Interview with Aaron Wright Program Director

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Aaron: I’m Aaron Wright. I’m the director of the master’s program in athletic administration. I’ve been here at Ohio University since 2005. I began as an undergraduate faculty member and became the undergraduate program coordinator for a few years. Then in 2010, I took my current role as MAA program director. My experience prior to coming to OU … After college, I spent 2 years playing basketball semi-professionally in Europe and did some coaching and program development for youth coaching programs and basketball there and then returned to the United States. After a couple of years, I became the head boy as far as varsity basketball coach at my alma mater high sales, a K through 12 independent school in Montgomery County, Maryland. I also taught. After a couple of years there, I took the athletic director role. I was at the school for 6 years as athletic director and boys’ varsity basketball coach and then moved to Middlebury, Vermont, and worked for 2 years in division III intercollegiate athletics administration at Middlebury College before coming to OU. I’ve been involved in interscholastic athletics in a variety of roles, both the coaching and administrative side, and now I’m working with the MA program in teaching current and future leaders in interscholastic athletics.

The Ohio University is well known for its sports administration programs, so the Department of Sports Administration is a very exciting department to work in, an exciting field to work in. We’ve got several graduate programs and very strong undergraduate programs. The programs are very much applied programs, so we get our students a lot of experience working in the field, while they’re also learning the fundamental and principals of business and athletic management through their course work. It’s very exciting. You’re not just classroom teachers, but also mentors and advisers for students as they’re beginning their careers, even while they’re students. It’s very exciting from that perspective. The field of sports administration is an exciting one and one that’s constantly evolving. It’s exciting to be here at Ohio University where a lot of the ground breaking research into the field happens. We’ve got a great set of colleagues and very energetic and inspired students. It’s a vibrant place to work.

Even in the relatively short time since I was a high school athletic director, the trend in interscholastic athletics is for athletic directors to have to wear more of a revenue generating hat. For high school ADs today, they really need to have skills in marketing and sales and sponsorship, certainly all sorts of alternative revenue generating strategies that they probably didn’t have to worry about so much 20 years ago. Also, because they don’t have a lot of administrative support, they end up playing a lot of different roles. A high school athletic director has to schedule and manage the budget, manage equipment, obviously hire and oversee personnel. There’s a lot that goes into the interscholastic role. The one big change in the last decade or so has been the need to generate additional revenue, as programs are no longer fully funded by school districts and rely more on outside sources of funds. In the MAA program, we’re trying to prepare students to do that. In classes like our sport marketing class and our financial administration class, we focus on revenue generating skills for students.No matter what their environment, whether they’re a public school AD of a big school or a small school with fewer resources or a private school AD, where their funding sources may be different … No matter what their environment, that they’ll have the skills to be successful.

The terms don’t necessarily mean anything very different. Sports administration, sport management and athletic administration are really used interchangeably. You might get different answers depending on who you ask. At Ohio University, we use athletic administration to differentiate this program from our master’s in sports administration program and our undergraduate sport management program. To us, they’re all the same terms, but they help us separate the programs and communicate different things about the different programs.To many people, athletic administration is probably more connected to school sports, whether it’s in higher education intercollegiate athletics or in secondary education with high school and middle school athletics. I think most people would interpret athletic administration to mean working in a school setting.

We were the first academic program to partner with the NIAAA, the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. We began that partnership in 2003 when we created the current version of the MAA program. Our coursework embeds a lot of NIAAA materials and fundamental principles in it. The NIAAA has a leadership training program that athletic directors can get certification through. Our students will get the same certification by completing our MAA courses. When they finish our degree program after 2 years, if they have the requisite experience, they can become a certified athletic administrator, which is the second level of certification that the NIAAA offers. They can have the lower level if they don’t meet the experience requirements. That’s a registered athletic administrator. The CAA certification is becoming much more necessary for athletic directors to advance in the field. In some states, it’s become a requirement for athletic directors to have that certification. It’s a benefit that we provide our students through the curriculum. It also helps the students, whether they’re pursuing that certification or not, that they’re getting the most current and relevant content that’s created by athletic directors at the NIAAA for athletic directors.

That field, as I mentioned, is constantly changing and evolving, so we stay current on trends in the practice of athletic administration by maintaining that partnership. When they update their materials, we update our curriculum as well. We also have many adjunct faculty who work with the NIAAA and teach their leadership courses, so those are practitioners or former practitioners who’ve … Many of our facilitators have been athletic directors or were athletic directors for decades. We have a lot of experience in our facilitator adjunct faculty pool, and most of them are staying current by teaching leadership training courses for the NIAAA as well. That’s really a critical partnership for us and a tremendous benefit for the students at the same time as well.

Our sole focus on interscholastic athletics makes us unique. We were the first program to do that, and there are only a few competitors that do the same thing. Unlike a more generic sports management or sports administration program that might cover collegiate athletics and professional sport, we really focus solely on interscholastic athletics. That’s probably the most important, unique feature of the program.

The NIAAA relationship that I mentioned is unique and makes us different than most of the programs that offer similar degrees. I think, as part of that, what really makes us unique is the application of fundamental principles and concepts to real world situations. When a student leaves our program, or even finishes a course in our program, they’re equipped with certain skills that they can apply in their jobs immediately. Our students bring a pretty significant amount of experience to the program and then get to use that experience throughout coursework to develop better practices of ways of doing things. That experience benefits other students as well to share a lot of different practices. I think an important part of the curriculum is really the sharing of that information. We have students who are experienced as our adjunct faculty sometimes with decades of experience as athletic administrators.

All of our students come in with some experience, at least 2 years as a minimum requirement, so that they’ve got some context for what they’re doing and what they’re learning. A lot of our classes are really engaging in discussions about how things are done, how they can be done better and applying what they’re learning. As an admissions requirement, we require 2 years of some experience in interscholastic athletics or related experience. Whether that’s a teacher/coach role, which is probably the most common for our students, or somebody’s working outside of a school environment, but also coaching on the side, or some who have already had some administrative duties and roles. That experience is a prerequisite for coming into the program. As I said, it’s important for students to be able to connect what they’re learning to their actual professional situation. That’s absolutely essential to getting the most out of the program. It’s also essential to the interactions that they have with the other students throughout the program.

We work very hard to have a lot of interaction. It’s not a self-paced program where people are working independently. They’re having group discussions. They’re sharing information with each other. They’re having some group assignments where they’re working on projects together. It’s really a collaborative environment. We also, through our residency, the one time the students are required to come to campus, they get to engage with their co work members and develop some relationships there to take with them when they go back home and finish the program, but also they’ll have when they finish the degree as well.