Athletic Director Emeritus Reflects on 23 Years in College Athletics
With more than 23 years as Drexel University’s Director of Athletics — the sixth longest tenure in the nation — Director of Athletics Eric Zillmer, PsyD, stepped down from his position last month after overseeing an extraordinary amount of success, accomplishments and changes at the Drexel Athletics Department.
During Zillmer’s time as athletics director (AD), Drexel Athletics grew in terms of size, shape and success. For physical locations, there was the construction of the Drexel Recreation Center over a decade ago, a partnership with the Bachelors Barge Club on historic Boathouse Row, the transformation of the Philadelphia Armory to host the Arlen Specter US Squash Center, the creation of the Buckley and Vidas bubbles and the renovation of the Vidas Athletic Complex. A new Drexel athletics logo was created during his tenure, and the University was recognized and honored for its gender equity in athletics and the academic achievements of its student-athletes. And as far as success — well, there were national rankings, including those for the men’s and women’s squash teams, and championships in the women’s and men’s basketball; men’s lacrosse, soccer and swimming and diving; women’s field hockey and titles in rowing for the Dad Vail Regatta and Women’s Henley Regatta.
For Zillmer, “Director of Athletics” was just one of the many roles he’s held at the University since he joined Drexel’s faculty in 1988. He’ll now embark upon a year-long sabbatical before returning to the faculty as the tenured Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
What has his experience at Drexel been like? What comes next? Zillmer shared some of his perspectives on his tenure as AD, and revealed his future plans at the University in the below Q&A.
Q: What are your initial thoughts of leaving your post after 23-plus years of service as Drexel’s AD?
A: That there is an amazing beauty in sports. That sports bring together people and shape communities. And that to have a finger on the emotional pulse of our University for so long … well, it has been very much a source of pride and inspiration for me. It has been an absolute privilege to serve as the institution’s AD.
Q: You have had such an amazing run as AD not only in terms of bringing recognition to Drexel but also empowering so many people. How did you do it?
A: First of all, I surrounded myself with an all-star team of coaches and professional staff. That is key, of course.
But when I listen to my own heartbeat, it beats to the rhythm of Mario the Magnificent, our beloved mascot who is named after the late alumnus Mario Masciolli, who was not only a Drexel sports fan, but also a friend and a mentor to me.
And it is his spirit that is very much alive today at Drexel Athletics. Our athletics department has become a national leader in how we position our program by championing our student-athlete experience by, like you say, empowering them as people who strive to be the greatest they can be as students, as athletes, and as caring leaders of tomorrow. That was my “magnetic north,” my moral compass; everything else, including winning and success, then falls into place.
Q: Speaking of success — what are some of your greatest memories over the past decades?
A: Well, I appreciate all of the confidence, generosity and friendship extended to me during my tenure as AD by the many student-athletes, alumni, friends, parents and colleagues I met and worked with. For example, this July we have two Drexel alums competing in the Tokyo Olympics: Gabi Marginean in 3-on-3 basketball (which is making its debut as an Olympic sport) for Romania, and Justin Best, who is rowing for the USA Heavyweight Eight. I know Justin and Gabi well, and am so proud that they used Drexel Athletics as a springboard to reach even greater heights. There are countless other stories of our alums not only of succeeding in the world of sports, but also in business, medicine, science, family … really, every aspect of life.
Q: I know Drexel Dragons would want to hear about some athletic highlights. How about three from the top of your head?
A: OK, in 2007, going into the Syracuse Carrier Dome with men’s basketball and beating the Orange in front of 20,000-plus people. The last two minutes of the game were so loud, and I will never forget how our Dragons felt after the game. I almost never go into the locker room, but I did then, and the team was dancing. The next day I woke up to Drexel basketball being on the cover of the New York Times sports section!
In 2013, the women’s basketball team was playing in the final of the Women's National Invitation Tournament at home versus the University of Utah. Utah missed a three-pointer at the buzzer and the sold-out DAC went crazy: rushing the court, cutting down the nets, mayhem. So proud!
The next year had our men’s lacrosse team beating the University of Pennsylvania in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Franklin Field. We scored three goals in 20 seconds to come back and win. That afternoon I ate in a restaurant in University City and the owner told me it was on the house. Sports can be crazy fun.
Hold on, I can’t stop now! How about our field hockey team advancing to the Elite 8 in 2010 by beating powerhouse UConn? Our squash team besting Penn for the first time in 2016? Winning the Henley Regatta with women’s rowing in England in 2010? A triple-overtime win against Alabama in men’s basketball at Madison Square Garden in 2013? Wrestling beating Iowa State in 2017?
And of course, this year had been a most magical journey with our men and women’s basketball teams and both of our lacrosse teams going to the NCAAs. It was sensational!
Q: Sounds like some high highs. What about the lows?
A: Losing is always hard. You have to dig deep down and try to learn from it. Playing the best teams in the nation is an honor, and it is an opportunity to learn and grow.
The only “good” loss I remember is a friendly between women’s soccer and The People’s Republic of North Korea at the Vidas Athletic Complex in 2003. What a crazy game and opportunity to host North Korea for the World Cup in Philly. We lost 8-0 [laughs] but they were ranked 7th best in the world by FIFA. It was OK to lose to them!
Q: How would you describe last season having to deal with a public health crisis?
A: We all know that this past year has been a year unlike any other. The pandemic constituted a formidable public health crisis, not only globally and for our nation, but COVID also brought significant challenges to higher education as well as intercollegiate athletics. I am very grateful for the University’s response to COVID and how we collectively managed the ongoing crisis.
With a robust COVID strategy in place, there were also opportunities for Drexel Athletics to move forward to practice as well as compete. Our student-athletes, coaches, team doctors and athletic trainers were ready! It was amazing what we were able to accomplish collectively. As you all know, we made a national splash. Both basketball programs won their conference tournaments in spectacular fashion … and went dancing. And so did our men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.
Q: What is the value proposition for Drexel Athletics?
A: Our athletics fields, arenas, courts, pitches, pools and gyms are valued learning spaces, and our coaches are inspiring teachers and mentors. Athletics at a university allows us to celebrate our students at their best by instilling a sense of discipline, pride and emotional intelligence. As a result, collegiate athletics can serve as a catalyst to celebrate openly the competitive spirit of an academic community.
Q: What does the future of Drexel look like?
A: Very bright. Drexel is a wonderful place. There is an amazing spirit here on campus that anything is possible and that the best is yet to come. Our incoming athletic director Maisha Kelly is going to be a rock star. Maisha, a Saint Joseph’s and Temple grad wrote such an elegant piece on returning to her home Philly as part of her journey as a person, an athlete, and now as an athletic director. I know that we will be in good hands as we build on our past success and imagine an even brighter future.
Q: What are your thoughts of the Philadelphia Inquirer writing a story on you being the most interesting man in world?
A: [Laughs] Well they said “contender.” That is one man’s opinion, but the Inky is a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper, so they should know better.
Q: What will you do during your sabbatical and beyond?
A: Besides sports I am drawn to music and art. I would like to use the next year to record a guitar album. So, I can’t wait to get started on that. Also, I have been teaching a course on the psychology of happiness for the Pennoni Honors College over the past year and I would like to put more work into that. What are the ingredients for a long happy and healthy life?
Once I return from my sabbatical, I will teach in the psychology department and I plan to develop the Drexel Global Sport Leadership Solutions Lab — a multidisciplinary think tank designed to understand, in a broad societal context, the lessons of teamwork in sports to transform lives, communities and environments.
And I will be attending Drexel basketball games … as a fan!
Q: Any final words?
A: It has been a heck of a ride! Go USA! Go Dragons! Thank you!