When one hears “New York City,” it immediately conjures images of towering skyscrapers and great monuments like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. It is all but impossible to think of these images – the scale and speed of the magnificent city on the Hudson – and not feel energized. And for those who have been in college athletics long enough, we can remember a time when the words “St. John’s” and “Red Storm” were responsible for conjuring the same images, the same excitement and thrill of victory.
In my more than three decades as an administrator, I have come to learn that great organizations start and end with a cultural foundation built on enthusiasm and an unrelenting commitment to excellence. The old adage that greatness is not a function of circumstance, but rather a conscious choice is an absolute truth, particularly in the world of college athletics.
When I started working at Duke many years ago under then athletic director Tom Butters, the program of then was almost unrecognizable from the one that we are all so familiar with today. You could fit our entire department – administrators, coaches and all – in one small room. While we may not have had the numbers we have today, and while we certainly didn’t have the resources, what we did have was passion and trust. We believed in one another and in our mission, and we did whatever we could to support each other in good times and bad.
I can vividly remember being called down to Tom’s office after our sports information director had resigned. Tom looked at me when I entered the room and simply said, “Mike, I think you have what it takes to be our SID,” to which I replied, “I think I can too!” No search, no interview, just a handful of words exchanged. There I was, 24 years old and running communications for an ACC program.
That would never happen today. But it should.
Tom took a chance on me, just like he took a chance on a young college basketball coach from West Point. He believed in me; he believed in all of us. He didn’t lead with skepticism, he led with faith. He didn’t say “prove it first,” instead he said, “I believe in you.” That’s how the Blue Devils were built, that’s how the Red Storm will be built.
At St. John’s, we will lead by example. We will help one another take responsibility by authentically practicing the behaviors that we want each other to practice. We will build trust every single day, because for any organization to be successful over the long term, its members must be able to look each other in the eye and speak the truth at a moment’s notice. There can be no hesitation, no skepticism. All great things come from trust – making the right decisions and knowing the difference between what is just and what is wrong stems from the confidence that those around you speak the truth, now and always.
When you trust each other and care for one another, you create a culture of collective responsibility. Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature, as it is one of business. An athletics department cannot survive, much less prosper, if administrators, coaches and student-athletes do not recognize their interconnectedness and need for mutual cooperation. Each must have sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others. Trust, responsibility and passion together are all individually important. But all of them together are unbeatable.
The St. John’s community already knows this. Its history and brand is one of success, its campus rich with great cultural and intellectual diversity. It is uniquely positioned to allow both the New York and greater community to share in that richness, and to use its resources to serve in the pursuit of both educational and personal excellence.
It is now my job to take those assets and work with my colleagues in the athletics department to amplify the mission of the University. It will require me to become a good listener, and an even better puzzle solver. I will have to take time to learn as much as I can about the university and its community, and the thousands of individuals that make up the rich tapestry that is St. John’s University.
It is humbling to be entrusted with the headship of my own program. I have had the privilege to have had many mentors in my life, from Mr. Butters to Kevin White to Coach K. I have learned more from these great leaders over the last three decades than many will learn in several life times elsewhere.
One of the most important lessons that Coach K endowed me with is that only the mediocre are always at their best. If your standards are low, it is easy to meet those standards every single day. But if your standard is to be the best, there will be days when you fall short of that goal, and that’s alright too. It only becomes a problem if you allow failure to change your standards. You have to keep your standards intact, keep the bar set high, and continue to try your very best every day to meet those standards. If you do that, you can always be proud of the work that you do.
Yet perhaps there has been no greater influence on my life than the hundreds of other colleagues I have had the opportunity to work with during my time at Duke. They have taught me so much and continue to remind me every single day of why we are in this profession – to have a profound impact on the lives of the student-athletes that we work with.
The Red Storm are, like Duke was many years ago, perfectly positioned to write the first chapter in a story of excellence that will be used in as proof of what a group of passionate and committed individuals can do when they are aligned behind a common vision. It will require to take audacious risks, to be bold, and to pave our own path. But there is no doubt in my mind that our coaches, administrators, and mostly importantly student-athletes have exactly what it takes to see things through. We will remind the world again and again of our grit.
As I take over as Director of Athletics at St. John’s, I make one promise to both the university and to the college athletics community at large – that Red Storm athletics will once again become synonymous with those awesome images of the greatest city in the world and illicit those very same feelings that once electrified a city and a nation. From the hallowed halls of Carnesecca Arena to the cavernous cathedral of Madison Square Garden, our athletics program will make all of our students, fans and supporters prouder than they ever have been.