How to Become an Athletic Director

Clay Scarborough
Clay Scarborough
High school principal; M.A. in Education, principal certification
The head coach, holding a megaphone, watches a soccer game.

Let’s start with a profile of an educator:

  • After a few years of successfully running a classroom (discipline and instructionally)
  • Success on the field in coaching (head-coaching experience preferred)
  • Demonstrating the ability to lead and coach (students and colleagues), and understanding how athletics fits into the educational purpose of the institution

This person could follow the leadership path into being an athletic director at the secondary or higher education level.

What Does an Athletic Director Do?

The answer to the question above really depends on the level at which an athletic director works.

At the smaller school secondary or high school level the Athletic Director is likely also a head coach. For example, in Texas, often this is the head football coach or basketball coach (mens or womens). On more rare occasions, your athletic director will be a volleyball or baseball/softball coach. This is also the case at smaller colleges also, where your athletic director will be coaching and leading the department.

At your larger districts at the secondary level, you could likely have one person in an athletic director position along with an assistant or two. The same follows with the size of the college. Keep in mind the range of this leadership position goes from a small “one A” size school district all the way up to a multi-million dollar program in the largest school districts. This would apply also to the colleges that go from schools that may only have four or five sports to the college powerhouses that play on Saturday in front of thousands and on television with millions of fans watching.

What are Common Athletic Director Responsibilities?

In between all of these wide ranging sizes of programs are the similarities of the position. Athletic directors have budgets to manage, parents and students who need leading, coaching and managing, and the plans to grow their programs.

All of these programs have to be consistently developing their student athletes from the time they first put pads on at the middle level to the time they graduate from high school. Or at the college level from the time they make that first contact to a recruit to the time they get drafted to the professional levels or graduate with a degree. At most colleges, this is one of the most important parts of the program, graduating students with degrees so these students can make a living as most of their student athletes will not be professional athletes.

An athletic director has to find a way to be fair with limited budgets and still be compliant with Title IX requirements, as well. Title IX requires that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports.

Athletic directors also need to have an active plan in place that will develop their student-athletes into the athletes they envision them becoming. Will your school have a broad athletic program that focuses on the athletic development of a player (multi-sport athletes) or will it focus more on the skills needed in each sport?  What football plays will the middle school run so when they get to high school the players will already have an idea of what the offense or defense will look like?

Other responsibilities can include the money these programs bring in at varsity and junior varsity games, the payment of referees, who gets to run the concession stands, how often each team will get new uniforms, and the securing of money at games. This goes all the way up to the college athletic directors that manage multi-million programs with television deals and marketing opportunities.

How Much Do Athletic Directors Make?

Secondary/high school:

For secondary/high school athletic directors this has a very large range, mainly due to the impact of the size of school or district where you coach.

Three different searches pulled up the average salary of $61,000.  This is somewhat believable when considering the average for secondary schools ranging from very small schools (around 100 students) to larger schools (close to 2,000 students). Based on my experience in Texas, I would think that average would be around $70,000, but the research I found was for the nation. More often than not, except for the largest of districts, these athletic directors are also head coaches. Districts will likely give an extra bonus for having a master’s degree.

Higher education:

The average salary concerning higher education was noticeably higher.  Many websites reported from an average of $111,000 to $129,000. At smaller colleges, often these athletic directors are coaching a team also. Some schools may have a Fall athletic director and a Spring athletic director due to the responsibilities of coaching and being an athletic director at the collegiate level.

I believe this national average is inflated a little by the largest colleges where there are television deals and 100,000 people at each game. At these schools, the athletic director deals more with coaching personalities, financial deals, and media issues.

How to Become an Athletic Director

In most cases, there is a fairly predictable route to becoming an athletic director: coach for a while, show the ability to lead people, manage budgets, and build programs. Head coaching experience is especially preferred so that you can help guide other head coaches as they grow in their career and face issues with budgets, parents, etc. I know of one coach that never was a head coach, but after 20 years became an athletic director at a small school district.

Athletic directors also need to be able to work with superintendents, other athletic directors, parents, trainers and principals. In higher education, this would be working with presidents and provosts, etc. As in every job, the ability to communicate your vision and expectations and work with others often separates the good athletic directors from the great athletic directors.

There are some rare situations where, especially at larger schools (secondary and higher education) where a person with a business background will take on the role of an athletic director, but this is a rare situation.

A strong athletic director has the ability to add value to student-athletes and schools at every level, understand how athletics can help students grow, and how athletics are a central piece of a school and district.

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