22 years of sports under Chancellor Wrighton
The Washington University men’s basketball team huddled in a locker room in Salem, Va. The stakes had never been higher for the individual players nor for the program itself. They were about to compete in the first men’s NCAA championship game in Wash. U. history. In the locker room, everyone prepared themselves for the game of their lives: players, trainers, coaches and—of course—Chancellor Mark Wrighton.
“Coach [Mark] Edwards asked the chancellor if he would give the pregame speech,” former Athletic Director John Schael said. “On the spot. He asked him.”
“Well, [Wrighton] came into the locker room before the championship game,” Edwards remembered. “And he gave the guys a little motivational speech about the importance of the tournament, and what they were doing and how proud he was of them.”
The Chancellor’s speech must have done something for the players because they came out of the locker room and conquered Amherst College, 90-86. Wrighton watched as Edwards and his team cut down the nets in Salem for Wash. U.’s first men’s basketball championship.
In his 22 years in St. Louis, Mark Wrighton was perhaps not always as intimately involved with the University’s sports teams, but as chancellor, he presided over the most successful patch in Washington University’s athletic history. At a glance, Wash. U. in the past two decades has won 17 of its 22 NCAA championships and 165 of its 197 UAA titles. All under the leadership of the man who—according to legend—invented the glow stick.
By the time Wrighton came aboard in 1995, John Schael was already a veteran administrator. Schael had been athletic director for 17 years under then-chancellor William Danforth. When Danforth’s replacement was announced, Schael decided to introduce Wrighton to the University’s athletic programs and the future of the department.
“I called and invited Chancellor Wrighton down to my office when he was selected as the chancellor,” Schael said. “When I talked to him, we talked about several opportunities within the Department of Athletics.”
In this conversation, Schael highlighted three opportunities in particular. As it turned out, these three would become the major areas of growth for sports at Wash. U. over the next 20 years.
The first area Schael highlighted to Wrighton was the room for improvement in the depth of the department’s faculty. “I just felt that we were understaffed to meet the expectations for the student athletes we were working with on campus,” Schael said. “Our objective was to provide the very best experience we could for our students.”
If Schael thought the Bears were understaffed in 1995, they have certainly remedied that problem. The program now boasts a four-person sports medicine staff, a five person sports performance team and an army of coaches, assistant coaches and administrative staff, all buzzing around the athletic complex.
The second focus for Schael was Title IX. Since its passage in 1972, Title IX has had a profound impact on American university life. Per the NCAA’s website, in the context of sports, the provision essentially means female athletes must be afforded equal opportunities to participate in sports and must be given equal access to field time, facilities and everything else that a student athlete might need.
Schael spent much of his career making sure Wash. U. sports were compliant with Title IX, even before his meeting with Wrighton. In 1995, Schael had already worked to establish women’s cross country, basketball, indoor track and field and soccer teams. However, he said that he felt there were still ways the school could still improve and that Wrighton was willing to pursue these changes.
“[Wrighton] was very receptive with that, and listened,” Schael said. “To be honest with you, he helped bring about lots of increased opportunities.”
Women’s sports certainly have flourished at Wash. U. since Schael and Wrighton’s meeting. Of the 17 national championships under Wrighton, all but men’s basketball’s back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 and men’s tennis’ win in 2008 have been captured by women.
Most recently, women’s teams captured three NCAA titles in the 2016-2017 academic year, with women’s soccer and both indoor and outdoor track and field rising above the national field. In Wrighton’s time, the Bears have also incorporated two more women’s teams: softball and golf.
The final thing that Schael stressed to Wrighton was the importance of the UAA to Wash. U.’s student athletes and coaches. “What [the UAA] provided us was an opportunity to recruit the very best of both; students and, as well, coaches,” he said. “It plays such a prominent role in our athletic department. It did 22 years ago; it did when it was formed back in 1985; and it does play a critical role in our continued success here in 2017.”
While Wash. U. certainly has benefitted from its membership in the UAA, with guaranteed conference matchups against some of the top opposition in Division III, the University has also become one of the conference’s strongest representatives in the NCAA at large. In fact, since 1995, the only other UAA schools to capture national silverware are Emory University and New York University.
With those three points set, Schael said it was mostly smooth sailing for the next 20 years. “I always felt he was caring, supportive and encouraging,” he said. “I never had a difficulty going to him with any issues I might have or problems that I might perceive coming, and he was always willing to share his thoughts and provide and assist where he could.”
While Schael’s first experience with Wrighton turned out to be quite the productive meeting, Edwards’ was a little more jarring. Heading into the first academic year of Wrighton’s chancellorship, Edwards had been formally introduced to Wrighton but had never really had a conversation. “I had met him maybe as ‘This is the basketball coach, hi,’” Edwards recalled. “That type of thing.”
As they do every year, Wash. U. hosted the Lopata Basketball Classic at the beginning of the 1995 season. That year, one of the visitors was the California Institute of Technology—Wrighton’s alma mater. That year Caltech did not have a particularly strong men’s basketball program, and Edwards quickly found himself managing a blowout.
“I had played every single person I could off the bench,” he remembered “About halfway through the second half, I get a tap on the shoulder and it’s the chancellor. And he just leans down and says ‘We’re not being very good hosts, are we?’ and walked away. I didn’t know his sense of humor. I thought he was being funny, but I wasn’t sure.”
Edwards might have been thrown off by that initial meeting, but he said that the rest of his interactions with Wrighton were overwhelmingly positive and that Wrighton played no small part in the success of the University’s athletics.
Edwards has a perhaps unique perspective on the growth of the Wash. U. sports over the past few decades. He played on the basketball team as an undergraduate in the late 1960s and has coached the Bears since William Danforth was chancellor.
“I hope the people at Washington University recognize how fortunate we have been to have to have the type of leadership we’ve had with Danforth and then with Wrighton,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any happenchance that our athletic programs have flourished under them.”
It can be difficult to quantify exactly what kind of effect a chancellor has on a university’s athletics success. They are not directly involved with the team, and, especially at a school with as many academic and business interests as Wash. U., they often can have larger concerns than sports. Edwards, however, said that Wrighton was genuinely invested in the University’s student athletes, and this had a profound effect.
Edwards recalled a radio interview he once heard Wrighton give. The interviewer asked the chancellor what he does for fun, and Wrighton responded that when he gets the time, he either goes to see the symphony or goes to watch Wash. U. athletics.
“And he lets that be know when he talks to alumni groups, and prospective students and donors,” Edwards said. “His appreciation for what these men and women do—he wears it on his sleeve. They know it.”
Schael echoed this sentiment, remembering Wrighton as a more-than-enthusiastic fan of the Bears, often making an appearance at various athletic events on campus.
“He was always there,” he said. “He was always very active, very cordial. He understood everything that was going on around that particular sport. So, he interacted very positively, and that makes for a whole athletics department when he’s a part of it like that.”
Edwards said that this kind of positive interaction from the very top of the University creates the kind of culture in which student athletes thrive. Tangible proof that the administration cares about the student athletes is one of the most powerful recruiting tools the University has, he added, and it helps explain why the Bears’ rosters are consistently stocked with some of Division III’s strongest most successful athletes.
“I think this has a lot to do with why we are successful and why we are able to attract good student athletes year after year after year,” he said. “We work at it too, of course, but at the same time, we know that we have something very positive to offer them thanks to the administration.”
Both Edwards and Schael agreed, however, that the success of Wash. U. sports under Wrighton was largely down to his larger legacy in the University.
“His commitment to excellence was an easy standard to try to strive for,” Schael said, “That resonated throughout the whole University to the athletic department as well. And that sort of set the tone. It helped create the atmosphere, establish the success patterns that followed.”
“The legacy and the tradition that he helped evolve goes beyond athletics and goes to the greater University,” Edwards said. “I think we’ve been able to benefit from it, and it’s something that we’ll always carry with us.”
The administrators and coaches who have seen his full tenure here see Mark Wrighton as a capable leader, an eager collaborator and a genuine fan—and there are still at least three seasons of athletics titles to be decided before he heads into retirement. Seventeen national titles is nothing to sneeze at, and while he might not be giving any more pregame pep talks, Wash. U.’s biggest fan might yet again get to see his Bears add another championship to his legacy.