The next president of Doane University is a former football coach

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Roger Hughes has an unusual resume for a college president.

Before recently taking over as head of Doane University, a private institution in Nebraska, he was a long-time head football coach at Stetson University. He also worked as a head football coach at Princeton University for nine years.

“Leading a football team and leading an organization like a university is very similar,” said Hughes. “It’s my job as president to outline the vision and articulate the vision so everyone knows their role in helping to execute the vision.”

Stories of college presidents breaking the mold are increasingly common. The traditional dean-to-dean-to-president path taken by most academics now has more detours, and the people who take them are not always academics. Sometimes they are business leaders, civic leaders, former governors and members of Congress, wealthy donors – and, yes, former football coaches.

The number of college presidents with experience outside of academia has increased over the past decade. A 2018 Virginia Commonwealth University study found that 40.5% of university presidents had never held a permanent or tenure-track position. More and more presidents are coming to higher education institutions after having spent their careers as businessmen, military personnel and medical professionals. That coaches are now part of the mix is ​​not surprising.

Hughes isn’t even the first varsity track coach to become university president, but his selection as president of Doane last month is the story of a personal dream that comes full circle.

“I’ve always had this job in mind,” said Hughes. “I really had two dream jobs. One, being the head coach of football for Nebraska. Or two, being president of Doane University.”

He graduated from Doane in 1982 with a double major in biology and physical education and a minor in mathematics. He first applied to be president of the university 10 years ago after leaving his coaching position at Princeton. When not selected for the job, he accepted a post as head football coach at Stetson, a small private university in Florida, where he was asked to create a football program from scratch. .

“My job was literally starting from a desk and a phone – that was all I had on day one – and turning him into a conference candidate,” he said.

By the end of his tenure at Stetson, Hughes managed over 160 direct reports and served as a liaison between the team and many facets of the university, including admissions, financial aid, housing, student success, strength and conditioning and health services.

“Through this interaction with all the different facets of the university, I have become much more familiar with the workings of a university,” said Hughes.

He had also developed a good reputation on campus.

“He wanted us to grow up and be good men after football, so he taught me a lot and prepared me for life after football in a major way,” said Dwight Lawrence, member of the Stetson football team. Orlando Sentry.

The responsibilities of a head coach and a college president aren’t that different, said Jeffrey Harris, managing partner at Harris Search Associates.

“There is a lot of commonality in terms of their function as CEOs of their respective organizations,” said Harris. “Ultimately, they must be the person held accountable as the leader of their respective entity.”

Coaches and presidents are key fundraisers for their institutions and must be able to convince donors of their vision. Hughes understands this; he raised $ 18 million for the football program at Princeton.

“Although we are building a weight room rather than a chemistry lab, the principles are all the same. We help young people develop their skills to become leaders in the world, ”he said.

Hughes’ coaching experience has also prepared him to withstand criticism from employees, students, parents and others.

“Every time I call a room, probably 50% of people are upset with the room I called anyway. I’m used to being criticized for the decisions I make,” he said. he said, “I’m sure college presidents go through the same thing, where sometimes there is no right or wrong answer, but you have to make that decision and follow it.”

This quick decision-making is one of the things that will make Hughes an effective president, said Cale Stolle, assistant professor of physics and engineering at Doane.

Hughes was not the first football coach to become university president. Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown State University in Ohio, was a football head coach at Youngstown and then at Ohio State University before becoming president of Youngstown in 2014.

Tressel took over Youngstown as the university struggled with an $ 11 million budget deficit. He was supported by faculty union leaders when he was hired, but not all faculty members were on board. Chet Cooper, then chairman of the Youngstown State Academic Senate, said Inside higher education in 2014 that “some teachers are enthusiastic, others diametrically opposed” to the hiring of Tressel.

Tensions between athletics and academia in higher education institutions are not uncommon, and faculty members are often uncomfortable with non-academics taking over their institutions. .

“In presidential research where they hired someone who isn’t considered an academic – and a football coach would fall into that – professors are often angry about it,” Harris said. “Because they think, how could someone who is not an academic run an academic institution? “

Doane’s faculty were concerned about hiring a football coach as president, Stolle said.

“There will always be some embarrassment in hiring a football coach,” said Stolle. “It’s more than just ‘Were you a good football coach?’ It’s “Will you have a good direction?” What was striking about Dr Hughes was that he was a very natural leader.

It didn’t hurt that Nebraska was an ideal state for a football coach to pursue a college presidency.

“We revere football coaches very strongly,” said Stolle.

Hughes is not totally inexperienced in academia. He has a doctorate. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and planned to become a Full Professor. An interview for a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago ultimately changed his mind.

“When I spoke with the head of the department, I asked him how many hours he could spend with the students,” Hughes said. “He said two hours a week because he was writing and researching and all that other stuff. I really felt like I couldn’t have the same kind of influence on student life.

Hughes values ​​his academic experience because it allows him to understand the decision-making processes and deadlines that a college president must regularly go through.

“I think what people understand now is that the quality of leadership is crucial – you know, you’re still running an organization. I’m not going to teach a lot of courses. I probably won’t write a whole lot.” grant or article requests, Hughes said.

Hughes has so far enjoyed his first months as president and is excited to improve the student experience at Doane.

“Leadership is leadership,” said Hughes. “If you are a good leader, you can lead an army battalion, a food bank or a hospital or, in this case, a university.


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