A Love of Sports and of Leading the Way

University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Kelly Mehrtens is part of a small but growing club of women athletic directors at Division I schools.

When self-professed “sportaholic” Kelly Mehrtens was chosen from more than 300 applicants to be the director of athletics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), she became one of a few Black women to lead a Division I athletic department. Mehrtens was a student-athlete at the University of Alabama, and her route to collegiate athletic administration was closely tied to her bachelor’s degree in commerce and business administration.

After graduating from Alabama in 1986, she trained in the discus at the University of Florida in the hope of making the 1988 Olympic team. When her competitive days were winding down, Mehrtens assumed she’d take a job in an accounting firm. It was a random question from the senior women’s sports administrator at Florida, Ann Marie Rogers, that set her on the career path at which she’s excelled for nearly two decades.

“She asked, ‘Do you have any interest in getting into athletic administration?’” says Mehrtens, 44, who began her UNCW position in July 2007. “I’ll never forget my response. It was, ‘I don’t want to coach.’ She said athletic administration was changing, and schools are looking for more specialized people.”

In addition to understanding what takes place on the fields of play, athletic administration involves financial decision-making, and in the late 1980s college and university athletic departments began to hire more people who combined both skill sets. Mehrtens’ first job was as special assistant to the director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and as assistant athletic director in NU’s women’s athletic department. NU is in Boston, and immediately Mehrtens was confronted with “the constant variety of sports.”

“They had ice hockey. I’m from the South. I hadn’t really seen ice hockey or ever been on any kind of skates. Didn’t understand the terminology. Or crew. Or field hockey,” she says. She embraced the chance to learn about each of these sports and to understand what funny words like coxswain meant.

As she progressed in her career — going from NU to the University of Miami to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a master’s degree in education, to the University of Kansas — her jobs encompassed both women’s and men’s sports. At Illinois, her senior management duties included overseeing the creation of a softball program and construction of a $1.7 million softball facility in Champaign.

“A lot of times people would say, ‘Oh, you’re the finance person for women’s sports,’” Mehrtens says. “I’d say, ‘No, I oversee all sports.’ ‘Everything but football, right?’ ‘No, football too.’ People were astonished by that. A lot of it is the glass ceiling that’s always talked about. We’ve had some cracks to that ceiling with Debbie Yow at Maryland, Sandy Barber of Cal and Lisa Love at Arizona State.”

Despite the progress, Mehrtens notes that there has never been a Black female athletic director at a school that plays IA football. UNCW does not have a football team, but the Seahawks play 14 intercollegiate sports in the Colonial Athletic Association.

“I’m a big proponent of conversation,” she says. “In order to get the playing field more equitable — I don’t use the term level — but to get it more equitable, the conversations need to continue to happen.

“There are more female athletic directors in the country than there were three years ago. Does that mean the conversation should stop? No, but at the same time we should acknowledge the fact it is improving, but we can’t stop here.”

A vital part of Mehrtens’ vision for the UNCW athletic department is an emphasis on the student part of student-athlete. Officials have raised $1.5 million in the last year for an academic center for student-athletes they hope to open within five years. The center will house a computer lab, academic spaces, tutoring area, locker rooms and offices.

“She brings a wonderful background in collegiate athletics to the position and, without question, will provide outstanding leadership for our growing program,” said UNCW Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo upon announcing Mehrtens’ appointment.

Not everyone agreed. In an article in StarNewsOnline. com on July 3, 2007, sports columnist Neil Amato wrote, “One UNCW fan, residing in the anonymity of a message board, wrote that Wilmington wasn’t ready for a Black female AD. Another wrote that Mehrtens automatically had two strikes against her.

“Those folks hadn’t seen Mehrtens at her news conference Monday. They didn’t hear the ovation she received, 24 seconds long, when DePaolo introduced her. They made assumptions about Mehrtens, just because she beat out two accomplished, White-male finalists.

“Kelly Mehrtens is not the Black woman who happened upon the AD job at UNCW. She is the AD because of who she is. A vibrant, competitive leader.”

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