Sports

Over 39 years, Goldberger fostered student-athletes

By
Sports Editor
Friday, March 2, 2012

Goldberger made academics a top priority in his run as director of athletics.

When Michael Goldberger came to Brown as an assistant baseball and football coach in 1973, he had no idea that he would dedicate the next 39 years of his life to the University. After serving for the past seven years as the director of athletics, Goldberger announced that he will retire at the end of the academic year.

Goldberger’s retirement comes a year after the athletics department underwent a turbulent review process in the wake of the economic recession. Goldberger served as a member of the Athletics Review Committee, which looked at the current athletics budget and its larger role at the University and then made recommendations on how to better support the department. The list of recommendations included eliminating four varsity sports. President Ruth Simmons later decided, after further review, that this recommendation would not be implemented.

Though the budget crisis was the toughest challenge for Goldberger during his tenure, it does not overshadow all the positive changes — like facilities improvements and salary increases — he oversaw, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services.

Both Klawunn and Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president, said they believe Goldberger’s most positive contribution had more to do with the outlook on athletics that guided his decisions, rather than just one tangible action.

“What Goldie brought to the athletics department was just a deep understanding of the University and the role of athletics, the importance of student-athletes being students as well as athletes and the program supporting them as students as well as athletes,” Spies said.

 

Athletics, admissions and back again

Goldberger has always understood that athletes are students first and foremost, Spies said.

Goldberger initially landed his job in athletics, and then as director of admission, more by happenstance than anything else, Goldberger said. His football coach at Middlebury College, John Anderson, got offered the head coaching job at Brown and asked Goldberger to come along as an assistant coach.

“I had no big plans, so I said, ‘Sure, that’d be great,'” he said. “At 22, I had a full-time job at an Ivy League school coaching football at college level, which is pretty rare.”

Eight years later, he also stumbled upon his next job as a liaison between the athletics department and the admission office. Goldberger said he decided he could no longer keep up with all the traveling the assistant coaching job entailed. He wanted to stay closer to home to care for his first son, Kevin, who was born prematurely and is handicapped. The liaison job was designed to hold Goldberger over for another year before he found a different job, he said.

But the admission office gave Goldberger work to do, and, in 1983, he became its associate director. He remained a liaison between athletics and admissions until he became admission director in 1995, he said.

When David Roach retired in 2004 as director of athletics, Goldberger said he was asked if he would like to take the position, and he turned it down. But after a nationwide search, no suitable candidates were found, and Goldberger decided to step up to the plate, partially for family reasons, he said. At the time, Kevin was employed in the equipment room, Goldberger said, “and the kids here are just fabulous to him.”

“The women’s field hockey team and the men’s lacrosse team had sort of adopted him, let him be on the sidelines for games, took him out for dinner on his birthdays, call him — they were just really nice,” Goldberger said. “And my wife said, ‘You know what, these guys are great. If you have a chance to hang out with people like that all the time, you ought to think about it.’ And it turned out she was right.”

Regulations and recessions

Goldberger’s first big task after becoming athletics director was simply understanding the job, he said.

“I said, ‘I don’t know,’ more times in the first five, six months at the job than I had said in the previous 30 years at Brown,” he said. “It’s a very big operation in terms of budget, in terms of personnel and rules and regulations.”

Though Goldberger said he eventually learned all the nuances of the job, budget problems plagued the department throughout his tenure, coming to a head after the 2008 economic downturn. By the time the Athletics Review Committee was assembled, the department had already been scrutinized for more than two years by other committees, he said.

Recommendations to cut the men’s and women’s fencing squads, the skiing team and the wrestling team and the elimination of 30 admissions spots reserved for athletes were some of the hardest decisions to make, Goldberger said. But having the dual experience in admission and athletics gave him perspective, he added.

“I didn’t like it — but I understand, too,” Goldberger said. “Having sat in that office, I know how precious spots are in admission and the competition to get those spots.”

Spies said everyone on the Athletics Review Committee wishes at least one of the recommendations had turned out differently.

“I’m sure there were things that, if (Goldberger) had a magic wand, he would have done differently than the committee, but that wasn’t different from anyone else on the committee,” Spies said. “We all kind of, at various points, made a compromise, because somebody else was really persuasive.”

In the end, none of the teams got cut, and only 20 admissions slots will be eliminated. Goldberger said he believes the outcome was positive in terms of setting concrete plans to improve facilities and coaches’ salaries. Over the next two years, an additional $1.1 million in funds will be dedicated to salary increases, and $52 million will go towards various causes, including facility renovations and an overall increase in the athletics endowment.

Jean Marie Burr, women’s head basketball coach, said the Athletics Review Committee produced “very positive results.” Since the athletics program is so visible, and the review brought so much publicity, it was good for the University to show its support for student-athletes, she said.

 

Everybody gets schooled

The review also made recommendations about team practices and class schedules to ensure that student-athletes could play the sports they wanted and have the same academic opportunities as their classmates, Klawunn said.

Even before these changes, student-athletes have experienced academic success during Goldberger’s tenure — in 2011, the University was ranked No. 2 in the nation on the NCAA’s Academic Performance Report. Goldberger said this accolade was the most rewarding recognition he received as athletics director.

Goldberger has taken many proactive steps to ensure student-athletes excel academically. Goldberger started a program called “One For Me” that encourages first-years to take a class that none of their teammates has taken before, said Lars Tiffany ’90, head coach of the men’s lacrosse team. The men’s lacrosse team, women’s soccer team and the men’s and women’s swimming and diving squads participate in the program, he said.

“It was one step — to tell a recruit, to say, ‘Hey, make sure you’re reading the course catalog and seeing that there’s a lot of opportunities here. Don’t just follow the crowd,'” Tiffany said. “There are some students who already understand that, they don’t need a program, but I’d say there’s a good percentage — I’d say maybe half — that it did force them to look through the course catalog.”

Goldberger also set out to make sure coaches were aware of all the academic and extra-curr
icular activities available on campus, Klawunn said.

Early on in his tenure, he also started holding staff meetings with coaches in various buildings around campus, she added.

“I remember doing a staff meeting at the John Carter Brown library … and one of the coaches, who had been at Brown for nine years, said, ‘Geez, this is the first time I’ve ever been in this building,'” Goldberger said. He said he also encourages coaches to attend at least one class and go to a non-athletic event once a semester.

Goldberger also started a colloquium series called “Sport in Society,” open to anyone on campus who wanted to learn about various issues in sports, Klawunn said. Past talks have covered concussions, women in sports and the media representation of sports, she said.

 

Generating enthusiasm

Goldberger said he also hoped getting athletes and coaches more involved outside of the arena would help increase the visibility of athletics on campus. According to a 2009 Herald poll, only about 50 percent of students attended a sporting event each semester, and most who did only went to one or two events.

Though Goldberger said the community has still not been as engaged as he would like, Klawunn and Tiffany pointed out the success of the annual night football games. The first one took place in 2010 against Harvard and brought in more than 17,000 fans. The average attendance for the football games is less than 7,000 normally, The Herald reported at the time.

“Both years that we’ve had (the night football game), it’s been amazing how many people have come out to that and how fun students have found that event,” Klawunn said. “But not just students — faculty and staff have been there. It’s been really a good showing of the Brown community.”

One of the most noticeable changes to the physical athletics campus has been the conversion of the parking lot in front of the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center into Ittleson Quadrangle, an additional green space for all community members. In April, the new athletics facility — which includes a pool, a varsity strength and conditioning center and a general fitness center — will open, benefiting both athletes and the general community, Klawunn said. The athletes will have access to facilities they have needed for years, and other University members will have a better space for physical education classes, she said.

“It’s really a transformative project for athletics and really nice that this was something that came to be during Goldie’s time as director,” Klawunn said.

Though this project began and came to fruition during his tenure, Goldberger said he did not play a major leadership role.

“We met forever and talked about what the needs were, but this was an area where I think the Sports Foundation and the leadership there and members of the Corporation just stepped up in such a significant way to say that we really need to improve our facilities,” he said.

More improvements to the athletics infrastructure are being discussed, particularly with regard to women’s sports, Goldberger said. According to Simmons’ response to the Athletic Review Committee, the department is trying to raise $10 million that will go toward a new field hockey field and other field and locker room improvements.

The department is moving forward with a plan to “create a field hockey field that’s regulation size, to create a softball field that can be used year-round, to make improvements to Stevenson field so that it can be used in the early spring, so that the surface doesn’t deteriorate,” Goldberger said.

Around the league

Though Goldberger had a lot on his plate just taking care of his varsity programs, he also has a deep concern for the state of the league overall, said Robin Harris, the Ivy League’s executive director.

“He promotes the interests of Brown, but is concerned with Ivy League as a whole, recognizing that if the league is doing well, Brown is doing well,” she said.

Goldberger said he believes people want to see excellence, and if the league consistently delivers entertaining, high levels of play, people will care more about Ivy athletics. Many league issues have been discussed in the past seven years, such as issuing likely letters to student-athletes and increasing permissible practice times for certain sports, said Thomas Beckett, Yale’s athletic director for the past 18 years. During the discussions, Goldberger has always been a voice of reason, Beckett said.

“I was always impressed with Mike Goldberger as a man, always impressed with his ability to clearly think through issues,” Beckett said. “To maintain focus at all times — this is something I truly respected and admired.”

One of the most recent issues the league addressed was how to cut down on concussions among its football players, Goldberger said. Though the NCAA allows teams to hold five full-contact practices a week, the Ivy League announced in July 2011 that it would reduce full-contact practices to only two a week. The University’s football team had already been limiting the number of practices and should be proud of its leadership role in this rule change, Goldberger said.

Gary Walters, Princeton’s athletic director and a friend of Goldberger’s for the past 40 years, said the league will miss Goldberger’s levelheaded input at meetings.

“We’ll miss him for a number of reasons — not only because he’s such a nice guy, but he also always seeks the highest common denominator, if possible, which is rare in a person,” Walters said. “He commands respect.”

“I think he will be missed in many, many ways,” said Spies, who will be stepping down in December. “Fortunately, he’s not going too far away. So I expect, if nothing else, I’ll see him at games.”

 

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