Tracy Sundlun and I go way back, to the days of big hair, big ideas, and wide horizons ahead that many envisioned for the sport of running in the 1970s. Those were hard racing, hard partying times when, as one friend put it, ‘we knew the first 100 finishers of the Boston and New York City Marathons by their first names.’ I think Tracy still does.
When we first met, Tracy had already been a coach at his alma mater, USC, and at the University of Colorado. But at the time he was back on the east coast working with the Warren Street A.C. in New York, and about to take the reins of the MAC, the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, largest of 56 regional associations in The Athletics Congress (now USATF) web. There, among other things, he created the New York vs. Boston Indoor Meet. I was on the Boston end of that binary system, host of the Runner’s Digest radio show and running columnist for the Boston Herald.
The years have gone by, and Tracy and I both moved independently west where we remain closely tied to the sport, me as reporter/broadcaster at-large, him as Senior Vice President of Competitor Group, Inc.(nee Elite Racing) which stages the Rock `n` Roll series of marathons and half-marathons. But now that USATF has announced that it is once again searching in earnest for a new CEO, Tracy has decided to throw his hat into that ring, hoping to land the job, he says, “I have been training for all my life.“
Needless to say, it has been a difficult time for USA Track & Field since Craig Masback resigned after ten years as CEO in 2008 to take a position with Nike. In his footsteps USATF hired former Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan, the hope being that an executive with proven success in another sport could transfer that success to USATF. Logan only lasted till September 2010, ousted by a newly pared down and combative board of directors which, itself, had been under threat by the USOC to reconfigure or face possible decertification as the governing body.
Last year a CEO search chaired by Steve Miller, executive director of the Andre Agassi Foundation, led to unsubstantiated conjecture that two people had been offered, but turned down, the CEO position, Oregon track coach Vin Lananna and NYRR president Mary Wittenberg. In any case, USATF has effectively been operating without a full-time executive for over a year and a half. In the wake of all this turmoil, the board now says it wants to hire a new helmsman well before the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon this June.
“Our board of directors is committed to engaging a strong, visionary leader who combines success in the sports business marketplace with the political acumen, knowledge of our sport and people skills that are so essential to being successful in this position,” said USATF President and chair of the CEO search committee, Stephanie Hightower in a news release. “We have everything we need to conduct this search thoroughly and expediently. Our athletes have shown they are ready for the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games. We want to ensure that as an organization we are ready as well.”
Something the sport has always been blessed with has been the dedication and performance of its athletes. But as anyone who has ever taken even a cursory look at USATF understands, one of the most challenging jobs for any new CEO, perhaps the most challenging, will be navigating through the hazardous shoals of a volunteer-based organization riven with a multitude of constituencies and opposing agendas.
“Just the 56 (regional) associations alone are insane,” said USATF Women’s Long Distance Running chairperson Virginia Brophy Achman. “Some are masters-oriented, some are youth-oriented. They aren’t consistent at all, and none of them are singing the same hymn.”
This has been running and track’s greatest bugaboo since the AAU was disbanded via the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, thus creating a governing body for track and field, race walking, long distance running, youth running, masters running, three-legged racing, you name it. With so many constituencies under one command, there has been a constant turbulence within the ranks, everyone fighting for their position, protecting their prerogatives, never allowing the organization to set all its oars in union, much less finding purchase to move anywhere. As such, the sports that evolved into discrete amateur and professional wings moved steadily away from track, which once occupied a much more prestigious station within the national sporting fleet.
During his ten-year tenure, Craig Masback righted the USATF ship after the previous CEO, Captain Bli-, er, Ollan Cassell, had ruled the AAU (1970-1980) and then USATF (1980-1997) by pitting warring constituencies against one another, thereby insuring his ongoing appointment even as the sport, itself, continued to flounder.
“There is no one who could walk into my office whose job position I haven’t been in,” declares Sundlun. “They need someone who understands all the elements, and embraces each and every one of them.”
Over the length of his career, Tracy Sundlun has been a businessman, coach, agent, race announcer, executive director of USATF’s largest regional association, co-founder of National Scholastic Indoor Track & Field Championships. Either he’s been too peripatetic, or his varied background dovetails with exactly the USATF’s job description for the role of CEO.
According to USATF’s criteria, “The ideal candidate is an accomplished executive/business leader with proven ability and success in growing revenue, managing a diverse staff of professionals and working productively with a strong, diverse board of directors. He/she will work effectively with the board of directors and across a complex, diverse and at times politically charged volunteer organization to accelerate the realization of the USATF vision and strategic plan. It is vital they are someone who is either in or has a long history with the sport of track and field, who possesses true passion for the sport and has an intimate knowledge how the sport is organized and operates from the grassroots level to the World Championships and Olympic games. It is a given that this person has deep experience in marketing, broadcasting and media/sponsorship sales; what sets them apart is their strengths in both disciplines and ability to deliver unprecedented results and elevate the USATF brand.”
Ah, but then there’s the politics. So does it help or hurt that Tracy comes to politics which a genetic marker, as well? His father, Bruce, was the governor of Rhode Island from 1991-`95.
In his own 40 years in the sport, Tracy Sundlun has held positions in every aspect of its existence from college coach to co-founder of the National Scholastics Sports Foundation to Team Manager for the 2012 IAAF World Indoor T&F Championships USA men’s team in Istanbul, Turkey. As head of MAC he engineered a 130% membership growth, and increased the operating budget 22-fold to $1.7 million. He even gave future marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi his first job, stuffing envelopes and working the the school-based programs conducted by MAC in the New York metro area.
Of the thousand or more people I’ve met over the years in the sport, none has a greater or more abiding love for the game and all it represents than Tracy Sundlun. He’s been a conciliator, a motivator, a fund raiser, and a hell raiser, too. He even likes race walking, having staged two Olympic Trials for the hip-swivelers! Not a bad CV, if that’s the type of guy you’re looking for.