Personal insight on 10 eventful years at my Alma Mater
This post was written for the Business of Small College Athletics on smallcollegeathletics.com
With students back on campus, it marks the beginning of my tenth year at the University of Central Missouri. A decade – even if it is spanned across undergrad, graduate school, and full-time employment – is quite a stretch on one college campus these days. So earlier this summer, with some of the best and brightest in college athletics collected for NACDA, I once again grinned at the questions: Are you ever going to leave Central Missouri? Are you looking around? What do you want the next step to be?
To start that conversation, I always have set this out first: I was never supposed to be at Central Missouri this long.
When I showed up on campus as a freshman, I knew I wanted to study marketing. I loved it. Everything about it. But it wasn’t until sophomore year that I realized sports marketing was the move. From there, I took the advice of a mentor and started mapping the next steps.
I quickly figured out what is common knowledge in college athletics: When it comes to a masters in sports management, Ohio University is going to be near the top of the list. After a few conversations, that’s where my list began. There were others on the list for the sake of due diligence, but I networked and found graduates of the program in my area and immediately set to work. I knew what I wanted and I had a roadmap to get there.
My road map took one hell of a detour in the fall semester of my senior year.
For about a year, I’d been dealing with what would best be described as hand tremors. I was treated for neurological symptoms, blood work done a number of times, and even enjoyed a ‘nerve conduction velocity’ test (they essentially shock your nerves to see how quickly the nerves fire back). In November of that year, the doctor I had been seeing finally threw in the towel and decided to send me to a specialist he knew. But first, “We’re going to send you for an MRI. Just to double-check. In and out. We won’t even use contrast.”
(Spoiler alert: They had to use contrast.)
After classes on a Thursday afternoon, I made the drive up to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. I’ll skip past all of the paperwork and banter. The short of it is this: They pop me in the machine and put some music on (because an MRI machine is terribly loud). After half a dozen songs, a voice comes in the headphones: “Jeff, we’re going to give you some contrast and pop you back in for one last scan.”
So much for ‘We won’t even use contrast,’ Doc.
I go back in for another song. Then another. Followed by another. It’s ten more songs and I’m done.
I finally get to escape the annoyingly loud tube, go sit in the lobby for half an hour, before I’m told they’ll have to send it to my doctor for a reading. The next morning, I wake up to an 8 a.m. call from my doctor. “We got the scans back… unfortunately they didn’t come back clean.” Well, what does that mean? “We found a brain tumor.”
Now that we’ve arrived at the dramatic part – let me bring you the rest of the way much quicker. The tumor was a Pilocytic Astrocytoma. We knew going into the surgery this type of tumor is rarely cancerous and mine held true – a benign tumor near the cerebellum. They found the tumor on Thursday night, I got the call on Friday morning, met the brain surgeon the following Tuesday, and on Monday, November 19th, 2012, I had it removed. All is well – no worries – but that’s not the point of this post.
When I went in for surgery during Thanksgiving break, I had already spoken to my professors, an academic advisor, and even the Dean of my college. The path was clear: I’d take ‘incompletes’ on all of my fall courses and get back to work in the spring – still on path for graduation on time.
The issue: Masters programs aren’t too eager to look at applicants with no grades to be shown for their entire senior year. I quickly found out that my idea of Ohio University – or any other noted graduate program – wasn’t going to come to fruition on my timeline. I would finish my degree on time and graduate with honors but it was clear: My roadmap was toast.
I’m now – after hundreds of words – turning your attention back to the University of Central Missouri.
Prior to my MRI adventure (and all that it entailed), I had begun volunteering with Central Missouri’s Athletic Department. Shawn Jones, who was then the Senior Associate AD for External Operations, had agreed to let me work with UCM Athletics to start getting some experience. In doing so, he’d also introduced me to a lot of the team working with the Mules and Jennies – students, coaches, administrators, and even people outside of Central Missouri. In the final weeks of undergrad, Shawn Jones offered me a position with UCM Athletics as a graduate assistant and here I am years later – still explaining our beautiful, angry Mule mascot to everyone who asks.
The fact that I’m still at Central Missouri really boils down to three pieces. They’re pieces I describe to anyone willing to listen when it comes to finding a career in college athletics:
1. Keep perspective: There are going to be some really tough days where the hours are beating you down, things don’t go right, and you get through it all. My fiancé has heard me complain about odds and ends more than I ever care to admit. But at the end of the day, we’re working on sidelines, court baselines, and in press boxes. It was a brain tumor that kept me at Central Missouri – and I’m incredibly grateful for that (as crazy as that may sound). I’m lucky in a lot of ways and I make a constant effort to remember that.
2. Find people who open doors for you: As I begin my sixth year working for UCM Athletics, I’m entering the second year in a role for the third time. Two years as a graduate assistant, two years as the Marketing Assistant, and now my second year as a Development Officer. Each time I’ve been ready for a fresh challenge, the leadership at Central Missouri has opened a door to allow me to grow and take on something new. I’ve taken on all sorts of roles and responsibilities because they threw them at me and I’m better off for it. On the other hand, I have peers at other institutions locked into a role with a constant anxiety about ‘What’s next?’ because they’ve reached the ceiling. Seeing it, hearing about it, and discussing it with those folks helped me understand what an opportunity I’ve had at Central Missouri to have the bar raised every time I meet it. You’ll never understand how valuable that can be until you’ve experience it firsthand. Go find it. If you’ve already got it, be sure to appreciate it.
3. Embrace challenges and pushing forward: When I accepted a full-time position with Central Missouri, I was very straightforward with my Athletic Director in our conversations. I had another offer on the table and was really considering leaving. But at the end of the day, I told him “I’m staying because I think we’re damn good – but we can be even better.” I wanted to jump in and get my hands dirty in a number of areas I believed we could improve. Looking back on it, I couldn’t be happier with the decision. Rather than leave for the sake of leaving, I saw an opportunity in front of me and squared up. Without that decision (and every opportunity I was given thereafter), I’m not sure where I’d be right now – but I don’t think I’d be this far along in my career.
At the end of the day, I have a lot of reasons for being at Central Missouri for a tenth year. Make no mistake: There will come a time where I leave the Mules and Jennies for a new opportunity. I know that I eventually want to leave my comfort zone, find a new challenge, and explain the beautiful, angry Mule mascot to some new faces. But for right now, I’m excited for what’s in front of me. I’m excited for where my path has brought me. I’m excited to take everything I’ve learned to date, both personally and professionally, and pour it into another incredible stretch for the Mules and Jennies.