Former Tiger Track Star Mack Enjoying Homecoming, Getting Named as Princeton’s Director of Athletics
MACK IS BACK: Former Princeton University track star John Mack ’00, shown competing in a 1999 track meet at left, returned to his alma mater last week, getting introduced as Princeton’s Ford Family Director of Athletics. Mack, a winner of the Roper Award as the top male senior student-athlete to cap a stellar track career, is succeeding Mollie Marcoux Samaan ’91 who announced in May she would be stepping down to take over as commissioner of the LPGA. (Track photo by Beverly Schaefer, both photos provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
It was going to take a lot for John Mack to leave his beloved roots behind.
Princeton University had it. Again.
Mack, a 2000 Princeton graduate who won the Roper Award as the top male senior student-athlete to cap a stellar career in track and field, is returning to his alma mater as the Ford Family Director of Athletics. His duties begin officially on September 1.
“From the minute I set foot on campus as a prospective student-athlete on my recruiting visit, there hasn’t been any place in the world that I’ve loved as much as being at Princeton,” said Mack.
“So the chance to come back and serve in this capacity, it’s kind of mind-blowing. I’m pinching myself. Who gets their dream job?”
Following stints at Northwestern, the Big Ten and Princeton, Mack had returned to his hometown of New Haven, Mich., a village with less than 5,000 residents. He practiced law the last 10 years, and for the last three and a half years, Mack also served as pastor of Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church of New Haven.
“It was tough,” said Mack. “I said to my church congregation, this is literally the only job in the world that would have gotten me to leave. I do it happily and completely at peace and they could not have been more supportive, even when I told them I was leaving.”
Mack knows a bit about filling big shoes and big expectations. Mack’s late father had been pastor of the same church before him for 33 years. Last Sunday was Mack’s final in the pulpit before he leaves the church and his hometown again.
“My mom still lives in the house that I grew up in,” said Mack.
“All my sisters still come to the church. I see my nieces and nephews. It’ll be an adjustment, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. They’re supportive. Everybody has wrapped their minds around the change. It’s all good.”
The last time Mack left his hometown it was for four life-changing years at Princeton as a student-athlete. The record-setting sprinter at New Haven High became a captain and standout at Princeton. He still holds Top 10 times in the Princeton record books in the indoor and outdoor 200 and 400, and shares Top 10 times on the 4×400 relay. He won five Ivy League Heptagonals indoor titles and five outdoor Heptagonals. Princeton won six Heps team crowns in his career.
“Princeton prepares you for excellence,” said Mack. “When I look back at my experience, it was being an athlete that helped make me a better student. I came from a really small town. I was not prepared for the reality of academic life at Princeton. It was like being out to the moon academically. But being an athlete helped ground me and helped remind me that I was at a place where I belonged and had teammates and coaches and administrative staff that were there to support me through that. I tell people Princeton is a safe people to succeed and it’s a safe place to struggle. I want to give that well-rounded message.”
Mack can speak from his personal experiences. He developed into a better student and athlete in his time, and it helped to shape his future.
“When I left Princeton — I heard Craig Robinson say this — I felt like I could take on the world academically and intellectually,” said Mack.
“For me, I felt that way when I left. I didn’t always feel that way when I was here. I want to help our student-athletes understand that sometimes part of their experience is going to be the challenges and struggles, but when you leave Princeton you are prepared to excel in any arena that you choose to pursue.”
After excelling as a student-athlete, Mack remained at Princeton and got his first taste in administration in 2000 as assistant director of intercollegiate programming. He also took on coaching in 2002 as an assistant for the women’s track and field program.
He became associate director of championships at the Big Ten for two years after he left Princeton. He served as senior associate director of athletics for sales and marketing at Northwestern from 2006-2011 before he pursued a law degree there. Now he will move back into athletics as just the sixth athletic director in Princeton history.
“It’s always been the dream job,” said Mack. “Even when I was a student-athlete. But you think realistically who gets their dream job? When you look through the history of Princeton athletics, there have not been many athletic directors and those that have served have stayed a long time.”
Mack succeeds Mollie Marcoux Samaan ’91, who left to become commissioner of the LPGA, after seven years as athletic director at Princeton. Gary Walters ’67 served in the position for 20 years before her.
“I kind of assumed like most that Mollie would be here a long time,” said Mack.
“She did a tremendous job. I said this to her, I think she did a fantastic job leading the department and helping to push Princeton in some really important ways to help it grow and change. I think like everybody, I assumed she would be here for the long-term. When the opportunity came open, my wife said, ‘If you don’t pursue this, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.’”
Mack’s wife, Alleda, is a 1999 Princeton graduate and oncology doctor. They have three young children — Jacobi, Jabari, and Anaiah.
“We’re still tied to the place with so many of our close friends,” said Mack.
“One of the things when we talked to the coaches and staff who are here, and I can speak to this from seeing this as a student-athlete, we have young kids and the opportunity for them to grow up in this kind of environment. Princeton athletics is a really family friendly operation. Just being here two or three days seeing our kids running all over Jadwin and outdoors on the track, they’ve fallen in love with the place already. To be able to expose them to not just a place but the student-athletes we have, what parent wouldn’t want that for their kid? It was not a hard sell for any member of our family to come to Princeton.”
Princeton has grown since Mack left. He sees better student-athletes than when he competed and coached, and improvements in facilities, all nods to the commitment to excellence that the University embraces. He will be getting up to speed and adjusting to his new role in his return.
“You have to relearn the lay of the land from different perspectives, no matter how familiar you are with a place and the people, people are going to respond differently when you’re the athletic director then they might have in another capacity,” said Mack.
“That’s a universal challenge, adjusting to the new role and responsibilities and navigating the lay of the land. Princeton already has a fantastic staff in the athletic department. They’ve been doing a great job with this transition. I had a chance to meet with them (last Wednesday). Some of them I know from having worked with them previously.”
That familiarity is part of what brought Mack back. While he is leaving his hometown, he is coming back to a place that has been a second home for him. And now he returns with a family to take on his dream job at the top of the athletic department for the school that changed his life.
“Because it’s the kind of place that people come and stay for a really long time, it always has the same feel,” said Mack.
“Whether I was just coming back just to visit or for reunions, Princeton has always had that special magic for me. To now get a chance and sit in the big chair, I haven’t stopped smiling for a couple weeks since I got the news.”