very odd and I went home laughing a bit, because you can’t make this stuff up. The wound was still fresh for her, so we had to sit her down and have a pretty mature conversation.

I think she and Topher handled it incredibly maturely. It would have been easy for him to say you can’t go work for those (jerks) who just fired me. This was a real-life decision. We had one person we thought would be a wonderful administrator and the other we thought was struggling as a coach, and it wasn’t doing him any good staying in that job. It just happened they were married, and I wasn’t going to say we can’t hire Wendy because we just fired Topher.

VN: You once said you didn’t want Dartmouth getting into an athletic facilities arms race within the Ivy League. Does the current push to fund and build an indoor practice facility counteract that stance?

HS: No, I think it’s one of the last pieces we need to be successful. As we’ve been talking to lacrosse coaches about the (men’s) job, they’ve said it would be nice to have, but not having it isn’t the end of the world.

If you talked to our previous coaching staff, we were injured because we had to practice outside, but I don’t buy it. I would love to have an indoor facility so you could practice indoors for an hour and outdoors for an hour. I’m not saying the cold does’t put a stress on the body; I’m just saying that somehow we’ve had some (men’s lacrosse) success before and without an indoor facility.

I don’t need one with a thousand bells and whistles. We need a functional space with an artificial surface. The problem is, it still costs you $20 million just to do that.

VN: Dartmouth has won fewer Ivy League titles in recent years and is sixth in the eight-team conference in championships won since it was formed in 1956. Does that trend need to be reversed for your time here to be a success?

HS: Sure. I’m a competitive guy and I haven’t spent much of my life losing at anything. Part of the deal is that we have scoreboards and, like Bill Parcells said, you are your record. I love that quote.

Winning one or two Ivy League championships per (academic) year is unacceptable. I think three, four, five is what we’re aiming for. The most we’ve ever won (in one academic year) is five, so it’s not like we were knocking it out of the park before. When I talk to alums, they’ll talk about the golden era in Dartmouth athletics and I’ll say, “No, you’re talking about when the football team was good, because there hasn’t been an extended golden age for us.”

Titles are an important measure for us, but so is overall competitiveness, finishing in the top three in the Ivies in different sports. Others are whether our department is a good place to work in and whether we’re teaching the right values.

Two springs ago, we were in the hunt to win our third, fourth and fifth Ivy titles in (an academic year). We had baseball, softball and women’s lacrosse all playing for a title and we didn’t win any of them. We’ve got to knock that door down, and we’re trying to raise funds so that we can bring coaches on board and tell them Dartmouth is much better than it was. You’ll have a real chance, now.

VN: How much does fundraising get in the way of the hands-on part of your job?

HS: It impacts it, no question, but it’s part of the job in the 21st century and there’s no way around that. If you look at our annual budget of $22 million, 47 percent is college money and the rest is endowed funds and annual giving. It’s hard for me to ask for more from a coach when I’m leaving them with the same resources. It’s much easier to hold a coach accountable if I’m going to help them do it.

For many years here, the saying was we’re Dartmouth athletics and we do more with less. I don’t ever want to hear that again. Even if it’s true, I don’t want us in that mindset. But I think we have enough to compete successfully and give our kids a good, solid Division I experience. To me, that’s more important than where we stand in the Ivy League in fundraising, but I’m pleased our annual giving has risen from $2.5 million to $4.3 million per year lately.

VN: Are you spending as much time fundraising on the road as you were when you first took the job?

HS: A little less, which has been nice. We have a goal to raise $20 million to endow coaching positions and we’re at $13 million with a couple big (donation requests) out there. We started my second year and it’s been a three-year process.

We have a couple of (requests) out there that could take us over $16 million quickly. At that point, what I’d really like to see the school do is take the remaining amount and put it in the capital fund drive and let us concentrate on the indoor practice facility, because that’s such a practical need.

VN: Dartmouth as a whole has endured waves of negative publicity during recent years. Is it hurting athletic recruiting?

HS: We’ve paid close attention to that and while I think it’s impossible for it not to impact recruiting, the impact has been less than we thought.

More than your average student applying to Dartmouth, our recruits get personal contact from our coaches and they’re able to answer the questions and dispel some of the myths, because there are a ton of myths out there. You’d think that this place was the Wild West some days. Look, I’m not always happy with our student behavior, but it’s going on at lots of other places as well, although that doesn’t excuse us.

VN: President Phil Hanlon is nowhere near as visible at athletic events as his predecessor, Jim Kim. Do you feel you still have that office’s full support?

HS: I have as much support but it feels and looks different. Phil and I had very substantive conversations last August about our goals, and we’re simpatico and believe the same things. He will say that he loves the values of the department and the direction that we’re going in, but he wants to win more.

As much as I loved having Jim in the football locker room, I didn’t need him there. What I need is the president substantially agreeing with my philosophy of what athletics means at Dartmouth. That is, that it’s an educational experience, but if you’re going to compete, you want to win and do it with kids who deserve to be here.

VN: When hired here, you said you’d work five years and re-evaluate after that. How do you feel about your status now?

HS: My job clearly isn’t done, because this place is too good to be mediocre and we can be better. My belief is I’ll have Phil for my entire tenure, because he could be here for 10, 12 years. So I’ll have a president who’s stable and likes what we’re doing and supports us, and that makes it easy to come to work.

I knew exactly what I was getting into here, and the first three years was just reworking stuff. It was really just last year that we started to think we should see results. I’m not criticizing anyone who came before me, but I don’t think there was much of a sense of where the department was going. It wasn’t always easy to get people on board, some of whom were collecting their paycheck and laying low.

The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and that’s exactly where we were. There was a bit of a malaise, a sense of woe-is-me. Before I got here, dealing with admissions and financial aid and the whole environment was tougher. Jim Kim and (deputy director of athletics) Bob Ceplikas, during his year as interim athletic director, made my job tons easier because that stuff was taken care of.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.