Despite the seemingly idyllic scene as he lounged in his backyard a few weeks ago on Memorial Day, casually dressed in a t-shirt and shorts with birds chirping overhead and the pool gleaming in the sun nearby, Gary Walters felt something was out of place.
“I believe in my 20 years in Princeton, this is the first Memorial Day that I haven’t been at an event,” said Walters, the school’s Director of Athletics since 1994. “In many years, it was lacrosse. You could have track, you could have crew.”
As Walters reflected on his successful run at the helm of Princeton Athletics, he acknowledged that he had to track a multitude of issues.
“When you look at the athletic director’s (AD) role here, as I like to say or observe, other than the presidency, I don’t know of any other position at Princeton that intersects with the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni, and the community,” said Walters, 68.
“This position is at the intersection of all of those constituencies on campus and so it is one of those jobs that is a 7-day-a-week job and, in particular, the role of social media has made the job even more difficult obviously.”
While being in that vortex can be disconcerting, Walters has thrived in the role.
“On the one hand, it is daunting,” said Walters. “On the other hand it is fun too because it is intellectually challenging. There is never a dull moment but you are also developing a comprehensive portfolio of skills because of the multi-faceted nature of the job. Candidly I have enjoyed that, that is the essence of what management is, and then the most important thing is sustaining change over a period of time.”
Walters welcomes the changing of the guard in his post as former Tiger hockey and soccer star Mollie Marcoux ’91 was named in April to succeed him, becoming the first woman to hold the AD job.
“I am absolutely delighted that Mollie has been appointed,” said Walters. “She obviously has had a distinguished student athlete career at Princeton. She represents the balance we seek as it relates to the hyphen connecting student and athlete. Mollie is going to have a learning curve but she is surrounded by very, very good people. The senior administrative staff is solid. The administration, staff and coaches are all outstanding people and so she is going to inherit, I think, stability, competence, and people who care about their job and love their job. This is after all athletics and the athletic world is a calling because we are student-athlete centered and my people are.”
It didn’t take long for Walters to start his learning curve upon assuming the AD post.
“I was walking over to the first press conference and Kurt says to me Gary I have been asked to share with you this fact, Palmer Stadium has some really significant structural issues, it is basically falling apart, all the engineering reports said that, so if you get any questions about the football stadium, try to tap dance around them,” said Walters with a laugh. “Can you imagine that?”
Palmer Stadium was razed and the facility that ended up being constructed on Walters’ watch stands as an extension of the campus that is designed to be integrated into the daily life of the University with a north end containing large openings that serve as windows to the campus just up the hill. It also fulfilled the marching orders Walters received when he took the helm.
“When I came here, I got a distinct charge from the president and the trustees and that was to strengthen the relationships between the athletic department and, in particular, the academic side of the house,” said Walters. “I feel very good about the initiatives we took to do that.”
Taking that charge to heart, Walters created the Academic-Athletic Fellows program and the Princeton Varsity Club and coined the phrase “Education Through Athletics,” which has become the mantra for Tiger sports program.
Walters was uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between athletics and academics. A son of a welder who came to Princeton from blue collar Reading, Pa., Walters became the point guard for the school’s legendary 1965 Final 4 team and was featured in 1967 on the cover of Sports Illustrated with teammate Chris Thomforde.
In the classroom, Walters graduated with a BA degree in psychology. As an undergraduate he co-authored, with psychology professors Marvin Karlins and Thomas Coffman, a study entitled “On the Fading of Social Stereotypes: Studies in Three Generations of College Students,” which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1969.
“I played on a basketball team with three guys, one guy who got a Rhodes scholarship, Bill Bradley, and two guys that were Rhodes Scholar finalists, Larry Lucchino and Chris Thomforde, just think of that,” said Walters, who went on to serve as a basketball head coach at Middlebury, Union, Dartmouth, and Providence and an assistant at Princeton before going into business and working at Kidder, Peabody & Co., Woolf Associates Sports Management, and Seaward Management. “In addition, there were guys who went to Harvard Business School, law school, and so on.”
For Walters, teamwork is the key to success on and off the court. “In the athletic world, what differentiates it is that the coaches and players take their exams in public and they take it together so people keep score; there is accountability,” said Walters, whose personal scorecard includes 220 Ivy League championships and 47 team or individual national titles during his tenure.
“Competition is part of a continuum and the other end of that continuum is collaboration. Unless you have teamwork and people working selflessly for each other, you are not going to be successful and every team I have been on, the assist has always been as important, if not more important, than the person who is scoring the goal. So my takeaway as I now complete a significant arc of my life and career is never forget that success in competition is almost always the outcome of the collaborative experience that people share.”
Walters has enjoyed experiencing his victory lap, even though his last few months on the job have been a whirlwind.
“It’s been a roller-coaster for sure, it is like being seated in a centrifuge which has ironically gone faster and faster,” said Walters.
“One would have thought it would have decelerated and a lot of that has to do with the celebratory function, for sure. Some of it has to do with the fact that in this job you always have unguided missiles that are coming your way so that tends to keep you occupied.”
One of the grander celebrations took place in April when Princeton held a “Roast and Toast” to Walters at Jadwin Gym.
“The nice thing about that night were the various threads of my life that were represented,” said Walters, who received a number of gifts that evening to add to the treasure trove of photos and mementos cramming the walls of his upstairs office in Jadwin.
“To see 600 people there was truly remarkable. I enjoyed the evening immensely, how could you not, since I was being recognized for my years of service to the university, but I never got a chance to savor it. I always had two or three people in front of me during the reception.”
As he steps aside, Walters isn’t straying from the university that he loves.
“I am going to have a small office in Dillon; I’ll have a computer and I will be operating on a volunteer basis,” said Walters, who was recently granted emeritus status by the Board of Trustees.
“I’ll be far enough away that I am out of Mollie’s hair but close enough that she can call me if she wants to. I am still so engrossed with this job. Everything that is out there when I step aside is sketchy. I was just recently appointed to the board of a publicly held company. I am probably going to get involved in one or two charitable things. In addition to that, I have to figure out other things; do I want to coach, do I maybe want to do some writing, do I maybe want to do some TV work. Those are all open items.”
For Walters, being in the middle of campus holds a special significance. “Princeton is defined by pathways and intersections,” added Walters. “As a result, you get a chance to see everybody every day and thus broaden the reach of friends that you have. You are not defined by the rectangles of a city.”
In Walters’ view, sports has a unique broadening effect on its participants.
“People who compete in athletics are having a sociological experience as it relates to the roles and norms of the team and the understanding of how all of the functions and pieces fit together,” said Walters.
“But is also a psychological experience where it tests you when you are confronting adversity and where you have to evaluate yourself and look yourself in the mirror. As far as I am concerned, those are aspects of athletics that are not fully understood.”
As a result, Walters believes that those co-curricular aspects merit recognition in their own right.
“Were I a president at a liberal arts school, I would give an athlete who plays for four years academic credit for that experience,” asserted Walters with his voice rising.
“It is the sweatiest of the liberal arts. It is not only in terms of time, but the reality is that what you learn through osmosis in that experience translates directly into the organizational challenges that you will face in the real world. You are basically learning leadership and organizational behavior.”
Applying those lessons over the last 20 years, Walters deserves credit for providing a brand of leadership that has enhanced Princeton’s mission to provide education through athletics.