Being a modern day high school athletic director is not a job for the faint of heart. Unless you’re an intelligent, competitive, versatile, people person who likes to work long hours and deal with a kaleidoscope of issues, don’t bother applying. There are currently 127 member institutions in the California Interscholastic Federation’s (CIF) San Diego Section. Outside of their personal characteristics, 21 of the 127 athletic directors running those programs, have an added distinction — they are women.
Eleven of the 21 oversee larger public school programs and five of those are at North County schools — Kari DiGiulio (La Costa Canyon), Charlenne Falcis-Stevens (Torrey Pines), Amanda Waters (Carlsbad), Peggy Brose, the veteran of the group in her 16th year on the job at Rancho Bernardo, and first-year member of the club, Terri Kilpatrick at Oceanside’s El Camino High School. On average they have more than 25 sports and well over 1,000 student-athletes under their supervision (in Waters’ case, an incredible 1,800 of Carlsbad’s 2,300-person student body compete on an athletic team).
Being that it’s 2017, some 45 years since the introduction of Title IX legislation that paved the way for gender equality, that number (21) may seem a bit low. But while the quantity might require further explanation, the quality is unquestionable. DiGiulio, and Falcis-Stevens both direct programs that are perennially among the elite in terms of broad-based success at the highest level. The former won 2016-17 San Diego Female Athletic Director of the Year honors after LCC teams won 10 league and seven CIF titles. Falcis-Stevens’ Torrey Pines program was named the No. 1 athletic school in the state of California in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. Brose’s Rancho Bernardo squads have captured CIF crowns in an amazing 21 different sports during her tenure.
Their daily responsibilities range from coordinating team travel to scheduling, lining up officials, managing home events, facility oversight, grades/eligibility, fund-raising, increasingly challenging parental issues and a plethora of other tasks. They cite time management, organization, flexibility and the willingness to effectively delegate as keys to success. “A typical day? I’m not sure that exists,” says DiGiulio. “The days pass quickly and you never know what will be thrown your way next.” Or, as Brose puts it, “One thing you get used to is starting with a day plan and showing up on site only to have it shot to pieces.”
The North County five have a number of similar traits and stories. All were athletes themselves and have been teachers and coaches (most still have a hand in both) at the prep level. Surprisingly, given their accomplishments, the majority had not really spent much thought on a career in athletic administration but wound up there having been identified by colleagues as potential leaders.
While Brose, with the support of long-time Rancho Bernardo Athletic Director Mark Oschner and others, actively prepared herself for a potential administrative role while in the midst of an illustrious 28-year basketball coaching career, the path taken by many of her peers was much more serendipitous. “When the position opened at La Costa Canyon, the superintendent called and asked me to apply,” says DiGiulio, who was at the tail end of an 11-year run as head field hockey coach at Torrey Pines. “He thought I would be a strong candidate but, honestly, I had not considered it until that phone call.” Falcis-Stevens and Waters have relatable stories.
“When my principal asked if I was interested in becoming the Athletic Director, I thought, ‘That’s a huge job,’ ” said Falcis-Stevens. “I wondered how I could continue to teach chemistry, coach my team and handle that.
“But as head track and field coach, I supervise 10 assistant coaches and 200 athletes. As AD, the skill set would be comparable and I had seen Kari’s effectiveness as the AD at La Costa Canyon and felt, ‘She can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it too.’”
And “do it,” they do. Talking with any of the five, one comes away with a sure sense of their collective confidence, energy and the infectious enthusiasm that can be found in successful leaders of business, industry or athletics — be they male or female. But as one of the latter, they have also been trailblazers of a sort, handling a demanding job in what has traditionally been a male-dominated environment while, in the case of four-of-the-five, also starting a family. It’s a dynamic that is at least partially responsible for the relatively low numbers sitting in the athletic director’s chair.
“I’d like to see more female athletic directors in San Diego,” says Brose, “but then I don’t have as many female head coaches at Rancho Bernardo as I’d like either. At some point for many women who are coaches or potential administrators, the family component starts to enter in.” As a group, the quintet has a total of 10 children, including DiGiulio’s four, which makes her something of a phenomenon with her peers.
“I don’t know how Kari does it, but I think it’s great” says Falcis-Stevens. “Sometimes it’s tough but I am always able to find the balance in my life. My kids come to a lot of stuff at school and I have quite a few people I can count on for both career and mental support. I’m also very fortunate that I have a lot of veteran coaches on our staff who are passionate, know their programs inside and out and can be invaluable in helping to guide our newer coaches.”
And lest you’re thinking that one side inevitably suffers at the hand of the other, DiGiulio is quick to point out that her days start early and she always gets “home in time to be a point of contact with my children after their school day” before often returning to the LCC campus to coach field hockey or check in with other teams’ practices and events. That kind of commitment has not gone unnoticed.
“Charlenne is very organized, communicates well with the coaching staff and responds quickly to situations,” says veteran Torrey Pines boys’ basketball coach John Olive when queried about Falcis-Stevens. “It’s never really crossed my mind that she was a female AD but I will say that having an athletic director who has coached is really helpful. She understands the intricacies of what a coach goes through.” Sixth-year LCC boy’s soccer coach Craig Dean feels that DiGiulio’s strengths carry over to the entire department.
“Kari is extremely professional but easy to approach and able to be personal as well,” says Dean, who has led the Maverick boys to a pair of CIF titles in his first five years on campus. “She’s very organized and demands the same kind of organization out of the coaching staff. She sets high expectations across the board while at the same time giving you the freedom to do what needs to be done with your sport.
“At first, it’s a little different having a woman in that role but as soon as you meet and speak with Kari, you recognize her knowledge, background and enthusiasm and quickly forget about it.”
Among all of their similarities and differences, one thing seems to stand above all — they love their jobs for a variety of reasons but they inevitably circle back to the students as the root of their satisfaction. “Honestly, watching our student-athletes compete, knowing that they have worked so hard for that moment, is incredible,” says DiGiulio, whose father, John Labeta, is Assistant Commissioner of the CIF San Diego Section as well as a former AD at LCC. “So much can be taught and gained, while using athletics as the platform. The majority of student-athletes have this wonderful and charismatic way of life, one that is inspiring.” Her peers echo those types of sentiments.
“Watching a group of athletes believe in a program and be supportive and respectful of each other is very satisfying,” says Falcis-Stevens, while Waters added, “The students are No. 1. The favorite part of my job is helping kids. I’m happy when I see them try harder whether it’s in athletics or academics —happy when they change something around in their lives for the better.” And, although there is still the occasional reminder that they are women in a profession once exclusive to males, they definitely feel comfortable in their surroundings.
“There have never been any gender issues on my own site,” says Brose. “I think I had the respect of my fellow coaches when I took this job — they’d seen me in a leadership role already. But, it’s a little different outside and there are still times when somebody at a meeting will say something and I find myself thinking ‘Did I just hear that?’ ”
Despite her credentials, DiGiulio has faced a fair share of doubters. “I’ve been laughed at and humiliated in this position, simply for being a woman and been told I know nothing about sports. I consider it something of an insult seeing the sheer shock in people’s expressions when I say that I am the Athletic Director at La Costa Canyon High School.”
“When people contact the athletic director, they assume I’m a guy,” says Waters. “I know it’s 2017, but I experience people looking at me like, ‘You’re the AD?’ It still happens.”
But none find the sporadic slights a significant deterrent to getting the job done. “When it comes to decision-making, it’s not about being a woman,” says Falcis-Stevens emphatically. “It’s about what’s right for your school and your students. When I’m hiring a coach for a girls’ sport, I’m not necessarily looking for a female coach — I’m looking for the right coach.” The five are also unanimous in encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
“I tell them to ‘Go for it,” says DiGiulio when asked what wisdom she would impart to those aspiring to her position. “Women can succeed in athletics, in anything. I’ve held my own in the thick of it all. I would remind young women to stay confident and never give up on yourself because young girls will always be watching and admiring. I love it when my daughter tells her friends about my job. I see the pride in her eyes and I know I have made an impact.”