LEWISTON — Jason Fein sees a correlation between athletic and academic success at NCAA Division III colleges and universities.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the top liberal arts schools on those liberal arts school rankings are the same as the top schools athletically,” the new Bates College athletic director said. “It’s by design.”
Fein is two months into his tenure as Bates College’s athletic director. One thing he knew even before he moved from New Jersey to Maine, is that his job isn’t to overhaul the Bobcats’ sports programs.
Bates ranks 23rd in the latest U.S. World News and Report rankings of the country’s liberal arts colleges. Athletically, the school came in 20th out of 324 Division III schools in the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) 2016-17 Learfield Directors’ Cup ratings.
So Fein has entered a nice situation, and his role is to elevate Bates College, the institution, even higher, primarily by leading its athletic department to an even higher stature.
“I think it’s incremental change,” Fein said. “When you’re 20th (in the Directors’ Cup), just logic would say don’t come in and try to change a whole lot. It’s how can we best support (the coaches) to make the improvements they need to?”
Bates has earned its ranking by competing in the NESCAC, which features Directors’ Cup winner Williams College and earned four of the top eight spots (Bates gives the conference five in the top 20). That’s impressive, but the Bobcats must also compete against the NESCAC school’s to further climb the rankings.
That’s the type of challenge that lured Fein to Lewiston after living his entire life in the New York/New Jersey area, including nearly nine years as the athletic director at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
“The NESCAC is so competitive that I just thought it was a great challenge,” Fein said. “There’s no easy opponents, whether it’s academically or athletically.”
Working up the ranks
Somewhere in the boxes is a photo of Fein with Phil Rizzuto and another of him with Mariano Rivera.
Those and other memorabilia will one day find their way onto one of the walls in Fein’s office at Alumni Gym. But for now, they’re stored in stacks of unopened boxes. One reason is the carpet will soon be replaced. Also, he’s been “so swamped” since arriving in Maine in July.
Yes, Fein is a New York Yankees fan. But he also is an occasional employee, helping out in media relations during the postseason and other big events, such as the All-Star game.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Brooklyn College, Fein stayed at the school to earn a master’s in sports management and serve as the sports information director. The school had just dropped its athletic programs, so his job was to expand the intramural and wellness program, while also exploring how to bring back intercollegiate athletics (Brooklyn is now a full-fledged Division III athletic program).
During that same time period, in 1996, he was told by a friend that the Yankees’ media relations department needed help during the postseason.
It turned into a part-time job every autumn — August through October — for more than a decade.
“At that time, they were just starting this dynasty,” Fein said, “so we got to be in on the ground floor — I’m like, ‘Did George Steinbrenner just come and yell at me? That was amazing.’”
“Oh, yeah. He did. Absolutely,” Fein added. “He was actually a pretty good guy. He was scary and he was funny, and I got to see some pretty cool stuff.”
Earlier that year, Fein saw a vague listing for jobs at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He got one as an events services coordinator, which ended up being things such as logistics, transportation, parking and security.
Then a bomb when off in Centennial Park, changing everything.
“We had a 2-inch binder of procedures and this and that. The entire thing gets flushed,” Fein said. “Everyone’s now on security.
“But it turned out to be good experience, because it’s like what happens when stuff goes wrong, how do you adjust?”
In 2002, he worked media relations at the Salt Lake City Olympics. While some of his cohorts went to the mountains and stood outside all day. Fein was assigned to the much warmer confines of what was then called the Delta Center (the home of the Utah Jazz) for short-track speed skating and figure skating.
He received further valuable on-the-job training when his cushy gig received an international spotlight after the ice skating judging scandal.
“So all of a sudden we went from having the sports media to having the world media at our place,” Fein said. “It was insane. So we were working 6 a.m. to midnight.”
Fein also works at the NCAA basketball Final Four every year since 2012.
“Events was always something I’ve loved to do,” Fein said. “I just love the logistics of it. I’ve always been the type that, I go to a game, I’m a terrible fan. The first time I went to the Final Four, I wasn’t working, I was just a fan, and I was miserable.
“The next year, I said, ‘I’ll volunteer. Give me a job. I don’t need tickets. Just give me a volunteer job, I’ll do it.’”
To this day, Fein keeps his foot in the media relations game. However, as far back as his time at Brooklyn College, where he also was the assistant athletic director, he began to organically transition from being a sports information director to having more administrative duties.
“It just kind of eased that way,” he said. “It wasn’t like a conscious decision, that I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ As you can tell, I still like keeping my hand in that.”
Fein moved on to a SID/assistant AD role at the College of Staten Island (while also adding duties as the volleyball head coach and an assistant for the women’s basketball team for a few seasons). He later became the school’s associate athletic director.
In 2008, he became the athletic director at Drew University. In 2016, he was chosen as the NACDA Division III athletic director of the year.
Now he’s at Bates — ranked 20th in athletics and 23rd as an institution, but also competing for student-athletes with other NESCAC schools.
“The NESCAC is really well-known as arguably the best conference in Division III, not only athletically, but academically,” he said. “So when those jobs come up, you have to kind of take a look.
“I had a pretty good life in New York/New Jersey, and a nice job and a cool boss and all that, but I kind of felt that if I was going to make a move, this was probably the right time in life to do it.”
Fein has been on what he called a “listening tour” in the two-plus months he’s been in Maine, trying to formulate a plans for the athletic department and each of the school’s teams.
That planning will be ongoing for most of Fein’s first year, but he said it will include upgrading facilities, in some fashion, to improve the student-athlete experience and make the school even more attractive to students.
President Clayton Spencer and the Bates administration is already on-board. The Bates Campaign, a fundraising initiative with a goal of $300, has earmarked $25 million to be used for athletics.
“You don’t have to go and convince them of the importance (of athletics), they’re already telling you the importance,” Fein said. “Now the pressure’s on to help them fundraise for it.”
The other part of Fein’s planning involves improving the athletic success of Bates’ teams. For some, such as the national-champion women’s rowing program, that means staying on top. For other squads, the goal might be moving up a spot in the NESCAC standings, or making the postseason.
While the NESCAC’s academic prominence helps keeps sports in perspective, Fein said that winning, though not the most important thing, is still the goal of intercollegiate athletics.
“They come here and they want to get an amazing education, which they deserve,” he said. “But they also want to get a great athletic experience, and winning is certainly part of what they want to do.”
While most of Fein’s work this first year will be learning and getting organized, he has already began more immediate upgrades: the school’s fitness center will receive some new equipment, and the athletic department’s website is being improved.
“To communicate with students now, you’ve got to be on the cutting edge with technology, social media, things like that,” Fein said.
The intent of any changes will be, of course, to elevate Bates College.
“We’re right there. We’re right there,” Fein said. “How do we get from there to there? It’s incremental, which is a cool challenge as opposed to being down here and we want to go up here.”
Bates senior Jessica Vocaturo supports the middle part of her boat as the 2V team makes it’s way toward the Androscoggin River in Greene during the 21st annual Presidents’ Cup in April. The women’s rowing program has been one of the most successful at Bates College, winning national titles in 2015 and 2017.
Bates College director of athletics Jason Fein.