Tai Brown: Greetings. This is Tai Brown with AthleticDirectorU. I’m here at the Collegiate Sports Summit and I’m with Jean Lenti Ponsetto. Jean is the Director of Athletics at DePaul University. Greetings, Jean. Thanks being here.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto: Thanks, Tai. Good to be with you.
Now, Jean, you’ve been there for almost 40 years now.
Seventeen of those years in the Chair as an Athletics Director, and then you’ve had a number of positions. You coached a little bit, too, didn’t you? A bit.
I did, mm-hmm.
When you’re at an institution that long and things are running how you wanted to run as a machine, it can be easy to slide into just accepting things as they are. I want to know, in terms of being somewhere that long, how do you keep yourself to continue? How do you continue to evolve in terms of that continuum?
Well, I think a big part of it for me is just our institutional DNA.
You know, one of things about Paul is that we’ve always been very high on the innovative and creative and risk-taking end of our curriculums, for sure. And so, I think, you know, when you look at our university mission and you see the students that we serve, and you know what it is that we talk about thematically all the time, it’s been easy, you know, to really keep things fresh, and because it’s pretty much what the environment demands and what the culture at DePaul overall demand. So I feel like we’ve really been able to take a lead and take a chapter out of all the leadership that’s been at DePaul university that pretty much requires that of faculty and staff and certainly has required that of us in the athletic department as well.
Right. When you’re there… when you’re… for 17 years and has been leading that department, you know, you get to 10 years, you get to 12 years, do you ever think, “Are we doing enough?” I mean, I know that’s probably a constant thought as a leader, but do you ever find yourself asking that question?
Well, I think one of the advantages that I’ve had is that I have had the great fortune to serve on an incredible number of NCAA Committees and conference committees, and we’ve also been in a couple different conferences. We were in Conference USA and now we’re in the Big East Conference. And so, you know, I think there’s constant challenges all the time. I think, you know, being able to serve at the NCAA level in as many committee opportunities as I’ve had, it really keeps you fresh. I think you know what the next thing is that’s coming down the pike, and so you have an opportunity react and respond to it. So, you know, it really has made me be a much more creative thinker and I think surround… continue to surround myself with outstanding other thought leaders, and that’s what we’ve done it to DePaul. And so, there is no, there really isn’t much of an opportunity to get stale because I think it’s been… I’ve been fortunate that it’s come at me from a lot of different directions, both at the national level, working with my colleagues at the NCAA and the conference offices that we’ve been in, and certainly, institutionally at DePaul.
Right. I noticed that when I was researching your background that you have been on a number of committees and served on a number and have been awarded a number of different awards for some of your service to the industry. I wonder about the change to the Big East, right, you had a hand in helping bring to DePaul over and just talking about that because that’s a big innovation in itself, right?
Yeah, it was, I think, a challenging process and a little daunting at the start. But, you know, there were seven of us to start with that were in it together. You know, we were all very mission-driven and had very similar missions as private schools. It was private Catholic schools. And so, you know, I think that part of it was easy. And then it was really finding the right mix of the next three institutions and creating Butler and Xavier that, you know, was really, I think, a fun project for all of us to be a part of. But, you know, getting our presidents in lockstep was relatively easy because we’ve had this terrific camaraderie when we were in the older version of the Big East. And so, forming and creating something new while it was a little bit of a risk, I think, you know, we were very aspirational about what it could be because there was such great commonality amongst our institutions, who we were, and the students that we served and the kinds of academic programs that we had. And so, I think we felt like that commonality and all those opportunities that we could create with each other really became a fun project at the end of the day.
Do you find yourself when you serve on committees now or when you’re talking to some of your colleagues, I know you’ve been in this profession for a while, you’ve been in a leadership role for a while, when they talk… when you talk, I imagine they listen. But you don’t want to assume that because I’m saying it means it’s right. Like, let’s have a discussion here. Talk to me… do you ever find that dynamic involved with you?
You know, I think that, you know, any time that you’re at the table with other leaders who are incredibly accomplished, I think you always want to be well-educated. I think you want to be really thoughtful. I think you want to be collaborative. You know, for me, that’s been an important part of my leadership style. And I think one of the reasons why I’ve been in the profession for as long as I have, I think people see me as a voice of reason and see me as a collaborative partner and pretty much everything that we’ve ever set out to do. And so, you know, I think that’s given me some credibility because I really do like to work across and hear what other people’s thoughts and ideas are. And I don’t always think that I have the best ideas. I actually think that, you know, listening and hearing what other people have to say have really helped me become better leader within my own department and I think in, you know, whatever service I’ve been able to provide to my colleagues and members in our conferences.
Right. In terms of longevity, the students don’t age. You’re dealing with 18 that’s every year, you’re dealing with 18 to 22-year-olds for the last year since 1978 in your profession. I imagine there’s a lot of learning from them, too, in terms of keeping the department fresh and the institution.
Yeah, I think, you know, every day for me, it’s about, you know, getting out of my office and walking around the building. You know, we have a great setup at DePaul. All of our student athletes are in and out of the athletic center every day. And so, you know, for me, it’s about talking to them, about their academic opportunities, about what they’re doing, you know, outside of school, whether it’s their personal lives and community service. A lot of our student athletes are engaged in a lot of community service. So, you know, I try and keep my perspective fresh and really understand who they are and what their thought processes are and how it is that we can help them grow and develop. We’ve made a huge commitment to our student athletes and it starts with their personal growth and development. And you really can’t be very effective at that as whether it’s our coaching staff or athletic department staff without really getting to know them, I mean, without them trusting you and making sure that they understand how invested you are in their personal well-being. And so, you know, for me, it’s, you know, it’s kind of a labor of love. It’s what I like best about my job is the interaction that I get to have with student athletes. So I’d like to think that I’ve kept myself in tune with what they’re thinking. We might not always have the same taste in music or we might not have the same taste in what we’re going to wear. But I certainly do value and appreciate and I really appreciate, in our case, with our student athletes, the amount of community service that they do. I think that this generation of student athletes has really grown. And I think that’s part of what we’ve done culturally in the NCAA is helping them recognize and understand the talent and gifts that they have for their sport and how strong they are academically really empowers them to also go out and be that difference-maker and that change-maker in the world by getting out and helping and blend, putting their hand out to whether it’s a small child in need or it’s working with senior citizens or visiting a hospital. And so, you know, I really enjoyed that growth piece, but that’s how I stay in touch with them.
It’s by walking around the building and having day to day contact.
All right. I’ll ask the last question here. There’s an aspect of, so you come in as an athletics director and one of your roles is to make sure athletics is well. But then there’s also the fund raising and development aspect. But when you’ve been somewhere to where there are two or three generations of student athletes who have participated and now, they’re alone, now they’re doing their thing, now, when you call, there’s a familiarity to you calling. Tell me about that aspect of it.
Yeah, I think, that’s, you know, that’s again. That’s the great reward of my job is that, you know, I have 40 years of alumni now that… when, you know, if I pick up the phone and say that we need help here, could you contribute to this or, you know, could you be a part of serving on this committee and helping us raise funds for whether it’s scholarships or capital projects or program support, that there’s terrific familiarity. I think, I also like to think that it’s one of the things that our athletic alumni like about coming back to DePaul is that they feel like, you know, it’s home.
It’s home. Right.
It’s the same place, and I think I’m not the only person. There’s other coaches and we have some other staff that have been around for 25 plus years. And I think that, you know, we hear that from our alumni all the time is that they really do like coming back to campus and visiting, because when we have… whether it’s a Hall of Fame banquet or it’s some sort of an alumni event that we have every year, Blue Demon Week is a big deal for us in our campus culture and environment, that they really look forward to it. And I, you know, I’d like to think that some of that has to do with the fact that not a lot has changed in terms of who we are and welcoming back our alumni and I think gives them an opportunity to relive some of those terrific memories that they created when they were student athletes at DePaul.
Right. Well, I’m sure they appreciate you being there in terms of there’s somebody to come back to.
Yeah. I’d like to hope so. Thanks.
Well, actually, Jean, this has been a great conversation. I really appreciate you joining us here on AthleticDirectorU.
Thank you, Tai.
That was Jean Lenti Ponsetto with DePaul University. Of course, this is Tai Brown with AthleticDirectorU. And keep in mind, the role of the leader is to create and maintain an environment that people want to be a part of. And, as always, be better tomorrow than you are today.