When Marie Tuite was growing up and even early into her career, she never thought she would be where she is today: Heading up the athletic department of a Division I FBS school that just won its first-ever conference championship in football.

“I didn’t see a path of opportunity,” she said. “There were so few women managing athletic programs, in particular in college.”

But nearly four years into her job at San Jose State, Tuite is about to make history, alongside Ball State director of athletics Beth Goetz and Offerpad Arizona Bowl executive director Kym Adair.

Thursday marks the first time a bowl game will feature two female ADs and a female bowl director.

The odds were stacked against the matchup. Just 11 women are currently working as athletic directors at 130 FBS schools. That’s less than 9%.

When you combine that with the fewer than 7% of women who are executive directors of bowl games — only three out of 45 — the odds are even longer.

‘Important to get the message out’

The matchup is further proof that the glass ceiling in college athletics is cracking, said Adair, who has been heading up the Arizona Bowl since its second year.

“I think that it’s so exciting, and the best part about it is it happened organically,” Adair said. “I think that’s a great story for women to know. There are lots of women in sports leadership and starting to converge. There are spaces for everyone that loves sports.”

Adair grew up watching Minnesota Vikings games with her father, a St. Paul native. Her family roots for the Cleveland Indians, follows Nick Foles wherever his career takes him and loves to watch hockey. Like most Tucsonans, Adair is also a big fan of college basketball.

Even with her deep-seated roots in sports fandom, she didn’t initially plan on a career in sports. When the Arizona Bowl board asked her if she’d be interested in taking over as executive director, Adair — a former executive at Nova Home Loans — jumped.

“I love football, I love college football and I love everything that the bowl stands for — especially our bowl, which is so community-centered and focused,” Adair said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and there are lots of moving parts that go into putting on a huge event of this scale, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Adair can’t wait for the day when women in sports leadership is the norm.

Still, she knows how far the industry has come.

Kim Ng made headlines this summer when she was named the Miami Marlins’ general manager, becoming the first woman in major American sports to hold the role.

This fall, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller made history as the first woman to play and score in a major college football game.

“So many women interested in sports don’t think there’s a spot for them at the table,” Adair said. “It’s important to get the message out that there is.”

Adair said that while she’s enjoyed meeting ADs from the previous teams involved with the bowl, this year is even more special. She’s proud to be part of an event that shows girls and women there’s a place for them in sports, but also has some advice for them in their pursuits.

“Never give up and know that you’re as qualified as the person next to you,” she said. “You deserve all that should come to you when you put in the hours and hard work and blood, sweat and tears necessary to do a good job.”

Beth Goetz has been Ball State’s director of athletics since 2018. She calls this year’s Arizona Bowl a bright spot in a stressful year. Courtesy of Ball State University

‘At the end of the day, you need champions’

Ball State’s Goetz caught the soccer bug at an early age, saying her parents loved sports and gave her family the opportunity to try different ones out as a kid.

“Soccer became my calling and I had the opportunity to play in college,” Goetz said. “I fell into sports as a work path and journey, but it wasn’t the original plan. Now it’s all I know.”

Goetz played soccer for Brevard College and at Clemson while earning her bachelor’s degree, and in 1996 took a job as assistant women’s soccer coach at University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she was attending grad school for counseling.

She took over as head coach of UMSL’s soccer team, and held the position until 2008. While she was still coaching, she was named assistant athletic director and senior women’s administrator, holding that title from 2001 until she left.

Goetz’s degrees have come in handy over the years. She held second-in-command positions in athletic departments at Butler and Minnesota from 2008-15, then spent a year as interim AD at Minnesota before taking over as the chief operating officer for UConn’s athletic department.

In June 2018, she was named Ball State’s athletic director. A week ago, the school won its first Mid-American Conference championship in 24 years.

Goetz calls the win and the team’s upcoming Arizona Bowl appearance a bright spot in an otherwise stressful year.

“I’m thrilled, and to do that with two incredible leaders like Marie and Kym is a really wonderful culmination of events,” Goetz said. “In any context I would be excited, but to be charged to lead in such a challenging year and to end with a bright spot is a little sweeter.”

Goetz said people are her favorite part of the job. She loves engaging with student-athletes and seeing their successes on and off the field.

“It’s always about the people and the ways it can impact them individually,” Goetz said. “Sport is one of those unifying factors in that it can bring people together.”

While she’s excited to take the field with Adair and Tuite, Goetz said work still needs to be done to increase the representation of women and people of color.

“At the end of the day you need champions. Those can be people and organizations. They can be sport entities themselves,” Goetz said. “It’s about how do we grow and prepare who the next generation of leaders are going to be. We all have a role and a responsibility to play in that.”

Marie Tuite has been San Jose State’s athletic director since May 2017. Since that time, the number of female ADs has increased by two. Courtesy of San Jose State University

‘We’re presidents of each other’s fan clubs’

Since Tuite was named SJSU’s athletic director in May 2017, the pool of women who hold the position has only grown by two.

“That’s puzzling and disappointing,” Tuite said. “But the longer I sit in the job, it’s not easy being in these chairs.”

Tuite played field hockey and basketball at Central Michigan before women’s athletics were officially recognized by universities due to Title IX, a 1972 law that prevents gender discrimination in education and athletics at schools that receive federal funding.

In 1990, Tuite became the third female inductee into Central Michigan’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in physical education and a master’s in athletic administration, Tuite spent some time coaching before moving over to the administration side in 1981.

She started as director of women’s athletics programs and activities at Alma College in Michigan, then was named assistant AD at Cal.

“I knew higher education was where I wanted to be,” said Tuite, a first-generation college graduate from a family of seven children. “At my core, I’m a teacher. Education and being affiliated with institutions of higher learning has always been important.”

She spent five years working for the NCAA before returning to a college athletics in 1994 as senior associate AD at Washington.

In 2010, she was hired as San Jose State’s senior associate athletic director and the athletic department’s chief operating officer. Before being named athletic director in 2017, she held the positions of deputy director of athletics/internal operations, senior woman administrator and interim athletic director in both 2012 and 2017.

“If I could, I’d tell my younger self to have more confidence that I could become an athletic director,” Tuite said.

Tuite said she’s been fortunate to have had male coworkers who included her in the decision making process. The actual work of being an athletic director never took her by surprise. There were, however, other surprises that came with the job.

“The biggest surprise is that you spend a lot more time worrying,” Tuite said, adding that those worries include finances, student-athlete welfare and providing equitable opportunities.

Tuite said the mentors she’s encountered along the way — both women and men — have been crucial to her success.

“Most of my mentors are men, but you need both genders to help guide you through this wonderful profession of athletics,” Tuite said. “You have to have individuals in your life that you can turn to.”

She said the “sorority” of FBS-level female athletic directors is a tight one and that when Goetz got the job, the first thing she did after sending a congratulatory email was write the group’s newest member a hand-written note.

“We’re presidents of each other’s fan clubs. We’re cheering for each other and we’re there for each other when speed bumps come up,” Tuite said.

“And they do. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. There’s a collegiality amongst us that I’m just so thankful for.”

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt.

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