Western Oregon University hired Curtis Campbell as its new athletic director on May 15, concluding a nationwide search that brought a handful of diverse candidates to campus for individual presentations.
It was Campbell’s unique mix of work experiences that vaulted him above the rest of the field, said WOU President Rex Fuller.
“Curtis is the perfect fit to lead Western Oregon University Athletics,” Fuller said. “Not only has he worked extensively with the NCAA at the Division II level and supervised capital construction projects, but we know he will continue our tradition of supporting both academic success and athletic excellence.”
Campbell’s most recent post was director of Athletics at NCAA Division II institution Tuskegee University in Alabama, a position he’s held since 2013. Before that, he was athletic director at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., from 2007 to 2013. In all, Campbell has 17 years’ experience working in intercollegiate athletics.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity,” Campbell said. “When I interviewed, everybody was just great. President Fuller really made an impression on me. There were three basketball recruits and the assistant basketball coach waiting to see the president after me, and I was so impressed the president took the time to meet them. That said a great deal about how he feels about Athletics. That was a great thing to see.”
Campbell didn’t start his career in college athletics, though he was a three-sport athlete while growing up in a small Virginia town. After high school, he joined the Army as an escape.
“You think (your home town) is the most boring place in the world,” he recalled. “I wasn’t ready to go to college. The military was a way I could get out of my small town and see part the country. The military was great. It was one of the funnest jobs I’ve ever had.”
He served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne from 1981 to 1984 and credits that time in his life as expanding his worldview.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “Where I grew up, people were black or white. But then I met Hispanic people, Vietnamese and an Italian guy from New York with a crazy accent. It gave me a broader perspective on people and how people sound different and look different. But the military showed me how much we are alike. Good people are good people regardless of what they look like.”
After leaving the Army, he attended Longwood University in Virginia and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. He spent about six years in that field before deciding to move on.
“Social work is rewarding in some ways, when you’re helping people, but it’s also kind of tough sometimes,” he said. “When I thought about going to grad school, I thought ‘What was some of the best fun or best places I’ve been?’ and I thought about college. I thought it would be great to work at a college campus. That’s when I decided to get my masters in higher education.”
Campbell enrolled in Radford University in Virginia, where he worked as resident director while earning a master’s degree in Student Affairs Administration. The graduate assistantship came with paid tuition, room and board and a stipend, providing him with the experience to get his first university job: resident director at Virginia Tech.
Deep down, though, he wanted to work in athletics, so he kept his eye out for openings in that department. His opportunity came in 2000, when he was hired as coordinator of student-athlete development at University of Minnesota, a Division I college in Minneapolis. Despite being the farthest west he’d ever lived and significantly colder during the winter, Minnesota fit Campbell well.
“It was a great place,” he said. “It had all the luxuries of the big city without all the inconveniences of the big city, like traffic and crime.”
The athletics department at Minnesota was split by gender, with complete-but-separate staffs for women’s and men’s sports. The setup was a little challenging and fraught with Title IX complications, but Campbell navigated it adeptly. His tasks included helping approximately 700 student-athletes with life skills, career services, resume assistance and community outreach. He also advised the university’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a panel that exists at all NCAA schools, WOU included.
In 2001, Campbell got his first chance at an AD position, taking the assistant director of Athletics post at Kentucky State and serving as interim director for a year of his four-year tenure there. Eventually, his career took him to Blackburn College, where he was director of Athletics, Stillman College and, finally, Tuskegee University.
Now, with an empty nest on the horizon, Campbell and his wife, Sereta, are looking forward to a change on the West Coast. Their oldest son, Caleb, ships out soon with the Navy. Younger son Cagan has a year left of high school but has been courted by multiple D-I colleges for his abilities in football and track.
Sereta Campbell is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for the state of Alabama, working primarily in the mental health area. She’s recently become familiar with Western Oregon University’s outstanding ASL programs, Curtis Campbell said.
“She’s looking forward to the opportunities out there in Oregon,” he said during an interview from his home in Alabama.
Curtis Campbell will start work at WOU on July 1. He plans to spend the first 90 days listening, learning and asking a lot of questions. He wants to get the lay of the land and meet one-on-one with coaches and their staffs to find out what each program’s goals and needs are.
“I don’t believe in coming into a new organization and making changes right off the bat,” he said. “I don’t want to do that. It’s not my style. I come in and look to see how things are and ask questions. There is usually a reason people do things a certain way, and I’ve got to learn what those reasons are.”
After his initial learning-and-listening period, he will be ready to get to work. His focus will be on helping students have academic success while also improving their athletic abilities.
“What we do in Athletics is two primary goals: graduating students and winning championships,” he said. “Everything you do should be working towards one of those goals. When we talk about wanting new things, at the end of it, it should be about helping us in graduating students, retaining students or helping us on the competitive side and helping us win championships. If we focus on what will help us achieve those two things, we’ll be headed in the right direction.”
One of the projects on the horizon is getting bids on artificial turf for the baseball and softball fields. This season, both teams had to play their “home” games elsewhere because the condition of the WOU fields was too poor. Not only are unplayable fields inconvenient and costly, they are a liability in terms of recruiting top athletes.
“Artificial turf for baseball and softball is a priority,” he said. “Getting prices and quotes will be one of the first things, and then we’ll share those needs with donors.”
Campbell oversaw two major construction projects at Stillman College, and he understands funding for athletic facilities is difficult to come by at the Division II level. Still, he said it’s a position most schools are in.
“When you get outside of those power five D-I conferences, every school has financial issues and resource issues,” he said. “You have to figure out how you are going to fund athletics and keep up with the other folks in your conference. And enrollment is always an issue for everyone. So we all face very similar issues, whether it’s D-II or D-I.”
The new athletic director’s overall focus is aligned with WOU’s mission of graduating well-rounded students who are prepared for the working world, a fact that likely played a big role in his selection from among the candidates.
“In D-II, we focus on life in the balance,” he explained. “We want to make sure our students are not just athletes. We want them to participate in other parts of campus. They should have a true college experience. D-II encourages that more than any other level. But maybe I’m partial.”
Campbell’s cover letter touts his ability to build collaborative relationships and gain support for programs. He can get started forming those connections soon; he’s planning a short trip to Oregon to attend the Wolves Athletic Auction on June 3 at the Salem Convention Center.
“I look forward to coming out there and getting to work,” he said. “I look forward to making the Wolves one of the best D-II programs in the country, both from an academic standpoint and an athletic standpoint.”
Need tickets for the Wolves Athletic Auction, where you can meet Campbell? Click here for tickets.