Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute interim athletic director Dr. Lee McElroy, who served as the University at Albany AD for 14 years, was selected to receive the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association (MOAA) Distinguished Service Award this week for his dedication in promoting the understanding and appreciation of diversity.
Reached by phone from the MOAA Symposium in Orlando, Fla., McElroy discussed his award, as well as several other topics in a Q&A.
The former three-year letterman for the UCLA football team has received numerous honors in his long career in athletic administration, including the ECAC Athletic Director of the Year in 2014. He’s a former president of the National Association of College Athletic Directors, was named to that organization’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and was president of the America East Board of Directors in both 2007 and 2011. During his tenure, UAlbany won three America East Commissioner’s Cups as the most outstanding athletic department in the conference. The Great Danes also upgraded their facilities, including the building of their state-of-the-art Bob Ford Field.
Q: Talk about what the MOAA Distinguished Service Award means.
A: I am honored and humbled to receive this outstanding award. Previous recipients of this award are titans of our industry, and I’m pleased to be included among them.
This is my 31st year in our industry, and I’ve been very fortunate working at five institutions [associate athletic director at Houston and AD at American University, California State University, UAlbany and RPI]. One of things I always prided myself on was identifying young people who want to join our profession. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve had the opportunity to assist a lot fine young people who are doing well in our profession.
Q: How did your first half-year go as interim AD? Were you surprised at this stage of your life to be asked to fill this position?
A: I was surprised by Dr. Shirley Jackson’s request. Not only was I surprised, but it was all about timing. In our business, someone may reach out to you in the summer or the beginning of the academic year — certainly not in the middle. When Jim [former AD Jim Knowlton] left for Air Force, it left an opportunity. Dr. Jackson is a forward-looking person. What she wants to do is maintain a trajectory for her program, and that’s why she contacted me.
Q: What are the major differences between your job at RPI and your previous job at UAlbany?
A: The public vs. private jumps out at you. We have about the same number of student-athletes. It’s very similar. There were about 550 at UAlbany and 580 at Rensselaer. Of the 23 programs at Rensselaer, 21 are DIII. One of the biggest differences is that most kids are self financing their education here at Rensselaer. Only about 30 to 40 percent of our student-athletes were self financing their education at UAlbany.
The biggest thing is you really have to dig deep to raise funds here. At UAlbany, we got over $80 million for facilities, and we got some help from the state. You don’t have that at a private institution like Rensselaer. I spend time every day making sure our alumni and corporate partners understand what it takes to make our athletic teams go.
I spent five years at American, which was also a private institution, but the difference is Rensselaer is a top-50 academic school in the country. There is a lot of competition for athletes and for funding. We’re doing the same thing we did at UAlbany and the same things we were doing at American and Sacramento, and that’s balancing athletics, academics and leadership.
Q: What is the achievement you are most proud of after 14 years at UAlbany?
A: Several people have asked that of me. For one thing, we increased the amount of full-time coaches at UAlbany by quite a lot. We also had to improve the facilities and increase our resources. What came first was investing in people. I hired every coach except for Roberto [Vives]. We got outstanding coaches with outstanding athletes. The next piece was investing in our infrastructure. Along with our staff and our resources, things came together, and it all took off.
Q: What are your plans for staying at RPI if any?
A: I still don’t know. I’m going to stay as long as Dr. Jackson wants me. To be frank, she’s been quite busy, and I’ve been busy on the road. We’ll sit down at some point, and she will let me know what are her expectations. Right now, I’m having a ball. I go to work every day enjoying it. I’m getting to know my athletes. Jim Knowlton left a tremendous staff and some outstanding facilities here at Rensselaer. We’re just now starting to plan for 2015-16.
Q: If you are staying at RPI for the near future, are there any plans for renovations, upgrades, etc.?
A: What we want to do is make sure Dr. Jackson’s priorities and her goals for Rensselaer are followed. No. 2, we must make sure the best people are in place to let her accomplish those goals. We must be on the same page and make sure her staff is on the same page.
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