Building a Championship Culture

A few months into serving in his new role, Director of Athletics John Shackelford shares his vision for the future of Sewanee athletics.

One of the most successful coaches in University history, longtime Head Men’s Tennis Coach John Shackelford was tapped to lead Sewanee’s Department of Athletics, beginning in November 2021. Shackelford succeeded Mark Webb, who retired after 26 years as director of athletics.

Shackelford had been serving as Sewanee’s director of tennis for three-plus years after leading the men’s tennis program for 33 seasons. During his tenure as coach, the men’s tennis team won 551 career matches and 12 conference titles, and made 16 appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Shackelford’s wife, Conchie, is the head coach of the Sewanee women’s tennis team, and together the duo has combined to win more than 1,100 matches, earned 26 conference championships and 43 invitations to the NCAA Tournament, and they have had players named as All-Americans more than 60 times. 

We sat down with “Coach Shack” to find out how his experience as a successful Division III coach would inform his leadership of the department, to ask about the future of athletics at Sewanee, and to learn how a mouse in a swimming pool might tell us something about how to treat college student-athletes.

Why are sports important at a school like Sewanee?

 Athletics are part of the educational experience for our students. It’s the classroom where you learn about discipline, dedication, commitment, and collaborating with others, and those are all lessons that serve people well the rest of their lives.

Academic rigor and the unique community experience are the top draws for students choosing Sewanee, but they also have a life outside the walls of the classroom, and I believe athletics is a really meaningful part of that. Student-athetes build relationships with their coaches that last a lifetime. Our coaches are with their student-athletes almost every day of the year for four years. Those mentor relationships become part of the overall educational experience, and I believe that’s the most attractive part of coming to Sewanee and being an athlete—being part of a tight-knit family, having your best friends for life as teammates, and having a coach who serves beyond the lines of the field.

I was returning from Virginia the other day with the women’s tennis team. I get a ding on my phone and it’s a picture of a one-year-old baby in its mother’s arms. They’re both smiling, the baby couldn’t have been cuter, and they’ve taken the photo so it looks like the baby is holding a tennis racket. That mother lost her way for a brief moment and had to leave Sewanee her freshman year. I remember standing out in the Quad with her—it’s cold, it’s foggy and rainy, just the worst possible moment—when she had to call her father and say “I’m leaving Sewanee. Come pick me up.” I thought I’d never see her again, but she came back a year later. Then, when she was a senior, she won the clinching match in the conference championship. Now she has a baby and a terrific husband, she’s got a master’s degree and a great job. I would say that the transformational experience is my favorite part of athletics, watching these young people grow and mature.

You’ve been on the job for a few months now. What has surprised you about your new role and what about it is exactly what you expected?

What has surprised me about the job is the number of hours required to get things done. All of those are enjoyable hours—I’m doing things that I love, and if I were a younger man with young children at home, I don’t think I could have pulled this off. What I enjoy most about this job, which is exactly what I expected, is working with the coaches and helping them with their particular issues with their sports and seeing similarities between what I’ve done in the past and what they’re dealing with now.

Have you found that you’ve been able to do the things you wanted to do when you took the job? 

For us to achieve what I would like to achieve will require a great deal of investment in athletics. This building [the Fowler Center] was built in 1994. It needs an overhaul for this century, and we’re going to have to make an investment in it. This is the front porch of Sewanee athletics, and we need it to be appealing and useful to our prospective students—whether they’re athletes or not—who are coming to visit and decide if they want to be at Sewanee. That’s going to take a commitment to our facilities. 

We have 24 athletic teams. This place has grown since I began coaching here in 1986. Almost 40% of our students are athletes. We need to address facility needs for all of our teams—things like our football /lacrosse stadium and fieldhouse, things like an extra turf field to practice on and an additional basketball/volleyball court.

We also have to brand the Sewanee Tigers and tell the story of our successes. We’re going to begin that process inside the Fowler Center, but we’d like to see the narrative of the Sewanee Tigers written across this campus. We want students walking into McClurg knowing that this is the purple, white, and gold and that being a Tiger is a source of pride. I took my daughter up to Middlebury College, and when you drive on campus, up on a big hill there’s a giant panther statue sticking out over the campus. We want Tiger pride to spread across the 13,000 acres. We’d like to see more of our students at our athletic contests and we want to make it a fun to place to be and for them to support their friends and classmates.

What can you do to get more students at the games?

For one, it’s a matter of success. We want to make our teams more successful because people like to buy into winning experiences. We also have to pay attention to things that make it a fun experience. Over the last couple of basketball games, we had bubble soccer at halftime. We bought some big bubbles and we had the kids out there playing against each other and knocking each other over. It was a lot of fun. We had a student-athlete appreciation day at a basketball game recently. It was the biggest crowd we’ve had in a long time for a Sunday afternoon game. The students got some free T-shirts, there were halftime contests, things like that. All of our teams came out to support the basketball team. We hope to have some cookouts this spring at baseball and softball games and have reasons for students to come out.

You and Conchie have had great success coaching Sewanee’s tennis teams. What lessons from your experience can you apply to help other Sewanee teams compete to win championships?

It begins with great players. There’s no doubt that players win championships, not coaches. Conchie and I have been really, really fortunate to have a number of talented, successful players who have made our career. We’ve also been fortunate through the longevity of our program to have alumni support to help us to build great facilities. We have indoor and outdoor tennis centers, which is exceptional, and that helps our teams a great deal.

Another thing that we have tried to do is create a family atmosphere and to build a real supportive culture. All of our teams are doing that in their own way, but when you have a winning culture, when you have a process where student-athletes support one another, when you have the support of alumni who are still members of the family and their legacy is still a chapter in the story, those are the kinds of things that we want to achieve across the entire department.

For me personally, it takes daily conversations with the coaches, seeing where they are, seeing what I can do to help. That may come in the form of a suggestion. That may come in the form of a needed investment in a program. That may come in the form of me helping to call families and recruits and weigh in with my experience. We have 24 sports and I want to be involved with every single one of them.

What can you do to recruit the best athletes?

It’s a matter of our coaches getting out on the road and presenting their vision. We work hand-in-hand with the Office of Admission and I think we do really well. I have a great relationship with [Dean of Admission] Alan Ramirez and I know that he will support us 100% in attracting bright and talented kids to Sewanee. We have head coaches and assistant coaches for all of our 24 sports, and we want to get them out on the road spreading the gospel of Sewanee athletics.

How has the University’s commitment to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of every admitted student affected recruiting?

It’s vitally important. If a coach is out there and knows that every student who is academically capable of being successful at Sewanee has access to come to Sewanee, then it makes our pool a lot deeper. It’s a wonderful opportunity for students who have a desire to come get the education we offer and compete athletically as a bonus.

Tell us about the strategic plan for athletics that was recently announced.

It’s a way for everyone in this department to have a part of the vision so it’s not just John Shackelford’s vision. It’s the Department of Athletics’ vision. We’ve asked Michele Dombrowski, who is our head women’s lacrosse coach, to chair the committee for the strategic plan. She has enlisted coaches to work on committees for operating budgets, for salaries, to look at how need-based financial aid and merit-based scholarships affect our recruiting. Recruitment is a big part of what we’re doing, so that’s a major part of the strategic plan. We have several coaches who are looking at our facilities, not only how we can repair what we have, but to envision what we can add to make this a more efficient and more competitive institution.

Is it a five-year plan? A 10-year plan?

I’m not a patient person, so it would be hard for me to wait 10 years to see this play out. It involves things as simple as the grout in the tile in our showers in the locker rooms—can we fix that tomorrow? The paint on our lockers—can we fix that tomorrow? And it goes into bigger-picture items like a new football/lacrosse stadium fieldhouse. If that project is to happen, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s a long-term planning project. All of our facilities—baseball and softball locker rooms, a new soccer field with locker rooms—all of those are big-ticket items that will take some time. Maybe five to seven years? But I can’t say that I’m patient enough to wait that long. If we pull together, there are no limits to what Sewanee athletics can achieve.

A lot of attention is focused on the football program. What can be done to restore a winning tradition in the program?

I 100% believe that anything you do, you can do well. It takes an evaluation, an assessment, an examination of what’s happening—the good and the bad. I am confident that we have quality coaches here. These guys are hard-working, they’re smart, they’re creative, and they will get it done. A facility is part of that process because it helps attract students to come, and it helps students to balance their lives. I think an examination of our recruiting, how we can bring more students into the funnel, how we can go find a higher level of student-athlete who can really compete on the field is also part of it. Meeting full need is a huge part of that, and I think that’s going to be paying dividends in the coming years. But I also think it’s about team culture. Once you’re in a funk, once you’re in a tailspin, with any team it takes time and effort to climb out of that and to build that winning culture where everybody believes in each other. We’re on the right track. I think [Head Coach] Travis [Rundle] is doing a great job with team culture. We have some incredible young football players coming in next year. I believe that the future is bright, and we’re going to keep working at it every day.

How do you get people to invest in what you’re trying to do?

I think it’s easy, actually. The faculty captures our students’ minds, and our coaches capture their hearts. Our alumni base loves Sewanee, and they love the athletic experiences they’ve had here. We just have to reach out and tell our story. I think people really want to invest in this, and we just have to give them a good reason to.

What can students, faculty, staff, alumni, and Sewanee families do to support Sewanee athletics?

It comes in a lot of different forms. I’ve talked about investments of money, but it also comes in just caring. Student-athletes need to know that you care. I like to tell this story about a psychology experiment where a guy gets a mouse, and he goes out in the center of Lake Michigan in a boat. He puts the little guy down in the water, and he times him to see how long he's going to tread water before he runs out of gas and goes down below the surface. He lasts four minutes. Then he takes him to a swimming pool and the sides are only 10 or 20 feet away, so the mouse can see all the edges of the pool. He puts him down, and the mouse goes four times as long; he goes over 20 minutes. So, what he hypothesizes is that when there’s hope, you can go longer. I think that’s what support in athletics does—support from me, support from our parents, support from our faculty. When our student-athletes can look over to the sidelines and see that somebody cares and is providing hope for them, they can go better, longer, stronger, and that’s what I want to provide for them.