Tucked away in the second floor of the administrative wing of International Village is the office of one of the most influential figures in college athletics. Peter Roby, all 6 feet, 9 inches of him, sits down in his leather chair with a warm smile, seemingly enjoying the newfound freedom of retirement and the weight of carrying an entire athletic department removed from his shoulders. When Roby, one of college athletics’ biggest individuals, both figuratively and literally, starts talking, people tend to listen. The Newton, Mass. native is built through an accumulation of vastly different experiences – player, coach, business executive, non-profit leader and athletic director, he has done it all.
Roby’s philosophy was built during his time as a player on the Dartmouth men’s basketball team. He credits his coach, Gary Walters, for his inspiration behind what he views as one of Northeastern’s core values: “Coach as Educator.”
“We wanted everybody to understand that we were in the education business and that our role was to enhance the education of the students that were here,” Roby said. “This isn’t just about winning games, it’s a lot more than that, and that’s what it supposed to be about.”
He’s very proud of the fact that he’s tried to keep that ever-so-precarious balance of results on the field versus results in the classroom in place during his time as AD. He mentions it whenever he can, how proud he is. He points to the 93-percent graduate success rate, he points to the integration of co-op, he points to the student-athlete GPA average of 3.226, which has increased every year, and he mentions how everything they’ve done hasn’t come at the expense, but rather on the behalf, of the student-athlete.
And Perhaps the most popular program in the athletic department, the Northeastern Athletics’ Global Experience Fund, is a prime example.
“You talk to the players on the hockey team that went to Belfast; that was a memorable trip. You talk to baseball and volleyball that went to Cuba; they’ll never forget that. You talk to women’s soccer after they get back from Barcelona and Montpellier; they won’t forget that,” he said. “It’ll make them feel connected to their program, to the university, and it’ll benefit them long after a stipend would have been spent. And that’s the kind of stuff I’m really proud of, is that we did that instead.”
Roby is a throwback to a time when college athletics wasn’t the billion dollar industry it is today – using sport to change lives through education. After all, he was the leader of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society from 2002-2007, using the popularity of sports to influence positive social progress. He berates the fact that college athletics has become more about the business than the education involved, citing the FBI investigation into the recruitment strategies of top college basketball teams and what he calls the “mockery” that the University of North Carolina made of the system through offering fake, or paper, classes for their athletes.
However, he still maintains hope for the future of collegiate athletics.
“What bothers me now is that people think that the system’s broken,” Roby said. “The system’s not broken; you have bad people in collegiate athletics that need to be weeded out. If people want to pay players, they should go to the NBA, they should go to the G-League, go to Europe. But if you want to coach in college athletics, then commit yourself to what this is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about education, it’s supposed to be about development. And some people will say ‘well, you’re naïve because the money is so big at that level.’ Yes, at that level. But there is 1,100-plus institutions that make up the NCAA at all three divisions, and not everybody looks like the top 65.”
He’s professed a great love for this institution, one that he’s proud to have carried with him as he’s served on various NCAA committees. Even when he made the decision to cut the football program, he said that he made sure to help players who wanted to transfer do so before all the other schools had filled rosters, he honored any scholarships of players who wanted to stay and even those who came back after leaving initially. Coach as Educator.
Perhaps the one thing that best exemplifies Peter Roby was the open Q&A he held with the student-athletes at the end of November. Athletes were welcomed to ask any and all questions directly to Roby, who stood front and center and took a variety of concerns stemming from fan transportation, to differences in game start times between men and women, to practice scheduling and everything in between. These weren’t easy questions to ask, and they weren’t any easier to answer. But what separates Roby from the other athletic directors isn’t that he has this relationship with his athletes, it’s that he openly and actively chases it.
“It’s one thing to put words on paper or slogans about what you care about; it’s another thing to live it every day,” Roby said. “From the very first time we communicated with student-athletes about our core values and welcoming them to Northeastern […] if we say we’re here on your behalf and yet when you ask me a question that might be a little bit uncomfortable to answer and I don’t want to answer it, then I’m not really living what I said.”
“But it’s amazing when somebody brings something to your attention and you act on it and you say ‘you know what? You’re right. We’re going to fix it.’ And then you fix it? That’s pretty powerful. That empowers people. And it makes us better.”
Coach as Educator. Jeff Konya, Northeastern’s new athletic director, honored Roby at the first annual Top Dog Awards with the Peter Roby Future Leader Award, given to the male and female athlete that best exemplifies the characteristics it takes to succeed and lead in life after sports. A fitting touch to mark the man who was described by the same Maya Angelou quote from not one, but two different individuals at his retirement party – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Roby leaves the interview with his final declaration of pride, about how he’s incredibly proud of how all the different stakeholders, from faculty to student athletes, to former athletes, view Northeastern Athletics. It’s not a scam. It’s not a mockery of the system. It’s a genuine combination of sport and education.
He wishes they would have raised more money.
“But who doesn’t?” he asks.
He wishes they would have won a national championship.
“But we’re pretty close,” he says.
A decade of work, all neatly tied up with a few lasting thoughts. And as for tomorrow? Well, Roby is going to teach his sports communication class at 2:50 p.m. Because tomorrow is Wednesday.
Coach as Educator. Always.
Photo by Brian Bae