8 Questions for Jill Bodensteiner

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

by Jeffrey Martin '04, '05 (M.A.)

Jill Bodensteiner, SJU’s first new Director of Athletics in three decades, stepped into her job just over six months ago. We sat down with Jill to discuss what she’s learned in that time, how the job stacks up to her expectations and her plans moving forward.

In what ways have the job and Hawk athletics in general exceeded your expectations? And how has it been different from what you expected?

Both the position and the University have exceeded my expectations in that, frankly, I love everything about them. I had a little bit of concern that I would miss home, or that I would be nervous about being in charge, or maybe even feel overwhelmed by the job. And I'm pleased to say, none of that has happened! I have had an extremely positive experience in my first semester. One aspect of the position in particular that has exceeded my expectations is the student athletes. I had no idea what to expect and I have to say they've really blown me away — they’re engaging, they're caring, they’re well-rounded. They are just really, really cool young people who I’m getting a chance to know, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that opportunity. I have also had the pleasure of meeting so many of our alumni and I absolutely love the passion they have for Saint Joseph’s.

One of the biggest successes of your first six months was that the field hockey team brought home their second consecutive Atlantic 10 Championship. How do you build on the momentum of a successful team and turn it into a successful program?

Well first off, I can't claim any credit for the field hockey team's success because they were rolling before I got here. But this is a great question, because it recognizes the difference between a successful team and a successful program; the latter -- in my opinion -- is one that is sustainable. What head coach Lynn Farquhar has done is create a culture of excellence in everything they do. When you look at the young women who are on that field hockey team, they're accountable across the board — in the classroom, as members of the University community, and obviously on the field. If you talk to their strength coach and athletic trainer, they would say that field hockey is one of the teams that never cuts corners, whether it’s during a workout or rehab. That accountability signifies a great culture and translates into program success. It's been a pleasure to watch up close.

A common thread with all of our successful programs, including field hockey, is that the culture doesn't solely come from the coaches. You know you have a good program when the student athletes are as intrinsically motivated as the coaches and play a significant role in shaping the culture.

What are some successes that you're proud of that might not show up on the stat sheet or in the standings?

First and foremost, my relationship with the student athletes. Following a legend like Don DiJulia, who had such a great rapport and well-earned sterling reputation with the student athletes, I have really made it priority to try and connect with as many student athletes as possible. And I'm proud and pleased with the growing relationships I have with many of them. I have a long way to go, but certainly those relationships are a key piece of the foundation for future success.

We also have made some strides in terms of enhancing the student athlete experience. We've had some great career-related events, we were able to hire an additional full-time athletic trainer to work with our track and cross-country teams, and we started a Leadership Academy. Those things add up. And we have some activities that we’re going to roll out over the next several months to continue the momentum.

Finally, our ability to showcase Saint Joseph’s University and our department are improving. We are streaming more events than ever, and our increased partnership with ESPN+ has been great. Our social media and storytelling are improving as well.

Your training and your early career experience are as a lawyer. Are there any unexpected ways you've used your law background in the day-to-day execution of this job?

There are three ways that I use my legal background on a regular basis. The first has more to do with the how than the what. The most intense thing about being an athletic director is the sheer number of decisions that come my way on a day-to-day basis. I think my legal background allows me to process and assimilate information and make a decision pretty quickly.

The second way I use my legal experience on a daily basis relates to the changing landscape of college athletics. I have talked about this before on the “Jill on the Hill” podcast and in other formats, but the legal challenges to amateurism are ongoing and significant. I’m not only keeping up to date with those issues, but I’m trying to be an industry leader. Having a law background certainly helps to navigate what are very complex legal issues.

The third way I've used my legal experience relates to policies — revising our drug testing policy, implementing a new gambling policy in light of the legal changes to sports betting, and working with general counsel and student life on a hazing policy consistent with the new Pennsylvania state law.

You mentioned your podcast “Jill on the Hill,” which features student athletes, coaches and alumni. In talking to them, what common threads have you found that have helped you understand what “Hawk culture” is?

Both the alumni and the student athletes who have been on the podcast all talk about the same themes in response to a question about their Saint Joseph's experience: namely, mental toughness, grit in overcoming obstacles, and the support they received from the Saint Joseph’s community. Those themes have been really consistent and really striking. With respect to the alumni who we've had on the podcast, I’m impressed with how well Saint Joseph’s has set them up for their careers. There were some really successful people on that podcast: an executive vice president with the NBA, a Naismith Hall of Fame coach, three NBA and WNBA players, and two major executives with NFL teams. Every one of them talked about how St. Joe's helped to prepare them for those careers.

It's clear that basketball is the most visible sports here at SJU, and between the win-loss records and recent major injuries, the season to this point for both the men’s and women’s program haven't met a lot of people’s expectations. How do you keep focus on long term goals and the health of SJU athletics at large when your biggest program is having a tough year?

I pride myself on being transparent, and I’ll be transparent in response to this good question. So far, both men's and women's basketball have had tough years. At a University well known for its basketball history and prowess, that makes all aspects of the day-to-day work in athletics really difficult. My concern first and foremost starts with the mental health and well-being of our coaches and student athletes. Losing wears on everyone affiliated with a program that's not having success; it's just really tough on all of them. The pressure builds exponentially. No matter how frustrated a loyal fan is, I can assure you that those of us working with the teams feel 1000 times the pressure and frustration.

The women’s team entered the year with a relatively inexperienced team, and it's been fun to watch them grow. And they have definitely grown. They're starting to put the ball in the basket, and it's amazing what that can do for an inexperienced team’s confidence. That confidence will spill over and lead to better all-around offensive and defensive execution as the A10 season progresses.

The men's season so far has been a little more confusing because their performance in games has not met our pre-season expectations. No one's working harder to right the ship than Coach Martelli and his staff. But frankly, we need to be better at everything we do related to basketball, and that includes me. We have a long way to go in terms of fan experience, in game production, facilities and other aspects if we are going to be a top-tier basketball program that's expecting to compete for NCAA bids on a regular basis. Of course, we don't have the luxury of time, because no one else in college athletics is waiting for us. So I spend a significant portion of my time plotting how we can be better in basketball, both on and off the court. I am very confident that we’ll get there.

What are some challenges of this job the people might not realize from the outside?

As with most leaders, Athletic Directors have a wide variety of responsibilities. I need to make sure that I am focused on revenue generation and all of the external facing activities that entails, including fundraising, marketing, tickets, corporate sponsors, communications and the fan experience. Equally important is the internal expectations, like human resources, risk management, finances, facilities, and being a good campus partner … all of those things are a critical part of what I do. But those duties all pale in comparison to the importance of staying connected to the student athletes – that group is the heart and soul of what we do, and I never want to get too involved with the other aspects of the job such that I forget about the reason we're all here.

You came to Philadelphia after a lifetime in the Midwest, specifically your alma mater Notre Dame. How is Philadelphia sports culture as a whole different from Indiana sports culture and how do the differences inform your approach to the job?

Your timing with this question is perfect because I just read a long feature article about Bruiser Flint, a Saint Joseph’s alum from the class of 1987, and Bruiser’s quote made me smile. He's now an assistant coach at Indiana University, and he said something to the effect that he was driving to Bloomington and realized – “Ok, I’m in the sticks now.” So culturally, obviously, Indiana is quite a bit different from Philadelphia.

When it comes to sports, the passion is very similar, particularly surrounding basketball. The thing that's most different about the sports culture is that in Indiana, whatever season is going on, that sport is the only game in town. The sports market is much more competitive in Philadelphia. There's dozens and dozens of colleges and universities, not to mention a significant number of professional teams. You have to work much harder to get attention, but the passion is really similar.

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