BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- While undertaking this SEC "40/40" project, we have heard many stories of success shared across the league. Perhaps the most important lesson we've learned is that each person's path is different, providing a wide backdrop of how the true intersection of life and learning can begin.
In today's "40/40" feature, we sat down with the SEC's Leslie Claybrook. Claybrook serves as an Assistant Commissioner at the conference office, overseeing championship operations and sports administration for women's basketball, soccer and softball. As we discovered in this "Q&A", her journey to the SEC office came full circle after starting her career as a student-athlete.
What is the one thing you remember most about being a student-athlete in the SEC?
Growing up in Alabama, I was a huge fan of the SEC. Additionally, SEC women's basketball was, and still is, the best in the nation. It was always my dream to play in the SEC. However, I was not initially heavily recruited by SEC schools. But, Alabama made a coaching change in the spring of my senior year. They hired Dottie Kelso as an assistant coach who the summer prior was my AAU coach.
She was instrumental in me signing with Alabama at the 11th hour. I was so excited to sign with Alabama and have the opportunity to play in the SEC. My brother and sister graduated from Alabama so it was very special for me to not only play in the SEC but also to be at Alabama. I am someone who enjoys competing at the highest level and have the ability to prove myself day-in and day-out. The SEC certainly afforded me that opportunity both athletically and academically. The competition is something I will always remember about my time in the SEC. The competition in the SEC is second to none both then and now. It was a privilege to play at Alabama and in the SEC.
When you first stepped on campus at Alabama, what career goal did you have in mind?
My goal when I arrived at Alabama was to be the best player I could be and help the team achieve great success. It was also important to me to be successful in the classroom and earn my college degree. My athletic statistics will never rank in the record book of Alabama Women's Basketball but I am very proud of the role I played on the team providing leadership and doing the little things that were necessary for us to be successful.
We advanced to two NCAA tournaments and almost advanced to the Sweet 16 my senior year but for a last second three point shot sunk by a UNC player. The following year in 1994, the team advanced to the Final Four. Having exhausted my eligibility, I was not a member of the team but certainly the biggest fan in the stands and proud of the work we had done during my previous four years that laid the foundation for the Final Four run.
Did you have a college mentor, or someone in the athletics department who took you "under their wing" and or opened your eyes to athletics administration?
My high school coach Linda Funderburk and assistant coach Lynn Fossum were very instrumental in my early development as a player and person. They taught me so much in high school about doing the little things that would lead to success. They were also so encouraging which is so important to high school-age kids.
Dottie Kelso who I mentioned earlier was also instrumental in mentoring me. She was an amazing woman, very inspirational. She taught me to stay positive all the time and carry a smile during difficult times. She unfortunately and unexpectedly passed away in the fall of 1993, my fifth year at Alabama. Her influence led me into coaching for a few years and ultimately in to administration. I think of her often and the person she was.
During my coaching career at Mercer University, I had a chance to learn from Sybil Blalock who currently serves as the Senior Associate at Mercer University. She was an All-American at Mercer and a very successful professional player for many years. She is one of the smartest women I know who could still probably play professionally today. Not only did she teach me a lot about basketball, she taught me the tools of being a successful administrator. We talk all the time and her advice has been instrumental in me being where I am today.
Beth DeBauche and Pat Wall served as great mentors for me during my first stint in the SEC office as an intern. Joe Dean is another individual who opened my eyes about administration. He was my first boss when I changed to the administrative side of athletics. He was great to work with because of his enthusiasm and "get it done" attitude. There have been many others who have been influential in my life and have provided great guidance to me which has allowed me to be where I am today. I am thankful for them all.
Mentors and colleagues are so important to a person's success. The mentors I have had also showed me the importance of giving back and being good mentors to individuals getting in to the business. I always share with young people I mentor to surround yourself with mentors who are truly invested in seeing you be successful and to work with people who have great vision and are fun to be around.
As a player, what were some of the biggest issues (or concerns) that you faced? What were things you hoped to correct once you got to chance to be involved in administration?
I think the biggest issue I faced as a student-athlete is the same that face student-athletes today - prioritization. There are so many demands on a student-athletes' time - class, practice, family, friends, social outings, etc.. Balancing those demands and prioritizing them is difficult at times because student-athletes think they can do it all. I certainly thought this when I was in college, and even sometimes today. With this attitude, something has to give. You have to decide what is truly important and decide to prioritize that first in your life.
Today, I am much better with prioritization but only because I learned some hard lessons in college about the consequences of not prioritizing. Assisting student-athletes with prioritization is a passion for me because it can help simplify their complicated life which in turn will help them be more successful in all facets of their life.
After your college career concluded, you started right into coaching as your profession. What was it like to go from on the court playing to on the bench coaching?
Whenever, you transition from something you have done for years, there is an adjustment process. Same was true for me when I turned in my basketball shoes for a whistle and clip board. The hardest part was knowing I would never don the jersey again despite the fact I still wanted to play and felt as if I was just hitting my peak as an athlete when my four years came to a close.
I tried to educate the student-athletes that their career is short-lived. They think, as I did, that four-years is a lifetime - there will always be one more practice, one more game, etc. But four years goes by quickly. As a student-athlete you have to maximize every day, every practice, every game, etc.. I tried to instill in them to give it their best ALL the time and enjoy every second; there will be time to rest when you have finished your career. The best part about coaching was seeing your student-athletes accomplish everything they wanted to accomplish both in the classroom and on the court.
You've also spent time as a "zebra" (an official) in your career. Again, having both played and coached, what kind of perspective did that give you as you refereed the game?
I enjoyed being a "zebra." For me, officiating provided me an opportunity to give back, in a different role, to the game I love. I have been blessed to serve the game as a player, coach, official and administrator. All have been a wonderful, yet different experiences that provided great perspective to me as an official.
I was thrilled when I was added to the SEC officiating roster, especially having played in the league. I must admit I was a bit intimidated to officiate in a league for coaches I have admired for years but that all changed the first time one of them yelled at me. The SEC coaches were the best to officiate. I knew when they yelled at me that I probably missed something. Sue Gunter was the best. She said to me, and this is the edited version, "Leslie, we are bad enough tonight without you blowing your whistle for that call."
What experience from your time on campus can you bring to the SEC office?
I think the most important thing I can bring to the conference office is to remember we work in a servant leader environment. We serve our institutions, administrators, coaches and student-athletes. It's important to keep these constituents at the forefront of every decision making process.
Servant leadership is easy if you simplify it into answering three questions when you make a decision -
- is the decision serving the best interest of our constituents, most importantly the student-athletes,
- will this decision add value to the student-athlete experience, the institution or the conference and
- is it fiscally responsible?
If the answer is yes to all three questions, then the decision is easy. If not, then further evaluation is important to make sure we get it right. This is the servant leader attitude I had on-campus that easily transfers to my responsibilities in the Conference office.
What's the biggest difference between working on campus and working at a conference office?
The biggest difference in being on campus and working in a conference office is the day-to-day interaction with student-athletes and coaches. When you are on-campus you develop a special bond with the students because you are around them a lot in many different environments.
I met with many of the student-athletes early in the recruiting process. You get to know them, their families, their hopes, their dreams. Like a coach, an administrator gets to play a role in the development of young people. It's pretty special to see them grow from day to day and year to year.
It's also great to see them achieve all they want to achieve - academically, athletically and personally. You take a vested interest in their success, and also the highs and lows that come with it. In the conference office, you can still have all of this it's just different. Now I have 14 teams and over a 1,000 student-athletes and coaches to cheer on to victory and help achieve all they want to achieve - academically, athletically and personally.