After four months of waiting, Penn tapped current Loyola Chicago Athletic Director M. Grace Calhoun as Steve Bilsky’s successor as the new athletic director.
Yet with Penn finding the person it was looking for, Loyola now has to start from scratch, searching for a new athletic director itself after Calhoun led the athletic department through three years of change before moving into a new conference.
“Grace has played an instrumental role in the rebirth of the Ramblers’ historic athletics program since joining us in 2011,” Loyola Provost John P. Pelissero said . “She enhanced the integration of intercollegiate athletics into university life and fostered a transformative educational experience for Loyola’s student-athletes. She also successfully spearheaded Loyola’s move to the Missouri Valley Conference last July.”
In February 2011, Calhoun left her position as a senior associate athletics director at Indiana to take over as Loyola’s AD and assistant vice president . With the Ramblers’ athletic programs struggling, Calhoun was given a mandate to make changes, hiring new coaches in six of nine total positions and changing the leadership for 10 of Loyola’s 13 programs.
Those changes included a move to fire men’s basketball coach Jim Whitesell less than two months into her tenure when he had just one year left on his contract.
“I’ve been in college athletics long enough to know that when you have a coach in the last year of his contract, there’s no ability to recruit,” Calhoun said of the situation. “That would inevitably be used against that individual. It certainly would not have been my choice to make a change at that time. Personally it was very difficult. I was finishing a job, starting a new one, transitioning a family and then had to do a men’s basketball coaching search.”
In 2013, Calhoun made a high-profile hire, tapping three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes as women’s basketball coach.
“I will always owe a lot of my coaching success to her because she is the one that gave me my first shot at a Division I head coaching job with no prior experience,” Swoopes said.
Swoopes is disappointed that Calhoun is on her way out at Loyola, but is excited that her current boss is getting the opportunity at Penn.
“[There were] mixed emotions,” Swoopes said. “I was absolutely hurt and disappointed that she was leaving because I see a lot of great things in her with our working relationship and what my plans are for Loyola, but at the same time [I’m] very happy for her.”
“You’ve always got to do what is best for you and your family and I think this is a great move for her.”
Swoopes admired Calhoun as a leader, saying she was “definitely the type of AD that coaches want to play for,” and that Calhoun would be missed by the coaches at Loyola.
Swoopes built a strong relationship with Calhoun in a short period of time, partly thanks to the women’s hoops team’s trip to Italy last summer.
“I would say our trip to Italy this summer was when we really developed a special bond, not just on the basketball court,” Swoopes said. “We spent about 10 days in Italy. She was pregnant with her newborn. It was just a great time to be able to get to know her off the court.”
The trip to Italy with Swoopes and Loyola women’s hoops was not unique in Calhoun’s approach to her programs, as she promised to head out on the road with each of Penn’s squads early in her tenure.
“With 33 sports, it might take a cycle or two, but I will get out with each of [Penn’s teams] on a road trip at some point,” she said. “I’ve always said, once you spend seven hours on a bus with somebody, you get to know them pretty well.”
Calhoun will now be transitioning into her role as Penn’s next AD, effective July 1, while still serving as the acting head of Loyola’s athletic department until mid-May.
But even with Calhoun leaving Loyola, Swoopes thinks that the Ramblers should be able to transition well and continue to strive for success like they did under Calhoun.
“I hope it doesn’t affect it in a negative way,” Swoopes said. “I had a conversation with her and I said one thing I want to do is be able to take the first [Loyola] women’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament and wanted her to be a part of that, and that doesn’t change. She is just a phone call away.”