Tufts’ new athletics director John Morris discusses plans for future of Tufts athletics

John Morris, currently Colorado State University's interim athletics director, is set to take over as Tufts' athletics director this June. Courtesy Colorado State University

This February, Provost David Harris announced that, after a national search, John Morris has been appointed as the new Director for Tufts’ Athletics and that current Athletics Director Bill Gehling will take a new role as Senior Advisor to University Advancement. On June 15, Morris will start leading Tufts’ Physical Education Department, including its athletics and recreation programs. The Daily spoke with Morris over the phone about his background, his appointment and his plans for Tufts Athletics.

The following is an abridged version of the interview.

Tufts Daily: What kind of experience do you have [in the field of athletics]?

John Morris: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri … playing baseball and soccer and [I] always loved sports. I went to Vanderbilt University for my undergraduate, majored in French and political science and then went on to law school [there] … After law school I went to Orlando, Fla. and practiced law for four years at a large private firm.

I found out that although I enjoyed the study of law I didn’t enjoy the practice of it very much … I decided I needed to look for something that I was a bit more passionate about. I had always just admired what student-athletes did at the collegiate level; I lived with several student-athletes at Vanderbilt and was always very impressed with what they were able to achieve academically and athletically…

My experience then took me back to Vanderbilt — I was pretty close to being partner at the law firm where I was working, and I abandoned that to go be an intern back at my alma mater and work in the athletics department [there], learning compliance. Because there’s a lot of overlap between NCAA rules, compliance and the law, that was my entrée into intercollegiate athletics. After working there for a bit I went and worked for the NCAA national headquarters in Kansas City and moved with them to Indiana…

I worked at Sacramento State University for a few years, and then after that I went to work at University of Washington in their athletics department … At Washington I helped run the athletics department there for eight years, and after that the opportunity opened at Colorado State University for me to become the deputy director of athletics. I did that for two years prior to becoming the interim director of athletics, which I’ve done for the last seven months.

TD: Can you elaborate on the events that put you into the world of athletics — a pretty dramatic shift after having studied and practiced law?

JM: Again, it was a time in my life when I just wasn’t feeling passionate about my chosen career and I was looking for something that I would be more passionate about moving forward.

I was watching a tape delay broadcast of an NCAA women’s long-distance race, and they were telling the story of the young woman who was way out in front and was gonna win an individual national championship, and they just told her life story about how she was a double major in college, a first-generation student, had perfect grades and all the things she had overcome in life to get to that moment in time. I watched that broadcast and it made me think back to the incredible student-athletes I had gotten to know at Vanderbilt. And as an avid sports fan … as I sat there and watched that, I said to myself, “That’s it. I wanna work in college athletics, I wanna support amazing young men and women like that, and that’s what I wanna do with my life.”

The other thing that happened within that week was that … [I saw] an article about a gentleman named Mark Richard who was named assistant athletic director for compliance. And I read this story about him and what he did, and I realized as a lawyer maybe that’s my way in [to the world of athletics] … It prompted me to write him a letter, follow up with a phone call; we hit it off and the next thing I knew I was back in Nashville, I had thrown away my law firm and I was working as an intern in the Vanderbilt Athletics Department.

TD: Can you talk a little bit about what the selection process [for the position of Tufts’ athletics director] was like?

JM: My interest in Tufts started a long time ago … I had always known of Tufts as an exceptional academic institution but then, you know, hearing from [director of rowing at Tufts] Gary Caldwell about what an amazing university it was, what a great athletics program it was, that’s how it kind of got on my radar … I went to work one day and I saw the [job] posting and … [thought] “I think that could be a very special opportunity for me.”

I had a great meeting with the search committee chaired by Provost David Harris … and that was a critical part of it. Meeting with that search committee made me realize that Tufts is a place where I would fit. There were great people on that committee that shared a lot about Tufts, and I just felt like I fit with that group and with Tufts coming out of that meeting.

TD: So what does being an athletics director involve? What are your responsibilities?

JM: Well, my job as athletics director is to provide the best possible athletic and educational experience for the students and student-athletes I serve. That’s it, in a nutshell. I believe firmly — and this is a reason why I think that the job at Tufts is so attractive — when I look at the mission statement for Tufts athletics … It talks a lot about delivering a transformational experience that begins on the playing field but then persists throughout life. It talks about how there’s an expectation for excellence in the academic and athletic endeavors of the student-athletes, but it also talks about things like joy, and personal growth, and building lifelong relationships and friendships, and about what you can learn about life through [participating] in sport[s]. And my job as athletics director is to create an environment and a culture where all those things can be delivered.

TD: So do you have any specific plans that will help you achieve those goals?

JM: You know, my plan coming in is I’m going to take a “seek first to understand” approach. I will tell you from the outside looking in, things seem to be running very well with Tufts athletics, and I think that’s a testament to the great work by everyone from President Monaco on down to Gehling to the great coaches and staff and student-athletes that are on board at Tufts. In some respects, [from the] outside looking in, I feel like someone’s handing me the keys to a Porsche and my job is just not to wreck it. But in reality what I’m gonna do, my goals and plans are to come in and ask questions, and to listen and to get to know the place … I really want to get to know the heart and the soul of the place and engage with the community there.

Once I do that, my plans will be to develop a strategic plan for the athletics department moving forward that complements and folds up nicely with the T10 Tufts Strategic Plan … My job is going to be to build on the great foundation that’s already there in Tufts Athletics and help take it to the next level.

TD: Sports at Tufts have been doing pretty well recently. Do you feel like that puts any sort of pressure on you to ensure that it continues this way?

JM: Well, I mean, I’m certainly committed to across-the-board excellence — athletically and academically. But no, I don’t feel any pressure as a result of that. They have accomplished great things. … With an excellent university like Tufts, it is not hard to attract outstanding talent in terms of students, coaches and staff. I think it will be my job to maintain the excellence that’s already been achieved, but also take it to the next level.

TD: What’s it like heading a much larger athletics program at Colorado State as opposed to what you expect it will be like here at Tufts?

JM: That’s actually an interesting question. One of the reasons that I was so attracted to Tufts is that it’s kind of a return to my roots. I have enjoyed working at large universities like University of Washington and Colorado State University. But my father was a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, which is a private Div. III institution a lot like Tufts, [and I went] to Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., again a private, research-oriented, liberal arts institution about the same size as Tufts — those are my roots. So I think, to me, the advantages of that are the ability to really get to know the university in a more intimate environment and really get to know the campus community all across the board.

TD: What are you most looking forward to in this new position?

JM: Oh, there’s so much I’m looking forward to. I would say that what I’m looking most forward to is getting to know the student-athletes. … The best part of working in college athletics is working with the amazing young men and women who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their lives. There are amazing young men and women representing Tufts and all the other fine universities around the country, and I look forward to getting to know them and exploring with them how to make their athletic, academic and student experience at Tufts the best it can possibly be.