John Morris will be working where he knows he’s meant to be when he arrives at Tufts in June as the university’s new director of athletics.
His recent experience in college sports has been at the NCAA Division I level, including his current position as interim director of athletics at Colorado State University. However, Morris’ roots are steeped in the principles that are espoused in Division III, the NCAA’s largest division, in which 450 member schools, including Tufts, choose not to offer athletic scholarships to their student-athletes. That philosophy leavens the balance between academics and athletics by positioning varsity sports as one component of the undergraduate experience.
“Throughout my career, periodically people have said, ‘John I can see you thriving in Division III,’ ” Morris says. “It’s something that has been on my radar for years, because my own personal values align with what Division III college athletics is all about.”
Morris inherits a program that has won 10 NCAA Division III team and individual national championships as well as a national title in sailing in the last five years, while student-athletes continue to distinguish themselves in the classroom and engage in community service.
“At Tufts, our varsity and club sports and physical education programs enrich our students’ education in profoundly meaningful ways,” says President Anthony P. Monaco. “John Morris is committed to that philosophy and ardently believes that the lessons learned on the playing field—teamwork, goal-setting and the ability to handle wins and losses with equal grace—are values that serve our students long after they leave the university.”
Morris, a native of St. Louis, learned to appreciate the advantages of a liberal arts education from his late father, a poet and English professor at Washington University. Morris said his values in academics and athletics were fostered at Vanderbilt University, which, like Tufts, is a private institution that attracts accomplished athletes because of the rigor of its academic programs.
At Vanderbilt, he roomed with varsity athletes and played intramural sports—“I wasn’t good enough to play at the varsity level, but I’ve always been a passionate sports fan,” he says. He had a double major in French and political science and later earned a law degree there.
That Fateful Morning
Morris says it appears he was destined for Tufts. On the very day last fall that he had been thinking more seriously about pursuing a Division III position, an NCAA post advertising the Tufts AD job landed in his email inbox.
“It has been my professional goal to lead the athletics program at an exceptional private academic institution, where athletics participation opportunities truly are just one part of a student’s overall educational experience, where there is a rich history and tradition of athletic success achieved within the rules and not at the expense of academic rigor, and where there is an expectation and desire for excellence in every institutional endeavor, including athletics participation and competition,” Morris said. “Tufts University has all of those attributes in spades.”
“John has a passion for helping students achieve greatness in all aspects of their lives and for creating a culture and environment that enables them to have an exceptional educational experience both on and off the field,” says Provost David R. Harris, to whom Morris will report.
“The community is going to embrace John,” says James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “He understands the role that athletics plays in promoting leadership, character and confidence in our students. And he’s going to be an excellent partner to those of us on the academic side of the house.”
Morris has an unconventional background for an AD. He left a successful partner-track law career 17 years ago to start anew in intercollegiate athletics. He says he enjoyed studying the law; he just didn’t enjoy practicing law. He needed to find something about which he was passionate.
He played soccer and baseball in high school, and at Vanderbilt, he says he admired the work ethic of the athletes he lived with and developed an appreciation for how sports could positively impact a student’s educational experience.
His law degree opened the door: he landed an internship in the NCAA rules compliance office at his alma mater. He had found his passion: helping young people develop through athletics. “I’ve never regretted that career switch one day,” he says. “Working in intercollegiate athletics was my calling.”
“I truly believe that you can learn as much through athletics participation as you can in the classroom,” Morris says. “What really lights me up is seeing how athletics can teach young people lessons and build skills in them that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.” He notes that “coaches are great teachers who just happen to coach.”
Since leaving Vanderbilt in 1998, Morris has held a variety of roles at the NCAA national office and at three other Division I schools. He was senior associate athletic director at the University of Washington in Seattle from 2004 to 2012. There, he assisted with the fundraising and planning for a $4 million baseball clubhouse/locker room and a $15 million baseball stadium.
In the summer of 2012, he was appointed deputy director of athletics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he managed the day-to-day operations. Last summer he was named interim director of athletics.
Among his achievements with the Rams athletics program, he negotiated a nationally publicized $7 million buyout when the University of Florida hired former Colorado State football coach Jim McElwain. The buyout, which includes $5 million in cash payments and $2 million for a future football game, is the largest amount ever paid by one school to another to hire away a coach. He also led a national search to hire University of Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo as the next head football coach at Colorado State, paying him a minimum of $7.75 million over the term of his contract.
The landscape will be decidedly different at Tufts, where Morris will lead a comprehensive athletics, physical education and recreation program that has grown in all dimensions during the 16-year tenure of his predecessor, Bill Gehling, A74, G79, A05P, who called Morris “a terrific selection.” The two will work together when Gehling moves into his new role as a senior advisor to University Advancement, with the goals of strengthening the network of alumni athletes and raising funds to support Tufts Athletics and other university initiatives.
The skills Morris employed successfully at the Division I level will translate nicely in continuing the trajectory for Tufts Athletics, says Ted Tye, A79, A06P, A13P, chair of the Athletics Board of Advisors and a member of the AD search committee. “Increasingly, athletics has become part of the Tufts experience and Tufts brand,” Tye says. “We aspire to the same excellence on our playing fields that we see in our classrooms. In John Morris we are getting a proven national leader at the Division I level whose heart is in Division III athletics. John will engage students, faculty and alumni with a leadership style and new ideas that will continue our growth.”
As part of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), Tufts belongs to the nation’s most competitive—in terms of both academics and athletics—small college conference. The university has 28 varsity sports, and Tufts Athletics ranked seventh out of the 450 NCAA Division III institutions in the 2014 Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, which rates schools according to their finishes in NCAA events.
Recently, Tufts athletes have enjoyed considerable success at the national level. Since 2010, Jumbo teams have won NCAA championships in men’s soccer (2014), men’s lacrosse (2010 and 2014), field hockey (2012) and softball (2013 and 2014). In addition, individual Jumbos have captured the 2010 Division III women’s singles crown in tennis, the 2012 and 2014 NCAA men’s one-meter diving championship and the 2014 NCAA women’s outdoor track 400-meter hurdles title. The sailing team won the 2012 Match Racing National Championship.
Morris says he’s not one to make change for change’s sake. “From the outside looking in, things are running pretty smoothly and successfully in Tufts Athletics,” he says. “That’s a tribute to Bill Gehling and the many talented coaches, staff and students at Tufts. My goal will be to help build on that foundation and make the changes necessary to take Tufts Athletics to the next level. I want everyone to think big about what Tufts Athletics can be,” he says.
“Our potential is limitless, and with the continued support of the university and the loyal Tufts alumni, I know we can deliver sustained, across-the-board excellence in all of our sports programs,” Morris says.
Those who had the opportunity to meet Morris during the search process liked what they heard. “It was exciting to learn his vision for enhancing the culture of excellence in athletics while developing students as scholars, leaders and citizens of Tufts and the community,” says women’s basketball coach Carla Berube, who played on the University of Connecticut’s 1995 Division I national championship basketball team. “His depth of experience provides him with an important perspective and positions him to make a significant impact here. On behalf of the Jumbo family, I am pleased to welcome him to the herd,” says Berube, whose team captured its second straight NESCAC championship on March 1.
Morris, his wife, Taylor, and their two children, Oliver, 10, and Madeleine, 1, will move to the Greater Boston area later this spring. He officially assumes the AD post on June 15.
“He is the perfect fit for us and for Tufts,” says men’s lacrosse coach Mike Daly, A96, another member of the search committee. “As an alumnus, I am excited to see his passion and work ethic extend into the larger community of Tufts and our alumni base. I feel we have sent a strong message about the direction of athletics at Tufts.”
Paul Sweeney, Tufts’ sports information director, can be reached at email@example.com.