I know a lot of students are seeking a career path in college athletics so it was a pleasure to sit down with Fred Smith and now share his story. Fred has been at Northwestern University for three years and is currently the Associate Athletic Director for Development. His key role is to secure resources and funding that allow Northwestern Athletics to provide a world-class experience for their student-athletes. Fred is a cool guy with a cool job working in Evanston, which is definitely a very cool place to go every morning for work.
Have you always had a passion for sports? I have, I always loved sports. It was always a great way to get out of the house and be outside. I was an only child so it was great playing sports with all the kids in the neighborhood. We also kind of rallied around sports for fun.
What did you think were cool jobs during your formative years? You know I kind of went with the whole doctors or lawyers for real professions but then evolved to professional athletes and rock stars, ideas like that. But as I got older and matured in my formative years and got more serious, I kind of liked the idea of sports medicine. My dream job at that time would have been to be the team doctor for the “Dream Team” because I was in high school and it was right about the time of the ’92 Olympics.
Share a brief history about your career path? The light bulb kind of came on my last year of college when I was at the University of Michigan getting my degree in Economics. That year I took some additional classes in sports business and found out there are a lot of different jobs beyond just coaching or a team doctor role.
For me it was kind of a “who do you know” kind of thing that got my first break right out of college. My first job was in athletic academic advising at UNLV. I worked in that role for about a year and during that year I got to know people in the athletic department. I liked the idea of working with a lot of different people and building relationships while helping the athletic cause. Eventually, I transitioned into an administrative and fundraising role. It was mainly working with the Olympic sports and the UNLV Women’s Sports Foundation and their annual fund. I did that for about eighteen months.
Next, I found out about a position at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and, since I was a California kid, it seemed like a great opportunity to get back to my home state. Luckily, I had known a friend that had gone to school there and knew it would be a great place to work so I took a shot. I became the Assistant AD for Advancement for the Mustang Athletic Fund in a pure fund-raising capacity. I was mostly a regional fund-raising guy, but also got to work on some other fun initiatives. It was a great job in a great town so I really enjoyed my two and one half years there.
My next stop was at Santa Clara University in the Bay area. At that time, there were a lot of concerns within the state of California from a funding point of view so the thought of moving to a private institution was pretty attractive. I had a chance to grow a lot at Santa Clara and worked in several different roles during my almost 10 years there. I was able to get invaluable experience ranging from fundraising to sports administration to corporate partnerships to premium seating and many other things along the way. Being at one place for such a long time has become an anomaly, but for me it was such a great learning experience that I didn’t need to go anywhere else to learn a ton and grow. With my ultimate goal of being an athletic director it has been critical for me to gain a variety of experiences and understand how different units within an athletics department function. My titles covered the spectrum as I went from Director of Fundraising to Associate AD, and at one point I even got out of fund-raising and oversaw 13 different sports and sports medicine. It was so helpful to learn about a range of things from compliance to contracts to scheduling and this assisted me in becoming more well-rounded. Eventually some people moved on and I decided to shift back into a fundraising and a revenue producing role. At that point, I knew it was a good place for me and I stayed in that role before moving on to an incredible opportunity at Northwestern University.
Who inspired you along the way or a person to thank? Countless number of mentors along the path that includes AD’s, assistant AD’s, coaches, student-athletes and faculty members on campus. For me mentors have played a key role in my development, but they were also important in giving me exposure to opportunities that I would have never had otherwise. I also think it is important to have a well-rounded team of mentors because it can’t just be people in your functional area, or even just in athletics, it has to be a greater variety of mentors to give you different vantage points.
Career highlight or accomplishment you are most proud of? An ongoing example of a career highlight frankly for me happened again yesterday when I got a text from a Santa Clara volleyball student-athlete asking me to be a reference for her. This has happened a handful of times in the past and it is very rewarding. The reason I do what I do is the educational component to it and to be an active part of a student-athlete’s time at an institution is important to me. I try to get to know as many student-athletes as I can, so for people to reach back out to me after a few years acknowledging that I know them, they know me, and they value my opinion and impact I had on their time in school is a great personal accomplishment for me.
What is your dream job? I guess there are a couple of answers to this. No matter the role, I want be at an institution that values athletics, is trying to compete at the highest level appropriate for that institution with the backing and support of its trustees, university administration, alums, and donors, and supports student-athletes who want to thrive academically and athletically while contributing positively to the community and being active as official and unofficial student leaders on campus. This part might get me in big trouble in Evanston…Despite currently working hard every day to help Northwestern student-athletes beat them, I’ll always have love for my alma mater– a place that certainly helped shape the successes and experiences I’ve had thus far in life. I think within reason we would all love to go “home” someday. So I guess to one day be the AD at Michigan is something I think about. I hope my guy Warde is there a long time and is very successful there, but since you asked and if we look far off into the future I guess that could be it.
If you took a different career path what would it have been? The plan B was healthcare administration. It would have allowed me to stay in that healthcare world that I sought out as a youngster into my formative years. It was a growing industry in the 90’s and something I would have pursued.
Advice for a kid going to college today who wants to get into sports? Try to get some experience while you are still in school. Whether it be an internship at your school, minor league team, or any type of local professional team try to get some experience. It may be in a sports marketing role with a local firm that is involved with sports. Any type of sports experience will be important as you try to get that first real job. Your experience and connections will be extremely important and to have people within the industry speak on your behalf will be critical in getting your foot in the door somewhere.
As someone who didn’t get a sports management degree or pursue a master’s degree, I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. You have to have applicable and gain transferable skills, but I think there are ways to demonstrate those without a specific degree. Sports management degrees are great but a lot of people want to get in sports, so I think it is more important to figure out a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd with unique skills and/or experience. In a way, I think getting a different degree from everyone else may give someone a chance to standout. At one point I thought about a law degree so I would have a unique skillset and even now I am looking at a master’s degree program in integrated marketing communications. “How can I be different?” is something one should consider.
Advice for making it in the sports industry? First and foremost you have to be patient. Everybody thinks they can go from intern to AD in quick fashion. There are a lot of people out there that are bright but that doesn’t mean it will all come quickly. Secondly, never be too good or too “big time” to do something. Even if you reach a certain “status” or have a fancy title, you are not too good to set up chairs, stuff envelopes, or be willing to help in any way. Even as a seasoned veteran on this journey, I try to think I am never too good to try to help out at an event to help make it better by doing some dirty work. So it is being patient, it is being willing to help out in any capacity and finally, kill it at your job before you start worrying about the next job.
Any tips for a good work/life because Sports industry is a grind? For me it is to find your release or hobbies that fit into what you are doing. Don’t take up fly fishing if you don’t live near a river. I have used golf even though now it is hard to find the time. As a matter of fact, I have looked for new and different things.
It’s having friends outside of the industry so it is not work all of the time.
Also when you find that person that you want to spend the rest of your life with, make sure you set proper expectations. Make sure that person knows that your job can be demanding and it is more than a career but more of a lifestyle. Spouses need to understand it is a busy world that they are signing up for.
Any favorite quotes you would like to share?
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” — Plato
“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” — Warren Buffett
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln
“A career is like a house: it’s made of many bricks, and each brick has the same value, because without any one of them, the house would collapse.” — Andrea Boccelli
Now for some quick hitters to get to know another side of Fred –
Name your dream foursome for golf or dinner? Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer and my father who passed away when I was two
What is your favorite movie of all time? The Usual Suspects
Favorite book? Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership by Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon
Top 3 favorite athletes of all time? Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Andre Agassi
What was your favorite TV show as a kid or growing up? I’ll give you three- Miami Vice, The A Team, and The Arsenio Hall Show
Three items you would take to a deserted island? My wife (I know, she’s a person not an item, but…), a solar powered generator and a water filtration system
Favorite game to play as a kid? Loved playing soccer as a kid
Hobby that would surprise people? Avid reader
Childhood idol? Bo Jackson, the guy that could do it all
To follow Fred on Twitter – @fredksmith
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