The over-arching hallmark of St. Michael’s College athletics in the 70 years since World War II has been continuity. In that seven-decade span, the school has had only three athletic directors.
Kenny’s challenge is to maintain the top-of-the-charts academic success of Purple Knight athletes while enabling them to be more successful in the ultra-competitive Northeast-10 Conference, arguably the toughest Division II league in the country.
St. Michael’s has finished in the top five of 313 Division II schools the last seven years in the NCAA’s Academic Success Rate, which in D-II charts the graduation percentage of both scholarship and non-scholarship athletes.
In 2014-15, SMC’s number was 98 percent, which tied for fourth nationally and outstrips the national average of 71 percent. The Purple Knights have topped the NE-10 in the ASR rankings for the past six years.
But the numbers on the field aren’t pretty. Competing with dramatically fewer resources than all of its league rivals, St. Michael’s has finished last or next to last in the overall conference standings seven consecutive years.
“We are extremely proud of our academic success and there are so many things that we are doing currently that would be the envy of other schools,” Kenny said. “But I would love to see us be more competitive on the field and provide that satisfying experience for our student-athletes.”
Kenny has spent the last 29 years at St. Michael’s since arriving as a freshman in 1982. He served as the school’s sports information director after graduation before moving into athletic administration as an assistant, and then associate director of athletics. He earned his master’s degree at SMC in 1998.
“Chris bleeds purple,” said long-time field hockey coach Carla Hesler. “I am so looking forward to his leadership. He is very calm, he has always been there for the coaches and he is very in-tune with the student-athlete.”
When Knortz announced her decision to retire last year, St. Michael’s hired a Massachusetts firm that specializes in intercollegiate athletics to conduct a national search. The SMC search committee reviewed roughly 25 candidates, cut that number to eight, and brought three outside applicants and Kenny in for interviews.
“While we were all thinking of Chris, intercollegiate athletics are a big part of St. Michael’s culture and environment and we felt it was important to see who was out there,” said committee chair Mike New, vice president for human resources. “But Chris really was able to put his mark on his vision for St. Michael’s going forward and really distinguished himself. We realized we had the right person right here, right now.”
Northeast-10 commissioner Julie Ruppert has known Kenny since she was an undergraduate at Middlebury College. She worried that the school’s familiarity with him would work against his candidacy.
“Having been through this, I know that the top lieutenant doesn’t always get a fair shake from a search committee,” Ruppert said. “More often that not, the internal candidate doesn’t get the nod. I was pleased beyond belief when Chris was named. He understands the values of the institution and lives them. He understands the culture and sees the big picture. He sees what SMC can be.”
For Kenny, the interview process demanded he change his customary approach.
“I am a very institutional guy and very dedicated to serving the students while staying behind the scenes,” he said. “That was my job, to help make things work without being on the front lines. I had to come out of that and try to really make myself known, what my views are and what my voice might sound like.”
Shifting into the big leagues
The Northeast-10 bears little resemblance to the league St. Michael’s joined in 1987. It began as the Northeast-8 and now includes 15 full members (it was as high as 16 earlier this century). Since 1994, the NE-10 has won 19 NCAA Division II national team championships, spread across seven and among 10 schools. It has also won 16 individual titles in track and swimming.
What began as a conference that would offer athletic scholarships only in men’s and women’s basketball has morphed into a league that offers 24 sports, including football, and allows the NCAA maximum athletic grants-in-aid in all of them.
St. Michael’s is the only conference member that still adheres to the basketball-only scholarship dictum. Its 21 other sports compete without any athletic grants-in-aid, essentially making SMC a Division III program competing at the Division II level in everything save basketball.
“They are firmly opposed to using an athletic scholarship as the driving reason to bring a student to St. Michael’s,” Ruppert said. “I don’t have an answer for how they move forward if they continue to hold that philosophy.”
Kenny said, “We are an institution that rewards academic merit and awards need-based aid. “But if you look at the Northeast-10 Conference, things have changed dramatically since we joined. Schools that are our traditional opponents and held fast to that original scholarship policy have jumped in to do more. Scholarships would have to be part of the conversation, but it’s only one prong of three or four we really need to focus on.”
Investing in coaches
Of equal importance to Kenny is augmenting the SMC coaching ranks. Of its 23 sports, only eight have full-time coaches and only the two basketball teams have full-time assistants.
“This is a very important step for us to take,” Kenny said. “It is clinically proven and we see it here that students who are involved in sports programs that are overseen by a full-time coach have a more enhanced, a more robust experience than those who are coached in a part-time situation. That is not to say our part-time coaches are not committed. They are and make a huge impact. But expanding our ranks is a high priority for me.”
Saint Anselm College – SMC’s closest and oldest conference rival – announced last month that it had applied to enter the exploratory phase of NCAA Division III membership beginning in 2017-18.
“That [moving to Division III] has been an institutional discussion on our campus since the early 1990s under President [Paul] Reiss,” Kenny said. “It is still part of the conversation.”
But the problem with that option is there is no conference fit for a school with St. Michael’s DNA. The New England Small College Athletic Conference would be the most ideal, but that 11-school league has no need or desire to expand and last added a school when Connecticut College joined in 1982.
“I hope changing their divisional alignment never comes to pass but St. Michael’s has some decisions to make in terms of what it wants to do,” Commissioner Ruppert said. “I personally believe there is a lot of forward momentum for St. Michael’s in athletics if they choose. I think the department is well run, the morale is super high and they are positioned well to succeed if the leadership decides to increase its commitment. The ball is in their court.”
St. Michael’s presidents have empowered athletic task forces four times since 1982, the last coming in 2002. Kenny’s way forward is to create a strategic plan to identify and address both short-term and long-term goals.
“Those task forces were sort of over-arching examinations of the department as a whole,” Kenny said. “I think we can be a little more streamlined in this process in that this is initiated by our department."
Kenny continued, "We have strategic touchstones that we had to take a hard look at and see how we can plan to put some of these things in place. Hopefully, we will have something to look at by the end of the [school] year. But we have to get rolling on this now.”