Longtime Johns Hopkins athletics director enjoys Blue Jays' string of success
Late on a cold November morning, the phone in Tom Calder's pocket goes off. He is on the Homewood campus, standing near a table loaded with hot dogs, hamburgers, buns, and paper plates. In 45 minutes, Johns Hopkins football will kick off a first-round NCAA national championship tournament game versus Wesley College. The Athletics Department has set up a tailgate party next to Homewood Field and the Newton White Athletic Center, and all around Calder, students, faculty, and staff load plates with food and then huddle against the chill. Calder answers the phone and in a brief conversation learns that his day is off to a good start: In Indiana, the Johns Hopkins women's cross-country team has just raced to its second consecutive national championship.
Calder smiles, shakes hands with a well-wisher, and for a moment savors success. He has been Johns Hopkins' director of athletics for 19 years, but he has not had an autumn weekend quite like this before. Four conference championship teams from Johns Hopkins are in play at national tourneys. Besides those very fast women who have just hoisted the NCAA cross-country championship trophy, men's cross-country is set to run in its national meet later in the day. Football is in the Division III national tournament for the third time in four years. And women's soccer has advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA soccer championship in frigid Middlebury, Vt. Calder will keep tabs on everything while he watches the football game. By late Sunday, his weekend will prove to be one that exemplifies intercollegiate athletics—the sheer fun of the games, and a measure of both triumph and heartbreak.
Attend a Johns Hopkins game in any of several sports and chances are good you will spot Calder in the stands, on the sideline, or in the press box. Hopkins fields 22 teams (24 if you count men's and women's indoor track as separate from outdoor track), and Calder cites attending the games, matches, and meets as the best part of his job. "The varsity sports contests are the final product," he says. "There is nothing better than watching our teams play hard with the final result a win for JHU." If witnessing success makes for a great day, Calder has had plenty of them. The roster of champions from his 26 years here (he was associate athletic director for seven years before becoming AD in 1995) is impressive: two national championships in men's lacrosse, two in women's cross-country; 132 conference championships in 21 sports (men's lacrosse will compete in a conference for the first time in 2015); and dozens of all-American and academic all-American athletes, plus 25 NCAA postgraduate scholars. In the 2012–13 academic year, Johns Hopkins finished seventh in the annual Learfield Sports Director's Cup, which ranks more than 400 Division III athletic programs based on the sum of their competitive results. Hopkins is currently ranked third in the 2013–14 cup standings.
Calder didn't have to build a program from scratch. He succeeded Bob Scott as athletic director, and a number of Johns Hopkins' most successful coaches—Bob Babb in baseball, Bill Nelson in men's basketball, Nancy Funk in women's basketball, Jim Margraff in football, Leo Weil in women's soccer, George Kennedy in swimming, Ted Bresnahan in water polo—were hired by Scott. But Calder has kept all of those vital people in place—the average tenure of a current Johns Hopkins head coach is 17 years—and made significant additions like Bobbie Van Allen, the track and cross-country coach, and Dave Pietramala, the men's lacrosse coach, both of whom have won national championships. He also has marshaled resources for new or upgraded facilities such as the Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center, the Cordish Lacrosse Center, improvements to Homewood Field (including upgraded locker rooms and new facilities for football), and the track-and-field stadium at Johns Hopkins at Eastern. The university just broke ground for a new baseball stadium and is planning an upgraded tennis facility. More than 700 athletes participate in Hopkins varsity sports, and approximately half of all undergraduates participate in some kind of sport or recreational activity.
Without knowing what was in his future, Calder began building the perfect résumé and connections to become a university athletic director as early as his undergraduate days at Hofstra University, where he was a two-time lacrosse all-American and the football team's leading receiver and most valuable player in his senior year. "After Hofstra, I started going into New York looking for a job," he recalls, "and I was on the Long Island Railroad talking to the guys who were commuting, and they said, 'Son, if you can get away from New York, do it. We've got to get up at 5 to get to work by 8, and by the time we get home it's 8 o'clock at night and we never see our kids.' I listened to that and [instead of working in New York] went and coached for a couple of years." After a two-year stint as a lacrosse coach at Roanoke College in Virginia, he went back to school, earning a master's degree in sports administration from Ohio University in 1978.
Next stop was the University of North Carolina, where he worked as assistant ticket manager, assistant director of games, and assistant lacrosse coach under head coach and Johns Hopkins alumnus Willie Scroggs. In 1984 he became a legislative assistant at the NCAA, learning the ins and outs of NCAA rules (and that's a complicated set of ins and outs) and two years later became assistant director of development for athletics at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, coordinating athletics fundraising, running the booster club, and directing summer sports camps. So by the time Bob Scott needed to hire a new associate AD in 1988, Calder had been a collegiate athlete and had experience in coaching, sports administration, ticket sales, NCAA rules and regulations, fundraising, and running camps. Plus he had shared an apartment at North Carolina with Assistant Coach Don Zimmerman, who had moved on to become head men's lacrosse coach at Hopkins. Zimmerman told Scott to take a look at this guy, Tom Calder. "It wasn't exactly a plan," Calder says of his career path. "Zim told Scotty about me, and Scotty already knew me from lacrosse, so he brought me in for an interview and I got the job." When Scott retired in 1995, Calder stepped up to athletic director.
As Hopkins kicks off to start the football game, Calder stands on the sidelines, his hands in his pockets, and watches as Wesley drives 70 yards in 14 plays for the opening touchdown. Hopkins is undefeated and ranked higher than Wesley, which has lost twice this season. But the Wolverines are formidable and have no trouble slicing through the Hopkins defense. The Jays respond with a 75-yard drive of their own, with J.D. Abbott scoring a touchdown on a fourth-down, do-or-die play. The game looks likely to be a good one, but tough on the boss's nerves.
Over the years, Calder has noticed an odd thing. When he sees a football or lacrosse player in a meeting or the hallway, he often cannot put a name to the face. But when he spots a player on the field, he immediately knows who he is by how he moves, how he plays the game. What Calder most likes to see is students in Hopkins uniforms enjoying themselves.
"We all know that this is a tough school academically," he says. "One of the goals of our president is to make sure that our undergraduates have a good experience. We have a little more than 700 athletes, and a very high percentage of them are having a great experience here. Of, let's say, 90 football players, how many really play all the time? Forty? What about the other 50 guys? They don't quit. They stay on the team because it's a way they can get away from the stress. They can look forward to two or three hours of something they really enjoy every day." Johns Hopkins athletes do well as students, too. Calder notes that the average GPA for athletes is slightly higher than the average for the entire student body, and bad behavior on the part of a Hopkins athlete is not unheard of, but rare.
Some days, the hardest part of Calder's job is dealing with parents. Students used to come to college having played sports mostly in high school. Now many athletes frequently have spent years playing for traveling club teams. Parents pay for those teams and are used to a say in how those clubs are run, and used to their sons and daughters getting substantial playing time in every game. Calder says, "So when they get to college, their expectations are that their son or daughter is going to start as a freshman and will play all the time. And it doesn't work that way." Several years ago he decided to start meeting with all the parents of incoming freshmen athletes. "I tell them my door is always going to be open for your son or daughter.
We will help them get through academic problems, social problems, whatever it is, but playing time is not something I'm going to deal with. If it's a personal matter, we'll help them out, but if it's playing time, that's between the player and the coach and is decided in practice."
Halftime finds Wesley ahead 17-14. In Vermont, where it is so cold the officials have had to re-inflate the game balls, women's soccer has just kicked off against Williams College. Calder gets updates on his phone. A year ago, he was at Homewood Field for an NCAA tournament football game as women's cross-country won its first national championship. "[Senior Associate Director of Athletics] Mike Mattia had me on the phone, giving me the play-by-play, if you will, and he goes, 'Tom, we're halfway through the race and we're in first place!' So Mike is feeding me and I'm watching the football game, and then all of a sudden I find out that we've won. That was a great feeling."
Now Calder watches as Hopkins and Wesley battle back and forth. In the game's last minutes, the Delaware school looks on its way to victory. But then Johns Hopkins quarterback Robbie Matey lofts a pass that receiver Dan Wodicka pulls in for a dramatic touchdown. With 50 seconds remaining in the game, the Jays have gone ahead 24-23 and spectators and players are jumping up and down with excitement. Now all the Hopkins defense has to do is fend off the Wesley offense for less than a minute and the Jays will advance. But in a mere 31 seconds, Wesley quarterback Joe Callahan shreds the Hopkins defense with pinpoint passes and wins the game with a touchdown toss to his favorite target, Steve Koudossou. It's not Calder's biggest disappointment—later he will cite the last-pitch loss by the baseball team in the championship game of the 2008 NCAA college world series, and wrestler Paul Marcello's one-point defeat in last year's NCAA national championship, as his most disappointing moments—but this is a crushing way to end the season.
Later in the day, consolation will come from news that men's cross-country has finished 11th at the NCAA national meet, the best finish in school history, and that women's soccer has won a two-overtime thriller to advance to the NCAA national quarterfinals. That euphoria will last less than 24 hours: The next day, soccer will lose when Middlebury College scores the winning goal with 17 seconds left in the match. Another tough loss. But at the level Johns Hopkins athletics has attained, every team in the nation but one ends its season with a heart-wrenching defeat, in every sport. That's the price of excellence.
Asked about the challenges ahead, Calder points to Johns Hopkins' status as one of only seven NCAA members currently allowed to play in two divisions: Men's and women's lacrosse are Division I teams (permitted to grant athletic scholarships), while every other sport competes in Division III. In 2004, the NCAA came close to revoking that grandfathered exemption, which would have forced Johns Hopkins to either downgrade lacrosse to Division III or elevate every other sport to Division I, at great expense. Calder worries about the issue coming up again in the future. He also wants to find the resources to replace the university's inadequate swimming pool, build new visitors locker rooms into the stadium's Schelle Pavilion, and erect a field house for practice during bad weather, indoor sports like basketball and volleyball, and other events such as concerts.
When Calder was introduced as Johns Hopkins' new athletic director in 1995, the first thing he did was refer to his predecessor, Bob Scott, and say, "That's a hard act to follow." It is a measure of his success that whenever he leaves his job, his successor will say the same thing.
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