Guest Post: Views From the Student Section and The Impact of Purpose on Game Day

Background:  This post has been written by Michael Keelen, currently a Junior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick studying Sport Management.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike after he reached out for career advice, and ended up offering the opportunity to write a post that talked about his experiences, how he has gotten involved as a student, and more…I ended up learning more from him than I feel like he learned from me!

Author: Michael Keelen

Sport Management Major: Rutgers University

People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. This is a concept that may seem simple, but figuring out the concept of why, may be the single handed most important thing any individual or organization may ever do in their entire life. From the time I was young I was always drawn to sports, whether it be watching every game on TV, or going out shooting jump shots outside in the drive way. I always understood that I was drawn to sport but until I grew older I did not really understand why that was. When I came to college I let my passion fuel my decision making and decided to become a Sport Management major.

My passion for sports made joining an organization such as the Riot Squad very easy. The Riot Squad is the official student section of Rutgers Athletics. The group was started 6 years ago by a group of Marketing interns who would go to games and take down stats of the team’s performance. A few years later the interns in charge decided to move away from the statistics concept and make the Riot Squad a traditional student section similar the sections other B1G schools had. When I came in to college the organization had a marketing strategy that ultimately halted the organizations progress.

When I was recruited to join the organization the marketing pitch sounded a lot like this; “We go to all of the Rutgers sporting events, the more you show up the more gear you will get, you get great face time on T.V and a lot of exclusive opportunities, you should join our organization.” From the outside, this does not sound like a bad strategy. The gear itself was quality, the top prize was an awesome Nike back pack, and most of the members that did recruiting seemed to be good people. Despite this, around my sophomore year the organization started to go downhill. Membership rapidly declined, many members would obtain the prize gear and not show up again, and the members who did show up to games, did not create a great atmosphere or move the organization forward in any way.

Naturally, the first thing most of us did was not search for “why” but we tried to refine our what we did and how we did it. We asked if the prize gear was not lucrative enough, or the tailgates not exciting enough and questioned almost everything but the way we recruit. Through many trial and error brainstorming sessions we realized that the reason people joined the organization in the first place was not the gear or the face time or the exclusive opportunities. People joined because they had pride in Rutgers University, they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They wanted to change a culture that so desperately needs to be changed. We figured out that “why” and started to make decisions with the concepts of; “pride, togetherness, and culture” and things changed almost immediately. Despite the lack of winning by our key revenue sports, more people began to join the organization. They became drawn to our new identity and were focused on changing culture and sharing experiences.

Through working with the Riot Squad, I realized the sports are about a lot more than the physical games themselves. Sports bring people together from different walks of life. It brings unity in times of division and can provide an escape for people who need it. Sports links music to memories, and when certain songs come on I can picture myself in the RAC or High Point Solution Stadium with a group of my best friends.

Through these experiences I realized that there was a lot more than sports behind the reason I declared my major. I declared because I believe that sports provide a way that I can change the world. Moving forward, I hope to be the Marketing Director for a Collegiate Athletic Department. In a position such as this I could help impact the fan and specifically the student experience. The student section is often an over looked component for many marketing departments. At the end of the day, a raucous student crowd could help sway potential Heisman trophy winners to go to one school or another. A great crowd could inspire a donor to sign that last check that builds that new facility or could help the University land the next big coach that lifts the national trophy title. Although there are other very important components, the student experience is the pulse of any great college game day atmosphere.


The People Around You

I have stressed this time and time again, and recently it could not be more valuable to my personal and professional mindset.  As you go through life, different stages of friendships and relationships form along the way, whether it’s friends in high school, college, your graduate program, from the neighborhood growing up, and even at work.  What I have found is that who you ultimately spend the most time around end up being the shape and build of your goals, actions, and even character.  With that understanding in mind, it is so important to recognize who it is you are spending time with, the types of relationships you value, and how those people will impact your life.

The scariest part about this is that you can end up changing over time, and not know until it is too late.  The friends you make and stay close with end up forming who you are, and without realizing it, you can become either much “better”, or much “worse” when it comes to your priorities and goals in all aspects of life.  In order to allow these relationships to have an impact on your life in a positive way, you have to allow them to show you what I would consider tough love and make sure that your friends and support system know that you are open to the constructive criticism.  This is a two way street, and if you are not willing to listen to the one’s you trust the most, there can be many missed opportunities to change along the way.

One of my closest friends, Anthony Bulak, is someone who’s priorities, vision, and values line up perfectly with mine.  He is currently the Manager of Premium Partnerships for the NY Jets, and while his direct goal within the sport industry may not be the same as mine, he has a plan, and in many ways his mindset and work ethic has motivated me to be even better both professionally and personally.  We talk regularly about taking risks, working on your personal brand, making the extra effort at work, and most recently, devoting time to your mental and physical health.  I have found it necessary to speak on his behalf today because I feel like it is so important to recognize who the people are around you that can help you become the best version of yourself.  Every close friend you have may not fit the same mold, but if you look closely they can each have an extremely positive impact on you in such different ways.

The People Around You- What I have learned most in recent months is that allowing the right people; whether its friends, family, professors, colleagues, or your boss to motivate you in different ways is the key to one’s overall success.  It is very rare that someone who is dedicated, yet close minded when it comes to seeking advice and allowing others to help recharge your desire to succeed is able to “make it” on their own.  As you hit points in your life where you may feel yourself getting lazy at home, at the gym, at work, or anything in between, allow some time to sit back and reflect to see if the people that you are spending the most time with are truly helping you break that routine.  The underlying theme here- taken from a motivational speaker named Jim Rohn, “We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” Don’t just reflect on your own personal actions, reflect on the one’s of the people around you as well.

Early Tasks

This post is sparked by my brother’s recent internship opportunity, and his first taste of the reality that exists when trying to get your foot in the door and start your career.  The industry Jake is going into has nothing to do with mine.  He is looking towards a job in finance and/or accounting in the general business world, and as a sophomore in college the reality of what’s ahead can sometimes be quite tough to see.  What I have found most fascinating with talking him through this process and how to get started is the challenge that it posed for myself.  Even though he isn’t working in college athletics and doesn’t have the same passion as me, is there a way I can help him take the necessary steps to achieve his long term goal and get his foot in the door the right way?

The interesting part is that it is the exact, same, process.  Because I couldn’t relate to what the day to day responsibilities might look like, or the connections that he had to make, I had to find ways to explain to him what to expect by translating over my own personal experiences.  After two days at his internship, I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t sure if he was going to fully learn everything he had anticipated, and that is perfectly normal. What began to click is that it is the same across every industry, and when you are trying to build a network at the very beginning and learn through experience, the mentality is the same regardless of your focus.

Yes, he spends most of his days making calls and doing things that are not necessarily what he may have envisioned, but that is the whole point.  Early on in your career, those are what I would consider “tests”.  Your superiors are throwing minute tasks at you, and are watching closely at how you respond.  Are you early every day?  Do you ask the right questions?  Do you take a long lunch break?  Have you made the same mistake twice?  Are you dressed appropriately?  How do you carry yourself in meetings?  Are you genuinely interested?

These are the things that I found I could preach to my brother to help him get through his experience, and it has really started to show.  It isn’t about the literal phone calls he’s making, or the papers he may be filing.  It’s about being the hardest worker in the room.  It’s about dominating those small tasks that are given to you.  It’s about learning from the people around you, going outside of your comfort zone, and soaking in the experience and environment that you are planning to engulf yourself in for years to come.

Early Tasks-  It is the equivalent of walking into a Facilities and Operations Internship and expecting to meet with top dollar donors on day one.  It does not work that way.  Every career, industry, and path that leads to success has a process.  The important thing to remember early on is that as soon as you enter the work force, impressions are made, good or bad, and they can last a life time.  As exciting as this can be for building a positive network, is as scary as it can be if you rub someone the wrong way.  This is why it’s so important to take these experiences head on and understand that you can only earn trust of your superiors by dominating those small, simple tasks that are given to you.  Believe it or not, a smile while doing it can go a long way as well.  Be someone that people want to work with, and as you move up the ladder of success, remember these small tasks and values you’ve taken on over the years.  The best at what they do, in my opinion, carry the same mentality when they are on the bottom step of the ladder that they do when they are on the top.


Reflect and Grow

Over the last month or so, I have taken some time each day to sit back and re-assess different aspects of my life.  Whether that be work, socially, health, or family, it is important that you take time every once in a while, depending on your schedule, to reevaluate certain areas that allow for you to grow.  For me, the biggest change came at work, and as I tried to understand why, it began to click.  As I have well documented, before taking this role at American University, I had spent the previous two years as a GA, and a full time Intern, both lasting one year each.  With that being said, in each instance, as the term came to an end, I was not only focusing on my job, but finding the next one as well.  Naturally, this allowed for me to remain aggressive in my daily approach, because I had floating over my head the potential of being jobless at the end of each term.  Now that I am in month 9 of my first full time job at American, I am waiting for that indirect “push” that had forced me to refresh my skill set and build my network, but its not there…

Thankfully, I had set aside time at home to find out what that missing link was, and it has kept me from getting complacent.  For the first time in my career, I will be entering an off-season at the same place I was at the year before, with a year under my belt and the ability to make an impact in the department entering year 2.  I recognize now that this is new for me.  A new challenge and experience I have yet to encounter, and something that I am going to approach with an open-mind and that same work ethic that drove me when I was wrapping up those final months of my internships.

Reflect and Grow- Complacency can become your worst enemy.  Everyone, at some point in their life, hits a wall, and to be honest, that’s okay.  It is human nature to become content at times.  It may happen once, or it may happen several times.  The ones that take time to reflect on where they are at both personally and professionally are the ones who have an easier time recognizing their actions, and can then hold themselves accountable. It is so important to set new goals, constantly refine your craft, and in the end take some time down the road to make sure that you are following the path you had originally set out. My goal for writing this was to hopefully provide a spark for those who decide to read. Take a second when you get home tonight.  At work, at home, at the gym, in your relationship, are you falling behind, are you content, and are you willing to accept the reality and make the necessary changes?  Its up to you…Where can you improve?



The Recruiting Process

Over the last 3 or 4 months, I observed what we call the “recruiting process” for a high school student-athlete as they look to play sports at the next level.  In terms of my position now at American University, I don’t have any involvement when it comes to working with prospective student athletes because my responsibilities do not relate to that aspect of the department.  That didn’t, however, stop me from using my brother, Emil, and his process as a teachable moment not only for myself, but for him and those involved in that challenging, and sometimes rewarding process.

After observing and doing my best to share my experience in dealing with college coaches, and what they might look for, I had some very valuable takeaways now that this process for my brother is over.  He committed this past weekend to the University of Rhode Island to further his academic and football career, and after reflecting on the process, here are the three key components that I took from it.

  1. Negotiating Skills
  2. Interview Process
  3. Relationship Building

Yes, 17 year old kids who are looking to pursue an athletic career at the college level are developing these traits without even realizing it (good or bad) as they meet and speak with these coaches.

Negotiating Skills-  Whether people like to admit it or not, the biggest component of this process for most kids is the financial element.   With the expense that college education has risen too, many families and players are going to dictate the schools that they wish to pursue based on the type of financial aid they are receiving.  This especially holds true with someone in the case of my brother, because he was so in between in terms of where he fit athletically.  Being that many of the schools who garnered interest in him were smaller FCS, and larger Division II programs, he wasn’t being thrown any full scholarship offers.  With that being said, he found himself seeking financial packages, and working with coaches to see what would be the best possible situation for him when it comes to cost of attendance.  What a great experience, especially if you fast forward 5 to 6 years from now.  Negotiating a job salary? Pursuing a career in sales?  You, in some ways, started building that skill set before you even got to college.

Interview Process-  Every time you meet with a coach, speak on the phone, or even communicate in writing, you are being interviewed.  The way you treat your parents on visits, how you interact with coaches, players, and potential recruits, all can play a factor in how a coach determines your value within the program.  Again, what a valuable experience.  Countless schools, intimidating coaches and figures, and uncomfortable situations where you need to do a good job of representing who you are.  Fast forward 5 to 6 years when you go on your first real interview, how similar will it be?

Relationship Building- Last but most important, the ability to build relationships.  Aside from your transcripts, your film, and your height and weight, coaches that offer these kids scholarship money have to like them.  They have to trust that you are a fit, and how respectful you are, how you treat the coaches throughout the process, all goes in to building valuable relationships.  Another piece of that comes with the coaches you have built relationships with who you end up telling that you have committed to another school.  Do you thank them?  Do you value their time and end it on a positive note?  Remember, the coaching carousel in college sports is rapidly changing, so chances are that recruiting coordinator you blew off after committing will be your coach in two years. Make sure that you keep your bridges standing, and appreciate the time that these coaches took to consider you as a potential scholarship player for their program.

The Recruiting Process-  So much has been made recently on how stressful and “unfair” this process is for 17 and 18 year old kids who don’t have a clue what’s really going on. However, I urge those who are involved in the process, whether it be a parent, a mentor, or a coach, to take it a step deeper.  These are just 3 of the valuable lessons I think that can come from undergoing this process, even in the end if you decide that playing college sports isn’t for you.  Great lessons to be learned, and believe it or not, you have already made impressions (maybe first, maybe last) on people that can come back around years down the road and impact your professional career.

Attention to Detail

The day after college sports’ most coveted event, I couldn’t help but think about the mindset and work ethic that goes into having the success that both Dabo Sweeney and Nick Saban have in order to create these “dynasty” like football programs.  I think at their core, although in philosophy, presence, and coaching style they may be different, these along with many other of the most successful coaches in sports are exactly the same.  They are addicted to the process.  They win, reflect, and win again.  Everything matters, and while some from the outside might look at them as crazy, I admire their desire to be perfect.

Coaches at this level are different.  I relate back to my first “wow’ moment working in college athletics, where I was interning at BC awaiting the Duke Men’s Basketball team bus for a shoot around prior to their game the next day.  In anticipation of meeting and greeting one of sports most iconic coaches, I did everything I could to make sure all my bases were covered; they weren’t.  After getting Duke into the building, showing them their locker room, and making sure the court was set up for practice, I was confident that I had done everything right.  Within minutes of their practice starting, I received a text from one of their staff members asking if the arena lights were in basketball mode, and that the visiting team locker room light was dim.  The arena lights were in fact in basketball mode (BC plays hockey in the same arena, so settings are different) however the 4 lights above the hoop on the concourse were off, and he noticed.  It was such a small detail and really didn’t change much, but that’s the whole point: Coach K noticed.  The locker room light was dim, and I was able to get an electrician in the next morning to fix it.  Initially I thought, “What is the difference?”  However, after processing it I really began to soak in the fact that this is why these people are the GREATEST at their craft.  Every single detail matters, every second, minute, and hour of their routine.

I try and carry that mentality into my every day operation, and had that mindset instilled in me from day one during that internship.  One of my jobs on facility walkthroughs as an intern was to literally make sure the logos on the garbage cans were facing out every morning because our arena was an open facility, and at any given moment anyone can walk in, even the next big recruit!  Crazy? Possibly, but I loved it.  I loved that mentality, and I started to see it in some of these big time coaches and administrators.  This is what makes them different.

Attention to Detail- Whatever your craft may be, you must have this quality in order to be great.  The challenge is finding the balance and prioritizing which details are most important, and need to be done right away.  For me, working in operations, I try and think about every aspect of the arena, by first putting myself in the perspective of the fan, the potential recruit, and even the visiting team and officials from a hospitality and aesthetic standpoint.  For coaches, it’s routine, it’s fundamentals, and it’s no coincidence that the stories you hear about the greatest of them all are crazy to most people.  They are a different breed, but a breed that I admire, and hope to match when it comes to my own job and career goals.  Focus on the small details within the process, and find yourself with big time results.


It’s a Lifestyle

As the holiday season is full speed ahead, I found myself reflecting on how different the life of someone who works in college athletics can be.  Thanksgiving break cut short by basketball games, and at some of the larger schools, Christmas spent at a bowl game across the country.  As I started to express interest in this industry, my 2 or 3 mentors that have held the title of Athletic Director told me very clearly: It’s a Lifestyle.

It is not a job, and in some cases it’s not even a career.  Early on, even though I am still just getting started, I can see how true that really is.  Working in sports is rewarding, it’s challenging, and it is just plain different.  It is extremely hard for people who don’t work in the industry to fully grasp what it is I do, or those do that commit themselves to a long term stint in this line of work.

I am not here to say that people in sports work harder than anyone else, because that’s just simply not true.  It’s more-so the idea that when you want to do this for a living, it becomes a complete shift of lifestyle.  Early on in talking to an Athletic Director who held that title at 2 different schools within the Power 5, he explained to me that you are going to have to understand that your life moving forward will not be the same.  Holidays aren’t always holidays, you may be limited to time spent with the family, and the pressure that amounts to produce successful student-athletes can truly take a toll.  I knew then, when I heard each of those things, that this was for me.  I didn’t flinch, and if anything it got me more motivated to accept the challenge, reach my goal, and hopefully one day bring my family along with me for the ride.

Young and naive? Maybe.  But until I shift my focus on a different way of life, I’m going to continue to believe that this is what I was meant to do.  For those of you just graduating high school, who think you may want a career in sports, understand this:  It’s a long, tough road, and it’s something that you cannot do unless you are ALL in.  A perfect example of that right now is my youngest brother Emil.  17 years old, on the verge of receiving a scholarship to play football in college, and he tells me: “Nick,  I want to be a football coach.”  As happy as that makes me as his older brother, to see that he may have already found his passion and what he wants to do, the experience that I have had professionally allows me to be a voice of reason as well.  Do you mind traveling?  Living in small apartments by yourself? Make little to no money early on?  Do you love football enough to put every ounce of your heart and soul into a career that includes these things?

…The crazy part about it is that at 17 years old, he probably has no idea if he does or doesn’t.  However, with the competitiveness of the industry and the requirements that come along with getting started, you need to answer these questions at a really young age.  Just like when I was asked those same questions- He didn’t flinch.

It’s a Lifestyle-  This is just what I know,  because it’s what I do.  Doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. I’m sure can say the exact same thing, just more closely related to their own personal experiences.  The uniqueness of sport I believe is the idea that literally anyone can do it.  Anyone who wants it, who loves it, and who pursues it has that opportunity. That’s what makes it so competitive, so challenging, and in the end, so rewarding. Another difference is the financial benefit.  It definitely is there down the road, but it requires a lot of sacrifice early on, which is not the case for many of those other professions.  That is the ultimate test, especially in this day and age, of how much you truly love what you do, or want to do.  What do you value?  Because for me, I understand that regardless of what I do for a living, majority of my adulthood will be spent at work. With that being said, I woke up today happy that I am where I am, doing what I am doing, and there is no dollar amount that can be put on that.