Last Thursday was a very dark and sad day for my place of work, a day that negatively impacted myself and every single employee in The University of Montana Athletic Department. In what seemed like the biggest punch in the gut one could get, we learned that morning in a last minute mandatory meeting that our athletic director and head football coach had been let go. To see two outstanding individuals ousted so fast sickened us all. I will not address the reasoning (or lack thereof) or my opinion of the terminations in this post because I have absolutely no business doing so. However, what I will address is my admiration and respect for Jim O’Day, the man who served as athletic director for Grizzly Athletics for eight years. In this tribute to Jim, I want to share why he was such a great boss and an even better person.
Let me start off broadly by saying that Jim O’Day was extremely effective as an athletic director. In order to be a great boss you must excel at your own job and responsibilities and Jim mastered this. He presided over an era in Grizzly Athletics that saw unparalleled success. On the field, majority of our teams experienced great results. Big Sky Conference titles, NCAA Tournament appearances, and FCS title games were abundant. Academically, a new bar was established. Under Jim’s watch, two Presidents Cup trophies (most prestigious award in our conference that combines academic and athletic success) were claimed by Montana. Several new building projects were started and finished. Montana separated itself from our rival, Montana State. Jim expanded the reach of our university by honorably serving on many prestigious national committees and boards. Student athletes took a much larger role becoming active in the Missoula community and making a difference. Jim sniffed out the shifting trend in intercollegiate athletics in regards to social media and he made sure that Montana did not get left behind. He also took an athletic department that had suffered some wounds financially right when he inherited the job and turned it into a money-maker. In all ways, he grabbed control of the department and made it prosper.
In order to be a great boss you need the personal achievements that Jim undoubtedly had but you also need something else: leadership. Jim O’Day was a leader in every sense of the word. People gravitated towards him. Always visible and available despite a ridiculous schedule, there was never a doubt on who was running Grizzly Athletics. Jim had a gift for talking in front of people and whether it was in a meeting, a banquet, an interview, or a one-on-one conference, he spoke eloquently and confidently. Always encouraging his staff to keep checklists and stay on task, he offered us the guidance and resources to succeed. Leaders don’t limit their staffs, they let them grow and Jim did that. Despite having an unwavering loyalty towards his staff, he also demonstrated leadership to all of us by how he interacted with people who had different viewpoints and agendas from the athletic department’s. During times where I would have liked to just blow off a person, group, or entity that I felt was not worth our time or trouble, Jim would not leave them in the dark and would not allow us to either. He taught me how important it is for a leader to not burn bridges and to always nourish relationships, no matter how unbalanced or stressful they might seem.
While Jim was a leader, he was also a servant. He gave so much to the state, the Missoula community, The University of Montana, and most importantly to him, Grizzly Athletics. There was no one who was more selfless with their time and resources than Jim. Every function, every fundraiser, every funeral, every wedding, every graduation party, and every cause that Jim could attend, he would. He gave everything he had to support what he loved most. You asked Jim to do something, he would do it. There was no such thing as being “too busy” for him. If someone from several years back needed a letter of recommendation, they would get it. If an athlete from long ago wanted recognition in our hall of champions, Jim would make sure he/she would get in. If someone wanted a poster or a t-shirt, he would make sure their request got filled. Make no mistake about it, Jim could have easily and rightfully gotten away with concentrating more on his important leadership duties but that was not him…he always wanted to give back and to serve.
A big part of why Jim was so successful and so loved was because he was such a genuine people person. If you live in Missoula, over the past few days you have probably heard plenty of stories from people talking about what a nice and caring man Jim is. The guy pretty much knew every person in the state, no one was beneath him. He knew the name of every single athlete in our department. He knew the names of my interns and would always take the time to talk to them and engage them in a meaningful conversation. If you went out to dinner with Jim O’Day you better have been ready for an onslaught of random people coming up to the table and shaking his hand. He was a legitimate celebrity without the ego. When someone came up and talked to Jim I would watch him make the person feel like a god and put a smile on his/her face. I would sometimes then ask Jim who the person was and Jim would respond with the person’s name, hometown, occupation, and family details. The stuff he retained in his head was incredible. No one who actually knew Jim disliked him.
The main reason why Jim was such an effective boss? (You know, besides being extremely effective, a great leader, a selfless servant, and a people person). It is because of the man’s class and integrity. No one can touch that…not the media, not critics, not a university president. Jim did what was right at all times. He never cheated or looked for a short cut. He was first to congratulate a coach or player who defeated a Griz team and he never looked to embarrass an opponent or adversary. Jim knew he was the walking billboard for Grizzly Athletics and he safeguarded it with every ounce of his being. In an industry where high profile athletic directors and head coaches take on egos and personalities that set them apart from others, Jim did just the opposite. Jim stayed true to his classy nature to the very end. In that terrible meeting he stayed strong the whole time, telling us to do the same and stick together. He didn’t take any parting shots, he didn’t criticize the decision. When he came down to say goodbye to us in the marketing department he kept it together when none of us could. Again, he echoed the same message, stay strong.
I already miss Jim. I miss him telling me “good job” for doing the most remedial tasks. I miss the “nice work” e-mails for completing the more challenging tasks. I miss watching him shake the hand of every athlete and coach as they walk off the field or court. I miss him coming downstairs into our offices and checking up on us and telling us to “get to work.” I miss him starting up conversations with me based on the stupid stuff I posted on my Twitter account. I miss the jokes and laughs we would have as a staff at his expense. I miss the dinners we would all share together after games. I miss his sense of humor and positive attitude.
I miss the best boss I ever had. Don’t Blink.