A pi­o­neer charts his own course

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY GENE WANG IN PULL­MAN, WASH.

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.

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