Joe Sterrett is probably the most distinguished member of the Lehigh family, but you’d never know it from his unpretentious and accessible manner…nor, of course, from the location of his office – in the Lehigh Athletic Department.
But consider what he has accomplished. Joe has been Lehigh’s Athletic Director for 19 years, a visible and competitive position, during which time Lehigh’s teams have consistently posted winning records – for men and women. Lehigh has won eight Patriot League football titles, more than any other school. In addition, our coaches are regularly recruited away for more senior jobs at schools with more money and bigger programs – Stanford, Princeton, and Cornell are building wrestling reputations with ex-Lehigh coaches.
Joe is widely respected in NCAA circles, and Lehigh athletes have always been recognized for their academic achievements and high graduation rates. He’s hustled enough to get seven of his coaches endowed chairs, and – quite appropriately–three years ago Lehigh’s trustees gave him a boost, honoring him as the Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics. He has raised enough money to build or renovate virtually all of Lehigh’s athletic facilities.
When he was an undergraduate in the 1970s, Joe suffered through his sophomore and junior years as an over-qualified back-up quarterback, but in his senior year he exploded. Finally put in charge of the Lehigh offense, his team set school records for total yards gained (5,037), total points (409), and he personally set a school record of 22 touchdown passes. Lehigh finished 9-3, beating Penn, Rutgers, Delaware, and Lafayette in the regular season, and then advancing to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Joe began his professional career here at the bottom, serving as assistant football coach for seven years and then moving on to the admissions department.
He earned his Doctorate in Education from Temple and he still teaches (with Vince Munley of the Economics Department) a course for undergraduates on the economics of the sports industry.
Even better, all of his four children attended Lehigh.
This is a tough resume to beat.
Joe took time out of a busy day to talk with The Lehigh Patriot about his job, the school, and his ideas about education. This is what he thinks.
What are the main priorities of your job as Lehigh’s Athletic Director?
A. First, there is always a need to affirm the value of sports programming, even organized recreational programming, within the structure of higher education. There are always people who will probably forever believe that sports aren’t central, that they are not important.
There is always stress around the question of funding. We are constantly being reexamined, because no one wants to fund superfluous activities. I wouldn’t call it a battle, but there is tension. There is a need to constantly reaffirm that we are doing the right things and that we belong, that we matter a great deal in the development of young people – in their intellectual development as well as with the obvious physical development.
What’s mission number two?
A. Another is the financial model. We fund about 20 positions ourselves, not all through fundraising, but also from external events, rents from facilities, and things like that. We run a bunch of different businesses, and the purpose of those businesses is to deliver the resources that will allow us to have the kind of programming that is necessary here. We have to create the right model which can be sustained.
A. Then there is the human challenge of dealing with bunches of kids in an environment today in which a lot of them feel a good deal of stress. So we must manage the professional lives of coaches and the educational lives of kids – that’s a challenge.
Talk about the stresses on coaches and staff? What is that all about?
A. Well, first of all, they are their own strongest critics. What they do is on a stage that is much more measurable than other endeavors, so there is an inherent insecurity about whether or not they are good enough. They are always asking, are we winning enough games? Am I reaching the kids as effectively as I should?
On the other hand, part of their job is recognizing that part of their educational responsibility requires being challenged, being measured, and achieving outcomes. Our programs are not all about winning and losing, but, like any teacher, if you don’t have enough success to sustain your credibility, students won’t take your course. Kids won’t come to the institution to play for a coach that doesn’t have credibility. Like it or not, it is the reality of the world that you have to achieve good results.
How do you manage the stress between departments like yours…and perhaps theater and music…and the rest of the school where there is no clear measure, there is no exit testing, there is no real measure of achievement?
A. I hope that’s not true, but I hear you. But let me say this: number one, this is a fundamental characteristic of our world and we accept it. It is what it is. We have scoreboards. Frankly, we like scoreboards because there is clarity about them. Often in society we are unwilling to admit the there is a winner and a loser. We’ve created this whole middle ground where it’s about just being a part of something.
That’s all warm and fuzzy, and that’s fine, but most of the things that matter in life have more clarity than that. You don’t have relationships that have real meaning and value unless there is clarity about the importance of those relationships and the sacrifices that have to be made. Many people don’t get that.
Of course we can’t let the scoreboard become so consuming that we only measure ourselves in that way. But we’re not afraid of scoreboards.
Tell me more about what goes on, what you do, when you have a losing season.
A. First of all you analyze the heck out of why these results occurred. Did you have the passion? Did you have the conviction? You have to aspire to get good results, so you must make a commitment. We might be tempted to say, “Well, if we could just take some more marginal students we could get better results.” We know that results matter. But we want to be successful with kids that meet our parameters.
We want kids that are not distinguishable from other students academically.
Our all-athlete GPA is within a couple of hundredths of the all-university average. Our women do better than our all-student average and just a bit below the all-women average, and we are actually better than the school average when you measure the percentage of students on academic probation.
We also look at values that are important to this department and that are presumed to be important to the institution, like the commitment to serve others. There are many things that our kids do on their own, like raising money for charities.
We also try to evaluate the experience of being an athlete at Lehigh. We conduct exit interviews with our graduating seniors so they can tell us where we can do a better job. I think they would like to have better academic advisors, not only with courses but with their careers. Also, they’d like the social life to be a little bit more diversified.
What do you mean by that?
A. I think they’d like to see less focus on alcohol. You know, athletes generally do what the pack does because so much of what they do with varsity athletics requires so much time that they don’t want to put a lot of energy into their social lives. I know they’re not all angels, but they do understand the negative impact of alcohol.
What specifically do you do with losing teams? What do you say to the players so that they don’t feel the whole business was a mess?
A. Well, we begin by asking of everyone, “what could you have done to make your experience more successful?” It is human nature for a kid of this age to point the finger elsewhere, that if we are not successful it’s because of my coach, or because I don’t have the facilities, or the other guy is doing more than we are. What we try to do is to say, that may be true–we cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibilities here–but we want to find out what you could have done. Is there a level of commitment that was not as high as it should have been? This is a real analytical process. But if you accept that where you are is all you are ever going to be you have relegated yourself to an unsuccessful program.
My aspiration is to have every kid graduate and to have every team win all the time. These are not expectations, but it is what we shoot for.
Most people are afraid of being beaten, afraid of failing. It is a hard experience. But in your world, and perhaps in life in general, it seems that brittleness is not possible. If you are never subjected to this kind of risk of humiliation you don’t understand that a person can gain a strength knowing that he has been through the worst and “hey, I’m still here.”
A. Of course. But then you must ask yourself, did we get our butts kicked because they were just flat out better than we were? But still, you’ve got to ask, Could we have been more focused? Could we have executed better than we did? And this likely outcome is that, yes, we could have done better. And if we could have, we should aspire to do better. You’ve got to develop the resilience to get up after you’ve been knocked down.
Is there a fundamental difference between an athletic and an academic culture?
A. There is but I’m not sure that there should be. At the core they are both educational cultures. Our classrooms happen to be outdoors, or in water, or on mats, but they are all learning environments. The culture of learning here should not be different from the culture of learning in the classrooms. Good learning should be based on personal integrity, discipline, commitment to doing your best. If you build your life on your pretensions, you are going to struggle in life.
What, then, does it take to be a successful Athletic Director?
A. I don’t know. I wouldn’t presume to say that I am successful. But in the end the only real measures are long-term outcomes, even though we are measured by shorter-term results. What matters is that we had a meaningful and significant impact on the development of young people, and do they look back on this experience and say, “It mattered to me. It influenced who I am.” We’d like this to be crystal clear when they walk out of here with their diploma.
Is there any disconnect between college sports and the world these students will encounter when they leave here?
A. There is an obvious disconnect because you are no longer doing the same things. Rarely are you training in the same way that you did before. But life is competitive, relationships are competitive, raising children is challenging, actually competitive – that is, if you establish in your mind that you want to do it as well as it can be done, then you will have many days when you realize you are not doing it all that well. You will always get knocked down. You are not being beaten by someone else, but you are not reaching your own aspirations.
Should freshmen be forced to get into the athletic program in some way, so that it becomes part of their life at Lehigh?
A. It does make sense to have a physical education component to a Lehigh education. But there is no obligation for kids who come here to take advantage of these facilities, and unfortunately, people who don’t learn to balance their physical care with their jobs and intellectual efforts will realize this.
There is also a spiritual element here too. That’s part of inner balance of self and wellness. People who are spiritually grounded, physically active, and intellectually active have a peace about them that is healthy. All those elements are ultimately important in life, particularly because the collegiate experience is supposed to be preparing students for the rest of their lives. It is an old and grave supposition that we are doing that, and we certainly ought to be keeping this as an aspiration.
Is the spiritual component an obligation of the university, like a physical or intellectual component is?
A. I believe it is. I don’t mean this necessarily as religion, although that is one way to address it. There is an awful lot about human kind that we do not understand; there are things that we do have to take on faith. Once we acknowledge that we are not in control of all of that, it will give us a level of peace that allows us to achieve what we can.
Is this addressed anywhere here?
A. In a formal way? No, I don’t think so. Informally, I think it is happening.
Doesn’t physical training force you to face and deal with your limits? And isn’t this itself a spiritual activity, or something approaching it?
A. You’re right, but at the same time you are doing that, we are always trying to realistically stretch that. You are capable of more than you think you are.
If we had a team that won all the time, it would be my obligation to challenge them at a higher level, to change their schedule so that the odds would be that they would not be so successful. Losing tells you something about yourself. It gives you an opportunity to do better.
What do sports automatically teach people that they are unlikely to learn anywhere else?
A. This clarity about self. You are constantly measuring effort as well as output. How do you measure against external competition? Also, with our teams, there is a fundamental dependence on others. One of the problems with living in a fraternity or sorority is the question, “what is the common objective that we all share?” There is an ambiguity there.
In sports, all we want to do is win. Then we have to figure out how to make this happen. This is even true in individual sports. You have people to work out with, people to run against, people to push you into training.
Athletics also require courage. There is no place for a wrestler to hide out on the mat. There is only one other person out there. In a race, in a swim meet, that is true too.
Is there anything special we owe to scholarship athletes, to kids who come here to play for Lehigh?
A. I don’t view it that way. I think we owe every kid that is here our very best. Some are here with scholarship assistance that may not be related to their talents, but we owe the same thing to everyone.
How do you deal with the African-American athletes that are so much a part of your varsity program?
A. We are blessed because we have clarity of shared purpose over here that may not exist all over campus. People join us because they want to be part of a successful program, and it doesn’t matter if you are black or white or rich or poor. You must contribute to that clearly stated collective objective. We are in it together. Broadly defined educational objectives will vary. Some have social agendas, some have financial agendas…
What sports are you most fond of yourself?
A. I’ve never been asked that question. I have an emotional attachment to football because I have played here and coached here. And I’m interested in softball because I have a daughter (Julie) who played here. I enjoy basketball too. But I have a deep appreciation of what these kids go through.
Are women’s sports doing as well as men’s sports, in terms of enthusiasm and results?
A. Oh yes. If anything, there is a natural enthusiasm in women’s sports that men’s sports may lack. They are less concerned about appearances, they don’t mind having fun. Too many guys approach it as a job.
One last question: Will there ever be a university president selected from an athletic department?
A. I don’t think here. But it would be a good idea and it might happen. When people begin to look at it and say running an athletic department is really a management challenge, a visionary challenge, and not an academic job, the slate of candidates can get much more open–it could include anybody.