Jill Bodensteiner, the St. Joseph’s athletic director, stood before a whiteboard in a conference room Tuesday morning. On the board’s left side, she wrote “EXPENSES $21M” in red marker. On the right side, she wrote “REVENUE $4M” in green. Those figures represented the athletic department’s financial situation, she said, when university president Mark Reed hired her from Notre Dame last June to replace Don DiJulia, and they represented the background and context she wanted to establish for any discussion of her first year as the school’s AD – and for the change and tumult of that year.
In March, Bodensteiner fired Phil Martelli, who had been the Hawks’ men’s basketball coach for 24 years, Last week, Marie Wozniak, who became St. Joe’s sports information director in 2003, said her position was being eliminated as part of a departmental restructuring.
The departures of these three fixtures – Martelli, Wozniak, and DiJulia, who retired after 35 years as AD – and the criticism that Bodensteiner received not just for firing Martelli but also for announcing his dismissal in a three-paragraph press release have left observers and St. Joe’s alumni uncertain about the direction she wants to take the men’s basketball program and the athletic department as a whole. Over a 40-minute interview Tuesday, she answered questions related to that topic and others. Her remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
MIKE SIELSKI: What do you see as your primary mission here?
JILL BODENSTEINER: I guess I’d come at that from two ways. One is consistent with our Jesuit mission as a university, which is, in many ways, to strive for excellence. I want us to not think small. I want us to make a difference in people’s lives. The second lens that I think we should talk about is when you ask yourself the question: Why is the United States the only country in the world that has college athletics? Why does St. Joseph’s have Division I college athletics?
To me, there are three reasons. The first is that it complements the education that student-athletes get in the classroom. There’s a statistic I love to give. Ernst & Young did a study that 92 percent of the women who have made it to the C suite in Fortune 500 companies were athletes. No. 2, it builds community, and we saw that certainly in my old world at Notre Dame. And No. 3, again, considering my background, what athletics did for Notre Dame was take a small regional farm school and make it an internationally known destination. It was Knute Rockne and Jesse Harper before him who took a school that was not on the map and led them to dream of being the best Catholic institution in the world. Division I college athletics can really help differentiate institutions of higher education among their peers.
MS: How do you think that mission conflicts or complements what already seems to be St. Joe’s brand as an intrinsically Philadelphian place? You mentioned Notre Dame, and we can get into the conditions that existed in 1928 and ’29, when Rockne was at his peak, versus the conditions with colleges and universities now and whether it’s possible for a school like St. Joe’s to replicate what Notre Dame did.
JB: Two totally different markets. Notre Dame wanted to compete on a national market; St. Joseph’s is competing on a more regional basis – and looking to expand that, by the way.
MS: But if your brand for a long time is “the local Jesuit school where everyone is family,” how do you marry that with a broader regional goal?
JB: I don’t know how much people in the sports world follow what’s happening in higher education. Post-World War II up until the 2000s, in higher ed, everybody built. Everybody created new programs. How are you paying for those? Two ways: Admit more students; charge more tuition. That bubble has burst. You cannot keep charging more tuition, and there are no more bodies because people are attending college at the lowest level in years. The way that college and universities used to think about who they were and who they were attracting has changed by necessity and how we’re going to attract students who fit with our mission. Gone are the days where you could say, “We’re St. Joe’s. We’re Neumann. We’re Cabrini. We’re La Salle. Come and get us.”
MS: Do you think the Philadelphia market changes that dynamic at all? Philadelphia is such a parochial area. If you deviate from that past, there’s going to be blowback, like what you’ve probably already encountered: resentment and screams of “This is not who we are! This is not who St. Joe’s was!”
JB: My inbox is full of people saying, “Thank you for trying to make us excellent.” So the media’s take on it is not necessarily what I’ve received privately. There were years where, in some ways, mediocrity had become the rule.
MS: Define “mediocrity.”
JB: Well, it certainly isn’t just about wins and losses. But just in general, there are no fans coming to the games. We’re not creating community. There are mediocre results across the department, and there hasn’t been the same buzz as there’s been in years past about St. Joe’s athletics. That’s what I hear from third parties, and I’m new here, right? My inbox is full of people saying, “Restore us to a period where people care and we’re relevant again.” One of the notions that’s been created is there’s a dichotomy – that you can’t both care about people and be good. So is St. Joe’s simply going to be where we love one another, or are we going to strive to be excellent in the Jesuit tradition? I don’t think those two things are incompatible.
MS: With respect to some of the changes you’ve made, whether it was Phil or Marie or others, is there a guiding thread there? Marie, from what I’ve heard, is being replaced by two people.
JB: That is not accurate.
MS: What is accurate, then?
JB: I haven’t even posted the positions yet, so I’m still getting everything approved through human resources. But no, Marie is not being replaced by two people.
MS: Let’s deal with Phil, then. Was it simply about results on the court? Was it something beyond that?
JB: Out of respect for Phil, I’m not going to tell you everything I saw. I can tell you I was extraordinarily concerned about the program on and off the court. I can also tell you I had those conversations with Coach Martelli. The narrative of “coming out of the blue” is not how I operate. Everybody in this department knows exactly where they stand and has since the day I got here. They also knew I was going to spend the year evaluating and that I’d have to make significant changes at the end of the year. I’m extraordinarily transparent in everything I do, particularly in this department. I care not at all what the media thinks. I care what my people think. I think you lack integrity when you don’t share with employees what you’re seeing and what your concerns are or what the positive is. I just believe in being completely transparent with people, and I’ve done that throughout my year here.
MS: What about the handling of the announcement, the revelation? You got some heat for sending out a three-paragraph press release for a guy who had been a head coach here 24 years.
JB: I’m not really interested in rehashing how that came out. I’m not my own PR director. I’m not a PR expert. I thought it would be better to be on camera than it would the written word. I felt my press conference was extraordinarily compassionate. I was near tears because of the difficulty of the decision, and that was genuine, and that’s why I chose to speak about him rather than on a piece of paper. I know people around here like the written word. I’m a camera person. I think it’s just more genuine, and you can speak from the heart. Nothing was prepared. If people thought a prepared statement would take the sting out of it, I’m not sure I agree with that. How do you send out a 10-page press release, flowery and lovey, and then fire someone? The flip side of that would have been, “Oh, she’s a hypocrite.”
MS: You wouldn’t have perceived it as giving a longtime coach his due?
JB: There’s time for that. There’s absolutely time to give a longtime coach his due, which he deserves a great amount of. If you had tried to do it in one fell swoop, that would have been lost. That’s my strategy, for better or worse.
MS: Do you find yourself having to change the way people think about the department here? What’s the reaction you’re getting to the measures you’re taking? Are people saying, “We don’t do that around here?” Or is it something different?
JB: Those with fixed mindsets are saying, “We don’t do that around here.” Luckily, those are few and far between. Those with a growth mindset are really excited. That’s the majority.
MS: Can you make that happen with the current athletic facilities? Where do you think they are now?
JB: Below average.
MS: What needs improving first?
JB: A basketball practice facility.
MS: Is that on an immediate agenda?
JB: I wouldn’t say “immediate agenda.” I would say that, as we head into a university campaign in the future, athletic facilities are certainly something that Dr. Reed and I are interested in exploring. Basketball practice facility, locker rooms for all sports – we’ve got one that has the constant threat of rain in the room. We have locker rooms way too small for the number of athletes we have. Tennis has no locker room, so they’re carrying their gear for eight hours once they get on campus until practice. Those are things we could do better.
MS: You mentioned higher education and the trends that are buffeting what you want to do. The NCAA’s money-making machine is so big that getting as big a slice seems at the forefront of your mindset.
JB: When the NCAA had its governance review four or five years ago, the general public doesn’t realize how much that was really a review of whether Division I should stay together. They ended up in a compromise, where the Power 5 sets its own legislation and the non-Power 5 still gets access to championships and distribution of revenue. What’s happened around that, though, is a squeeze. The margin of error for schools like La Salle and St. Joe’s is thinner than ever. Power 5 schools are going to 20-game conference schedules; you can get in the NCAA Tournament with a 7-13 conference record. In conferences like the Atlantic 10, it’s going from six bids in his heyday to two. That’s a significant change, and if you just keep putting the same ingredients in the sausage machine and cranking out the same thing, that’s no longer good enough. It doesn’t mean anything we were doing was wrong. This is not an indictment on Don or Phil or anyone else. It’s just an entirely different world we live in.
In the last five years, the world of college athletics had changed in ways the general public doesn’t even realize. You see it in informal ways, where one tweet can get a coach, an athletic director, a president, or a chancellor fired. The student-athletes have a voice in a really important way, and they should. I’m just genuinely interested in what they want their experience to look like. That looks very different than it did five years ago. What’s the No. 1 thing student-athletes want right now? Mental-health resources. That’s a different world that we’re in. Don didn’t have to deal with that in the acute way I’m dealing with it. They want nutrition. They’re very attuned to what they’re putting in their body, and they know what a difference it makes in performance. Those are all good things, but I’m letting them steer the ship a little bit in terms of where are we going to put some of our resources.
When it comes to the trends in media, is it the written word? For 17-year-olds, they want digital. They want graphics. They want photos. They want social media. I’m trying to listen to what they say there. We are average in our digital and social media at best. That’s something they’re screaming for.
MS: To someone in my business, that screams of just being able to control your own branding. You want to tell the story of St. Joe’s in exactly the way you want to tell it when that might be an impossibility.
JB: Isn’t that what most people want to do? Tell their own story? The media will always have its wonderful role as a check and a balance. Most people these days talk about, “What’s my personal brand? How am I perceived when I get on the job market?” It’s all about telling your own story. I think universities are no different. There’s an aspect where they should be telling their own stories, and there’s an aspect where the media should be telling whatever story they want to tell. That’s appropriate balance. The good news is, we don’t have to put resources to the story other people are going to tell about us. We can put our resources to telling our own story.
Part of what we’re doing is educating. “Use your voice, and use it in a way that helps you succeed long term. Use your platform.” That’s a shift in some of the communication. We want to educate our students in nutrition. I want labels on every food they eat so they understand the food they’re putting in their bodies. We’re here to serve them, so I’m very interested in where they want us putting our resources.
MS: What happens when that shifts again? I mean, Twitter was not the factor five years ago that it is now.
JB: You’ve got to be adaptable. What has not lost its presence over the last 10 years is social media. Once you’re in the digital space and helping student-athletes create their own persona, then I think you’re in a good space and ready and willing to adapt to what the new fad is.
MS: When I hear from St. Joe’s alumni, 99.9 percent of the time it’s about men’s basketball, and they often ask, “Why can’t we do what Villanova is doing? Why can’t we do what Gonzaga is doing?” And my response is that Gonzaga is the school of its kind out in Spokane and St. Joe’s is competing against Villanova, Temple, etc. As for Villanova, it’s in the Big East, and in Jay Wright, it seems to have the perfect coach for what its program needed and wanted. Are those comparisons accurate, and what kind of program should and can St. Joe’s be in that context?