Commentary

St. Francis AD had a vision for her future

Updated: September 15, 2008, 8:00 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

When asked what they want to be when they grow up, most kids don't have a clue what they really want to do.

Irma Garcia was different.

While attending Brooklyn's St. Angela Hall high school, where she was a gym rat, she noticed that the school's physical education teacher, Margaret Greco, directed all of St. Angela's sports programs. A bell went off in Garcia's active mind: "God," she thought, "that's what I want to do."

[+] EnlargeIrma Garcia
St. Francis CollegeGarcia is determined to turn the men's and women's basketball programs at St. Francis into winners.

Thirty years later, against significant odds, Garcia has achieved her childhood goal -- and then some. At St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., where Garcia played basketball and later coached, she's become the country's only female Hispanic athletic director in Division I.

"I was shocked when I heard I was the first," she said. "Shocked in a way that I thought there were more Hispanic women directing athletic departments. But it's nice."

Garcia, who's 49, single and beginning her second year as AD, is a high-energy buzz saw with a friendly, open and direct demeanor. She says she feels half her age and then sets out to prove it every day.

"I want to get so much done and so much accomplished. I know it's going to take time, but I'm willing to put in the time," she said during a recent telephone interview. "It was an unbelievable first year."

Anyone who knows Garcia well is not surprised by her can-do attitude.

Brenda Weare, commissioner of the Northeast Conference, of which St. Francis is a member, first met Garcia when she led the search committee for a new commissioner.

"My first impression," she said, "was that Irma was extremely pleasant and competent. I knew right away she was a woman who could handle anything coming her way."

Garcia has always been tenacious, a trait developed growing up in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, home to a hodgepodge of ethnic groups. Her parents were Puerto Rican immigrants who brought up seven girls and a son, each born one year after the other. Irma, the only Garcia child who was athletically inclined, learned her sports on Willamsburg's streets. Slapball, punchball and stickball were her favorites, until the boys saw a tallish girl with a deft, left-handed shot and recruited her for their street basketball team. In street hoops, the "No Standing" sign served as the basket, you could walk with the ball, and most hard fouls were ignored.

[+] EnlargeIrma Garcia
St. Francis CollegeIrma Garcia grew up in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. Her parents were Puerto Rican immigrants who raised seven girls and a son.

By her junior year at St. Angela, she decided to give organized basketball a try. It was tougher than she anticipated. "I didn't really understand the game; I didn't know the rules. I only knew how to play street ball," she said. "But, I really wanted to make the team."

She did, and improved quickly. By Garcia's senior year she made captain and averaged 27 points a game. She recalled a holiday tournament that year, in which she "lit up the place." Soon after, St. Francis offered her a basketball scholarship, something that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. "I jumped at it," Garcia said.

On a good St. Francis team with great shooters, Garcia was told by the coach to change her shot if she wanted to play. "Being a Spanish kid, you always listened to adults, to authority," she said. "When someone says something you got to do it. I changed my shot, but I was never really comfortable with it." So she became a dogged defender, earning herself a starting position.

Five years after she graduated, in 1988, Garcia was asked to direct her former team. At 27, she was one of the country's youngest Division I coaches and, at the time, among a small group of female head coaches.

She recalled frequently walking onto the court with her male assistant to greet their opponent's head coach. He invariably assumed Garcia's assistant was the St. Francis coach -- until the assistant set the coach straight. "I thought, 'Wow! They just assume women can't coach a team or can't move up in administration," Garcia said.

As a coach, Garcia achieved modest success on the court, but her players excelled in the classroom. After 11 years, Garcia had to choose between coaching and the senior women's administrator position she had picked up along the way. Remembering the dream of her youth and having been inspired by the college's three previous athletic directors, she chose the front office. Last year Garcia assumed the top spot and now presides over a staff of 50. Aside from being the only woman Hispanic AD, she's part of a minority of women ADs directing Division I programs. (Currently, the number stands at six among BSC schools, 10 at Division I championship sub-division schools, and 14 at Division I colleges - schools without football programs, like St. Francis - according to the Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators Association.)

Garcia chuckled when reminded of what DePaul's athletic director, Jean Lenti Ponsetto, told the New York Daily News earlier this year: "Athletics is the last testosterone section of the world; it's like you can't be an AD if you haven't worn a football helmet."

When Garcia attends NCAA meetings, she has her own way of dealing with the issue. "Right in the beginning, when they ask a question, I raise my hand just to let them know I'm there," she said. "When you go to [these] meetings you're seeing more and more women, and I love it. We're saying, 'Here we are. We're just as equal as all of you, and we can get the job done.'"

In terms of female sports administrators, the Northeast Conference is the country's most progressive league. Three women -- Garcia, Marilyn McNeil of Monmouth University and Lynne Robinson of Mount St. Mary's University -- direct athletic departments, while Weare is one of two women in the country who serve as league commissioners. The other is Carolyn Schlie Femovich of the Patriot League.

Unlike NCAA meetings, gender equity is not an issue at Northeast Conference gatherings, according to Garcia.

"In our conference, our male counterparts are awesome," she said. "They don't treat us any different."

At the moment, Garcia is too busy to contemplate gender or ethnic issues. She has a Division I program to elevate at a school with 2,300 students. Of St. Francis' 19 sports teams, only soccer, bowling and water polo have shined in recent years. Garcia is determined to turn the school's basketball teams into winners. Last year, the men's and women's programs combined for 16 wins. Another issue: attendance is sparse because the teams play at off-campus arenas throughout the city.

"We have just put a lot of money into the program," said Garcia, "so they can have an opportunity to do well, just like any other school. [Also], we want to play in the best arenas."

She was inspired in March by the achievement of Mount St. Mary's, a smaller school than St. Francis, after The Mount won an NCAA men's basketball tournament game. The thought of her alma mater achieving a similar feat gives Garcia immediate goose bumps.

But it's not all about Ws, as her former players proved. When Garcia talks about her athletes as students, she's serious.

"That's what we're here for, to get them to a better place," she said. "So when they go on to the real world they can contribute."

To that end, she's pushing St. Francis' athletes to perform better in the classroom and in the community, where she believes they, along with the coaches, can help recruit local athletes who may be unfamiliar with the college.

Garcia, a member of the St. Francis athletics hall of fame, sets an impressive example. She's involved in everything from the school's enrollment committee to the president's cabinet.

"It's a family here, and she's a part of that family," said Dennis McDermott, the college alumni director and the only former St. Francis basketball player to have his number retired. "The big thing is her sincerity and the way she works with our student-athletes. It's time consuming, but she makes each and every one feel important."

He believes Garcia's heritage and lofty position will inspire other minority athletes to consider St. Francis, which already has one of the country's most ethnically diverse student bodies, according to McDermott. "To see someone with her background can give them motivation," he said.

If that gives Garcia an edge, that's OK with her. Whatever it takes.

"I look at the bigger picture," she said. "I can't just see black and white. Everything to me is in color. Bright colors. I just see so much more we can do for the student-athletes. So much more I can do for myself. My day is full, and I love it. And I'm not going to stop until I'm successful."

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.