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New Athletic Director Wood Selig is a Fan First

In the early morning quiet at Old Dominion University's Student Recreation Center, new athletic director Wood Selig looks around as he shoots a few hoops.

"Isn't this a great place? This is one of the nicest student rec centers I've seen in the country" he says.

He's still got a few of the ballhandling and passing skills that he used as a guard at Norfolk Collegiate in 1970s, on a strong team that won the regional independent schools championship two years in a row. But he's quick to point out he was a "non-shooting" guard. Shot after shot hits the front of the rim. "I've got to get in the weight room. It's been so long since I've shot hoops," Selig says with a laugh.

The early morning shootaround is a conduit for conversation, and like many conversations the new AD has, the topic turns to sports.

Selig talks about his sporting heroes growing up. He relates a story of being too bashful to play catch when his baseball hero Lou Brock invited him out of the stands during spring training. He talks about some of the memorable sporting events he's attended, hearing the roar of the crowd when the teams take the court at the Final Four.

And talking about LeBron James' televised "decision" to go to the Miami Heat, Selig says: "That was embarrassing. He should be embarrassed. The media should be ashamed for going along. It makes me so happy to work in college athletics."

It's his dream job. Because long before choosing to make his career in athletic administration - a career that's taken him to several universities before landing him at Old Dominion University as the successor to longtime athletic director Jim Jarrett - Selig was a fan.

His enthusiasm was stoked as a kid growing up in Norfolk whose pickup basketball games frequently had unexpected visitors from nearby ODU.

"Nancy Lieberman and Oliver Purnell would ride around and play basketball with the neighborhood kids," Selig said. "I'd ride my bike over to the Hermitage, where they had some outdoor basketball courts. In the spring and summer months it would be the gathering point for some good games. There you'd have the star of the women's program, Nancy Lieberman, and the star of the men's program, Oliver Purnell, and they're getting out of their cars and they're playing with us."

After playing every sport he could at Norfolk Collegiate, Selig graduated and went away to Washington and Lee University for college.

Not sure what career he ultimately wanted to pursue, Selig said his thoughts kept drifting back to sports, and his earlier years as a fan.

"I was a psychology major in college. I thought, 'Maybe I'll try to go into sports psychology, and combine my academic degree with my interest in sports,'" Selig said. "But the more I thought about it, I couldn't picture myself sitting with pampered, multimillion-dollar athletes, getting them to visualize shooting free throws for an NBA championship."

After graduation, he took a year off and spent six months driving around the country with a few friends. That's when he had his eureka moment.

"We bought two newspapers in that six months, and one was a USA Today that had a huge article on sports administration graduate programs, with Ohio University being the leader in sports administration," Selig said.

"It was then that the light bulb went off. I didn't even know there was the business behind sport - that there were people who actually worked behind the scenes in pro and college athletics. That was the avenue I knew I wanted to take."

Selig earned a master's from Ohio University in sports administration, and what followed has been a career that he calls incredibly rewarding.

He began his athletics career in 1985 at Virginia Commonwealth University. Then, for 11 years, he worked in athletics at the University of Virginia, before moving on to become Western Kentucky University's athletic director. In the past 11 years, Selig has overseen a Hilltopper program that won 70 Sun Belt Conference championships, and shepherded the WKU football team from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Throughout his many years at different schools, Selig has remained a passionate sports fan. But it's different when you're the boss.

"As an athletic director, your insides are all scrambled and churning, and it's a recipe for ulcers. But you try to be more poker-faced throughout the game, at least I do. You try not to yell at the officials and question any of the calls that might go against your team. But that's tough, because you have crossed that line from being a pure spectator and fan," Selig said.

Imagine trying to keep a straight face when one of your players does this: In the opening round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, Western Kentucky guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez hit a ridiculous, off-balance 25-footer in the final seconds to beat Illinois.

"It wasn't just a wonderful moment for our school, it was huge financially. With the way the revenue-sharing model works in the Sun Belt Conference, not only was it a multimillion-dollar shot for the league, but for Western Kentucky University it was a shot that ended up paying about $750,000 institutionally," Selig said.

Then there's this: Two days later, WKU fell in a heartbreaker to Gonzaga, a game that saw three lead changes in the final minute with no stoppages in play.

"Your heart's ripped out. You think: 'You've got to be kidding me. I can't believe I just saw that.' But you've got to keep that calm, at least on the outside," Selig said.

Now, Selig's passion for sports has taken him back to Norfolk, and he feels like he's become a Monarch again at the ideal time. "I feel that the timing is perfect to be at ODU. Institutionally, ODU's getting ready to explode," he said.

"I'm sure we're going to have to determine where we want to be fairly quickly, because I'm sure ODU is going to be the school of choice for high school students, not only in Virginia, but around the country, given all the great exposure that the university has generated for itself."

In some ways, ODU's sterling reputation in athletics accelerated first. Selig said the Monarchs' 32 national championships in the last 30 years, along with the 91 percent graduation rate for student-athletes who stay four years, was known far beyond Hampton Roads while he was working at other schools.

Now, the campus infrastructure is catching up.

"The Student Recreation Center. Foreman Field. The tennis center," Selig said. "It's just changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. It's not, as the saying is, the same ODU that your dad once knew. It's very in tune today with what college students might be seeking."

That doesn't mean, however, that there's no room for improvement. One of the first things Selig has done since coming to Old Dominion is to supervise an audit of the athletic facilities, with an eye toward giving current student-athletes a "wow" welcome back.

"For student-athletes, outside of their academic support, there's probably nothing more important than the facilities they enjoy," Selig said.

"There are a lot of our facilities that over the years have been allowed to deteriorate. I don't think individuals would allow this to happen to our own homes, but in some of our athletic facilities, we've allowed that to happen. There's some deferred maintenance; we've got to address that, and really pick our facilities up."

Selig walked each ODU athletic facility inside and out with an athletic department staff member, making a master list of what needs to be spruced up. Not only is improving facilities a benefit to current student-athletes, it'll also help with recruiting, Selig said.

"Kids today buy with their eyes, and if they don't come onto campus and see the wow factor, see the pop and the sizzle, and see the institutional commitment that comes from first-class facilities, then you're going to be hard-pressed to successfully recruit them."

This is the quiet period for ODU athletics, before the fall sports teams begin full-scale workouts. Once practice and games are under way in earnest, Selig said the teams can expect to see a lot of him.

"I think my No. 1 job is visibility. You can't sit in your office. You can't be viewed as being supportive if you're not visible. I want to go to practices. I want to go to away competition, and certainly home events. I want to get my family involved. I want to help with recruiting. I want to help with entertainment of alumni athletes who may be coming back, just to help foster the family nature that's always existed with ODU athletics."

It's good work if you can get it.

"It never gets old. I'm sure it does for my wife (Ellen) and my kids (Lex, 13, Nick, 11, and Julianna, 6) as I drag them all over the country from one athletic event to the next. But for me, I've always loved it. I still love it, and I always will continue to love being around sports, and student-athletes and coaches."

After a half-hour of shooting baskets and chatting, Selig is on his way back home to have breakfast with the family. They're still waiting to move into their home later this summer. It's the calm before the storm, but for a new AD, there's still plenty to do. "I wish I could turn the clock back a month," Selig says.

It's agreed. One more shot each. Selig is challenged to shoot his first three pointer of the morning. "I'm not sure I can get it to the rim," he says, semi-seriously. Then Selig turns and squares up to the target.

Swish.

"Let's quit while we're ahead," Selig says with a laugh.

Hopefully a symbol of what's to come for the new boss at ODU Athletics.

This article was posted on: July 15, 2010

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