TOP CAT

The new leader of the WCU athletics program discusses his background, philosophy and more

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

Randy Eaton, former senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland, joined the Catamount family Dec. 14 as director of athletics. Eaton comes to Cullowhee with more than 20 years of athletics administration experience. At Maryland, he was the No. 2 administrator in the athletics department and oversaw a $60 million annual operating budget. He also has held positions at the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, former Southern Conference member East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio, and with the Ohio Glory of World League Football.

Eaton had been Maryland’s senior associate director of athletics and the athletics department’s chief financial officer since June 2008. He joined the Terrapins’ athletics program in 2003 as associate director in charge of business operations.

Eaton was selected from among approximately 75 potential candidates to succeed C. Joseph “Chip” Smith, WCU’s former director of athletics who held the position from September 2004 until Oct. 25, 2011. (Fredrick Q. Cantler, WCU’s longtime senior associate athletic director for internal operations, agreed to come out of retirement to serve as interim director of athletics during the gap.)

“The number of well-qualified candidates in the pool is a testament to how Western Carolina University is viewed beyond these mountains,” said Shea Browning, WCU associate general counsel and chair of the athletics director search committee. “I am extremely excited with the selection and hiring of Randy Eaton. I believe his expertise and experience will carry the department of athletics to new heights,”

Eaton recently sat down with The Magazine of Western Carolina University
for a get-acquainted chat.

When did you become a sports fan and why?

At a very early age, as my father was involved with local youth league baseball. Watching Dad work hours equal to a second full-time job just so kids could play ball made me understand early on that there was something special about sports.

Did you play sports in high school or college?

I played baseball from the time I was 5 until I was 21. I also played basketball and football early, but baseball was the sport that stuck.

What are your lucky game-day traditions?

This is really gross, but during my playing days if we were in the midst of a winning streak I refused to wash my socks. Happily, I have outgrown that superstition.

What is your nickname, or what was your childhood nickname?

Through high school my nickname was J.R., Other nicknames I was called are not fit for publication.

What is the hardest or most difficult decision you’ve had to make?

First, any time you have to make personnel changes it is always hard, as it affects not just the departing staff member, but also his or her family. Second are the rare occasions when you have to inform a student-athlete that his or her eligibility has been affected by a mistake outside of their control. By far, those are the most difficult parts of this job.

What appeals to you most about college-level athletics?

The core of why we are here, why we do what we do, is not the almighty dollar, but the student-athlete. Having been in intercollegiate athletics for more than 20 years, I have come to consider myself an educator. Not that I compare myself to a faculty member, but more along the lines of a parent, assisting our coaches to ensure these young men and women make solid career and life decisions while they are under our supervision.

What are your thoughts on marching band and pep band in athletics?

Bands and cheerleaders are a huge part of the game-day experience in college athletics. They serve not only as cornerstones of the environment fans have come to expect, but also help motivate student-athletes during games.

Cheerleading – sport or extracurricular activity?

Anyone who has watched cheerleaders in action quickly realizes these young men and women are athletes. I believe we will see, in the very near future, competitive cheerleading emerge as a NCAA-sanctioned sport.

Can you share a story that illustrates the importance of college athletics programs to the student-athlete?

The ones that stick out in my mind involve young people who, without athletics, would not be able to attend college. I have seen many instances over the years of student-athletes who are the first person in their families to attend college, and if not for the athletic scholarship they receive, would be unable to attend.

In a dream world, what sport would you like to see WCU add?

Women’s lacrosse. It has become, over the past decade, one of the fastest growing sports at both the high school and collegiate levels.

Could it become necessary to trim sports at WCU because of the increasing cost?

No. We currently sponsor the minimum number of sports required by the NCAA to be a Division I member. Cutting sports would not be an option.

Describe your philosophy of intercollegiate athletics.

Our industry has, to a great extent, lost its way. Too many intercollegiate athletic programs have forgotten, or at least diminished, the roll of “student” in student-athlete. I will continue to stress academics to the student-athletes in my charge. This is not to say success on the field, court or track is not important, but I know there can be a happy medium where every student-athlete can excel academically and competitively.

What attracted you to the job at WCU?

I had been on campus several times while I was at ETSU. My wife and I always enjoyed our trips here, as the Catamount faithful were always friendly and welcoming. Those trips, along with my familiarity with the Southern Conference, are what initially attracted me to the job. But once I interviewed in person, the chance to work with Chancellor David Belcher sealed the deal.

Who would win in a fight, a Terrapin (Maryland’s mascot) or a Catamount?

Catamount, no question!