Director of Athletics Ken Tyler Looks Back on Five Years at Mary Washington

Director of Athletics Ken Tyler Looks Back on Five Years at Mary Washington

We recently had a chance to sit with UMW Director of Athletics Ken Tyler on his fifth anniversary at the school. We had a chance to discuss the past five years, the positives, the challenges, and what lays ahead.

June 10, 2012, your first day. Where were we, where are we, and where are headed?

KT: It's hard to believe it's been five years on the one hand, but on the other hand, it's gone very quickly. There have been a heck of a lot of outstanding accomplishments, and I'm really proud of many of the things we've done.

When I first came, I remember saying that I knew Mary Washington was such a special place because of the legacy that had been established by legendary figures such as Ed Hegmann, Roy Gordon, Tom Sheridan, Stan Soper, Dana Hall, Dee Conway, Kurt Glaeser... Good people that had committed themselves to this place and to our student athletes. 

You could just walk around and talk to them and talk about their memories and building this up from the beginning. It was inspiring and motivating at the same time. I've always been congnizant of connecting our present and our future to our past. I don't think we ever want to lose sight of our tradition and our legacy, because it's one we should certainly be proud of.

I was handed a wonderful gift as the new athletic director here with the Anderson Center. The arena had been open for less than a year, and it's a wonderful showcase for our department and for our university. And at the other end of campus, our Battleground Athletic Complex exceeds many of what you'll find at our level. So those two anchors provide a great foundation for our department.

One of the first things we wanted to do was to see where we could go from there so we put together a great group of people from inside and outside of athletics to construct a strategic plan and that has served as our guide over the past five years. It's been updated and will continue to guide us moving forward. We wanted to focus on areas such as personnel, student-athlete development, facilities, fundraising, revenue generation, and of course academic accomplishment, all while staying true to the mission of the university.

I spent a lot of time early on listening, observing, and we tried to put on paper this strategic plan that we wanted to make a living, adjustable, adaptable document that we use as our guide moving forward.

You spoke of what you knew about the department coming in. What is something that has surprised you about UMW? 

KT: I tell people all the time that UMW offers the best of both worlds, but that can sometimes be a challenge, being located halfway between Washington and Richmond can offer so many opportunities, but it can also be a challenge with traffic, as our region continues to grow, as it can be congested with traffic... Sometimes logistically we can have some challenges there.

We have a unique situation where we are an academic department but we reside in the division of student affairs, and that is unique and at times a bit of a challenge but it also presents some wonderful opportunities because what we do is educational... We do teach every day - all of us - whether we're coaches or staff. The fact that our coaches hold faculty status and we are an academic department makes some sense. Serving two masters is challenging at times and has taken me some time to adjust to that. It's pretty unique within the NCAA, but can also be a positive.

Certainly not a surprise, but quickly seeing what a competitive conference we're in... We take a great deal of pride in our membership in the Capital Athletic Conference, but it challenges us all the time. We're really really good, and what's frustrating is sometimes that isn't quite good enough, particularly when you're in a league with honestly two of the top overall Division III programs in the country in Christopher Newport and Salisbury.

But we view that as an opportunity... We benchmark against them in terms of staffing and budgeting and facilities... It certainly motivates us. We keep an eye on that, and we don't back down a bit, and I'm really proud that we have improved our status each year in the Learfield Director's Cup standings, and we've been very competitive within the Capital Athletic Conference, winning championships and competing for many many more, clearly establishing ourselves as one of the top programs in all of Division III, and that serves as a terrific motivator.

We did come into a situation where there really wasn't a comprehensive fundraising and revenue generation plan, and so early on we recognized that was something that we wanted to make happen, and I'm really proud of what we've done there, with the establishment of the Eagle Club, and many comprehensive fundraising initiatives and a comprehensive revenue generation plan with corporate partnerships, facility rentals, and ticket sales. Special events, like our gala, and many other generators that have given us the flexibity to do some things, whether it be adding an intern assistant coach program or enhancing facilities, or adding programming, like leadership academy. Not surprising, but that was a challenge we recognized early on.

The lack of a locker room for our outdoor sports quickly, very early on in my tenure we recognized was a problem. Quite frankly it's been frustrating that we haven't been able to make more progress, but we're still determined to make it happen. I keep plans in my office, and every day I look at those plans, and it serves as a motivator to try to figure out a way to get that locker room complex done, because our student athletes deserve it.

There are about 350 student athletes that utilize the Battleground Complex, not to mention our visiting teams, and they deserve to have the same opportunities that our basketball and volleyball student athletes have here in the Anderson Center.

What are some of things you've been able to do to break down some walls that existed between the school and the community?

KT: Early on when I got here, I heard over and over, even from people right here in Fredericksburg, that UMW was the best kept secret in town and in the region. People were trying to be complimentary when they said that, but I really didn't understand it and I really didn't like it, so we tried to change that mentality to get the word out about what a terrific institution this is and use our platform in athletics to move that conversation along. 

We've adopted a comprehensive community engagement strategy where we've tried to make UMW Fredericksburg's hometown team. We have a lot of transients in our region because of the military component, the defense component, and government, but we are the only college team in this immediate region. We're surrounded of course, in Richmond and D.C. by lots of big college and pro teams, but here in this local bubble we are the only hometown team, so we wanted to get people to our contests, get to know our student-athletes and coaches, and when they do, they're impressed, and they keep coming back. We get people on campus, and they see the facilities and our high level of play, they say, "I had no idea, and I'll be back", and we say "Great, and bring a friend".

I've also tried to take every opportunity personally to tell our story. Joining the Rotary downtown, with some great people... Leaders in our community that I'm now an integrated part of. Speaking to a school group, or a business group, like the Chamber of Commerce, making sure that they know we're here. We're her to partner with them and we can be really beneficial for them.

We host over 100 contests a year, we have over three thousand campers who come here every summer... We are a real economic driver in this community and I really think we've made some real inroads with the City of Fredericksburg. The city manager and I have a great relationship... He wants to see this thing continue to grow. We've talked about hosting NCAA Championship level events and that would be absolutely great.

And finally, making our student athletes and our staff understand that giving back is part of what we are, and so whether it's a one-off service activity that we do throughout the year, like cleaning up a park, or help with a special event, or more meaningfully, ongoing engagement activities... Relationships that we've made with groups like the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and our close friend Wesley Berry and his family, and Stafford Junction, and the local school systems, and Special Olympics. These are real and ongoing relationships that we've been able to develop and maintain that have a really positive impact on our student athletes but also are making a difference in our community.

Community engagement to me is a comprehensive, department wide and university wide initiative and it encompasses everything we do from competitive excellence, to our marketing, promotions, to our service, telling our story, to our relationships, all mixed together every day of the year. 

I'm really, really proud of what a difference, what an impact we've made on our community. Now, we have a long way to go... We still have frustrations. We don't get the type of coverage in the local media that we want... Our story is not being told as much as we want. We still have people in the area that say they've never been to a game, or maybe never even been on campus. We take a guerilla approach... One by one, come with me, let me tell you what we are, what Division III is about. Let me show you the Anderson Center, let me take you on a tour of the Battleground, let me introduce you to Emma Olson, to Matt Troy or Todd Helbling, or Dee Conway, or any of our outstanding coaches and staff, and you'll feel differently. You'll be pleasantly surprised. We still have a ways to go, but we have made tremendous strides.

We've talked about some of the challenges that we've faced, met, and overcome. What are some other challenges that we face here today?

KT: We've faced a big challenge here recently. The Washington Post published an article about a lawsuit that a former student had filed pertaining to her experience with our women's basketball program. That had been a three year situation that we've been dealing with and while we regret that this former student had a less than ideal experience, our version of events is much different than hers, and I stand behind our reaction to her concerns and her allegations. We took them very seriously. We investigated them thoroughly and promptly.

We incorporated the office of Title IX, the Diversity and Inclusion office, and the affirmative action office, hand in hand with the office of Student Affairs, and our conclusions were different than hers. Unfortunately that doesn't stop someone from filing a lawsuit, so we were forced to respond appropriately and at the end of the day we made a decision to settle the suit. No admission of wrongdoing or liability and we understand that is difficult for people to understand, particularly if they aren't involved in the details. So when the story was published it was very hurtful for the department and the university.  

I'm proud of how we've responded. I think it has brought us closer together and has enabled us to have conversations that have been productive, and certainly has given us an opportunity to grow as individuals and as a community. It has allowed us to do that. 

Switching gears, when I first got here, maybe ambitiously set a goal to be one of the top 25 overall athletic departments in the country according to Learfield Directors' Cup. This year, we finished 65th, which I'm very proud of, in the top 14% in the country, and number 14 among public institutions. Call me crazy, but I think we can do even better. I look forward to having conversations with our coaches to see what I can provide them with regard to resources to achieve those goals. We came really close this year. We had 10 teams competing in conference championships and if we'd have won a couple more of those, we'd have likely been in the 30s or 40s, so we're knocking on the door.

Mary Washington is a great place form a competitive standpoint, because we can talk about CAC Championships, NCAA appearances, and final fours and they can be real. We've talked about remaining in the top 15%, top 15 among public schools in the nation, which we've accomplished. But I still think we can be a top 25 program.

I've talked about the locker room complex... We need to finish the lights on the D (turf) field... That was a project that was started just before I got here, and has remained unfinished. We hope to be able to utilize some different funding mechanisms to get those lights completed. I think that would be a significant accomplishment and would really help our whole department.

After that, we're going to really think about some creative ways to get the locker room for our outdoor student athletes. And we want to continue to focus on within our department. I'm really proud of what we've done from an assistant coach standpoint, creating an intern program from scratch. We have an army of young people now that are doing great work as intern assistant coaches, and we've been able to convert three of those positions to full time. But that's not enough. We want to continue to try to convert more of those to full time positions. That will be our goal. Ultimately I want to see all of our team sports to have a full time assistant coach. That's what we're going to be shooting for moving forward.

Continuing to bolster some of our support operations is another goal. I'm really proud of what we've been able to do with our strength and conditioning position,  and completely revamping that facility to the point where now it's one of the tops at our level. But we want to continue to focus on supporting athletic training, sports information, promotions and marketing, development, as best we can. But all it takes is money right? (smiles)

We're in an interesting situation here... We certainly rely of course on university funding, state funding for the majority of our budget. We've also seen that we can also be a bit self sufficient at times. Now, I think we're looked to to solve some of our problems, but I look at that again as an opportunity. It gives us a chance to do some things.

Five years in, you're one of the veterans in the chain, with changes taking place at the top of the university.

It has been a little interesting, as we have a new president and a new vice president for student affairs, which is the two positions that I report to, so any time you have that, there is a period of adjustment. Dr. Paino and Dr. Landphair are terrific and I'm really proud to be on their team. They've been very supportive of us. They value athletics and understand what it can bring to a college campus and its importance here.

Dr. Paino especially, is a jock. He understands sports, and is a fan... He's a great runner. He values athletics because they've been a big part of his life. I'm excited to move forward under their leadership.

I've been able to get to know so many people at Mary Washington and the community. I feel much more confident with the processes, and I'm still optimistic, but I'm much more connected.

What are you most proud of in your tenure?

I could answer that in several ways, but immediately I go to our student athletes, and what they've accomplished. We challenged our student athletes three years ago, as we had been hovering just below a 3.0 GPA as a department, and we made that a big deal to challenge our students and our staff to achieve over a 3.0. 

That's significant, because that's about 500 people, with wide varieties of academic preparation and accomplishment, and we've done it. Six straight semesters and three years , we've been over a 3.0 and the vast majority of our teams are over a 3.0. I look at for example our baseball team, that posted a 3.2 this semester. That is a major culture shift. I give a lot of credit to Coach Riser, but I give the majority of the credit to the student athletes that have made a real commitment. And there are multiple stories like that... Women's swimming program, or women's tennis program, who in a semester crank out a 3.5 GPA. I mean, are you kidding me? As a team? That's unbelievable.

Our graduation and retention rates continue to be around six percentage points higher than the student body, so we are epitomizing the term student athlete every single day.

Secondly, I'm really proud of our student athletes and what they do in our community. Every time I get a chance to go out and see them in action, particularly when they're interacting with those that might not be as fortunate as they are - Special Olympians or maybe some kids in the school system - that don't have quite the same opportunities as they do. I just... I'm overwhelmed with pride as they give of themselves. To give up a Saturday to spend time with Special Olympians, that's really why we're in this business... Making a difference. We have so many great kids in our department - that is absolutely the best part of my job, getting to brag about them.

Finally, the competitive success we've had. I have been so blessed as an athletic director since I've been here. In the five years I've been here, we've had a final four, two elite eights, a couple of sweet 16s, and multiple CAC Championships, multiple NCAA bids, and four national championships by Alex Anderson. Hosting that elite eight round of men's basketball was an unbelievable, galvanizing experience for our campus.

Winning 66% of our games this year, competing for 10 conference championships this year... We're in it to win. I'm a competitor and I like to win, and I know our coaches and student athletes feel the exact same way. We're fielding teams to win championships, and we believe that winning should be a byproduct of our process. Winning should be an outcome of the work we do in the classroom, in the community, in the weight room, and on the court and on the field. 

That's what I'm most proud of... the accomplishments of our student athletes.

What excites you the most about UMW Athletics?

I'll give you two different answers. A lot of people know I start most of my days with a workout down in the varsity weight room with our student athletes. It's getting harder, I'm sore, but I'm still doing it and I'm proud of that. There's usually a team or two down there working out, and I stay out of the way. But every now and then I'll dive in and do an ab workout with them or cheer them on as they're maxing out or doing something like that. The energy and excitement comes from that. That's what drives me.

I've the chance to talk to all of our teams at one point before a big game or after a tough loss or after a big victory, and in those times, and forging those connections, seeing the passion and emotion that is there... You can't put a price on that. That keeps me going.

What excites me is the vision of getting a locker room built, having full time assistant coaches across the board, winning a national championship in a team sport, hosting a national championship, which I think are possibilities for us... Hiring great people to be a part of our team, that excites me.

Where do you see UMW Athletics in five years?

I would hope in five years, we would have another final four in a team sport. Have a locker room complex built. That we have assistant coaches full time in more than half of our team sports. And that our student athletes are having a great experience. That they are learning lessons every day, developing relationships that are meaningful, and they feel great about their status as a graduate of Mary Washington.