It was a minor marathon in Michigan, but, as it turned out, a major event in the life of Dawn Rogers. At the time, she was a functionary in the University of Akron athletic department. Her athletic director had just been fired. She was young, uncertain, worried. She was also leading the race after 25.5 miles.
“One of my friends,” says Rogers, “a guy who had finished, came back out to run with me. He was all excited because I had run what was, for me, a great race. I had a half mile to go, and I said to him, ‘I can’t finish.’ He started laughing. He said, ‘Dawn, you’re winning this race.’
“Well, I finished. I did win the race. And I learned something—that it’s not the totality of the race; it’s every mile. You have to take it one mile at a time. If you look at the totality of what’s in front of you, it can be overwhelming; but if you break it down to day-by-day or project-by-project, you can accomplish it. I really think that’s what has gotten me through the last few months.”
They were supposed to be shimmering, momentum-propelled months. In March, the Musketeers were the darlings of the NCAA basketball tournament. Mike Bobinski—the man who replaced the fired athletic director in Akron and later hired Rogers at Xavier—was thinking of moving on to another administrative position at the University. In June, with the basketball program at a station it had never before attained—the 1958 NIT championship notwithstanding—he figured there would be no better time. Knowing that the job he was vacating would deeply interest the 39-year-old mother of two who had been at his side for 10 years—six at Xavier—he figured there would be no better person.
What he didn’t figure was that, by July, before Rogers could even move into the corner office, men’s basketball coach Thad Matta would cut out on the contract designed to keep him at Xavier until 2013. Bobinski didn’t figure on leaving his protégé—Division I’s fifth female athletic director—with such a quick and colossal decision to make just three weeks into the job.
Under her long-time mentor, the Ithaca, N.Y., native routinely ran coaching searches, overseeing the hiring of women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff. Important as they are, those decisions don’t define Xavier athletics and the University profile as much as men’s basketball. Within athletics, there is no more urgent, loaded decision than selecting the men’s basketball coach.
Rogers had it done in a day.
“I told her in the prelude leading up to hiring a coach,” says Bobinski, now the associate vice president for development, “your name will be forever linked with certain issues and decisions. But one of the things I always valued about Dawn is that, whenever a situation arose, I looked to her for a rational perspective.”
In this case, Rogers found perspective around the corner and down the hall. Every so often since Sean Miller was hired as an assistant basketball coach in 2001, she’d stopped by his office for casual conversation. They would swap stories about their kids or compare notes on running. And before she continued on with her rounds, Rogers, invariably, would drop a gentle reminder: “Sean, we don’t want you to go anyplace.”
When the time finally came, she swiftly saw to it that he didn’t. As a result, she says, “I think we will both kind of walk this walk together.”
The challenges didn’t stop there, though. The status of the year’s highest-rated men’s basketball recruit, Nigeria native Churchill Odia, was complicated by visa issues. Baseball coach John Morrey resigned and Rogers hired Dan Simonds in his stead. She approved two new track programs, the first new teams in a dozen years, and eliminated the rifle program. Calmly, she pressed through the fast-coming complications, understanding all the while that if she takes it a mile at a time, the long road could carry the program back to the heady heights it reached last year.
“That’s where we want to be every year,” she says. “Last year makes us see that it’s attainable, that going to the Final Four is a possibility and that we don’t just have basketball to have basketball.”