After 20 years at the helm of Penn Athletics, Steve Bilsky stepped down as the athletic director at his alma mater in 2013. Be it as a star basketball player or administrator, there weren’t many people left who remembered life at Penn without Bilsky. Whoever was to replace Bilsky, they would to have to deal with a heavy legacy.
Enter Grace Calhoun.
A former member of the Brown track team who had made professional stops in the SEC, Patriot League, Ivy League, Big 10, Horizon League, and Missouri Valley Conference, Calhoun came to Penn ready to reshape what it meant to be a part of Penn Athletics.
And she came in with a lifetime of experiences to build upon as a model.
Finding her way
Born in the Catskills of upstate New York, Calhoun was ready for the Ivies from an early age. When it came time to pick a school, six of the Ancient Eight found their way onto her radar. Eventually, the gymnast-turned-runner settled on Providence as her home for the next four years.
Although not heavily recruited — she only started running her senior year of high school — Calhoun soon found a home in Brown Athletics. But the accolades wouldn’t be coming on the track for Calhoun.
“My coach — half-seriously, half-jokingly — said I was the academic team captain,” she remembered. “And I knew my role was really to ensure that people were staying on course with studies and help with all of that.”
When Calhoun would later make her name working in academics and compliance, she’d find herself no stranger to the field — her time at Brown would lay the foundation for a career she didn’t even know she would embark upon.
Having participated in Ivy Athletics herself, Calhoun set herself on an early path to becoming an Ancient Eight administrator. Today, she is one of just two athletic directors in the Ivy League to have played in the conference.
Even so, ending up in athletics was one of the furthest things from her mind. After her graduation from Brown with a degree in electrical engineering, Calhoun ended up in consulting.
As someone who has committed her life to filling roles not traditionally held by women, Calhoun has found experiences from her youth all the way up through college as formative in combatting gender-discrimination.
“Whenever I felt like I was excluded based upon being a girl or a woman, I did feel like, ‘Well I’m going to prove them wrong,’ or ‘I’m going to work harder,’” she noted. “So it became a motivator and I will say, when I chose electrical, in many of my courses I was one of the only girls, if not the only one. And then looking later and getting into athletics, I certainly was used to that environment, so it didn’t bother me. I think there was a sense of confidence that gender shouldn’t make a difference.”
But even at that point, it seemed like it would be her engineering degree — not her time as an athlete — that would stick with her for life. For the first year out of college, she worked for American Management Systems, far removed from the world of sports.
By chance, she found her way back in. In 1993 Calhoun decided to enroll at the University of Florida, pursuing a master’s degree in exercise and sports science. While in Gainesville, she dipped her toe back in athletic waters, working as a graduate assistant track coach while studying ways to combine engineering and physiology.
At Florida, she worked in a lab, gradually beginning to realize that she vastly preferred the company of student-athletes to the rats in the physiology department. If Penn Athletics’ newfound commitment to sports performance technology seems like a departure from the past, it represents anything but for the second-year AD.
“I saw some opportunities where I felt Penn was uniquely positioned to be a best-in-class program and I’m sure my eye was more in tune with it because I have backgrounds in both of those areas and certainly have seen what strong programs in those areas can do to do lift up the entire program and really results in the highest quality of student-athlete experience.”
Calhoun had found her calling. The transition from engineer to administrator was complete by 1997, when she headed back north to Pennsylvania as an assistant athletic director at St. Francis.
It’s a man’s world
The Patriot League would be home for the next five years — two with St. Francis and another three in the league office. While her time in the league represented the first two positions she formally held in athletics, there was one side to her time in Pennsylvania that left the most impact. It was with the Red Flash that Calhoun was, for the first time, designated a Senior Woman Administrator.
As Senior Woman Administrator — in addition to the normal portions of her portfolio — Calhoun was tasked with serving as an internal voice working to ensure equivalent opportunities for both genders. She took that role to heart, serving as Senior Woman Administrator at Indiana as well, eight years later.
Gender continued to play a role in Calhoun’s career — directly or indirectly. In 2002, she started looking for a new position. Her husband had just taken a position coaching golf at Dartmouth, and Calhoun had to decide what would come next. Initially, she took a non-athletics job, working in the College Office.
But Josie Harper had other ideas.
Harper, who in 2002 had just become the first female athletic director in Ivy League history, decided she wanted to bring Calhoun on board at Dartmouth.
“Not too many months after arriving, they had a lost a longtime associate athletic director,” Calhoun explained. “And I had agreed to help out temporarily — and temporarily ended up being longer.”
And longer became a full-blown career. At Dartmouth, Calhoun realized athletics was her definite home, there would be no more question about it. For over three years, she worked as a utility administrator, helping Harper present and sell a series of special projects as needed in addition to a formal role in compliance.
“Grace is very professional — very bright,” Harper said. “And I knew if I asked her to do a special project, no matter how much she had on her plate, she would get it done. She’s very organized. She’s a good planner and a good strategist.”
Harper knew what she had in Calhoun — “very professional, very bright.”
Harper never doubted whether Calhoun could succeed, but she recognized the struggles she could face as she went through her career. “To be quite honest with you, that ascension doesn’t usually happen to as many women as it does to men that are in the field.”
Calhoun was determined to continue her rise. Eventually, however, she realized Dartmouth wasn’t the fit as a permanent position.
“I don’t know that I would have left but for an offer I felt like I could not turn down.”
Next up was Indiana.
A defining stop
In 2005, it was time for Calhoun to be the driving force behind a family relocation. In this case, she found her way into the train wreck that was Indiana Athletics. Between 2001 and 2009, the Hoosiers had five different ADs — Calhoun would work under two of them in Bloomington from 2005-11.
“It was a fantastic six years. Not every day was fantastic — we dealt with a lot of hard issues but I would probably say no other single stop in my career did I learn and grow as much as I did during that time.”
The organized chaos at Indiana lent itself nicely to the decentralized structure at Penn Calhoun often praises. In addition, Calhoun was responsible for reporting to both the athletic department and academic officials — a taste of the dual role she would have to take on as an athletic director.
It was at Indiana that Calhoun led the development of the Excellence Academy, a rebranding of the Hoosiers taglined “24 sports. One team.” For those familiar with Penn Athletics’ recent brand refresh, it sounds oddly reminiscent of the new uniformity of the “Champion Your Life” campaign.
The upheaval within the athletic department meant hitting the reset button on nearly the entire approach the University took to sports. Calhoun was a part of a ground-up process that, in her mind, helped define her approach to athletics administration.
“The various exposures that I had in those formative years in Indiana had me feeling like, you know, ‘I can do this, I’m ready for my own leadership challenge,’” she said. “And that’s when I started to throw my name in the hat and look at some AD positions.”
She credits Indiana as being more critical to her approach at Penn than any other career stop, including her next home — Loyola.
She’s in charge
There was another move in store for Calhoun’s family, as they made the trip a state over to Chicago as Calhoun assumed the mantle of athletic director at Loyola University in 2011. She was determined from the start to have an impact.
Within weeks on the job, Calhoun made the controversial decision to cut ties with Jim Whitesell, the Ramblers’ men’s basketball coach, mirroring the early decision she faced on the future of then-Penn basketball coach Jerome Allen. Unlike in Chicago, once in University City Calhoun would decide to wait, not parting ways until a full year after she took over.
“The one thing that I’ve learned so clearly over time is that a solution isn’t a solution unless it fits in an institutional environment. ... There certainly was a lot of learning at Loyola, but I wouldn’t say there was any modeling after that, just due to the fact that the situations were so different,” she explained.
In 2013, she made the decision with the longest-lasting implications for Loyola: transitioning from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley Conference.
The move sparked criticism and debate over the effects on the University budget, but Calhoun stuck by her guns.
Calhoun’s time in Chicago lasted just three years, yet she walked away having gone through the one set of experiences she had previously lacked: being the one making the calls when the final decision had to be made.
“The more times you deal with decision-making of that magnitude, I think the more comfort you get that you understand how to navigate though complexities,” she added. “You understand how to build consensus — I think the main things I learned was how to really listen for what was important to the University and figuring out and strategizing how to achieve the desired end goals.”
She would only be around for the first year of the transition to the MVC, however. After Bilsky announced his retirement, University City came calling.
Luckily for Penn, Calhoun was ready.Comments powered by Disqus
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