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Leo Lewis

Leo Lewis played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1981-91 and went on to become the team's director of player development for 13 years.

Looking out for student athletes

A Q&A with Leo Lewis, the U's associate athletics director for student athlete development

By Cynthia Scott

June 30, 2006

When the University of Minnesota men's and women's athletics departments merged three years ago, achieving diversity on the staff became one of Athletics Director Joel Maturi's primary goals. Specifically, Maturi wanted a senior staff member who could establish relationships with minority communities in the Twin Cities area as well as work closely with student athletes. Enter Leo Lewis. Lewis (Ph.D. '97) joined the department in December 2005 as associate athletics director for student athlete development, a position that Maturi created to help fulfill his diversity goals for the department.

Lewis holds several advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. He joins the athletics department after 13 years as director of player development for the Minnesota Vikings, a team he played for from 1981-91.

"We wanted to hire a former athlete with the same vision of athletics as we have at the University, who could relate to the student athlete as a whole person," Maturi says. "Leo just rose to the surface and was exactly what we needed."

Lewis talked with Minnesota magazine about his vision for the athletics department and student athletes.

Q: Why is outreach to the wider community important? A: We want to get student athletes, coaches, and staff more connected to the various communities in the Twin Cities as well as the extended community on campus. By exposing youth to educational and athletic opportunities on campus, we hope that when they come of age they will consider the University. So one of the things I've done is to help create a cabinet of leaders within the African American community who can help provide access to organizations in the community as well as give advice on how we can achieve diversity.

It's a big campus and it can be daunting in some respects. What we've found is that we don't have an information channel that's connected to, for instance, the city high schools and the rest of the communities in Minneapolis-St. Paul that's sufficient for telling our story as an athletics department. Q: What is that story? A: That we have student athletes who are dedicated in every way possible and are going to graduate and succeed in life. They will then become ambassadors for the University and the athletics department. Q: Many of the pressures that student athletes face are the same as the pressures every student has. But some are unique. What are those? A: There are some particulars to each sport that you have to be worried about. Some of the pathological stuff, like eating disorders, may not necessarily be an issue for the football team but it might be for wrestling or gymnastics. So there are some sport-specific concerns, but I think generally you're going to find basic competitive concerns that deal with anxiety about getting injured, being away from home and how that affects your competitive play, dealing with teammates and coaches, maintaining your eligibility--those are some of the headliners that are common across all sports. And we can't get away from the overriding fact that sometimes athletes spend a lot of time trying to be the best athlete they can be and tend not to spend enough time on their academic work or looking ahead to their post-college career. Q: How do you view your role in helping student athletes cope with those pressures? A: The number one thing is to embrace them when they get here. They've been launched from their homes; it's the first time they've been out on their own. When they come to the University, it's important to give them a sense that they're going to have all the resources available to be successful. Being successful as students means graduating. Retention is one of the dilemmas that a lot of athletics departments around the country have. Yes, they bring them in and the athletes are able to compete, but they don't have a wonderful experience on campus. My vision includes making sure that these four years that our student athletes have at the University is one of the best experiences of their lives. Q: Do you find that a lot of athletes go into their college careers expecting to go on and become professionals? A: Everyone believes they can be Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Tom Brady or whatever, and it's up to us to help them realize what it's really like. It's good for former elite athletes to give them a reality check as to the odds and to instill in them that you can be successful in sports without being an athlete. That's why I got this job, because I was able to translate what I learned in sports into the work world. Q: As a former pro football player you have a lot of authority in being able to talk to student athletes about that. A: That's a role I love to play. Certainly, I've been there. I didn't go into my college career thinking about going to the next level, because my size and stature weren't really a recipe for success. Plus, my parents were educators and they always embedded in my mind that education was valuable and it came first. So I had the notion of becoming a superintendent or principal or athletics director. And lo and behold, 30 years later, here I am.