This week, I’m joined by a former U.S. Navy Seal and Purple Heart recipient who now serves as a D3 athletic director. Mike Wisecup is the AD at Colby College and joined us to discuss his background as a Navy Seal and how he applies it to his athletic department. Wisecup also discussed the challenging aspects of his job–one of which is maintaining cohesiveness within an athletic department.
Colby College recently opened the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center, a facility with more than 350,000 square feet, making it the largest athletic facility in D3. The complex includes the only Olympic-sized Myrtha pool in Maine, an ice arena with year-round regulation ice, the Margaret M. Crook Center with three regulation-length basketball/volleyball courts and so much more.
Some of the things we discussed included:
- His unexpected journey from Navy Seal to Athletic Director and the surprising similarities between the two positions
- His college experience as a student athlete at the United States Naval Academy
- The challenges of his position
- How departments can eliminate the “silos” inside a department and create cohesiveness
- What went into the building of D3’s largest athletic facility
- Things he wished he’d known about building and opening the facility
Following his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1998, Mike Wisecup served as a Navy Seal for 20 years and was awarded a Purple Heart before moving into college athletics and working his way to becoming the athletic director at Colby College.
With a passion of molding students into better citizens, Wisecup discusses his journey, some challenging aspects of his position and how schools can eliminate siloed departments inside an athletic program and increase universal cohesiveness within the department.
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We’ve edited the full transcript below to focus on the highlights from the podcast.
Kristi Dosh and Mike Wisecup begin the episode by discussing how Wisecup was able to make the unique transition from being a Navy Seal to becoming an athletic director.
The short version is by accident. I came to Colby as I transitioned out of the Navy, trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Part of what I loved in the Navy was making sailors into better citizens, and I think at any higher education institution, I found that you can make students into better citizens–and so I was immediately drawn to the mission.
As it so happened, I found myself in the Athletics Director seat through a circumstance of many different events, but I couldn’t be happier because I also found similarities in what was so special about the seal teams, which was, building teams, high performing teams, and that’s what we do in college athletics. So it was weird getting here, but I’m so glad I landed here.
Were you a student athlete at the Naval Academy? Do you have any background in sports?
I was a swimmer there for a couple years on a very new and growing triathlon team. But everything I was doing while I was at the Naval Academy was focused on earning one of the few spots to go into the seal selection program upon graduation. So a little bit (participation in college athletics) but I’ve certainly never seen college athletics from this perspective, and it’s been a steep, steep learning curve.
What are some things that have been unexpected in the job?
I think one of the more challenging aspects of this job that I wasn’t prepared for is that I normally look at departments or teams or organizations as a cohesive group, all working on the same mission together. Although we all are doing that with our different teams, helping develop and educate our students, helping them reach their potential, helping them achieve excellence in the classroom and on the sports field. I find that each of the teams can do that independent of each other. And so I have many different independent teams that don’t actually need to collaborate well (with each other).
The lacrosse team doesn’t need to collaborate with the volleyball team, and that was a surprise to me because I’m used to teams all organized around one mission focused on accomplishing sharing resources. And that’s been a bit different. I’ve had to change my leadership approach because of that nuance.
Avoiding silos and collaborating across the athletic department
Well that’s actually something that I have heard being around college athletics all these years is that sometimes things can be really siloed, particularly when you talk about some of those really large, athletic departments, where you might not necessarily know what folks in another department are doing.
From the outside looking in, I’ve never worked in an athletic department, but I feel like a lot of folks in college athletics talk about those silos and how you can better collaborate across those. I don’t know how big your athletic department is or if that’s something you’ve run into.
It is. I’ve experienced both good and bad within this department. On one side, we have 32 teams, and in its divisions, three schools with 2000 students in the student body. Thirty two teams is a lot of programs. On the other side, I have a very small administrative staff to support that. So it both requires a lot of collaboration because we’re just too thin and that allows us to actually have to work well together and have to share resources and have to do different things in terms of additional duties and responsibilities that a coach might have on administrative tasks, it allows them to understand what other people are doing and working on and supporting our overall mission.
I think some of the larger schools with smaller number of programs and more siloed departments might not have to do that. At a small school like ours, we still have to create those environments in those circumstances to get everyone together. One thing that has helped is that we’ve moved into a new athletics and recreation facility. In our old place, all the offices were all over the place. Some of them were actually former closets, but they were just everywhere in the building.
And so it didn’t allow for people to meet each other to accidentally stumble upon each other in the hallway and ask each other a question about recruiting, about fundraising, about team performance.
In this new facility, all the offices are together in an open floor plan. I see it every day now where the coaches are walking out of their offices and engaging with each other and the assistant coaches are all pulled together, and just because of that are starting to share recruiting techniques. They’re (the coaches) starting to talk about new approaches to fundraising, or they’re hearing each other talk about it and picking up ideas.
So sometimes you can create it because you, you create the committees and the functions and sometimes you have to create the physical space to accommodate it or encourage it.
I think that’s an interesting point that you make Mike about having everyone be in the same sort of physical space. That that’s not something that can be done everywhere. I spend a lot of time on campuses, and particularly with some of the larger athletic departments in Division I, it would be tough to get everybody in one space. But are there any other ways that that sort of manifests in your department in terms of like cross department sort of meetings and that sort of thing?
We do a good job. I think trying to establish those rhythm events throughout the week in the month that force people to come together, but you have to have to try to create the right topics that are going to bring different people’s perspectives to bear. So it’s not just about having the meetings, it’s about actually curating the right topics, and so that everyone can participate. Part of that is bringing different community members from across campus to talk about what they’re doing so we can learn more about what the rest of the college is doing that helps inform our recruiting strategies and how we communicate with our prospective student athletes. But it also helps us in other ways, first supporting our current students.
But in that process we’ll end up eventually having a coach talk about a problem that they’re facing. Maybe with one of their current student athletes with the recruit, and that will get other coaches talking about similar situations that they’ve been in. And if you only stick to the same type of meeting, and you don’t have a very deliberate strategy about the topics and making sure that you get a variety of them, then you’re only usually going to talk about the same stuff. I would say that in addition to the physical space, in addition to creating committees and things that are going to force people to interact in different ways, it’s also about being intentional about the meeting topics and the topics that you want to engage coaches on to increase that collaboration and open them up to new ideas.
I think it’s a good point. I own a boutique PR agency, and I really fight the weekly meeting. We do not have weekly team meetings within our agency, and I have fought it in a previous agency that I worked in because so much of the time they felt like a giant waste of my time. It was sort of the same format every week. I felt like we talked about the same things over and over, so I like the idea that you need a topic, you need a focus and that it’s not just repetitive.
Yeah, if you can imagine in the military, there’s a lot of meetings and wasted days, and if not years of my life sitting in routine meetings that got us nowhere. So I agree with you, but life’s too short to waste time, and certainly our coaches and our team, we want to get in and get what we need done. And you know, we need to get home and spend time with our family and friends.
What Wisecup brings to his leadership in the athletic department from his Navy Seal background
What are some things that you’ve brought from that (millitary) background? A lot of folks out there working in college athletics–have been in college athletics their entire career, and so I think part of what’s so interesting about you, and why I want to have you on (the podcast) is because you do have this different path. What are some things that you’ve brought with you from the military that you think have worked particularly well in athletics?
That’s a big question, there’s a lot of different ways I think I can answer it. I’d say one thing is being very, precise, mission focused. So I spend a lot of time really focusing on what we’re actually trying to achieve, and focusing our time and resources and intention on the best way to achieve that. So we are trying to develop and educate our students to help prepare them for success after graduation, help make them better athletes and make them successful on and off the field.
And it means I’ve got to provide support to my coaches, I’ve got to identify where their obstacles so they can actually do their job most effectively, and need to find new ways to provide better resources, whether it’s technology or better strength and conditioning, or being able to organize the day so that they’re effective in their training and the practice schedule. Everything I do is around that (schedule). I think, coming into this job, not having a college background required me to actually focus on what we are here to do, and not get lost in the administrative duties and the business functions that are critical. Because I was starting first with the mission, and then working my way backwards, it has allowed me to bring something forward that I always was always successful in the military, which is very focused on what our mission was, and not getting distracted by the periphery.
If I had grown up in college athletics, I would have been a little bit more oriented around the business practices and the procedures and the processes than necessarily than the mission. I think another answer, though, that I brought forward here is I’ve certainly learned a lot of patience, in my time in the military, a lot of tactical patience, and a lot of strategic patience. And both of those I see as critical here in athletics, and trying to bring that perspective and everything I do so that I’m creating the right culture, allowing coaches time for their plan to develop and not rushing in and being frustrated that things aren’t happening quicker.
There’s a fine balance there, and sometimes these things, especially when we’re dealing with people’s development, you have to let things work their way through the system, you have to allow change to actually actually have its desired effect. I find that a lot of people just want the results too quick. So they’re constantly changing the recipe over and over again, and you never actually see whether the food you’re preparing actually is good, and you’ve got to do that. Then you go back and tweak processes and the input in order to get a different result. But those are two things I think that immediately come to mind.
About Colby College and its athletic programs
Why don’t you tell us a little bit as far as Colby goes, how many sports teams are you all sponsoring, and what’s the size of the undergraduate body there?
We’re located in Waterville, Maine, and we have an undergraduate population of about 2,000 students. A third of them are varsity athletes, and we have 32 programs, four of them are men’s and women’s Alpine and our men’s and women Nordic Ski programs are Division I, and the other 28 are Division III programs.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Division III because I went to undergrad at a Division III at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, and when I was at Oglethorpe, our undergrad population was about 1100 (students). I think they’re probably not quite as big as Colby is and I was not an athlete, but I was a basketball cheerleader. So I spent a lot of time around the student athletes and in and out of the athletic facility. So despite the fact that my reporting largely ends up being around big Division I programs because that’s what the media outlets want to cover. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Division III athletics, and I think it’s such an interesting sort of space because you know, you’re talking about student athletes who aren’t coming because they’re on an athletic scholarship, but athletics can often be used to help boost the enrollment of the university. So I’ve always been fascinated by Division III. I’m wondering from an athletic administrator point of view, because we do have so many athletic administrators who listen to the podcast, what do you think is different or challenging about working at the Division III level vs. maybe a Division I or Division II?
The balance between athletics and academics at Division III
Yeah, and I and I don’t have a lot of experience within the industry to be able to compare, and I would say that one of the challenges here that is both a good thing, and a bad thing, is that academics does come first. But as a result of that, it also prioritizes time, what we can and can’t miss, and there’s some constraints around practice schedules, and being able to miss classes for either practices or for games and competitions. For a school that is growing and becoming more competitively successful, then the friction between those and the number of missed classes because of competition, especially for our spring athletes that go into the postseason, might affect their exam schedules. Yeah, that’s only setting up for more friction between academics and athletics, and so I see that as a challenge. But I also love the nature of the relationship in which we’re both working together in order to develop our students.
You know, my academic colleagues are really just doing incredible things in the classroom and in the laboratories and expanding their thinking and brain and what they’re exposed to. And we’re augmenting that by also teaching really strong character skills, we’re teaching us slow and fast decision making skills on the sports field, in the court, in the pool, and when you put the two of them together, you just really see this synergy that happens, and you get a totally different type of result that I think is fascinating. The faculty that I work with, they embrace that, and I love that, and because we’re such a small school, we can see it in real time. We can just do it and everyone’s 100% engaged on it. So I do love the Division III model. I love the intimacy it brings. The relationships you can manage, but it does come with its own friction in terms of trying to balance priorities, and that’s tough on a student athlete in terms of all the different demands on their schedule, and so it’s something we work through.
Colby’s new 350,000-square-foot athletic facility
I think one thing that I’ve heard come out in all your answers has been the relationship between your athletic department and the campus on which you sit and to me from the outside looking in it sounds like there’s a really healthy relationship there between athletics and the university. I won’t make you confirm or deny that, but it leads really nicely into talking about this fantastic new athletic center that you all have, because it’s something that’s going to serve the entire campus. This is not something that was just built for a single team or just for athletics to the exclusion of the rest of the student body. So can you talk us through a little bit about what this new athletic center is like and how it came to be?
Mike Wisecup Yeah, absolutely, and you’re spot on with that (relationship between the university and athletics). The new facility came at the perfect time. We broke ground in 2017, it was delivered on time and on budget this last summer in 2020.
I bet there are lots of jealous folks who just heard that and are wishing that was their facility’s experience.
Oh my gosh, with COVID hitting when it did, and we went from an old building that was about 60 years old that had eight treadmills in it, to a 350,000 square foot facility, the only 50-meter swimming pool in the state of Maine, an indoor 200-meter track with a 40 foot climbing wall in it, with netting systems that drop down so lacrosse and track can happen at the same time, or tennis can happen at the same time.
With batting cages that can drop down so you have multiple teams practicing simultaneously to a three- story fitness center that on the ground floor is your typical weight room that can support an entire football team plus other students without overlap. A cardio level that for this year, because of COVID limitations, we had to keep things separated, we were able to spread out about 140 pieces of cardio equipment throughout the building. Every student could jump on a piece of equipment without a mask on and without any concerns.
We could have never done that in the old facility, and I draw that comparison, not just for COVID, but in our older facility, when a sports team was in the weight room, no one else could be in it. It didn’t really encourage non-athletes from coming over to the building, and the new building has enough capacity that anyone that walks in the door can participate in some way shape or form without feeling like one of the teams is going to push them out, and that’s key. Fifty percent of the student population was in the building every single day, and only a third of them are actually athletes. We also saw with the first-year class, almost the entire first-year class was here at some point during the week, exercises and using equipment are part of the rec program, and that’s building habits. In the old building, they wouldn’t have been able to do that because the facilities just didn’t support it. So it came on at the right time, and is starting to already create a much more engaged student body that sees this building not just as an athletics facility, but they see it as a resource for the entire community.
I read a lot about the facility before we got on today, and I know that it sounds like it may have broken ground, I don’t know if it was just before or just after you got to Colby but I’m wondering how much you know about the front end of this? Was this a project athletics initiated or a project that the university initiated? What did the partnership between the two end up looking like?
Yes, so I joined Colby right after I retired from the Navy in late 2018, and I didn’t join the athletics department until November of 2019. Ground was broken in 2017, and so actually, I’m the third AD (athletic director) in that timeframe to have been a part of this building. I got to come in to do all the picking the paint colors, but not actually any of the room design, my predecessors did that, and they did it incredibly well because it couldn’t have functioned better. It’s hard to do that when you’re just looking at a piece of paper, but the college entered down this path when David Green, our current president, came on board about six years ago. He saw the facilities, he saw what we had for resources and just felt like it needed an improvement to come up to par in concert with our rising standards of excellence across the campus.
Colby is an amazing institution. We’ve got great academic programming, and we wanted to make sure that all of our resources and everything we’re trying to accomplish here are equally excellent, and you can see that now in this building, and how the college values athletics and recreation in the development of our students in real tangible ways. So I came onboard after the initial concept, after all the initial designs, and I just got to move in and take advantage of it and so I’m grateful but don’t hold me accountable for any features.
When we put up this podcast, I’m also going to be putting a piece up on my Business of College Sports website, giving a little more information about the facility, but also some great photographs that I was sent of the facility so that everybody has visuals to go along with this. Because as Mike’s talking, I’m looking at a photo of this facility, that’s an aerial shot, and it’s showing all this beautiful fall color, and these trees that are just beyond the center, and it just looks like there’s all this green space around it. I mean, I have not been to the state of Maine at all, unfortunately, it is one of the states on my travel bucket list that I still haven’t made it to yet, but the photos of this facility and of the campus are just absolutely stunning. So I’m going to make sure and put these up so that people have a visual when they hear you talk about this facility. I believe it is the largest in Division III right now.
Ah, I don’t know for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s massive. When you think about the pool, the Fieldhouse and nine-court squash center, year-round ice rink, the basketball and volleyball arena, the three-story fitness center, we had enough locker rooms for all 32 teams to have year-round locker rooms this year, which was pretty fantastic. We’ve got classrooms for teachers to teach in. We’ve got multiple fitness facilities, for dance, and for spin classes. We’ve got an entire erg room for our crew team that’s separate and distinct from the other spaces. So it’s pretty impressive.
I’m wondering if you have any advice or any lessons learned when it comes to this facility for maybe other folks listening, is there anything that’s working out particularly well just to give other people some pointers as they’re designing their centers?
Well, if anyone’s designing a center, please shoot me an email. I would say, have one central concept that is really important for you, and for us in Maine, in the winter, it gets dark early. We have a beautiful campus that’s brick and stone that was built, you know, through the 30s into the 40s and 50s, and so you have a type of structure that is a little bit old school and a little bit tight. And when so much of our academic year it’s snowy and cold and dark, we were very deliberate in making the space with a lot of glass, a lot of light, a lot of open space, and as a result, it changes the culture of the campus, it changes the environment entirely. You know, those days when when students are tired, and they’re they’re overwhelmed, they can come here and they can feel refreshed, they can have these beautiful views of the hills in the distance, or like you mentioned the fall foliage, and just feel recharged just by walking into a building. And so if you’re designing a building, you want to help influence your culture and how and how it’s going to affect your student body.
Fantastic. I think that’s great advice. Anything else you think we should know about Colby or any parting advice you want to give the audience?
For those that are listening if you haven’t seen Colby or heard of Colby you soon will, we’re on the move. Our facilities are just one step in changing the direction of our program. We might not be high in the director’s cut points now but we will soon.
Thanks to my intern Will Whitmore for assistance with this episode.