On March 25th longtime George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor announced that he would retire effective June 30th of this year but remain in a fundraising role until January 2015.
Fourth Estate Online Sports Editor Kristi Anable sat down with O’Connor to reflect on his 20 years at Mason and 40-year career in NCAA Division I athletics. Here are the highlights of the interview:
KA: Reflecting back to your first year, what were some of the goals you had for the athletic department when you first arrived?
TOC: If I remember, we had the press conference in the hospitality room at the Patriot Center and someone asked me that question and I believe what I said was something to the effect of that we want to be a quality, balanced program and to make sure that we’re always doing the right thing for our student athletes, first and foremost.
KA: Were there any goals that weren’t met?
TOC: Goals and objectives are interesting, but you know the one thing that I really would’ve liked to have done and maybe we can still do it, is build a new baseball stadium. I think it’s going to be done, but other than that, I think that we obtained the goal of making sure that the health and safety of the athletes and their wellbeing was always taken care of – so that was the goal that I wanted to achieve, and I think we achieved that.
KA: Is it emotional for you leaving?
TOC: I’m very calm about it. It’s tough to say goodbye but I’m still going to be part of Mason for a while and then I’m always going to have a special part of me that will always be here at Mason whether it be my heart and my mind, even though I’m not here physically, because it is a great place and there’s great people. So, sure, there’s emotion when you stop and think about it.
KA: What do you see as some of the ramifications down the line for the school’s move to the Atlantic 10 and what impact have you seen so far from the move?
TOC: One of the highlights of my career in 40 years was seeing one of our athletes win the cross country championship as the first person in Mason history to win a championship and it was actually the first person in the Atlantic 10 this year, and to see that, that was just a highlight for me – that almost ranks up there with the Final Four, it was so great. And, they’re all good things that are going to happen with the Atlantic 10. It gives great visibility for the university and it gives a chance for our student athletes to compete at a higher level and get more recognition. So, I only see good things – there’s not a down side to being in the Atlantic 10.
KA: What do you see of George Mason Athletics five or ten years down the line?
TOC: I see a lot of good things. We have facility improvements, the field house is going to be renovated, and the west campus project is going to help with all of the facilities here. I know that there’s going to be success in the Atlantic 10. We have everything in place to be successful, and whoever the new athletic director is, I’m simply going to say two words: improve it. It’s as simple as that – improve it, get better. Dr. Cabrera is absolutely phenomenal, and he understands that quality and that balance that I talked about and he understands competitiveness and what good it does for the student body as a whole and for the community, second. So, that commitment’s there.
KA: Are you confident with President Cabrera being here and a new athletic director coming in that their vision will be similar to what yours was?
TOC: I would think so. Again, Dr. Cabrera understands quality, he’s a forward thinker and when he makes a decision on the new athletic director, I’m sure he’s going to take his time to find somebody like that. And, there are people out there that that will happen. I’m positive about the past, I’m positive about today, and I’m positive about what’s going to happen here in the future.
KA: Beyond your duties here at the University, what was the experience like from your tenure on the Basketball Championship Committee and what did you take away from that opportunity?
TOC: Because my background was in basketball – I played basketball and I coached basketball – and then I was involved in the basketball scene, it was like a basketball administrators dream to be involved on that committee and then I was chair and it was just absolutely phenomenal, it was just a great experience.
KA: What can you take away from your 20-year career and your overall experience at Mason as Athletic Director?
TOC: That we had a quality balanced program – quality athletes, quality coaches, quality academic support – and I always tell our people here that we’re here for our student athletes and they come first no matter what. Any decision you make, the decision you make has to be about that student athlete. So hopefully through the years we’ve done that. And, that maybe in some way I’ve been an influence in some of the decisions that were made that helped them and made a difference in their life here and hopefully afterwards. So, that would mean a lot to me that our student athletes that went through here now have a good life. And, somewhere along the line whether we gave somebody better uniforms or we did something on the field, or they came into the office and we took care of them in some way – that we impacted them a little bit. That’s the biggest thing – all of the other things, they’re neat, but you have to focus on the student-athletes.