Q&A with the interim athletic director: ‘Our department is a team’Tweet
James Norris was appointed interim athletic director at Binghamton University a year ago, when several members of the men’s basketball team were dismissed and the University’s athletic director resigned. In his role, Norris reports directly to the president and participates in the president’s senior officer group meetings.
Much has happened since his appointment, and Norris recently sat down with Inside to talk about how athletics is moving forward and making an impact – both on the fields and courts and in the classrooms.
Q. How has your past experience helped you prepare for your current position?
A. This isn’t much different than coaching a team. Our department is a team and there are many similarities to working with the department and to coaching basketball or baseball or any other team.
Q. One of your key charges as athletic director is to help integrate athletics with academics on campus. What specifically are you doing to accomplish this?
A. There’s been a process. We had preliminary discussions at the senior staff level but actually started by going to our student-athlete advisory council – every team is represented on the council –to try to come up with a game plan for the entire department. We asked for their feedback on nine areas we thought were important (see sidebar) and they did a tremendous job giving us good, solid feedback.
We then formed committees throughout our department in each of the nine areas of emphasis. Each of the committees met during the spring and early summer months and submitted their reports in late June. I spent the remainder of the summer going through the reports with our senior staff. From the information submitted we revised our mission statement, identified our core values, established goals and compiled “making it happen” action items for each of our areas of emphasis. In short, we described who we are, where we want to go, and how we’re going to get there.
We’ve come up with a solid plan that everyone is fully committed to implementing.
Q. How did you come up with the areas of emphasis?
A. They evolved from discussions we had at the senior staff. We recognized the need for diversity across our entire department and the need for compliance, then moved to what is it we specifically want from our student- athletes.
To make sure that those things happen, we have to maximize our financial and human resources and facilities. We also felt it’s important to strengthen and improve our relationships on campus and within the community. We want to be part of the University and the community. We want to reach out and offer what we can to the campus and we hope that feeling is mutual.
Q. And you’ve been the coach for this process?
A. More accurately, I would say I’ve acted as a spoke on a wheel, with the wheel being our staff and student-athletes. Our staff and student-athletes are our two greatest resources and the two things that will sustain us. I’m a very small part of that.
When it comes to intercollegiate athletics, I’m of the mindset that our primary business should be about educating student-athletes and providing them with the type of experience they will benefit from for the rest of their lives. We went through the process to ensure that our department is striving for excellence and meeting the mission of the University in everything that we do.
Q. How have our student-athletes excelled?
A. Some of the good we have going on: Academically, we had a collective 3.11 GPA last year – our second highest in the history of the department. Two-thirds of our student-athletes had a 3.0 or better. One third achieved a 3.5 or better. Our men’s tennis team had the highest GPA (3.69) of all teams in the America East Conference. Sven Vloedgraven, a member of our men’s tennis team, was the Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year for the America East.
And it didn’t stop academically. Athletically, our student-athletes had a fantastic year with two nationally ranked teams. We had five conference champions, and four teams finished as runners-up. One-third of our coaching staff was selected by their peers as “Coach of the Year” and Coach Popolizio got votes for national “Coach of the Year.” Our women’s soccer team hadn’t scored in its first four matches, then advanced to the championship. Our goalie who made the big save in the shoot-out to help get us to the championship is now in med school. She’s not the exception. She’s the rule. What our student-athletes are doing academically and athletically is just phenomenal.
Q. What does your department do to help student-athletes succeed?
A. First of all, understand that there’s really no offseason for Division 1 athletes. They’re going from the day they arrive on campus until the day they go home ... even in their offseason. In season, they spend 20 hours a week practicing, competing, traveling and adjusting schedules. They have the additional burden of making up missed school work. Imagine how physically exhausting it is when you get off a bus from an 8-hour drive from Maine and have to be in class the next morning ready to go.
So I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our great student services area (the Student-Athlete Success Center, open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday) as well as our counselors.
In its simplest form, this area makes sure that our student-athletes inform their professors of when they have class conflicts, but it’s also about working with them to build their schedules and make degree progress. It’s helping them to find services available on campus – tutoring help and those sorts of things. It’s leadership training, time management skill building and career development. They’re all strongly encouraged to take advantage of these services.
We mandate that freshmen and transfers satisfy a certain number of hours with student services upon arrival and different coaches have different requirements beyond the first year.
Q. So everything is a team effort?
A. Yes, I’ve tried to make our department one big happy family with everybody heading in the same direction, and I don’t think that’s anything new. Our staff and student-athletes have always been very supportive of one another.
One big change we made this year was we had a student-athlete orientation day before classes started. Everybody came to the Events Center, we distributed T-shirts with our slogan on them, we took a group photo and I addressed the entire department – like a pep rally kind of a thing. Then we conducted several break-out sessions in key areas designed to educate everybody on who we are, where we’re heading and how we’re going to get there.
More importantly, we broke down the word “impact” for everybody and made sure they knew what that word means to us – and that we’re depending on everybody to make good decisions and to excel.
Q. Why is that word so important?
A. Because our ultimate goal is to make a positive “impact” and its acronym can serve as a reminder to help us do that (see sidebar).
I have a great feeling about our student-athletes and our staff because there have been some times during the last year when we could have gone right in the tank and we didn’t – and that speaks volumes about the people we have here. I’ve said before that challenges are what make life interesting, but overcoming challenges is what makes life meaningful and we intend this to be a meaningful chapter in the life of our department.
In the final analysis, this year has the potential to be our best year ever. Athletically, we’re right there with all of our teams heading in a positive direction. Academically, we’re coming off of a very strong year and hoping to win the America East Academic Cup. We’re also implementing some new initiatives in terms of community service that we’re all very excited about and we anticipate full participation by all of our teams.
Q. How would you assess the campus climate as it relates to athletics?
A. I think people have been very supportive. I think people recognize that the vast majority of what we do down here, we do very well. Through the efforts of Interim President Magrath, Provost Mileur and Roger Westgate, we hope to become even more integrated within the campus. Our staff and student-athletes are no different than anybody else on campus. We’re all striving for excellence in our various pursuits and to represent the University in an impeccable fashion. We’re looking forward to being part of the campus community as opposed to a stand-alone entity.