Beyond the Win — Athletic Director Matt Kennedy
One evening last spring, a group of Bryn Athyn College men’s lacrosse players, clad in their sports training gear, headed to a children’s prom at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). They went to join their 10-year-old friend and teammate, Steven “Chico” Gonzales, a kind and highly motivated young boy with severe medical issues. The lacrosse team, who had “adopted” Chico in exchange for his promise to stay on top of his homework, took every opportunity throughout the season to treat Chico like a true team member. Chico sat with the guys at every game and joined in on team huddles. That spring night, during an important event in his life, Chico got to celebrate surrounded by his friends from Bryn Athyn College Lacrosse team.
This kind of student-initiated behavior reflects the strong culture of charity and sportsmanship that has existed over many years and continues to gain momentum through the vision and efforts of Athletic Director Matt Kennedy. As Matt said, “I’ve always felt that athletics serve as a platform for taking the lessons that we learn in the classroom—including care for others —and putting them into practice. As a faith-based institution we are given this opportunity, and it’s special for us.”
Matt has watched with pride as his students continually demonstrate these qualities of integrity and respect. For example, last year in the ACHA (American Collegiate Hockey Association) National Championship Tournament, the Bryn Athyn team needed to win or tie to move on; it ended up as a tie. At the end of the game, after the hockey players went through the traditional handshake, “Our guys lined up against the blue line and raised their sticks in respect toward Hope College.” Matt explained that this gesture happened spontaneously, unprompted by any coach. It affirmed Matt’s efforts to support the moral foundation of his athletes: “I knew right then and there, we’re doing what we need to do.”
Whether the students are inviting Chico to join a lacrosse throw or raising sticks to show respect to opponents, Matt can see that the students’ goals do not involve credit or glory; they simply want to do the right thing. Matt said, “Those are the moments when it doesn’t matter who the leading scorer is, or whether we go to the playoffs. I look at those moments and say, ‘This is why we highlight New Church values on and off the field.’” He added, “Twenty years from now, we hope that they will be reinforcing the things we’re teaching them with their own son or daughter. These opportunities make people better parents. They make them better fathers, better mothers, better wives and husbands.”
Matt’s Passion: The Origin
Matt has always had the passion and priority in his life to help young adults. After graduating from college, he began doing social work, working with homeless 18 year old men. This job greatly increased his awareness of the needs of young people, as well as the vital importance of good role models and mentors.
Matt also coached for many years, and through coaching he began to learn what strategies worked best in helping his players. Matt explained, “When I was a very young coach, I made a lot of mistakes. It took me many years to understand that when athletes have a bad practice or a bad game, it’s usually not a technical problem. It’s probably something going on in their lives. So later in my coaching career I’d start every meeting asking, ‘How is everything going? How’s your family? How are your classes? How are things in the dorms?’ I realized that there needs to be a human element. There are deeper conversations that need to be had. I feel that working at Bryn Athyn College is the best thing to happen to me because I truly get to do what I love. It’s not necessarily helping teams win games, but it’s mentoring young adults and learning as much from them as they’re learning from me. That is wholeheartedly the truth.”
He added, “Whether I’m helping a young person get on medication to lead a better life, or working with student athletes on helping them find their career path, or helping them through a relationship challenge or a family problem, helping young adults is my true passion.”
Why Matt Chose Bryn Athyn
Matt had worked at other colleges in the past, also with great success. For example, while coaching at Neumann University, he took women’s hockey from the rank of 62 (out of 65 teams) all the way up to seventh place, and all within about two years. He also worked at Quinnipiac, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I school. However, he quickly found that the Division I energy, with it’s strong emphasis on winning, did not appeal to him. He missed the aspect that drew him most to athletics—working with the whole student.
Matt explained, “I’ve worked at two other universities, and Bryn Athyn is the first place where I’ve truly been able to practice what I love. An athletic program is, on one level, just one more fancy way to attract and retain students. But the reason I came here, and the reason I love living here, is because I want to help.” Matt added, “Winning is great. It’s fun. But that will wear off. The lasting relationships you have with student athletes—that’s what remains. I’ve had so many lunches with recent graduates. I’ve been invited to their weddings. Those are the reasons I choose to work here.”
One of Matt’s former students from Neumann, Abe Joseph, came along with Matt to Bryn Athyn College. Abe said, “Matt Kennedy is one of the best leaders you could ever ask for. He expects a lot but he also works harder than anyone else. He’s all about having a shared vision. He wants everyone to be on board with what we stand for. That’s why we’ve been successful. The fact that our core staff has stayed here is a testament to his leadership.”
Abe continued, “We have a lot of alumni athletes who are still engaged with their former teams. They come back, watch games, and get to know the new players. That shows they’ve had such a great experience here that they want to stay involved.”
Matt appreciates being able to recruit athletes while making his agenda crystal clear. He explained, “I can look mom and dad in the eye during the recruitment process and say with integrity that we will make their son or daughter a better person by the end of this. At least we’ll provide them with the tools to be a better human. We want their experience here to be solid, whether it’s in chapel, in their dorm, in their classroom, or on the sports field. I believe in it wholeheartedly. And it’s why I choose to work here every single day.”
The Growth Process
Matt Kennedy has both a genius for strategic planning as well as a passion for helping young adults—both of which he has been able to integrate in his past five years at Bryn Athyn College. Since his arrival in 2010, the College’s athletic program has grown by leaps and bounds, adding 12 men’s and women’s varsity sports and bringing Bryn Athyn College into the NCAA as a Division III college. As President Brian Blair said, “Matt has been here five years. I don’t know of another school in the country that was able—in that short timeframe—to start 12 competitive varsity teams, recruit students, find coaches, build training facilities, and become provisional members of the NCAA. I don’t know if I would have thought that was possible.”
For Matt though, the vision made sense. He said, “There was no doubt in my mind with the beauty of the College and the quality of the education that this could happen. As with any new venture, we had challenges, but nothing has been able to slow us down. No other institution in the last 50 years has done what we’ve done. And we’re doing it well. We’re very proud of that. Our dream is coming true.”
Matt wanted to grow slowly, cautiously and carefully, choosing only people who would maintain the spiritually-based, wholistic vision. He explained, “As this is a faith-based institution with 130 student-athletes, I think it’s really important that we have the right coaches—great educators—reenforcing the ideals that we want to teach young adults. We take pride in the fact that our coaches do a really good job explaining who we are and attracting the right students. And once the students are on board, the coaches work to infuse the values of the College into their practices and games. The average coach isn’t asked to operate this way, but here it’s a priority.”
The numbers speak for themselves, with about a 90 percent retention of student-athletes every year. Matt explained, “When we meet with families, we are very honest about who we are and what we expect. We don’t bait and switch. We talk about academic rigor, curfew, chapel requirements—all the things that make us who we are and all that we’re proud of.” He added, “Of course, we’re not for everybody. But those who do choose Bryn Athyn know with confidence what we’re selling them. They feel comfortable and confident in their decision. I’ve even heard some students say, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to come here?’”
Who Pays for the Athletic Program?
Some may ask, with all the new athletes, are they draining the endowment? The NCAA prevents any Division III school, including Bryn Athyn College, from offering athletic scholarships. As President Blair explained, “We award financial aid mostly for need, and some additional scholarships for academic excellence. No financial aid, though, goes to athletically based scholarships. And the NCAA audits that very closely.”
Fortunately, due to the funding of some very supportive donors, the College has not had to dig into the endowment at all. In fact, the athletic program has actually enhanced the College’s financial sustainability. As President Blair said, “The athletic program basically pays for itself, bringing in a very strong recruiting class every year. It’s a true pipeline of qualified, motivated students for the College.”
Matt reports all the school’s spending through the EADA (Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act) report and to the Bryn Athyn College Finance Committee. He explains that they are right on target with other colleges: “For schools of under 500 students, we are smack dab average in what schools spend on operating budgets. We want to make sure we’re not over-spending on athletics. We do a lot of reporting on what we spend per student-athlete, and we make sure we remain committed to not draining the institution.”
Building a Moral Foundation
So what initiatives are in place to help the students with their moral foundation? Matt explained, “We start students off with life skill programs, including educational programs off the field. Whether we bring in sports psychologists or guest speakers on certain topics, we aim to give our students an idea of what our expectations are, and let them know we’re there to reinforce what we stand for.”
While sports like hockey have a long tradition of sportsmanship, Matt has worked hard to make sure that the new sports programs build on a solid foundation as well. He said, “When you start these new programs you have a bunch of freshmen and no real leaders. It can be challenging because a cultural hierarchy hasn’t been established.” So he asks the new teams questions that help them to form their identities, such as, “What do you want to be known for?” He encourages them to figure out their goals and to hold themselves accountable when they’re falling off the path.
For example, the women’s basketball team said they want to be known for both hard work and for respecting their opponents. When the opponent falls, they want to be there to pick them up. Matt explained, “So whenever we see them help another player, that’s the first thing I’ll tweet about.” After three years with the new teams, leaders have started to emerge. Matt said, “We’re excited to see the payoff from this continued reinforcement of their goals. It truly is exciting. We are seeing our student-athletes doing well academically, supporting their peers, and participating in service projects.”
In this past year, now that the athletic teams have been built, there is a growing focus on integrating spirituality into the athletic program in various ways. As Matt said, “Helping our students grow in a spiritual sense has always been the goal. Now we have the infrastructure to do it.”
One initiative is the “Sport and Spirituality” program. Through this program, a team chaplain sends informal emails to the team members, often sharing inspiring stories, quotes, anecdotes, or lessons about what the team members can learn from a tough moment. As Matt said, “The teams love this.” Through these kinds of programs, Matt has watched as the students, including many non-traditional students, now say that they feel they belong to the New Church community.
Matt holds a deep conviction that a college education should support the whole life of all students, supporting and teaching them to become grounded, well-rounded, spiritually-rooted contributors to society. He said,
“I love working at Bryn Athyn College because it truly helps young adults grow and become better people. This school does it better than any school out there. I challenge any institution on those key points—that’s what we do best. That’s why I came to Bryn Athyn College. It’s different here.”
Matt also welcomes a dialogue with alumni and friends of the College. “Come out and speak to us. Come out and speak to our student athletes. Come out and speak to our coaches. Go catch a game. If we shy away from who we truly are, I want to know about it. I want to fix it. I want people to hear from the student-athletes who truly love this institution. They are extremely proud to be students here at Bryn Athyn.”
After five years of working at Bryn Athyn, Matt also feels proud of having made this his home. He said, “Even though I was not raised here, I consider myself part of this community and someone who contributes to it. I love this place so much that I moved my family here. I want my children to grow up in this community, with these values. I love working at an institution where people live the mission 24/7, not just from nine to five while they’re on campus. At Bryn Athyn College we put what we say into practice and that’s why I’m committed to this place.”