As we enjoy watching college athletic events, we focus on the performance of the athletes and occasionally their coaches, but not on the athletics director who is responsible for leading the university’s athletics program.
This came to mind when Eric Zillmer recently announced that he would be stepping away as athletics director at Drexel University in June. Zillmer served in this capacity for more than 22 years and is currently the sixth longest serving athletics director in NCAA Division I athletics.
I have known Zillmer for many years and have watched the athletics program at Drexel grow and thrive. Zillmer established a robust intramurals program, recruited promising high school athletes, built new facilities, added sports, hosted high-profile events, hired great coaches, won championships and impacted the lives of his athletes.
Drexel’s men’s basketball team, led by head coach Zach Spiker, and the women’s basketball team, led by head coach Amy Mallon, just won their respective Colonial Athletic Association championships and are heading to the NCAA Tournament. These are fitting achievements as Zillmer steps away from his role as athletics director.
Due to Zillmer’s commitment to gender equality, Drexel is ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top Title IX athletics programs in the U.S., which equalizes athletic opportunities for men and women.
In addition to success on the playing field, Zillmer and his staff focus on their athletes’ success in the classroom. Drexel’s athletes consistently lead their fellow students in grade-point average and graduation rates, according to Drexel’s Office of Student Success.
Zillmer’s impact at Drexel goes beyond those of athletics director. He holds the position of the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology in the Department of Psychology, teaching classes in sports psychology, sports performance and psychological assessment.
He is the author of over 100 journal articles, books and book chapters, a number of which have been translated into other languages and are used at over 300 universities world-wide. As a recognized thought leader, Zillmer appears in national media to share his expertise on sports psychology, forensic psychology and other topics.
To get a perspective for an article I was writing in November 2014 on how athletics builds leaders and teamwork, I asked Zillmer how an athlete’s experience on the playing field mirrors what they will experience in later life. He said, “In athletics, you are put into a real situation, a millisecond-to-millisecond intense reality where you have to make decisions and work closely with your teammates to win the game. This is great training for what a student athlete will face in their careers.”
Zillmer said athletics builds teamwork, mental toughness and focus. Athletics teaches you how to bounce back from adversity. You are not going to win every game, and in life, you are not going to be successful every time. College athletes are very fortunate to have these experiences.
Zillmer is stepping away from his athletics director position, but will continue to be an educator. After a sabbatical, he will return to the University to develop the Drexel Global Sport Leadership Solutions Lab.
Zillmer has touched the lives of many students. This is the legacy he leaves as he steps away as Drexel’s athletics director. He is a role model not only for his athletes and students, but for all of us.
Stan Silverman is vice chairman of Drexel University. He is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.