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Interim athletic director Roby is reshaping culture around Dartmouth sports

  • Dartmouth College interim athletic director Peter Roby watches a football game on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Betsy and Mark Gates of Woodside, Calif., left, with Martha Beattie, of Hanover, N.H., speak with interim athletic director Peter Roby at a rowing event at Dartmouth College on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Hanover. Mark Gates, Beattie and Roby are all Dartmouth alums. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Dartmouth College distance swimmers Bridget Parker, left, and Hayden Barry, right, talk as they swim during practice at the Karl Michael Pool in Hanover, N.H., of Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The team will travel to Cornell for a meet Saturday that will include Harvard. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Freestyle swimmer Connor Bishop checks the board for his next interval during Dartmouth College swim team practice at the Karl Michael Pool in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The team has returned with a new coaching staff led by Jesse Moore after being cut in the summer of 2020 and reinstated in January 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

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    Dartmouth swimming Head Coach Jesse Moore, middle, checks in with swimmers, from left, Michael Shiaras, Rachel Zhang, Ashley Post, and Eleanor Zwart, who took a break from the pool to register for classes during practice at the Karl Michael Pool in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Moore comes to Dartmouth from the University of Minnesota where he was associate head coach. "I feel like I'm a coach who can help this team move forward and upward," said Moore. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Dartmouth College interim athletic director Peter Roby walks off Memorial Field after a halftime ceremony for the United Way with Susan Wright, former Dartmouth president James Wright and interim provost David Kotz on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • After giving remarks at a rowing event, Dartmouth College interim athletic director Peter Roby moves on to a football game on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2021 6:21:32 AM
Modified: 11/21/2021 7:51:45 AM

HANOVER — As Montell Jordan’s 1995 hip-hop classic This Is How We Do It reverberated across Memorial Field during the first half of Dartmouth College’s football home opener against Sacred Heart in September, Peter Roby stood on the track with the Big Green cheerleaders and exhorted the crowd to join the fun.

Roby — dressed in a polo shirt, Dartmouth hat and gray khakis with a green jacket tied around his waist — clapped and shuffled to the beat for bit before preceding to “bust a move” for about five seconds as the cheerleaders looked on.

Later, the Dartmouth athletic department posted the clip on Twitter, and Roby urged other Ivy League athletic directors to do the same to celebrate the conference’s return to athletic competition.

It didn’t catch on.

“They might not be quite as far along in their careers to feel like they can dance like that,” Roby later quipped.

While his effort to launch a social media challenge went unheeded by this peers, Roby’s fun-loving attitude isn’t a facade, according to the Dartmouth coaches who have worked with him since his arrival in February.

“I think that’s his personality,” head women’s golf coach Alex Kirk said. “I think he’s just very open and jolly. He’s a happy man.”

That good-natured attitude serves Roby well. A 1979 Dartmouth graduate, he returned to his alma mater to serve as interim athletic director at an especially turbulent time for the college’s athletic department.

Roby took over in February — less than two weeks after Harry Sheehy, who had held the job for more than a decade, abruptly retired. Sheehy’s departure came after the college ran afoul of federal anti-discrimination law and was forced to reverse its decision to eliminate five sports teams.

Roby arrived in Hanover in midst of the Ivy League’s suspension of all athletic competition during the 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roby returned to campus in an era when most of Dartmouth’s athletic programs — with the notable exception of football — have been mired in mediocrity. Dartmouth hasn’t won a national title since 2007, when Co-ed Skiing finished first at the NCAA Championships.

Some Big Green coaches hoped that Roby would stay past the end of the academic year in June, and college officials apparently felt the same way. In October, President Philip Hanlon approached Roby about becoming the permanent athletic director.

Roby said he was flattered, but declined. He was happy to step in and help during a trying period for the athletic department, but he isn’t prepared to significantly alter his future plans.

“June is going to be the right time for me to transition into getting back to retirement, and family,” the 64-year-old Roby said. “That’s going to be my priority from June.”

Roby was a logical choice to fill the interim role. After graduating from Dartmouth, where he served as co-captain of the basketball team as a senior, he spent a year on the team’s coaching staff.

“Dartmouth was transformational for him,” Kirk said. “I think for the student-athletes, it’s amazing to have someone that walked the walk.”

Stepping in

In July 2020, Dartmouth announced it was axing five teams — men’s lightweight rowing, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving — in part to reduce expenses. College athletic departments across the country took similar actions at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had brought competition to a standstill earlier that March.

The move outraged Dartmouth players, coaches and alumni. After a California attorney for some of the affected student-athletes argued the decision violated Title IX, a 1972 federal civil rights law that protects people at educational institutions from discrimination based on sex, the college reversed course. The five teams were reinstated.

Sheehy retired soon after, and Roby took over as interim athletic director 11 days later.

As part of the settlement agreement with the reinstated teams, Dartmouth is conducting a gender equity review of the athletic department. The college brought in Holland & Knight, a Florida-based law firm that specializes in Title IX compliance, to conduct the review.

That process has been ongoing during this school year and is due to be completed by mid-March. The firm has interviewed Dartmouth coaches about various aspects of their program, including policies, procedures, staffing, rosters, equipment, facilities, and other resources. Per the settlement agreement, student-athletes and alumni of the teams are also involved in the review.

The process is intended to find ways Dartmouth can improve its Title IX compliance and provide recommendations for how the program can accomplish that. In an interview with the Valley News, Roby said he’s also working to identify any issues that need correcting.

“We’re not waiting for the reviews to be publicly announced or finished before we do things that we think should be done,” he said. “We’re addressing issues that I’m sure are going to come up in some of the reviews. We’re trying to address those now. Because they’re important.”

Mending fences

Chris Hamilton, the college’s diving coach for 22 years, said he’d always considered Sheehy to be a good athletic director. But he was irked at the way the decision to cut his team and four others came down. After the decision was announced, Hamilton said his athletes tried to arrange meetings with Sheehy, but they never occurred.

“Harry just said, basically, ‘You’re dropped,’ and that was it. There was not a lot of questions that were answered,” Hamilton said. “We were also in COVID, so it was very hard to meet at the time. After we were dropped, I talked to my athletes at least once a week, maybe more than that, just to make sure they were OK. It was shocking to them.”

In recent interviews, Hamilton and other coaches whose teams were impacted said they didn’t want to spend a lot of time rehashing what had happened. They’re just happy the teams are back and in action — unlike last year.

Shortly after beginning as interim athletic director, Roby sat on a Zoom call with the swimming and diving team.

One of his early priorities was mending the relationships between Dartmouth athletics and the reinstated teams, and reintegrating them into the athletic department at large. He held calls with all the impacted teams.

Roby apologized for what they’d endured and pledged to improve their relationships with the college’s athletic administration.

“You have to acknowledge what they’ve been through,” Roby said. “You can’t sugarcoat that.”

He brought some experience to the table in working with disappointed athletes. While athletic director at Northeastern University, he oversaw elimination of the Huskies’ football program, following the 2009 season. (Administrators at the Boston school said the program was too expensive to maintain.)

The circumstances are different — Northeastern football hasn’t returned — but Roby saw the distress and the anguish that decision caused, and he felt for the affected parties.

After seven months of fighting for reinstatement, many of the Dartmouth student-athletes’ wounds were still fresh. Roby’s approach appeared to resonate, said Hamilton, who was on the Zoom call with Roby and his team.

“He told the kids when he was athletic director at Northeastern, he was a sports administrator for the women’s swimming and diving team. He loved that team. He went to their championships and all that,” Hamilton said. “One of the swimmers said, ‘Will you be our sports administrator? And there wasn’t even a hesitation. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I wish I had a camera on the kids’ faces, because they were just in awe. So that first meeting with the kids, I think the kids realized that he meant what he said.”

Roby also had instant credibility with the coaches of the five teams that were eliminated. Earlier in his career, Roby was head coach of the Harvard men’s basketball team for six years.

After their teams were cut, some of the coaches took new jobs — unsure if they’d get to coach at Dartmouth again. When the teams were reinstated, not all the coaches returned.

Men’s golf coach Rich Parker, who grew up in Lebanon, knew what he was going to do the moment he hung up the phone from his initial phone conversation with Roby.

“I felt Pete was very sincere. He understood the situation,” Parker said. “And I just said to my wife, ‘I’m going back. We’re going to finish what we started.’ ”

Rebuilding trust

Perhaps the biggest challenge Roby continues to work on at Dartmouth is instilling a culture of accountability and communication that’s built on good relationships. That’s something he’s cognizant of in everything he does as athletic director, in all of his interactions with coaches, athletes, administrators, or the public.

Although he’s only “interim,” Roby hasn’t shied away from trying to shape the culture within the athletic department.

“The culture is something that you’re always conscious of and you work on it every day,” Roby said. “You don’t take your eye off the culture ball because you feel like, ‘OK, well, our teams are successful and everything’s good.’ No. You always need to be mindful of how people are being treated, how are you communicating, are your actions consistent with what it is you said. And so that’s always on the top of your mind.”

In addition to cost-cutting, another rationale for the team cuts in 2020 was to reduce the percentage of the Dartmouth student body occupied by student-athletes. (Varsity athletes comprised 22.4 percent of the undergraduate population.)

In a Zoom call after the programs were reinstated in January, Hanlon said he still intended to reduce that figure by around 10 percent.

Rather than cutting teams, Roby hopes the college will take a different approach to reach Hanlon’s goal.

“I think the best scenario for us to relieve some of the tension that may exist with respect to admissions is to grow the undergraduate population,” Roby said. “... I don’t know when that’s going to get resolved. But my sense is that they’re having those conversations.”

With roughly 4,100 undergraduates, Dartmouth is the smallest Ivy League school. Princeton, another school with an undergraduate population of less than 5,000 students, has announced it will increase admission offers by 17 percent for the class of 2025.

Roby suggested Dartmouth could do the same. “I don’t think it’s going to change the character of Dartmouth College to grow,” he said. “We’re the smallest by a lot.”

Coaches said that Roby has been able to exert influence on the department despite his interim status.

“I think he has a great impact,” Hamilton said. “I think he does a lot more on campus. He wants us to be involved with the faculty. He’s personable — not that Harry wasn’t, but he’s just a different kind of leader. I feel like it’s just a breath of fresh air, (to have) somebody who’s your leader who’s willing to walk into your office, sit down, and talk about anything.”

Longtime football coach Buddy Teevens also likes the approach Roby has taken to leading the athletic department.

“He’s got a very comforting presence,” Teevens said. “He’ll come over and talk to some of our guys, and you can see the reaction, facially and visually. There’s a trust; there’s a comfort; there’s a familiarity. And this is all athletes, you name the sport. That’s something I’m keenly aware of, the accessibility that he has. I think that’s just healthy for a department.”

Big Green coaches hope whoever becomes the next athletic director has similar approachable and relatable qualities as Roby. They feel he was the right type of person to lead Dartmouth athletics out of its difficult year, and that he’s been a positive influence.

The next athletic director

With Roby planning to exit in June, Dartmouth officials are now tasked with finding his successor.

Coaches of the reinstated teams, in particular, spoke of wanting an athletic director who will provide stability and reassurance similar to what Roby offers.

“I want somebody who’s going to be a leader,” Hamilton said. “Just have open lines of communication with all the coaches. I remember meeting with an athletic director on a job interview, and he said, ‘I’m here to protect athletics, not drop athletics.’ That’s somebody I would like.”

A potential internal candidate is executive associate athletics director Richard Whitmore. He’s been at Dartmouth since 2008, and oversees administration for the department’s highest profile sports: football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s ice hockey, baseball, and women’s rugby.

Some people have speculated that Teevens, at age 65 and after two successful stints at the helm of the football program, might be interested in leaving the sidelines.

“I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance (the college would approach me),” Teevens said. “Certainly, you’re honored if people would even consider (you). But right now, I’m a football coach. Got to keep things going as best we can.”

On Saturday, for the third time since 2015, Teevens led Dartmouth to a share of the Ivy League crown.

Dartmouth could also look to hire a successful athletic director at a smaller school, which is the path that brought Sheehy to Hanover. Sheehy oversaw the athletic department at Williams College, one of the so-called “Little Ivies,” before Dartmouth hired him.

There are at least a few potential candidates who have prior connections to Dartmouth.

Drew Galbraith spent 14 years at Dartmouth as the senior associate director of athletics, as well as executive director of Dartmouth Peak Performance. In 2017, he left to become athletic director at Trinity College in Connecticut.

Sherryta Freeman has been director of athletics at Lafayette (Penn.) College since February 2018. She’s a Dartmouth alum, and played on the women’s basketball team. She later served as assistant athletic director for compliance from January 2004 to August 2005.

Brian Mann — former Dartmouth quarterback and athletic director at the College of William & Mary — would also fit this mold. But he only began at William & Mary in August, so it’s unlikely he’d leave for Dartmouth so soon.

Dartmouth could also turn to an assistant athletic director from a larger school who is looking to step into a leadership role. Such a candidate could bring outside knowledge and experience from bigger stages that could benefit Dartmouth in the long run.

The college could also go with an unconventional choice — an executive from another industry such as the corporate or nonprofit world.

Former Dartmouth swimmer Zack Doherty, a 2013 graduate, said he hopes the next athletic director is someone who will care about the lower profile sports just as much as they care about football and hockey. Doherty worked with Save Dartmouth Swim and Dive, an organization comprising of alumni, current athletes, and parents that was formed after the program was cut in 2020.

More broadly, Doherty wants someone who understands Dartmouth athletics’ spirit and purpose beyond wins and losses.

“Something I would like to see in another athletic director too is someone who understands how to build a more inclusive and diverse pool of talent, because it exists out in America,” Doherty said. “And especially at a school like Dartmouth, there’s huge residual effects to who’s being brought into the institution. (The new athletic director should) be in lockstep with the admissions and understand the broader Dartmouth mission. You need strong athletes, but understand how to build a more holistic Dartmouth student body.”

Regardless of the direction Dartmouth goes, Roby will have initiatives to pass off. The department is currently undergoing an audit of its physical space, looking at where athletic facilities may be underutilized or needed, and how the existing space is impacting the student-athlete and staff experience. It’s the first such review in over 30 years.

Roby also zeroed in on staff retention as an issue which the next permanent athletic director will face. He said hiring decisions are among the most important decisions that an athletic director makes, but keeping those coaches around is just as key.

“Continuity in staff allows you to build the culture on teams that will put you in a position where you can be successful long-term,” Roby said. “It’s really costly to have to go out and hire new people. And I’m not just saying that from a financial standpoint, but from a time standpoint. And the investment in identifying where those people are, hiring them, getting them on-boarded, training them, supporting them. So continuity of staff — staff retention — is really important.”

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