Athletic Director Sheehy hones in on student-athlete experience
By Daniel Bornstein , The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, August 17, 2012
Throughout his career to date, Athletic Director Harry Sheehy has been a leader in promoting the student-athlete emphasis that sets Ivy League athletic programs apart from those at other schools. In his 17-year-long tenure as men’s basketball coach at Williams College, he compiled the third-highest winning percentage in Division III history. He then spent 10 years as the athletic director at Williams, which has received 13 of the 14 Director’s Cups for Division III, awarded annually to the most athletically successful school.
This August marks the completion of Sheehy’s second year at Dartmouth, where he has maintained a strong committment to promoting both athletics and academics, a priority he adopted first at Williams.
“There is no better example of this than Harry’s creation of Dartmouth Peak Performance, which simultaneously promotes academic, athletic and personal excellence,” Deputy Athletic Director Bob Ceplikas ’78 said. “Our teams are already improving competitively, and we’re now the nation’s top Division I athletic program in NCAA Academic Progress Rate.”
Sheehy said that the values of Ivy League athletics — which use “games as vehicles to teach” — renders his job radically different from that of his counterparts who oversee the most nationally prominent athletic programs.
“The difference is that those institutions are relying on one or two sports for generating revenue,” Sheehy said. The growing businesslike mentality of college sports has led schools and athletic directors to put tremendous pressure on their football and basketball coaches to consistently produce winning teams. Yet, because of Dartmouth’s focus on “broad-based participation” — its 34 varsity teams far outnumber some of the more well-known sports programs — Sheehy said he does not just promote the sports that tend to garner the most public attention. Therefore Sheehy’s message to his coaches is not merely about producing results, but about enhancing the overall Dartmouth experience for student-athletes, he said.
“Dartmouth is not going to be a great institution because of its athletic program, but we will be a great athletic program because we have a world-class institution,” Sheehy said.
While Sheehy leaves the recruiting process to team coaches, he often meets with prospective student-athletes and their families, driving home the point that being an athlete at Dartmouth is an exceptional opportunity to learn at a teaching-focused school and compete at the Division I level.
Sheehy said he feels that Dartmouth and Williams are remarkably similar in their emphasis on teaching and their loyal alumni body. At Dartmouth, however, he has observed fewer problems with athletes missing classes in order to travel to competitions. The women’s soccer team, for example, is able to take many of its road trips prior to the start of the Fall term to avoid major academic conflicts.
Sheehy is a basketball man at heart. Not only has he coached at Williams, but he has also played both there and, for eight years, with Athletes-in-Action, a faith-based organization. But, perhaps surprisingly, he is no more engaged with the Dartmouth basketball program than he is with any other Big Green team. He even joked that he can hardly remember the strategies he used to design as a coach. In the first year of his transition from coach to administrator at Williams, he barely set in foot the basketball practice gym.
Sheehy said he does, however, talk regularly with men’s basketball coach Paul Cormier and sees potential for the team to improve from its weaker performances in recent years. He has noted that a basketball team only requires a few talented recruits each year to boost its competitiveness, whereas any football program would need a significant number to do so.
“We need to get young men whose talent is in the realm of the talent of the rest of the Ivy League and then coach them well,” Sheehy said.
One challenge for Dartmouth basketball, however, is that the other Ivies’ basketball programs have been growing stronger, making it difficult for Dartmouth to attract the top recruits in the limited pool from which Ivy League teams choose, he said.
One of Kim’s most widely-respected moves was to give Sheehy a direct phone line to the President’s Office, generating optimism among some that athletics was becoming a greater priority of the administration. Sheehy and Kim could also often be seen standing on the sideline together watching home games.
“His involvement in the College’s senior leadership team has enabled him to strengthen our relationships with other key divisions, such as advancement, admissions and campus planning,” Ceplikas said.
Annual alumni contributions to Dartmouth athletics have soared in recent years, a testament to Sheehy’s extensive traveling to build relationships with alumni, Ceplikas said.