A few years into her career practicing law, Beth DeBauche changed course and dove headfirst into the sporting world. She’s never looked back. Flash forward to today; Beth serves as the commissioner for the Ohio Valley Conference, which is a NCAA Division I member and comprises 12 schools. She answers to each school’s president and works alongside them to set the strategic direction of the conference. In today’s FACES, she discusses her advocacy for student-athletes and her experience in the world of intercollegiate athletics.
Tell us about your background and current profession.
I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and had a wonderful and supportive family. I received my B.A. from St. Mary’s College, and afterward went to the University of Notre Dame, where I received a master’s in public relations and a law degree.
I loved playing sports as a kid — I was always on the run — but I ended up on track to be a traditional attorney. I started my law career in Atlanta, and was at a leadership conference one day when a friend looked at me and said, ‘What in the world are you doing practicing law? You have such an interest in sports! Did you ever think of working in that field?’ He encouraged me to apply for jobs in intercollegiate athletics. The first job I interviewed for I got, and I ended up at Vanderbilt University as an assistant athletic director for compliance.
How did you rise to the level of running a major college conference?
Taking that job at Vanderbilt put me on a different path professionally. I was at Vanderbilt for a few years and then took a job in Birmingham, Alabama, working for the Southeastern Conference. For a woman from Wisconsin to work for the SEC was quite a leap, but I loved it. From there, I moved to Indianapolis to work in the home office of the NCAA. And then in 2009, I accepted the commissioner’s position for the Ohio Valley Conference, in part because the OVC is headquartered in Nashville. My career has had a lot of moves, but I’ve never gotten far off of I-65!
What is your favorite part about your job?
Definitely, it is being able to see student-athletes thrive and excel, and learn about themselves. When I was practicing law, I loved advocating for people. Now, I’m an advocate for student-athletes. Students can learn so much about themselves through the college experience. By being involved in intercollegiate athletics, they learn even more! They challenge themselves and gain confidence in their abilities.
What is the biggest challenge you face as commissioner for the OVC?
I got my heels stuck in the turf on the 50-yard line at a football game, so that was a challenge and explains why I don’t wear heals anymore.
But seriously, I’m challenged to help people gain a better understanding of the structure and value of intercollegiate athletics. While there is a great deal of media attention on intercollegiate athletics, it is generally focused only on a few sports and a relatively small number of institutions. As a Division I athletic conference, our OVC student-athletes compete at the highest level while having a balanced student experience. I am very proud of the way the OVC seeks to serve its student-athletes, and I believe the intercollegiate athletics experience in the OVC enriches our students’ lives.
With 12 teams the conference is the biggest it’s ever been. How do you hope to see the OVC grow over the next five years?
First, I would like to see greater visibility for the league. Second, I’d like to see the OVC become known as the conference that makes the biggest difference for student-athletes. That’s our secret sauce.
What do you mean by that?
The OVC focuses on the overall experience for student-athletes. It’s not just about athletics. When a student chooses to come to one of our 12 schools, athletics is going to be part of their overall experience, but not the only part. We make it a priority to help our students understand the importance of selecting the academic program of their choosing and the need for participation in lab work and internships. We also provide our students with comprehensive leadership training so they can go above and beyond and be involved in the broader community. Our OVC schools are graduating student-athletes at a rate higher than the student body.
The sports industry is dominated by men. Has gender ever been an issue for you?
Out of 32 Division I commissioners, 10 are female. While I’m aware that I’m a woman in a field dominated by men, and I feel a responsibility to our student-athletes to be a role model, I have found being a woman has provided me with as many opportunities as impediments. Generally, our members have been exceedingly supportive, and I have had more funny experiences than negative ones. When I first started this job, I was at a football game and someone introduced me and as commissioner. A guy looked at me and said, ‘Well, darlin’, I thought you could be a lot of things, but I didn’t think you’d be that!’
Do you have any advice for women that are trying to get into the world of sports?
I almost did not apply for the commissioner’s position because at the time women were rarely hired as commissioners. I am so glad I did not let my assumptions hold me back from pursuing my dream. A woman might not fit the job requirements exactly, but that’s okay! Work on promoting your experience and make the case that your experience will bring value. I would encourage anyone with an interest in getting involved in sports to do so. Breaking into the field can be difficult; so never be afraid to ask for help. You’d be amazed at how many people want to help!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When you are selected for a leadership role take time to be thoughtful and strategic. Don’t feel like you have to prove your competence. People already know you’re capable — otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten the job.
What is your favorite sport?
Fortunately, I’m in the right field because I’m a huge sports fan in general and I love being active. On a personal level, I really enjoy playing golf, but in full disclosure, my schedule does not allow me to play as much as I would like.
What is your favorite way to unwind on the weekend?
During the academic year, I travel each weekend to sporting events at one of our 12 schools. When I have free time, I love to be outdoors and travel. A Saturday with friends at Percy Warner, Radnor or the Richland Greenway is a great way to start the weekend.
What three things can you not live without excluding friends, family and faith?
A suitcase so I can travel, my treadmill and sneakers so I can get out and about, and my Blackberry (yes, I know – old school).
Photos today by Ashley Hylbert.
Read about even more inspiring local women in our FACES collection. Click here to get started!