Interview with Bob Driscoll
John Cody of SportsDegreesOnline.org interviewed Bob Driscoll, the Athletic Director of his alma mater– Providence College. They talked about how to set student athletes up for success, how he came to the athletic director of a D1 school, and his goals for the future of the program.
About Bob Driscoll
Bob Driscoll is the Athletic Director at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. During his tenure as AD, the Friars have won national championships in women’s cross country, men’s ice hockey, as well as the men’s basketball team winning the Big East Tournament in 2014. Aside from accomplishments on the field, PC boasts one of the top student-athlete graduation rates– a goal of Mr. Driscoll’s is to increase the graduation rate even further. Previous to working at Providence College, Bob Driscoll worked in athletic administration at the University of California, Berkeley for almost a decade and a half, where the program captured over 20 national championships in various sports. Prior to his work at Cal, Mr. Driscoll was the Athletic Director and Chair of the Department of Physical Education, Recreation and Intramural Sports at Mills College in Oakland, California.
John: Was there any particular moment that made you decide you wanted to make sports a career?
Bob: For me it started really early. As a child I was blessed and gifted as an athlete and was always passionate about it. When I was young I had a dream of becoming a professional athlete or I wanted to become a coach. I’ve known that since I was eight or nine years old. I played college hockey and baseball. Unfortunately I wasn’t drafted so I chose to get an advanced degree. I then went into coaching for a while and made the decision to get into athletic administration. It’s always been an alignment, my entire life. I’ve been in college athletics as a coach, student athlete and athletic director for over fifty years so it’s been a passion of mine. I was one of the lucky ones. I knew what I wanted to do early on.
John: Did you have your eyes set on the position of a D1 athletic director for a long time?
Bob: I really didn’t and it was a really different world when I started. There was no Division 1, there was college and university. Really my goal was to be a high school coach and teacher. Ironically when I got out of school in 1974, there weren’t any jobs so I went back to school and got a degree in physical education sports psychology and got exposed to the administration side of athletics. Then I coached for ten years and found that I loved coaching and I thought I could impact the world in athletics to a greater degree as opposed to being an athletic director. I lived on the east coast in upstate New York and I wanted to move out to California so I took a job as Division 3 AD when I was twenty eight at a women’s college. A lot of my friends I thought I was crazy but I knew I could learn the craft early and make a bunch of mistakes and not worry about reading it in the newspaper. I was just in the right place at the right time. I was at the University of California for fifteen years and got as high as the acting director there. They gave the job to someone else which was very unfortunate. I decided to come back to Providence twenty years ago. It was not my goal early on but once I got into it, I wanted to get the highest level I could because I was competitive.
John: You mentioned early on in your career not having the D1 ranking system, but in what other ways has the landscape of working in college athletics changed since the start of your career?
Bob: TV has played a much greater part. When I was young there was NBC, ABC and CBS. They had the game of the week in football and I was there. It wasn’t until ESPN hit in the late 70’s where you started having cable sports television. Then Fox and everyone started jumping in and when the money started coming into college athletics through TV, it changed pretty dramatically the profile of it. Then the people wanted to get into it and it became a big business. It wasn’t a big business when I started out. I think I made twelve thousand dollars in my first job. I never got into it for the money, I just got into it because it was something I loved. But it changed dramatically over the last twenty five to thirty years with the influx of TV and the demand for college sport and sport in general.
John: What role do you see TV playing in the future?
Bob: I still think there is this huge demand for live sports in yours and my son’s generation. I have decoupled and I’ve got Netflix, HULU, Sling and all those kinds of things where you can watch games any time and place but there is nothing like the live sport. Talking to my colleagues at FOX it still has a huge demand amongst people of all ages. I still think it’s going to play a major role, there is always demand for more programming and sports seems to fit that bill.
John: Yeah. At least from my perspective, it’s not nearly as exciting watching sports that are a day, week or month old.
Bob: I think social media, Twitter and the things people can actively get involved with has become more interesting for a lot of people and gambling is a big part of it too, let’s not lose sight of that.
John: What advice would you give to someone that is looking to work in sports management?
Bob: First of all you’ve got to really want to do it because it’s a very competitive field. My phone rings everyday with people wanting to get into it so if it’s something you just want to dabble in, I’d say don’t do it. Sport by nature attracts competitive people who are willing to work long hours. I’ve got three children and not one of them is in sports because they don’t want to work the kind of hours that I work and make the kind of lifestyle commitments. So the first thing you want to make sure is that it’s something you really want to do. Secondly, you have to be willing to do what it takes to get your foot in the door and work your way up the system. I have a lot of people who say they want to be an AD but there’s only about three hundred and twenty five D1 ADs in the country so not everyone’s getting to the top of the mountain. You have to be content with doing other kinds of things. You also have to be willing to pay the price.
John: What sort of values do you think athletes gain by participating in sports and how do you support creating an environment that gives athletes transferable skills from the field to their professional lives post-grad?
We have a clear mission at Providence College that we want to build championship scholars and student athletes that when they graduate they go out and impact the world in a positive way.
Bob: That’s a really good question. As somebody who is doing what I am doing today it’s because of what I’ve learned in sports. We have a clear mission at Providence College that we want to build championship scholars and student athletes that when they graduate they go out and impact the world in a positive way. We use sport to teach the core values of hard work, dedication, persistence, mental toughness: all the things you know will make you successful in life. Then through sports and building the concept of being a great teammate, a selfless teammate, you learn those kinds of things that will allow you to be successful. I think people imagine they do things on their own but you don’t build anything of value without having people around you. You aren’t always going to be the quarterback, leading scorer or AD but you play an important role. I think sports teaches you things. You aren’t going to win all the time, you’ve got to learn how to prepare, be disciplined and have a positive mindset. I really believe sport provides you with a unique opportunity to grow as a human being and we probably need that more than ever. And that is part of why I do what I do, to help create good people in the world.
John: What is something that is part of your scope of work that most people do not know about?
Bob: Every day is completely different. I may start the day with a list of ten things I want to do but I will end up doing ten other things that I had no idea I was going to have to do, particularly during a pandemic. You have to have a long term vision for your program, but you have to be willing to adapt in the moment. An example would be that we were supposed to play men’s/women’s hockey this weekend. We were all teed up and ready to go but because of the pandemic, one of our young people ended up testing positive for COVID, then we have to do contact tracing, we have to find all the people who are in close proximity and cancel the game, notify the Hockey East, the ADs, the schools, etc. So you go from having to do these ten things but now something else will happen. I just spent an hour and a half over the phone talking about this new variant coming out with regards to Covid and how that’s going to impact the next iteration of this infection. Will the virus be able to be controlled by this vaccination? We had one plan, now all of a sudden there is another plan. Can we play the Big East tournament, can we play the NCAA tournament? It changes from moment to moment. The other thing is managing your own mental health and wellbeing. You’re dealing with a lot of negative energy and issues coming your way so how do you stay in the most positive state that you can so that you can be a leader? My job is to lead my two hundred and fifty student athletes and one hundred and twenty five people. If I don’t have my stuff together, I can’t lead them. It’s a constant challenge about leadership but it’s what makes it fun for me. I’m never bored. I’m sitting here having this conversation. I had no idea I was going to be talking to you until last week and yet again I’m having a conversation with someone who is interested in my world. That’s fun.
John: What has been the most challenging part of dealing with the effects of the pandemic and Covid-19?
Bob: I think the mental health aspect of it. Yeah, you’re going through it and I’m going through it but young people who are used to being in social situations can no longer be in that social situation, oftentimes in quarantine for fourteen days, not in class; there is a lot of depression that comes with that. Sometimes alcohol or drug abuse as well comes from that. There is a lot of sadness and disappointment. Imagine being in college right now and not being able to hang out with your friends. The mental health side of this is really difficult. How do you support young people who are evolving and growing in that world? We are fortunate in athletics that we have the concept of a team sticking together, Friar family sticking together, but if you are a general student and you don’t have a support system around you, that’s a real challenge. Finance is a big piece. We are taking a huge financial hit. We are losing five million dollars in ticket sales, seat licensing and box money. We lost a whole year of units from the NCAA. That affects people’s jobs, retirement, everything you do. The financial part of it is real. We also have people that are getting this disease. Some people are sick and some people aren’t. I’ve had colleagues and friends die from it, so we are dealing with that. It’s really unprecedented times so it’s difficult for any leader to do their job.
John: I can imagine. On the flip side of that, what is one of the most rewarding parts of your job?
Bob: I think helping people and teaching people a concept of gratitude and appreciation. When I’m having a tough day and I get a text message or email from one of my student athletes or coaches saying, “Hey thank you and your staff for helping get through this difficult time.” A former student athlete that may of gotten married and just had a child, and sends a note saying, “I’ve got a new Friar.” It’s kind of planting seeds amongst your teammates you’ve known for forty six years throughout your life. I just love being a teacher, mentor and a coach. I wouldn’t change my existence for it. It’s a purposeful life even during this difficult time; talking to other people, trying to coach them, trying to help them through what I’ve learned in my lifetime. It’s completely rewarded. I get paid to do something that I would do for free.
John: That’s awesome. Is there something personally that you are trying to learn right now, or a skill that you are trying to improve?
Bob: I’m trying to improve every day. I’m a serious meditater so I’m trying to refine my mindset so I can evolve to the next level. I have a life coach that I work with on a weekly basis to get better in a lot of areas, how to communicate better, how to have more empathy, how to take better care of my own personal health and well being. How do I bring the best of who I am on a daily basis? I’m trying to coach my coaches making sure they have a clear vision and strategic plan. We are going through an audit on all of our programs because I want to have my people to have a growth mindset. These are difficult times and you have a choice of either complaining about it and being a victim or you can look to the silver lining and what’s the growth as a result of this? For somebody like me who is older, who gets beat up during the seasons by traveling 24/7, working seven days a week, this has been a great pause for me to reflect and take care of my health better. There is always the opportunity to get better if you’re actually seeking to get better. I look at these opportunities and breakdowns as an chance for breakthroughs. You can come out better if you look for it.
John: Any good books that you’ve read of the last year that you recommend to people?
Bob: Interesting you said that. My daughter just sent me a book called the Five Minute Journal. It’s a tool to positively change your life. I’ve been journaling a lot with that. I’ve just had two books sent to me, one on the great John Thompson, a coach from Georgetown who just passed away. I don’t know if you know this but John Thompson is a Providence College grad. His book is titled I Came As a Shadow. It’s a very powerful book on what it was like to be one of the most powerful African American coaches in college basketball along with the racism and social unrest he went through in his career. Interestingly enough I met a young coach about ten years ago who came and introduced himself. We’ve been talking back and forth ever since and he just sent me a book called, High Performance Habits by #1 New York Times bestselling author Brendon Buchard.
John: Under your direction, Providence College has upgraded their facilities tremendously, won national championships, and has recruited some of the top players in the country in various sports. What are your goals for the future?
Bob: I want us to be the model program in all of college athletics. I want us to be the most respected program in the nation. In other words, I want to have our student athletes represent us with dignity and class not only here but when they go out in the world. Secondly, my goal is that every student athlete graduates. We graduate 96% which is in the top 1% but I want every single student athlete to graduate. I’m a first generation college graduate and it transformed my life. Education is the key to success. Thirdly, I want to compete for championships and I want to win as many championships as we can but if we don’t win the championships I want us to compete for championships. Lastly, I want us to be a leader in mental health because I think the mental health of our student athletes and people in general has been behind closed doors. I want to create a world where people can talk about it freely and not look at it as a limitation. Lastly, I want to be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion. I want to help our people grow in that particular area, help hire more men and women of color and create leadership opportunities for them. I think these are real problems in our society. We are a team here in Friar Town and I think we can deal with those things because we’ve got a very diverse culture and can have those real conversations whereas a lot of places don’t have the diversity to begin having the conversation.
John: That’s all I have on my end. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to chat with me. I will definitely be in touch and send you the edited transcript once that’s done.
Bob: Thanks for your interest and thanks for being a Friar.