Q&A with Betsy Mitchell

January 29, 2015
Allegheny College
When Betsy Mitchell was in high school, she dreamed of winning an Olympic medal in swimming. She also dreamed of being a college athletic administrator. While the first dream may seem a tougher reach, the second took much longer.

In 1984, Mitchell won an Olympic silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and a gold medal as a member of the United States 4x100-meter medley relay team. In 1988, she took home silver in the same relay event, after winning seven NCAA Division I championship events and being named the Honda Broderick Award winner for swimming while competing for the University of Texas.

Over the next two decades, Mitchell served as Head Women's Swimming Coach at Dartmouth College, Director of Athletics at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Thomas Worthington High School, in Worthington, Ohio, and as an educational athletics consultant. In 2006, she became Director of Athletics and Recreation at Allegheny College, where she oversees 21 NCAA Division III teams.

Chair of the NCAA Division III Men's and Women's Swimming Committee, Mitchell is working on hosting Allegheny's first televised football game, completing a stadium project, and upgrading the department's Web site. In this interview, she talks about being an Olympian, the goals of the Allegheny athletic department, and her career path.

AM: Has being an Olympian helped you in your career?
Mitchell: I don't know that it has. I achieved success at an Olympic level because of qualities that I always had--my ability to focus on the task at hand, persistence, and diligence. Those are traits I now bring to my work, but they are not unique to competing at an elite level. Many successful people bring those qualities to the table.

In fact, being an Olympian may have hurt me. Oftentimes people feel I'm not approachable because they're stuck on the fact that I'm an Olympian. I think I'm humble--I always have an open door--but not everyone gets that.

What do you tell student-athletes about your Olympic experience?
I tell them that my stage may have been the world, but the lessons our coaches are putting in front of them--how to maximize their potential and be successful--are exactly the same as what my coaches told me. That makes them stop and think, and it also makes them feel pretty good about what they're doing as student-athletes. It's a compliment to them and I think they see it that way.

How do you approach your job as an athletic director?
First, I approach each day with a sense of humor. Second, I balance the big picture--our vision, our strategy, where we're trying to lead our institution--with the mundane daily logistics. And third, I try to put people first. This is a people business, and ultimately it's about managing, supporting, and developing students and staff.

What is the big picture for Allegheny athletics?
The athletic department should be a piece of our overall institution, not just an auxiliary unit that does its own thing. In athletics, we are completely hooked into the mission of Allegheny, which is to prepare our students for their lives after college.

Also in the big picture is publicizing what we do to prospective students, our community, donors, and friends. The strategic vision is all about getting our words to people both inside and outside the institution.

What are your goals for the department?
They are the same year in and year out. We strive to have a high academic standing--a GPA over 3.0 and a graduation rate in the 90-percent range. We want to win more than we lose, and be in the top third of our conference in every sport. We also like to compete on a national level, and while that's very challenging, we have pockets of excellence that accomplish that goal every year.

I am also working on some more logistics-oriented goals. One is to get local vendors to supply cars for our coaching staff to use while recruiting. I'm developing a leave plan because one of my key staff members will be gone for a while. I am working with three or four high-end donors to finish a couple of stadium projects--a fence and a new set of visitors' bleachers. I'm figuring out the details of having our first televised football game. And we are working to completely overhaul our Web site to make it more user-friendly and interactive for recruiting outreach.

Was it difficult to transition from the high school to the college level?
The major difference is that at the high school level, I was managing a staff of 90 part-time high school coaches, whereas here I have a full-time staff of 45. The work is very similar, however, in that it's people, people, people.

When I talk to student-athletes about what's on their plate, how they're striving to get better at their sport, and how they're working to balance academics and athletics, the two levels feel the same. When I talk to staff members about how they're trying to deliver the best possible service to their teams, it is very similar.

There are also some plusses to having worked as a high school athletic director. I understand parents' roles in their children's lives and am able to help students as they find independence. I'm able to understand parents as consumers--at the Division III level, parents want to be sold on a school.

Another piece is that I was fortunate to have worked on a $12 million facilities project for one of the high schools I was at. Working with architects, design teams, and donors in addition to managing a part-time staff forced me to be a good communicator.

Why did you start consulting?
I was looking for more creativity in my career. I thought that perhaps my strengths as a strong communicator and a strategic thinker could help others in administration. It can be a very lonely profession because you have parents wanting one thing and students, coaches, and faculty wanting other things. There are many different perspectives, with the athletic director acting as the linchpin. I thought if I could provide professional services that might help somebody in my chair, that would be very fun. And for two years, it was. I really enjoyed the variety of things I investigated.

What advice did you find athletic directors needed most?
There must be a name for this effect, but I don't know what it is. As a coach, I can stand on the pool deck saying the same thing to my swimmers over and over and over about the position of their hand and the angle from their elbow to their shoulder. And they can listen to me and try to implement my advice, but it just doesn't happen. And then somebody else comes in and says the same exact thing, and poof! All of a sudden, an athlete listens, makes the change, and swims faster. I was trying to bring a little bit of that to folks needing help. Sometimes athletic directors just need a different voice to know they're on the right track and have the confidence to move forward.

How does your consulting work affect what you now do at Allegheny?
I think every person is the sum of what they've been exposed to through their experiences. I saw the variety of ways to manage others. There's not necessarily one right way, and going to a wide range of schools reinforced that message. A lot of what I did was help people analyze their organization and be open to change, and that remains with me.

How much of your career have you planned?
I knew from the time I was in high school that I wanted to be in this field, and I wanted very much to work at a college. But I didn't plan it out in terms of having to do it by age 40.

I thought my unique background would help, but I applied for a ton of jobs before getting this one. At times, I was pretty discouraged. A lot of colleges and universities think you need to have coached a certain number of years and had two different positions at two different schools in two different areas of administration before you're ready to oversee their athletic department. But there is a much broader set of folks ready to manage college athletics and I would encourage those involved in an administrative search to think outside the box.

What did you learn working on the $12 million facility project?
You need to be painstakingly thorough on the front end in order to develop and deliver a higher quality product. Sometimes there is pressure to get started immediately once you've secured a donor. And our competitive juices push us to get right to the construction phase. But when you rush you're not going to end up quite as happy. It's really important to go slowly so you don't have to revisit plans mid-process.

How can athletic directors cut back expenses during these tough economic times?
On the recruiting front, getting our coaches up to speed with electronic communication is key. At two cents a sheet of paper, five cents an envelope, and 42 cents a stamp, I don't want coaches sending hundreds of letters to prospects. Instead, coaches need to understand how the millennial students want to be communicated with, which means using the most up-to-date technology.

Athletic directors can also lobby their conferences to look at combining travel wherever possible. In our area, we travel in 55-passenger buses. Well, two teams need to be on there going to the same place, playing at the same time instead of just one. Conferences really need to help orchestrate efficient transportation like that. We also have to really re-examine our non-league schedules and stay close to home as often as possible.

How do you create buy-in among your staff?
I think inclusion in the process is very important. I work to get their input--and not falsely, not when the decisions have already been made. Including your staff as much as possible in the process of creating a new initiative or some other change helps a lot. Even if they don't agree with the final decision, at least they will understand what's happening.

After you stopped swimming, you picked up rowing and were a member of the 1994 U.S. World Championship team. You've also climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. What is your own athletic career like at this point?
I don't compete anymore. To stay in shape, I walk, work out in our fitness facility, do some bike riding, and work in my yard. I still lift, and I'm actually just about as strong as I was as an athlete. Being in shape is a matter of personal health but it's also a part of my job. I'm the head recreator--the head athlete. I need the students and staff to see me balance my life in that way.

How do you find that balance?
I schedule it. I put workouts in my weekly calendar along with my other appointments. The folks who help me manage my calendar are very aware that it's okay if we have to skip a workout to get a meeting with the president in, but then we'll put that workout in somewhere else. It is a commitment that takes tremendous self-discipline--I'm trying to set the bar high for all of us.
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