ALBANY — Barely out of college, she was encouraged by her mother to apply for The College of Saint Rose’s opening for a part-time women’s basketball head coach.
At the time, a 21-year-old Cathy Cummings Haker was teaching swimming lessons, fresh off a three-sport career at Hartwick College that had followed her years starring at Bethlehem High School.
She had played basketball in college, but had never coached. With some prodding, though, she took her mother’s advice and applied for the job.
“And,” Haker said, “they hired me.”
That was in 1976.
And, now, Friday?
“That’s my hand-in-the-keys day,” Haker, 64, said earlier this week.
Decades after Haker was hired as a basketball coach for an athletic department that consisted of only men’s and women’s basketball teams, Haker’s tenure at Saint Rose ends after she guided the department to consisting of 19 Division II programs. Several years after Haker started coaching at the school, she became Saint Rose’s athletic director.
Earlier this month, the school announced her retirement. In her years at Saint Rose, Haker led a dramatic expansion of the school’s athletic venues and guided the college through a variety of affiliations until its modern home in the Northeast-10 Conference.
In advance of her last day at Saint Rose, Haker sat down to discuss her career with The Daily Gazette. Here are some of the highlights. (Answers have been edited for space.)
Question: When you first started coaching, you were the same age as some of your players. How were you as a coach?
Answer: I was the head cheerleader. I was one of those coaches that, on the bench — I wasn’t standing up and going crazy or anything — but if we were running a 1-3-1 zone, we’d call it “13” and I’d be [shouting] “13, 13.” Just too into it. But it worked. I was very positive. In fact, if I ever went into practice and something wasn’t going right or I was irritated, the first thing I’d question was if it was me having a bad day. One of the other things I remember is that when I called a timeout, I always knew what I wanted to say — but I was always afraid of when the other coach calls a timeout, what am I going to say in that timeout? That’s how raw I was, but I did get over that pretty quick.
Q: What does it mean to be a “part-time” basketball coach?
A: It’s part-time pay, but full-time work. But, back then, I really didn’t have to do any recruiting. Whoever showed up, that was who was on the team. Certainly, at the Division II level now, it’s very different, but in the humble beginnings, it was put the signs up, come to campus, meet with people. I think I had nine athletes my first year. They were a wonderful group. Very talented. But you did everything. Fortunately, in college, I took a sports medicine class, so I knew how to tape an ankle and a knee.
Q: You coached for a dozen seasons and were already the athletic director before you stopped coaching. How did the progression start to you having both jobs at the same time?
A: After the first year when I was part-time, I was called in and I was invited to move on campus. They had a combo job for me where I was the basketball coach and I was one of the resident coordinators. So I lived in a house on campus and ate in the dining hall every day. I knew everybody because I ate three meals a day with the students. But I also was the coordinator of recreation.
Q: Then, a few years later, you became the school’s first full-time athletic director?
A: I’m the one and only.
Q: Was there a point where you decided — or realized — that you’d always stay at Saint Rose? Was the goal to stay in one place your whole career?
A: It didn’t start out that way. I just got the coaching job and opportunities came up. Then, we were [in the process] of all this expansion and development. And, again, I was living on campus until just a few years before I got married. . . . But I don’t think I ever said, “Yes, this is it, I’m not looking anywhere else.” I just kept doing my job and reaching higher.
Q: College athletic director positions remain, by a vast majority, held by men. How would you describe your experience working in a male-dominated field?
A: People have asked me over the years about barriers and being a female athletic director, and I feel really fortunate that I never felt like a female AD at the table. I was an AD at the table. So the respect I got from my colleagues — at least what I saw — was that I never saw any prejudice. There probably were people who interacted with me more than others, but I never took it as “Well, I’m the female AD in the room.” I just came in and what I saw were the other colleagues. But I will say . . . when I went to the NCAA [conventions], you definitely knew you were in a minority. There were all these blue suits and black suits — and, then, a few women, really.
Q: What makes now the time to step away?
A: It was a progression. My mom was ill last year and ended up passing away in November, so I was spending a lot of time with her and I was doing work at the house whenever I could, and it kind of opened the door for me to other possibilities. On the opposite of that sad side, I became a grandmother in September and they live locally — my son and daughter-in-law live locally — and I started spending some time with that. They both work, so I could help out with the baby, and whenever I picked her up, the world melted away and I realized I liked that feeling. It was just me and this beautiful child. So life changes have occurred over the last year and kind of opened doors for me, and the door got open wider and wider.
Q: Had you thought previously of retirement?
A: My original plan was 2020 — that’s the 100th anniversary of the college — and I’m turning 65, so it just seemed like that was a logical place to consider. But it wasn’t really until two years ago that I even thought about it at all. Prior to that, I thought I could never leave Saint Rose. I love my work. I love the challenges. I love working with the students. I love the employees. The community. It’s been my entire adult life spent here, and I really thought I would never be able to leave.
Q: So, do you leave completely? Or will you be at Saint Rose games next school year?
A: The only way I could emotionally manage this is by telling everyone, ‘You’ll see me again. You’ll see me again.’ So my line has been that unless it’s raining, snowing or is too cold, I’ll be there. I’ll be leaning on the fence or be in the bleachers. I’ll be the one with a big smile on my face, not a care in the world. I’ll be a fan.