SPU's O'Connell to Serve as 'Women in Sports' Panelist
Erin O'Connell coached crew for seven seasons at the University of Washington, lending a hand in UW's trio of NCAA championships in the late 1990s.
Erin O'Connell coached crew for seven seasons at the University of Washington, lending a hand in UW's trio of NCAA championships in the late 1990s.
O'Connell, seen here chatting with ROOT SPORTS broadcaster Bob Akamian, is in her seventh year as AD at Seattle Pacific.
O'Connell, seen here chatting with ROOT SPORTS broadcaster Bob Akamian, is in her seventh year as AD at Seattle Pacific.

Friday, February 28, 2014
by Evan O'Kelly, Media Relations Assistant

Fourth in a series

Previous Panelist Profiles
Chelsea Herman: Seattle University (Feb. 14)
Kimberly Ford: NCAA (Jan. 31)
Lynda Goodrich: Western Washington  (Jan. 24)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Putting together a successful rowing team requires incredible organization, synchronicity, and attention to detail. Each and every stroke a team makes must be in perfect unison to maximize efficiency, and the best teams are those that establish an unbreakable rhythm. Coordinating the rowers’ every move is the team’s coxswain, or caller, who essentially plays a dual role of crew member and coach.

From the first time she became interested in rowing, the position seemed a natural fit for Erin O’Connell, who now calls the shots as director of athletics at Seattle Pacific University.

O’Connell has moved from the stern of a crew boat to the head of SPU’s athletic department, crafting her knack for leadership and love of athletics into a career as a collegiate administrator. In May, she will serve as a panelist at the Women in Sports Career Seminar, hosted by the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in Seattle. 

“I got into rowing in sixth grade, and my dad was a policeman who was on his department’s rowing team,” O’Connell said regarding how she got started with rowing. “My dad’s team needed a coxswain, and that’s how I decided to get into it.”

O’Connell grew up in San Francisco, and just as she was settling into Saint Rose Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school, one of the most notable events in United States history altered her course. 

“Saint Rose fell down in the earthquake, and I had to transfer to Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep at the end of the school year,” O’Connell said regarding the impact the monumental 1989 earthquake had on her life.

Amidst the chaos of transferring schools immediately, O’Connell’s interest in rowing hardly wavered. “I was the coxswain for the Pacific Rowing Club, which was basically a conglomerate of high schools in the San Francisco area,” O’Connell remembered about her involvement in rowing during high school. “I knew when I got into high school that I wanted to be a coxswain and have a career in college with that as well.” 

O’Connell’s interests in athletics extend to basketball and soccer as well, and she had early aspirations to be a sports writer while studying English as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. “I spent a year after I graduated working in the UW athletic department doing media relations, and decided that I didn’t want to pursue sports journalism,” O’Connell commented on her experience directly following graduation. “I had an opportunity to begin coaching with the women’s crew team at UW, and I ended up doing that for seven years.”

O’Connell’s coaching career followed an outstanding run as a student-athlete on the UW crew team, as she piloted the Huskies to three Pac-10 conference championships and a bronze medal at the NCAA championships. Needless to say, the transition into coaching was seamless, but O’Connell realized over time that she sought a different perspective. 

“Coaching was fun but I really wanted to give back to student-athletes and collegiate sports in general from a bigger stage,” O’Connell said about her decision to exit the realm of coaching. “I wanted to have an impact on more than just one sport, so I decided that a collegiate athletics administrative position would be a good fit for me.”

Along with O’Connell’s aspirations to pursue an administrative career came the understanding that graduate studies were a necessity. O’Connell applied to the Seattle Pacific University sports administration program, attending night school sessions so she could continue her post as a coach at UW.

Two years after completing her master’s degree, O’Connell pursued an opening at SPU after electing to hang up her coaching hat. Up to that point, she had helped guide UW to three NCAA national championships, and the timing of the opening at SPU aligned with O’Connell’s plan to enter the administrative side.

“SPU had a position for assistant athletic director for compliance and senior woman administrator open, and I was lucky enough to get that,” O’Connell said about her first role in collegiate sports outside of coaching. 

When the position of athletic director became vacated in 2008, O’Connell stepped in as an interim before assuming full command of SPU’s program in March of 2009. Since then, O’Connell has worked to address the challenges that face student-athletes on a daily basis, and much of her focus has been on making a personal connection to the people she works with and for.

“Administrators are here first and foremost for the student-athletes, but also to facilitate the needs of our coaches and staff,” O’Connell said regarding her perception of her role. “In a smaller school setting, you have the ability to know student-athletes on a one-on-one basis. You get to travel with teams, watch as they progress and make their journey to graduation, and it is awesome to get to see that.”

While O’Connell tries her best to satisfy the needs of her program, she pointed out several of the key challenges of being a collegiate athletic director as well. “Sometimes you can’t always say yes to everybody, and it does get hard to juggle what is best in the bigger picture,” O’Connell said. “Being a mom is challenging at times as well, but my husband is able to stay at home with our baby and we have been able to make this lifestyle work.”

While she may not have realized it the first time she took command of a crew team, O’Connell’s experience as a coxswain could not have prepared her better for her current role as a director of athletics. Both require impeccable leadership, organizational and team-building skills, traits that have become second-nature throughout O’Connell’s career. 

O’Connell is excited at the opportunity to impart her advice to aspiring young women at the seminar this May, and she will do her best to accurately portray the ups and downs of her career choice. “I want to be able to help with a road map of what you need to do to put yourself in the best position possible,” O’Connell said about her plans for giving advice at the seminar. “Whether its coaching or athletic administration, I plan to be honest and share the positives and negatives of this career choice.”

For more information on the 2014 Women in Sports Career Seminar, visit the “related links” section of this article. To register for the event, click here.