As returning students may have noticed when they stepped foot on campus late in August, there was a familiar figure absent from campus. Jeff Ward, Bowdoin’s athletic director since 1998, had moved on from the school.
After 14 fruitful years guiding the athletic department through some of its best moments in history, Ward announced early in June that he would not return this fall. He is now taking a step back to focus his energy on an entrepreneurial athletic consulting company.
The Route to Bowdoin
Ward grew up in Oregon, where he started swimming at the age of six. He continued through high school and into his sophomore year at Dartmouth College, when he started coaching a local club team in Hanover, N.H.
“In the fall of my junior year I had to make the decision that I could either coach or I could swim, but I couldn’t do both,” Ward said. “I loved coaching and went with that.”
He stopped swimming to focus on coaching for the second half of college, and became an assistant swim coach at the U.S. Military Academy after graduating from Dartmouth. After later working at Columbia, where he helped create and then lead the women’s swim team, and Brown, where he served as assistant athletic director, he arrived at Bowdoin in 1998 as the athletic director. Along the way Ward also earned a master’s degree in higher education administration at Columbia and married Margaret Broaddus, who currently works at the College.
Ward was just the fifth athletic director hired in Bowdoin’s history. He succeeded the retiring 30-year Bowdoin mainstay Sidney Watson, stepping into the shoes of someone who “was a larger-than-life person who had been wildly successful at the College,” in the words of Tim Foster, dean of student affairs and a member of the hiring committee in 1998.
Foster said the committee members were looking for “a gifted administrator given the size and complexity of the department,” but at the same time, “someone who could preach but also practice a strong educational philosophy. At a residential liberal arts college there’s learning that goes on within and beyond the classroom, and the athletic venue is a huge classroom for athletic learning.”
“We thought we were getting somebody who would care deeply about students, and as it turns out he did,” added Foster. “He is the number one superfan of Bowdoin athletics.”
A Teacher at Heart
In the press release (bowdoin.edu/news/archives/1bowdoincampus/000498.shtml) announcing his hiring in February 1998, Ward said that the “Athletic Department’s purpose is to use the pursuit of victory as an educational tool.”
Nobody can deny that he’s done that at Bowdoin.
“He hired fantastic coaches who are educators on and off the field and who take an interest in the lives of their student athletes as young people who are growing, and that’s probably more important than anything else,” said Foster.
Foster said that he and Ward have spent countless hours examining how Bowdoin’s student-athletes do academically. And although the data is confidential, Ward said, “It’s fair to say that there is no distinguishable GPA difference between those on teams and those not on teams. Our academic data compares favorably to everybody else in the conference.”
“It has long been Jeff’s driving desire to see athletes perform at as high a level as all students at the College, if not higher,” said Foster. “He himself has been a really wonderful teacher and mentor to students but especially to many young coaches. That’s what Jeff really is at heart: Jeff the teacher.”
President Barry Mills agreed that the academic success stems from Ward’s skill in hiring and mentoring dedicated coaches.
“The student experience in athletics is pretty fantastic, and that doesn’t happen by chance,” said Mills. “He’s about education and about these coaches being educators, and really helped us maintain and enhance an excellent program.”
Ward’s Fitting Philosophy
At a school of Bowdoin’s size, overseeing the athletic department means being a leader to not only dozens of coaches, but also to over 600 athletes—one-third of the entire student body.
“Because of the size of the school and simply the percentage of kids who choose to play athletics, you really need to ensure that the teams are an integrated part of the college community and not just something on the periphery,” said Ward.
Mills praised Ward’s focus on athletics as one component of the complete student life experience, and noted that part of this stems from the fact that Bowdoin is one of the only schools in the NESCAC--maybe the only--where the Athletic Director reports to Student Life.
“Jeff’s been collaborating on an ongoing basis with a team that includes 15 department heads, and we’re able to develop an esprit de corps with those folks that we might not otherwise have,” said Foster. “Why that’s not the case at every other NESCAC institution I don’t know.”
Broad-based student life initiatives Ward supported include Girls and Women in Sports Day, an event to introduce younger girls to the importance of sport, and Captains Training, a comprehensive program that helps athletic leaders understand the importance of their roles and how to do their jobs most effectively.
Ward has also inspired student-led action to combat sexual violence and homophobia in athletics. Through an event called Anything but Straight in Athletics, he created an ecosystem through which students and the College became much more accepting of LGBTQ athletes and non-athletes alike.
“Jeff’s commitment to openness and to respect created a whole new safe space on this campus,” said Mills. “In a world where college athletics takes on all kinds of different dimensions at various colleges and universities, having an athletic director like Jeff who understood clearly and believed in the philosophy that the College had was incredibly supportive and important.”
“I was never a student athlete, but Jeff served as a huge inspiration during my time at Bowdoin,” commented Brandon Asemah ’12 on a Bowdoin Daily Sun post announcing Ward’s departure. Asemah worked alongside Ward for the first Anything But Straight in Athletics event, and said he “learned what courage looks like” from Ward.
“Too often people sit in silence while others struggle. Not Jeff! I personally witnessed him show student-athletes tremendous care both on and off the field,” said Asemah.
A Coach’s Coach
Ward was the driving force behind the hiring of countless head coaches over his 14 years, including 15 currently on the staff. As one of his final acts at Bowdoin, he pulled off a daunting task: replacing legendary 22-year men’s lacrosse coach Tom McCabe, who retired this spring with the 15th-most career wins in D-III history.
During Ward’s tenure, graduates went on to coach at schools from Williams to the Naval Academy, and a handful were hired to lead teams at Bowdoin.
Ward returned to roots of his own this past winter, when he joined the swimming and diving teams as an assistant coach to work with the distance swimmers.
Alex Tougas ’14, one of the athletes with whom Ward worked most closely, called Ward “an excellent listener and an amazing coach, teacher and motivator,” who “became a confidante and a role model.”
“Jeff put a great deal of focus on the technical aspects of the sport,” Tougas added. “We all know the fundamentals of swimming, but tweaking the small things, [like] rotation in freestyle, allowed us to improve.”
Ward said that when he arrived at Bowdoin, he “really underestimated the role that athletics plays in the community.” He has since discovered that the “crowds we get of local people are pretty substantial, and I think that sometimes we take that a little bit for granted.”
When asked to compare Bowdoin’s overall athletic culture today to that of 1998, Ward said, “There is much more of an expectation now by those on teams to be successful; teams have a much more positive self image than they did 14 years ago. I also think that those within athletics feel the connection between athletic and academic success: the two can be complimentary as opposed to in conflict. That helps both inside and outside the athletic department to a much greater degree than when I got here.”
The anticipation of success may be attributed to the 21 NESCAC championships Bowdoin won and the dozens of NCAA tournament berths earned over Ward’s tenure, but there is more driving it behind the scenes.
Ward said that his most memorable on-the-field moments include women’s basketball going to the D-III championship game in 2004, field hockey winning the school’s first-ever national championship in 2007, football beating Williams in 2007, and men’s soccer being one overtime goal away from reaching the championship in 2010.
Yet according to Jim Caton, assistant athletic director for communications, “Jeff’s legacy will likely be the facelift that occurred within facilities under his tenure.” These include the creation of a new track and the turf field and squash center, but the Sidney J. Watson Arena--the new hockey rink--is Ward’s most prized production.
“I think it’s one of the top couple arenas in the country in every way; there just aren’t very many places that are as comfortable and inviting as it,” he said. “A lot of new places have become pretty sterile, but Watson is not at all.”
Another aspect of Watson, albeit one that is generally underappreciated, is that not just varsity hockey teams currently utilize it. Ward said at least nine teams currently use its locker rooms, and the facility regularly hosts events such as the Baccalaureate Ceremony and the RoboCup U.S. Open.
The Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness was also an important construction project of Ward’s, and according to Foster, has reinforced the athletic community on campus.
For all the department’s success under Ward’s leadership, however, there were some challenges. Ward dealt with both the unexpected death of a star athlete and the vacating of a conference title due to hazing, but noted one decision of paramount difficulty: in 2003, in the midst of school-wide budget cuts and concerns about academic disruptions caused by the time investment required to travel to competitions, the alpine ski team was eliminated.
“The hazing things we’ve had are angering at the moment but they’re opportunities,” he said. “Every time you go through any of those things hopefully it always ends up better.”
He said that telling the ski team “that we were going to get smaller was really hard. Talking to the coach and the students, nobody was going to understand about it.”
Nonetheless, athletic success at Bowdoin has translated into good fortune in later sports ventures for a number of alumni, including, most recently, Owen “Kit” Smith ’11 with the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse. Arguably the most successful is hockey star Jon Landry ’06, an All-American hockey player who recently signed a contract with the NHL’s New York Islanders. He is currently preparing for an Islanders camp later in September, and a call-up to the team would make him just the second Bowdoin alumnus to ever play in the NHL.
In an email to the Orient, Landry wrote about the value of having an athletic director like Ward while working through the challenge of going to college and playing a sport.
“An athletic director is much like a General Manager/Owner of a professional team,” Landry wrote. “They set the standards, philosophy and vision for their program and then hire the coaches who fit into that plan.”
“Jeff always held an open door policy to any of the athletes,” Landry added. “In good times or in bad, he had our backs. My development as a person at Bowdoin helped me make tremendous strides as a professional, and it is easy to see the difference from players who did not have the same support growing up.”
Ward said his decision to leave “evolved over the course of the year,” and that he is looking forward to focusing on a new entrepreneurial venture creating a company called Athletic Endeavors Consulting to pass on the skills he has gained. It will focus on three main things—leadership development for student-athletes, professional development for coaches, and management consulting for athletic administrators—and will also help high school students navigate the college recruitment process.
“There seems to be a real need, and it’s exciting,” Ward said. According to Mills, Ward’s commitment to the College will be celebrated in some manner this fall.
For now, Tim Ryan ’98 is filling Ward’s shoes as the interim athletic director. Ryan, who during his senior year sat on the committee that selected Ward, returned to Bowdoin in 2005 as an assistant football coach after working in banking post-graduation. After three years of coaching he moved into the associate athletic director for operations role, in which he oversaw the department’s budget, and plans to put his name into consideration for the permanent athletic director position this fall.
“When I think about Jeff, the first thing I think about is how great of a mentor he has been both to members of our coaching staff but also to me personally,” said Ryan. “His approach of looking for collective thoughts and ideas is one I’ll take with me that I think people may not be aware of.”
This fall, Foster will chair a search committee comprised of students, faculty, staff, and alumni—with the ultimate decision residing in the hands of Mills—to conduct a national search for Bowdoin’s next athletic director.
And though Ward has left the College, Bowdoin Athletics is poised to build upon unprecedented success: “We won just slightly south of two-thirds of our NESCAC games last year, which I think is the best we’ve ever been,” he said. “The NESCAC is by far the hardest conference in the nation for D-III.”
“It’s certainly good to be looking [for an athletic director] when you’re on an up note,” said Mills, “but my guess is that people are going to take a little bit longer view. What they’ll see is a longstanding tradition of the importance of athletics at the College, the College’s success athletically, and the fantastic facilities that we have, and this will be a very, very attractive job to a lot of people.”