My Cool Sports Job was fired up to spend time with Tom Bowen and share musings from our recent interview. “Tommy B” as he is affectionately known by his friends has gone from the seminary and the verge of being a priest to his current role as the Director of Athletics at the University of Memphis. He has been at the helm of the Memphis Tigers athletics department since 2012. Tom is known for not only being gregarious and a great fund-raiser but also for turning collegiate football programs into perennial winners. His last two career stops have seen unprecedented success and football teams qualifying for bowl games.
Have you always had a passion for sports?
For sure, as a kid I was a huge fan of all sports but particularly football. I loved watching college and professional football when I was a kid in Atlanta. I knew early on when I started teaching and coaching while I was still in the seminary that it was a perfect plan for me. I had a role model that was a priest in Chicago by the name of Father Bill Seetch. He showed me that I could use my vocation to teach and coach. So I started out in the high school ranks and started on my journey.
What did you think were cool jobs during your formative years?
Once I left the seminary before becoming a priest I thought I would teach in Catholic schools and still be a coach. I truly wanted to still use my vocation to help others even though I ended up going in a different direction than priesthood. After my formative studies I didn’t lose my vocation and I still wanted to serve and was pulled to the Catholic education system. In those days I never saw anything beyond that and so assumed that was my future. In the early days I never dreamed that I would work for an NFL team or end up in a division 1 AD’s chair.
Share a brief history about your career path?
This will be fun and I will try to keep it brief but the path is getting longer. I started out at St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs where I got my start in coaching and teaching. After getting some invaluable experience I moved out to the Bay and a series of jobs that allowed me to stay in the Bay Area for a couple decades. First stop was nine years at De La Salle High School as varsity football coach that rolled into an administrative role at the school . I enjoyed administration and liked being able to make an impact in the lives of coaches and kids. In 1995, I went to Saint Mary’s College in Maraga and worked in an administrative role writing grants and supporting academic deans. I enjoyed the move to the college space and getting experience on the academic side, which helped me throughout my career to keep a better perspective on the academic side of the institution. Eventually, my role evolved into the athletics department and I became AD at Saint Mary’s.
My next stop was at Cal-Berkeley as Associate AD where I worked for John Kasser, the AD at that time. Then I moved into professional sports for the first time when I took the job as VP of Community Affairs with the San Francisco 49’ers. I enjoyed running their foundation and thrived in the fund raising business for the Niners for three years. Bill Walsh, a friend, mentor, and graduate of San Jose State then convinced me to take the Athletics Director job at SJSU and so my career moved back into the collegiate arena. I did resist some at first because I enjoyed the role with the 49’ers but Bill Walsh is a hard man to say “no” to so I took the job. After eight years at San Jose State a search committee brought me to the Memphis job. They were looking for someone to “fix” football and help turn the program around, which is what I had done at San Jose State. I have now been at Memphis for four years and have thoroughly enjoyed the team of people I have assembled which has created successes never seen before on the field and across the department.
Who has inspired you along your path?
First and foremost is my wife Mia who has been at my side and my biggest champion from day one. She has been my biggest inspiration consistently throughout my career. The list of the other people who have both inspired me and supported me is very long and I will leave some out but for sure people like Kevin Anderson, Bill Walsh, John Kasser, Tom Jernstedt, Ced Dempsey, Barbara Hedges, Kathy Andrews, and Steven Kay have been instrumental in my success. In my early years I learned so much from everyone at the NCAA offices and they were so important to my success getting into the business.
Career highlight or accomplishment you are most proud?
From starting out as a high school teacher and coach, I never thought I would work in the NFL or be a sitting AD at a Division I school. It has been a true blessing. However, I would have never been able to accomplish those things without being surrounded by great people. I am so proud of the individuals I have hired and have truly benefited from being around those talented people. It makes me proud to see the coaches and administrators that have succeeded around me and hopefully I provided an environment that allowed them to flourish. I have found success by surrounding myself with great team members and having great student-athletes.
If you took a different career path what would it have been?
I would love to get paid just to teach young people how to love and lead and deal with other people. My strength is building relationships through courage, integrity and valor while mentoring young people into future leaders. Just getting back to those basic pillars in some capacity would be awesome.
Advice for making it in the intercollegiate athletics side of the sports industry?
First and foremost, it is a grind and not easy. It takes a very long time to get into an athletic director position. Being an assistant AD for two years does not mean you’re going to get that promotion in year three, but the next job may bloom quickly into a promotion after one year. Don’t get frustrated if you go to University Y and do a great job but don’t get promoted. Embrace humility and also don’t worry about making small mistakes. Patience is critical when you begin a career in the sports industry. I think advanced degrees can be important but it is more important to work for the right people. In many cases we have done a disservice to people getting advance degrees by not teaching them the importance of working for good people and learning from great leaders. Be who you are and associate with people with the same core values. One of my favorite quotes in regards to leadership, “I am more afraid of a 100 sheep led by one lion than 100 lions led by one sheep.” A position of leadership is tied to personal character that has a special DNA that helps make good and bad decisions.
Success in this industry is also about your moral character and your effort. Work far above and beyond what people expect and with great intensity and good things will happen. There are no guarantees and no entitlements, but hard work and integrity will pay off every time. I also think relationships are a key part of success. The ability to form true relationships will really matter over chasing titles and positions; that route doesn’t build anything, it just creates a reputation as being shallow and someone who is trying to work the system. Once you get in a position to make decisions and do the hiring, make sure you get the right people and surround yourself with great folks. There is a consistent pattern of successful people who create great teams within their department and their collective force is unstoppable.
Favorite motivational quote for future leaders?
“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, life is about learning how to dance in the rain”
Any tips for a work/life balance because the Sports industry is a grind?
I don’t assume that my wife works for me and when I walk in the door of my home I have no title other than husband and father. At home I am just dad/husband and try to be a regular guy with no entitlements. Family and work/life balance is extremely important to me and should be to everyone when evaluating a job. I try to make my staff feel like family and have staff include their families at work events as much as possible. Unfortunately, you can’t be in the sports world if you don’t integrate family into work because it is an 80-90 hour work week. Nobody should miss their husband, family or dad and have separate silos for work and home because of the time commitments. I try to bring my wife and kids to events, games or matches or games as much as possible. My advice for others on this topic would be if your family is not welcome at work or included as part of the athletics department family then get out and find a new job. A miserable home life will not make any job worth it.
Okay, lets mix it up and close with some fun quick hitters:
Name your dream golf foursome? Exclusive fivesome of all lefties, Pop and my brothers Tim, Patrick, Danny
What is your favorite movie of all time? Rudy and Braveheart
Favorite book? Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch
Top 3 favorite athletes of all time? Hank Aaron, Joe Montana and Jack Nicklaus
If you had to move to a different country where would it be? Italy and more specifically Rome
What was your favorite TV show as a kid or growing up? Happy Days and then Cheers
Where is your favorite place to vacation? Pebble Beach
Three items you would take to a deserted island? Matches, blanket and a nice bottle of scotch
Favorite game to play as a kid? Monopoly and Stick Ball
Hobby that would surprise people? I play Irish music all my life and at times even played in an Irish Band
Do you have a favorite charity you support? St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, such a profound place ever time I enter
Childhood idol? Tommy Nobis who was middle linebacker of the Atlanta Falcons in the 60’s and often known as Mr. Falcon
Visit the University of Memphis Athletics here.
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