Once an Athlete, Always an Advocate

June 26, 2007

With the tremendous changes that have taken place for women's athletics in the Big Ten Conference over the past 25 years, many people have been called on to not only push the level of competition in female sports, but also to fight for equal attention and support that those programs deserve.  While many people can be thanked for these strides, some who often go unnoticed are the women that have battled behind the scenes, on the administrative side, to make sure the fight for equality never let up.

One devoted advocate who has been involved in many milestones of the past three decades in women's athletics is Joni Comstock.  A coach-turned-administrator, Comstock served two Big Ten universities before making her way to the NCAA where she currently holds the role of senior vice president for championships. 

"There were so many outstanding coaches and administrators in the Big Ten that I think you learn a lot from being around them because there were so many role models readily available to you," Comstock said.

Many changes have been made since Comstock first took the field as a student-athlete herself. With the passing of Title IX and a rising number of sports offered to female athletes, opportunities for women in athletics have continually advanced.

Comstock has not only been a part of these changes, but also many others while serving in multiple roles across the country. 

She grew up prior to most of the benefits of Title IX, but Comstock's parents were very influential in her beginning interest in athletics. 

"One of the early and most significant challenges was overcoming the misconception that girls and women aren't interested or aren't physically capable of participating in sports," Comstock said. "I had strong support to participate in sports and the physical activities that were offered for girls at that time.

"My father, as a member of the school board, was an advocate for girls' sports, and he emphasized public service and the importance of education. And my mother was the most competitive person and biggest sports fan in our family."

For a young Comstock, that meant participating in swimming, tennis, softball and then other high school programs as she got older, including volleyball, where she found much of her prep and collegiate success.

Her professional career began as a multi-sport coach at Lincoln College (1979-83) in Illinois where she worked with the volleyball, men's tennis and women's basketball teams.  Comstock thought back to her parents' influence on her decision to pursue sports as well as education.

"My initial professional interests were in teaching and education," she said. "Then I certainly thought, `Well, if I am going to teach, why not coach as well.'

"It was the desire to provide leadership at a broader level and an interest in all aspects of helping student-athletes experience a quality intercollegiate athletics program," Comstock said of her move from the sidelines into administration.

Comstock's ambition for change was sparked in the Big Ten Conference, where she first served as assistant athletics director at the University of Illinois from 1983-89. She first ventured to Illinois with hopes of finishing her doctorate in higher education administration when she was given the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant for mentor Dr. Karol Kahrs, a former Illini associate athletic director.

"What she did for me, beyond all things, was give me a broad and in-depth look at all aspects of intercollegiate athletics," Comstock said. "I had the opportunity to sit in many conference and national meetings, and I was involved in almost every aspect of the athletic program while at Illinois.  I am also proud of the fact that I volunteered a lot and even if it wasn't a specific area that was part of my responsibilities -- whether it was helping out at a football game or with fundraising or summer camps -- I was willing to do that because I wanted the experience and opportunity to meet as many people as I could. It turned out to be very beneficial for me."

During her stint in Champaign, Comstock was responsible for the marketing, promotions and special events campaigns. She also assisted with compliance issues and supervised summer camps and clinics for all sports. 

The Big Ten atmosphere proved to be a perfect fit for Comstock's dual passion for athletics and academics. When the chance to advance in her career presented itself, Comstock was eager to take on an opportunity that allowed her to stay within the conference. In 1989, she traveled less than 100 miles west to join Purdue as the senior associate athletics director.

"Illinois had been great and moved me along, but Purdue offered me the opportunity to work directly with coaches and student-athletes in sport programs, which was my primary interest," Comstock said.

For more than a decade in West Lafayette, Comstock led the marketing and promotional plans for women's basketball. Her strategies helped notch attendance rankings as high as second in the nation. She was also instrumental in developing on-court success, propelling the women's basketball program to a new level, which included the historic 1999 season in which the Boilermakers won the school's first-ever national championship.

"I am so grateful to have had a hand in providing the leadership under a new director of athletics, Morgan Burke, to improve all sports programs for women, build facilities and establish the women's programs at Purdue as successful ones," said Comstock.

While at Purdue, Comstock also influenced the careers of those around her, including Nancy Cross, the current senior women's administrator at Purdue who worked under Comstock during her tenure. Cross echoes her mentor's feelings about the evolution of women's athletics.

Current Purdue Senior Women's Administrator Nancy Cross started out much like her predecessor and mentor Joni Comstock. 

"I am thrilled with the changes that have occurred in women's intercollegiate athletics," said Cross.  "The support, the resources, the visibility are all outstanding and positive changes."

Cross was also eager to boast about the tremendous energy Comstock brought to the programs.

"It was great to have another advocate for our women's athletics programs, another female colleague and a woman with tremendous credibility in athletics administration leading our program," said Cross.  "Joni has been and continues to be a great role model for me."

Comstock's experience makes her a natural mentor for Cross, who had a similar path to her position in college athletics and at Purdue. Much like Comstock, Cross was first a multi-sport coach, serving as a volunteer assistant for both the Purdue basketball and field hockey teams.  Over the next 10 years, she advanced to an assistant coaching role before taking on the head coaching position for field hockey.  Despite the team's success and her honor as Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1987, the field hockey program was later dropped.

But for Cross, she never saw the door closing on her coaching career. Instead, she used this turn of events to move toward her ultimate goal as an administrator.

"Knowing that my terminal goal was to be an athletics director, this was a fantastic opportunity to begin acquiring those requisite skills and experiences for athletics administration," said Cross.

Cross continued her career at Purdue in the area of development and fundraising before moving into her current role as a senior associate athletics director, a position that also distinguishes her as Purdue's senior woman administrator.

While both women point out the great strides that have been made for women's collegiate competition, they also note that certain areas are still lacking and in need of improvement.

"I would like to see women's athletics become more financially credible," said Cross.  "While we have come a long way and are generating revenue, we are not yet self-supporting."

Comstock added that she would like to see more women continue to advance their careers in the profession. As June marks the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the number of female administrators in college athletics has dropped significantly compared to when the law had first passed. But both Comstock and Cross have created perfect examples of why their perspectives are so vital.

The efforts of these former student-athletes have not gone unnoticed.  Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke has expressed extreme gratitude for their hard work and dedication.

"Joni and Nancy were both intimately involved in Purdue's move toward equity in the 80's and early 90's," said Burke. "Not only did they do their jobs well but they fostered a spirit of fairness while embracing the fact that change is hard. They were both tireless in listening to all sides and working to find common ground. You have to admire these two who never lost faith or sight of the value of intercollegiate athletics for women and for men."

After nearly 25 years of working in a campus environment, which included stints as athletics director of UNC-Asheville (2000-03) and American University (2003-06), Comstock was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime when longtime women's athletics advocate Judy Sweet retired from the NCAA.

"I really anticipated that I would stay [on campus] for the remainder of my career," Comstock explained. "But this was just an extraordinary opportunity for me to really serve intercollegiate athletics and student-athletes at a completely different level, to truly have a national impact on their experience and their lives."

In her new position at the NCAA, Comstock oversees all 84 championships and serves a membership of more than 1,000 institutions.

Now in her position with the national office, Comstock oversees 84 championships each year, in addition to supervising the statistics and playing rules staffs and all championships administrators. She has also served on the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee and was the chair of the committee during her final term in 2006.

It was in honing her experience in the Big Ten that Comstock knew the opportunities for her career were limitless.

"Without a doubt, the Big Ten as a conference and the institutions within it are leaders in intercollegiate athletics," said Comstock. "In many ways, to see cutting edge ideas, it was a tremendous benefit to me. There is a solid foundation of values within the Big Ten related to the support and development of student-athletes, academics, integrity and, of course, extremely competitive athletic programs. The Big Ten offers all of those things and it is a great place to learn."

It was Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany who helped Comstock open the door to her role on the NCAA Basketball Committee when he nominated her during her final year at Purdue. Since her time on the committee, many things have changed, including increased national exposure with the development of television deals and higher attendance rates.

"I think without a doubt the quality of the teams and student-athletes has grown incredibly," said Comstock. "We're definitely seeing more parity in women's basketball. I don't think it's quite as deep as we'd like it to be, but the parity is really increasing."

Even at this stage of her career, Comstock enjoys constantly learning and challenging herself. At the NCAA, for example, she had to switch gears from her two-plus decades of campus involvement to working with a membership that includes more than 1,000 institutions.

While Comstock - and Cross much like her - continues to build on her own career by serving student-athletes, she also continues to build a model for the many female administrators who will follow in her footsteps.

"I think the thing that has been the most exciting is realizing the impact you can make at the national office, by going around the country and seeing the incredible benefits and positive impact that intercollegiate athletics truly makes on this country," Comstock said.  "We have nearly 400,000 student-athletes who are participating in NCAA athletics every year, and to think that you are doing something to impact that number of people and their parents and families, it's just very gratifying."