A pioneer charts his own course
From the time he began playing sports as a young boy with neighborhood buddies, Pat Chun stood out as the only Asian American on the block. It’s no different professionally for Chun, who has grown accustomed to being the only Asian American in the room since he started in athletics administration.
The pioneering athletic director at Washington State frequently deploys humor as a way to address that distinction. He may offer an amusing anecdote about growing up as the only son of Korean immigrants, with a father who taught taekwondo — “talk about stereotypical,” Chun said, chuckling — and a mother who worked as a grocery-store clerk.
Or he may elicit laughter by mentioning some of the travails linked to a career in which Asian Americans have been underrepresented to such a degree that, through 15 years as an understudy at Ohio State, his alma mater, he had no one of his or any other Asian ethnicity to count as a mentor.
“Let me put it this way,” said Chun, 43, who arrived at Washington State in February following 51/ years as Florida Atlantic’s
2 athletic director. “It’s not lost on me the significance of being the first Asian American athletic director at a Power Five.”
Like many Asian American children of his generation, Chun’s parents pushed him to be a doctor or a lawyer. But Chun knew neither of those occupations was for him after taking a liking to sports as a child in the Cleveland suburbs.
Athletics served as a vehicle for Chun to assimilate. His friends were white, and Chun shared a love of sports with them. They collected and traded baseball cards and gathered to watch football games on television. His closest friends remain those with
he played football in junior high and high school.
Still, his peers occasionally reminded Chun that he wasn’t exactly the same. He hasn’t forgotten the slanty-eye gestures or teasing in a mocking Asian accent.
“The joking comments that were made to you growing up would not be tolerated today,” he said.
Even as Chun immersed himself in sports, his mother, a classically trained pianist, was far more concerned with him practicing the violin. Eventually, she relented, allowing Chun to drop violin lessons in the sixth grade to concentrate more on sports. All the while, she remained skeptical about his career choice, even as he began moving up as an administrator at Ohio State.
“You’d have to be an Asian American to understand this,” said Chun, whose parents divorced when he was in the eighth grade. “Like a lot of Asian parents, they put this crazy emphasis on college and dreams of Ivy League schools and things like that.”
When Chun and his wife, Natalie, a former Buckeyes softball player, were discussing starting a family, his mother didn’t hesitate to offer more advice.
“This is 2002, 2003, and I’m already well into my athletic career, and we were talking about having a baby, and my mom pulls me aside and says, ‘ Hey, if you guys are going to have kids, you really need to start thinking about getting a real job,’ ” Chun said, laughing. “At that point, you know you’re not going to win that debate with your mom. It’s like: ‘Mom, just trust me. I’m on a great path here.’ ”
‘A modern success story’
When the news of his hiring at Washington State became public, Chun began receiving emails from Asian American administrators and coaches from other schools congratulating him.
Much of that correspondence came from well-wishers he had yet to meet in person. Still, Chun indicated, he couldn’t help but feel an unspoken kinship given his position of prominence within the small community of Asian Americans involved in college athletics.
“Pat, like a lot of successful people, he’s so focused on doing what he needs to do that I think he sometimes maybe isn’t as proud of that as he needs to be,” Washington State President Kirk Schulz said. “Pat’s a little bit humble that way. He’s just a modern success story.”
Chun gained a reputation as a skilled fundraiser at Ohio State, having overseen record contributions to the Buckeyes’ athletic department that included $42 million in 2012 and $41 million the previous year. A “relationship builder” was how former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger, who gave Chun his first job as an intern, described his protege.
He became athletic director at Florida Atlantic in 2012, and three years later, the school announced the largest single gift in its history: $16 million. With Washington State’s athletic department facing a budget deficit of $67 million, according to a recently released internal audit, Schulz made it his priority hiring a candiwhom date with a deft fundraising touch.
As an added benefit, Chun had hired Lane Kiffin to be FAU’s football coach in December 2016. Chun’s experience dealing with the occasionally controversial Kiffin reassured Schulz and other Washington State officials that he could forge a fruitful working relationship with the Cougars’ colorful football coach, Mike Leach.
Chun flew to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for an initial off-campus interview in January, volunteering to be the first of eight candidates to meet with the search committee. Six of the semifinalists, according to Schulz, were sitting athletic directors. The other was a top deputy Schulz said would be one in the near future.
“When you start getting more involved, then it hits you: ‘Wow, no one really looks like you,’ ” Chun said. “You never really quantify these things until you start competing for jobs and you’re trying to get to different levels of your career. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ It does hit you.”
The conversation with Chun left such a positive impression, Schulz recalled, that one member of the search committee, minutes after Chun left the room, said with the utmost sincerity, “I think we’re done.”
‘It means a little bit more’
Chun was to be introduced at Washington State on Jan. 17, but university officials pushed the ceremony back a week because of a tragedy that had left the campus reeling. The day before Chun’s originally scheduled news conference, Tyler Hilinski, a redshirt sophomore quarterback on track to start for the Cougars this season, committed suicide in his Pullman apartment.
The sensitivity with which Chun navigated those tragic circumstances endeared him to the football program, the athletic department and the Washington State community, colleagues said.
In more recent weeks, Chun and Leach have had frequent discussions regarding how best to honor Hilinski’s memory, beginning with the Cougars’ home opener Sept. 8.
“That was a tough time, and also of course he hadn’t been here,” Leach said of Chun. “There really wasn’t a great deal he could have done beyond just offering support, which he did and continues to do.”
Chun has been the recipient of the same from his new co-workers over his first four-plus months — he officially started Feb. 5 — while continuing to champion diversity and inclusion.
One of his first speaking engagements after being named athletic director was to a campus multicultural group. He’s also scheduled to address other Asian American administrators during the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics annual convention this week at National Harbor.
“I think it means a little bit more because I don’t know the world my daughters are going to grow up in,” Chun said. “But I know as the world changes, and there’s more equality in society and more acceptance of different races and genders, I think it’s cool that something that may have been perceived as a glass ceiling to some Asians no longer exists.”
Athletic Director Pat Chun poses in front of a mural depicting top Washington State athletes.
Athletic Director Pat Chun arrived at footballmad Washington State after more than five years as Florida Atlantic’s athletic director. “It’s not lost on me the significance of being the first Asian American athletic director at a Power Five,” he says.