The Lisa Love effect

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Published On:
Monday, July 21, 2008
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Former USC volleyball coach taking ASU to unprecedented heights

Even in these post-Title IX days, it’s rare to find a school with a female athletic director at America’s highest level of intercollegiate sport.

To some, it’s understandable. A woman with a job that’s at the apex of the male-dominated fields of athletics and administration seems like a paradox, no?

The numbers sure make it seem that way.

Despite significant funding and participation in women’s collegiate sports, ASU Athletic Director Lisa Love is just one of six active female athletic directors out of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) schools nationwide.

But before you get to know Lisa Love the woman, you should get to know Lisa Love the sister.

The youngest of three sisters, Love was raised by her parents Tom and Jeanne.

Tom, a former collegiate athlete, and Jeanne, a life master (see: world class) duplicate bridge player, know the meaning of competition. It’s also evident that they passed on their competitive spirit to their children.

“In my family of five, I’m probably the fourth most competitive,” Love said. “It didn’t matter if we were playing table games like Scrabble or cards or charades or backyard badminton or anything. We grew up playing, competing and enjoying it.”

As the youngest, Lisa said she always found it a little tougher to hang with her big sisters Debbie and Shannon. But it’s made her into the person she is today, and she’s an amazing one by all accounts.

“I love working with her,” said ASU football coach Dennis Erickson. “She’s a great lady that’s done wonderful things here. She’s a competitor and she wants to be the best, so it’s fun to work with her and know that she’s going to give you every opportunity to succeed.”

ASU named Love its Vice President for University Athletics on Apr. 23, 2005 in what’s proved to be a fruitful decision. Love beat out a field of other candidates that included current athletic directors to be named ASU’s 21st athletic director.
She said she loves the level of influence that she has on such a grand scale and relates her job to a chess game where she must assemble the pieces to put together a victory. But instead of using bishops and rooks, she evaluates and hires the best coaches she can.

Those who know Love say she’s been a great match for the quickly expanding setting of ASU and Tempe.

“She’s a dynamo,” said ASU basketball coach Herb Sendek.

Sounds like the perfect ingredient to add to a school and city that Love said “has booster rockets tied to it right now.”

Love said it was a very “moving moment” when ASU President Michael Crow offered her the job.

But never once did gender-related thoughts pop up into her mind, and little — if any — have since.

“I didn’t think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m a woman and I got this job.’ ” Love said. “I thought about me and this project and I get to be part of this huge, monumental effort. That was exhilarating for me.”

Since her arrival in Tempe, coaches and students alike have seen Love for what she is: a winner.

“I work for four women at home,” Sendek said. “I have a wife and three daughters, so I’m well accustomed to working for women.”

Love said that she hasn’t encountered any gender bias in working with men during her years in athletic administration.

“What I know is my end of the relationship,” Love said. “If you have something to bring to the table regardless of your gender and you’re working with competitive people, they are going to identify that you can help them succeed.”

Love joined ASU after jumping ship from another Pac-10 school with a prolific history of success: the University of Southern California.

USC sports information director Tim Tessalone worked with Love during her entire stay in Los Angeles, and he said it was a bittersweet day when Love received the calling of a lifetime.

“Everyone hated to see her go,” Tessalone said. “Not only for what she did, but for who she was as a person.”

Love started out as the USC women’s volleyball coach in 1989 and held that post until she finally hung up her whistle in 1998. She said it was a “very hard” decision to give up coaching for administration, but she needed to make a career decision.

From 1991 to 1998 Love pulled double duty, both coaching the women’s volleyball team and taking on some administrative responsibilities in USC’s front office.

In 2002, she was hand picked by current USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett and former USC Senior Associate Athletic Director Barbara Hedges to be Hedges’s successor. From 2002 to 2005, Love overlooked eight university sports and was active in the university’s gender equity and civil rights positions.

She also served two terms as Vice President of the Pacific-10 Conference (1992-93 and 2001-02).

“She became a very highly-regarded administrator,” Tessalone said. “Not only in our department but nationwide. It was only a matter of time that she became an athletic director of a big school. She had it written all over her.”

Love compiled a lifetime winning percentage of .702 in her 17 years of coaching women’s volleyball and coached USC to nine NCAA tournament berths in her 10 years as coach. Eight of those years, her teams finished ranked in the top 15 in the nation.

But even before Love was at USC, she was immersed in success.

Love was named American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I Women’s Volleyball Coach of the Year in 1988 after leading the University of Texas-Arlington to a 30-4 record. She was rewarded for her extraordinary achievements in 2005, when the AVCA inducted Love into the AVCA Hall of Fame. She said she still has a love and passion for coaching.

As evidenced, winning is nothing new to Love.

Erickson said he was very impressed with Love in their first encounter.
“I knew what her commitment was and what she wanted to get done,” Erickson said. “That’s what really impressed me so much about her.”

Since her arrival in the Valley, Love has been progressive in heading ASU’s athletic department. Her short tenure has been marked by two high-profile moves.

Late in 2006, she hired Erickson, who brought instant success to the Sun Devil football program. ASU finished a disappointing 7-6 under coach Dirk Koetter in 2006, but the Sun Devils went 10-3 this past year and were in national title talks until the closing weeks of the season.

Love also lured Sendek from his head-coaching job at North Carolina State in April 2006, and he has brought instant credibility to a historically weak ASU basketball program.

The Sun Devils (13-2, 3-0 Pac-10) broke into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since Jan 14, 1995, when they were ranked at No. 22.

While those two hires have garnered the most headlines during Love’s time at ASU, other decisions she made can’t be overlooked.

The ASU women’s softball team finished a mediocre 33-31 in 2004, but after Love hired new coach Clint Myers, the Sun Devil softball team went 53-15 in 2005.

The Devils reached the Women’s College World Series in all three seasons that Myers has coached. Not to mention the NCAA title that the team won in June.

With all the recent ASU successes, Love’s accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. ASU was ranked the fourth-best Athletic Program in the nation in the 2008 Director’s Cup final standings and was named the best program in the country in the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated.

But she’s not done yet. In fact, Love hopes she’s just getting started.

“There’s no rest,” she said. “It’s not like you sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s done.’ I’m very excited that we are ratcheting up our overall competitiveness.

“But we want to be in that cluster of schools — with the schools that instantly make you think ‘Oh, they have a great athletics program,’ ” she said. “We want in that sandbox.”

Reach the reporter at: alex.espinoza@asu.edu.