Tom Bowen, University of Memphis Athletic Director
In regional terms, Tom Bowen was coming home when he took the job as University of Memphis athletic director in 2012. Born in Denver, Bowen spent most of his childhood (up to 8th grade) in Stone Mountain, Georgia, before his family moved to San Francisco. After almost a quarter-century in northern California — the last eight of those years as athletic director at San Jose State University — Bowen embraced the chance to complete a circle of sorts in his life’s travels. “One of the appealing things about coming to Memphis,” says Bowen, “was coming back to the South. It wasn’t that foreign to me.”
Athletic administration was not Bowen’s first calling, though he played football (one year at the University of San Diego) and yearned to coach. He transferred to Notre Dame in 1980 and spent six years studying for the priesthood, only to follow that initial yearning. Bowen coached high-school football in Colorado Springs, then found himself back in California where he became athletic director at De La Salle High School in Concord.
His Irish-Catholic upbringing is the foundation for everything that’s followed in Bowen’s life and career. “My mother and father are very practicing and devout Catholics,” he says. “We were always around priests and brothers and nuns. When I was in high school, I did a lot of work in campus ministry and throughout the Bay Area. I was drawn. It was a great way to serve your faith. It was a profound experience at Notre Dame. You were immersed in a Catholic university with great academics, great athletics, and really committed to social ministry and serving the poor. I worked in soup kitchens, with transients, juvenile delinquents.”
Bowen chose to leave the seminary upon witnessing the hardship of ministry in hospitals. “I wanted to teach and coach,” says Bowen, “and I was working in a hospital. It’s a hard place to create ministry, because there’s a lot of unfortunate suffering in a hospital. Lots of joy in the maternity ward, but there’s a lot of suffering. People who work in ministry in Catholic hospitals are profoundly spiritual and special people.”
Bowen found himself immersed in a culture of winning, first at De La Salle, where the football program won 151 consecutive games over 12 years, then later with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, where he spent three years as director of community affairs for the five-time Super Bowl champions. He took the A.D. job at San Jose State in 2004 only after being encouraged — and recommended — by Hall of Famer Bill Walsh (a San Jose State alum and winner of three of those Super Bowls as coach of the Niners).
“[Walsh] took me under his wing,” says Bowen. “When you first get to the NFL, it’s pretty overwhelming. It was all about hard work, keeping your head down. He knew my background. When Bill Walsh tells you to do something, you just don’t say no.”
Taking that job at San Jose State changed Bowen’s life and led, ultimately, to his arrival in Memphis. “Our lives are about the divine moments of providence,” says Bowen, “in which you have to make a decision about a leap of faith. I came to Memphis because of a providential moment for me. This feels great. I love what this can be.”
Having himself coached football, baseball, and girls basketball, Bowen has developed a taste for leadership across the athletic spectrum. And he sees common traits among the successful coaches he’s hired and worked with. “I love the idea of creating consensus around a team goal,” he says. “My knack was for getting young people to focus on others first, and themselves second. It’s gotten harder and harder in our society to unite young people toward a common journey. You find that in its purest form in high school sports.”
How does Bowen identify such unifying character in coaching candidates? “Management is positional and leadership is personal,” he says. “It takes a lot to discover that. Leaders must be personally engaged: in the process, in the people, in the journey, and in what the result will be.” Bowen cites a pair of men he hired to coach football at San Jose State — Dick Tomey and Mike MacIntyre (now at Colorado) — as prime examples. “I think [Memphis football coach] Justin Fuente and [basketball coach] Josh Pastner can do that.
“The majority of coaches work through a system. You want to find a coach who can work with the current ingredients, then add to it and build on it. Those are the kind of men and women you want around student-athletes.”
In the court of public opinion, college coaches are first judged on their ability to recruit, to bring the right “ingredients” for winning to a program. “Recruiting has become an art,” says Bowen. “The university and the city have to provide the kind of ambience and qualities [student-athletes] want to be a part of.” Bowen mentions the U of M athletic department’s current graduation rate — 84 percent — as a significant calling card for any coach on the recruiting trail.
As for the ingredients that go into a good recruiter — and ultimately a good coach — Bowen emphasizes truth and transparency. “We’re committed to accountability,” he says. “We are what we say. And we believe in opportunity. There’s no predetermined dynamic. Now, what you do with that opportunity is up to you.”
Leaders do stumble. Bowen estimates he made eight or nine coaching changes at San Jose State. “The great deterrent for coaches becoming successful for a long time is their own personal barriers,” he says. “An inability to be objective. A lack of humility. A sense of arrogance and entitlement. Most coaches don’t lose their job based on their knowledge of the sport in which they make their living. At some point, there’s a barrier that creates a no-return for them.
He adds, “Wins and losses can create angst. We brought you here to win. This isn’t intramurals.”
The leader Bowen admires most remains his father, a former FBI agent. “He’s a principled man of character and hard work,” notes Bowen. “He believes in just and right. My dad started out as a high-school baseball coach.”
Now a father of three himself, Bowen aims to bridge his father’s standard to a new generation. “I believe in self-examination,” explains Bowen, “which leads to self-awareness, which leads to self-regulation. Once or twice a week, I take some time to self-assess. Sometimes it’s while I’m driving; sometimes I write it down. The danger is you get self-absorbed. It helps avoid making the same mistake again. Power is dangerous. When you’re in a position of leadership, people tend to get critical, to over-examine. Humility is the best safeguard for not screwing up a position of leadership.”