Scott McRoberts Interviewed by Jaxon Camp
Scott McRoberts Biography
Scott McRoberts is currently the Director of Athletics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. McRoberts graduated Brock University in 2002 with a degree in Sports Management, then left Canada to obtain his masters degree in Sports Management at the University of San Francisco. McRoberts is also an accomplished varsity athlete, spending his academic years as a member of the Brock Badgers tennis team. His love for academia and athletics led him to various roles within the world of varsity athletics, as he has served on the board of directors for numerous committees related to athletics within the NCAA and USports. At the University of Guelph, McRoberts is also the Associate Director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership at the Lang School of Business. Since becoming the Director of Athletics at the University of Guelph in 2016, McRoberts has been instrumental in the department's efforts to become one of the most inclusive and equality-driven programs in the nation. Initiatives such as She's Got Game (for women's athletic scholarships) are one of the many examples of McRobert's commitment to develop an elite program both on and off the playing field for all student athletes. McRoberts has been recognized nationwide for his leadership qualities, as he was recently selected to take part in the Governor General's Leadership Program amongst many distinguished leaders in the Canadian government and military.
As the Athletic Director at the University of Guelph, obviously you are tasked with a huge assortment of responsibilities related to dealing with student-athletes and scheduling, so what I wanted to know was how the initial COVID shutdown impacted you as a person. What issues needed to get sorted out at the very beginning and how did your job change?
Well, I was with the men’s hockey team in Halifax at nationals and I will never forget that as long as I live. From an immediate standpoint I was called into our room after the loss on Thursday night at 11pm, and we were told that the tournament was coming to an abrupt halt. We had to be out of our hotels by Friday evening, meaning we had 24 hours. In my head, seeing what I saw on TSN with Rudy Gobert and basketball, this isn’t a joke. This is very serious. Then my mind went to “This is 11pm on a Thursday, how do I get a flight out for 25 people and get us safely home?”. My immediate thing was how do I get everybody home safe and how do I get home to my family if this is so bad it’s going to shut down? I was on the phone all Friday morning. We got a flight out, and the one thing I forgot was “How do I get the team to the airport? Okay, right, the plane’s not picking us up at the hotel, crap” (chuckling). In the next three hours I have to find a coach bus that’s available in Halifax to get us to the airport. Luckily again, that (fell) into place. I’ll never forget it as long as I live too, we had breakfast that morning as a team, wondering should we be having breakfast or not? We went and had breakfast as a team at the Bluenose. I remember sitting there with everyone on the team in the room and wondering what’s going on? What’s going to happen? What is this about? Is this my last meal with this big of a group sitting there? I’ll never forget how Coach Camper said, “This will only be a couple weeks and we’ll be back on the ice”. No one knew anything, so from an immediate (standpoint) that was my first play. Knowing that no other teams were travelling at that point, that we’re at the end of the year anyway, we’ll see what happens. From there in, the intercollegiate side of things was kind of over for the year. There was no athletic banquet, which kind of sucked for everybody, especially the seniors. Then it went into “How do we (operate) our facilities and are we going to have summer camps?”. I was on the Provincial Minister’s Sports Committee (working) on a return to safe sport for the fall. It was May when we had to decide what was going to happen in September for the season. We were looking at what the Olympic teams were doing, because (if) they’re able to train and do stuff then there’s hope for the rest of us. It wasn’t looking good, and we put all these things in place for return to sport, then people were pretty shocked when in June we announced there was not going to be an OUA season. During this time, from a department standpoint, March, April, May, June it was about “How do you operate an athletics department from the basement of your house?”. That was my (job). Then, how does the Department of Athletics with 62 full-time employees and 112 assistant and head coaches, how do you keep everybody together? How do we continue to keep people uplifted and have fun when people are freaking out about what this is, you can’t talk to your loved ones, you can’t see anyone. We really tried to rally our department online at that time to have fun. We made Friday crazy pyjama pant day, so when you come online for any meetings you had to have your crazy pyjamas. We had bi-weekly trivia night. It was no-holds barred. You want to come in at 7:00pm and do trivia with staff members with a beer in your hand, go ahead. We invested in professional development and workshops. We had just started to work on our new strategic plan called the Gryphon Way. (Scott then proceeds to show a series of Gryphon Way initiative commitments that were printed on a series of cards). We actually used the time to really look at who we are as a department. What are our values, missions, and goals? What is our purpose? Why do we exist? What are our guiding principles and what do we want to hang our hat on? We actually used the time to try to keep each other together knowing that everybody was struggling at home with “Am I going to lose my job?”, “Are we going to be laid off?”, “Now I’m homeschooling my kids”, “My partner and I have never spent so much time together in our house”. There (are) so many different dynamics which are going on in people’s lives. We tried to keep some normalcy to what was going on. Then it was (about) our student-athletes. Off-season training, how to keep them working with coaches, how to keep them involved. I know the football team shipped everybody a pair of dumbbells to have at their house and they did team workouts online to the best of their abilities. I don’t think anybody thought to that point about the mental health side of things, which if I’m fast-forwarding to life after COVID, the mental health side of things is at an all-time high. I also think about the stuff that happened during that time with Black Lives Matter and the difficulty as a team of wanting to be together with your teammates to talk through things, you want to be in-person with each other to work through some of those challenges, some of the horrific things that went on during that time. At the same time, it was when Residential Schools came (to light). You have these huge social issues with Black Lives Matter and Residential Schools where at those times you want to be with that family, you want to be with that group of people in-person, talking through these things. What can we do as a department? Our staff struggling, our athletes struggling. The social issues combined with the COVID made it really, really, difficult to manage in a setting where people in athletics and recreation are about being active and together. The social side of things was really lacking. The last thing I’d say to that is that there’s really no textbook. In all my schooling and my master’s degree, to become an Athletic Director, sports management, there has never been a question, there’s never been a playbook on how to operate during a pandemic. Everybody was trying to figure this out for themselves. What we can do for training, what we can let in for numbers, do we have to wipe off all the dumbbells and stuff like that. It was just crazy with all the ongoing changes, and I just remember every Thursday or Friday, we tuned in as a staff to CP24 to hear Ford and the Minister of Health’s latest announcement. I remember when we had to cancel the OUA season, I thought “How many people are going to leave?”, “How many are going to stay?”, “What happened to my coaches?”, “What happened to these athletes and their mental health?”. I knew our department would stay intact, and our buildings would be open to service, but I knew the sport would not happen. I remember particularly wrestling, in the nature there, some teams were able to come back and train in groups of five while being changed in different rooms or taking equipment home, but wrestling couldn’t do anything for two years because (of) their sport. You can’t train for wrestling without touching someone or being in that close proximity to someone. Post-COVID, last year was difficult with tracing rapid-tests if someone was sick, making sure everybody tested, getting enough tests – if we’re running low, how do we get more – this person may have a cold, they may have COVID, “my roommate just tested positive” – (there) was a constant medical doctor persona to it. This year has brought normalcy, there’s been minor COVID, we have tests if you need them. It’s nice to get back to normal, but the mental health side, people are angrier than ever, society, we’re dealing with a lot too. COVID is still around, what is long COVID for some people and their grandparents and their families who are suffering? High inflation: how am I going to pay for food, groceries, gas? Turning on the TV or news – are we on the verge of a nuclear attack? The coming out of COVID is so much more challenging and we knew it (would be), but you add all these factors alongside of it, we’re an angry society – people are angry. There’s concern for our students, our student-athletes, what they’re dealing with. We lost a varsity athlete to suicide in August, right before the season. There could have been more had our coaches not been so in-touch with the student-athletes or understanding where they are – where they have the relationship where the student-athlete can come to the coach and say, “I’m on the verge of suicide, I need help”. It’s really transitioned outside of getting back to sport, I think wins and losses are less important than they ever have been. I think it’s more about what is the student-athlete experience? How are we supporting student-athletes and students on campus? What are we doing to help on the mental health side of things?
I know that myself personally as a student-athlete, we appreciate everything you guys have done. You have gone to every extreme to afford us the opportunity to compete, same with our team when we got sick. There were tests for everybody multiple times throughout the year. I’m sure every single other sport had those situations too, so everything you have done, we appreciate.
It was non-stop, every day for those two years it felt like every day there was a new outlook, a new evaluation looking at what we can do to help. I kept a lot of notes through it, I haven’t gone back to them yet, but I kept them knowing that I’ll want to go back a see what I was managing and dealing with. The next day, and the next day, or in the moment I haven’t sat back and reflected on the past two years until now.
Mentioning Post-COVID society, do you think that the student body and the community appreciate athletics more?
Yeah, we had record attendance coming back. Starting off with football in a year where we didn’t play that well and had a very young team, I think we were the come-out party for not only the students coming back this year but also for the community. Just seeing the record attendance at a lot of our sports, especially in the fall demonstrated that people missed being in a social, fun setting. I think that people missed the highs and lows of what sports bring. I think people missed cheering and yelling out loud. We had record numbers not just in the varsity side, we also had record numbers this year of students in our intramural programs (and) in our fitness programs. We’ve had to expand them for the first time because of how many people were coming out. I think that people have shown the benefits of having a healthy body to fight COVID, they showed the benefits of exercise on the mental health side. I think people wanted the social, physical, and mental side of things that athletics, sports and recreation brings that we can provide. We saw it, we don’t know if the University or the academics saw it but we definitely saw it. We’ve been inner surveying, we’ve been told multiple times how important this place is to them, especially after COVID.
Speaking of return to sport, with last year’s “in-between” season, was it overwhelming at all to come back to a full schedule this year? Or did you use last year as a steppingstone to a full season with fans returning?
I totally forgot about that five-week shutdown last January. Thirteen months ago, felt like three years ago. I think that pause was the toughest of it all, when people were just getting back and feeling good. It definitely affected our men’s hockey team and where they were going (*men’s hockey lost five high-end players to professional hockey over this five-week shutdown due to the pro ranks being able to offer an uninterrupted season with pay – most men’s hockey players at UofG aim to play professionally after their time at Guelph*). I think that’s a very good question about this year – where we’re back to normal. I feel people - for a lot of reasons - forgot ’19-20 was the last normal season. It had been three years since our last normal season. Everybody’s been through their own journey with COVID, with social issues, with inflation, with budget, lost loved ones. I felt people were more burnt out and exhausted dealing with more issues than ever before. I think people felt overwhelmed and burnt out when there’s more social issues and mental health to deal with – we still did the same amount of games before. We have done this before folks. People are more aware of their time and what’s important to them. I think coming back to a normal season, we all looked at the core things we need to do versus not need to do. We looked at work/life balance in a different manner. Working athletics all my life, you just do 80 hours a week, that’s sport. You cheer here, you get some sleep in the spring and get ready to do it again. We’ve had to take the approach where it’s not all about the department and going crazy from August until the end of March. There needs to be balance in there. Return to the office was difficult for so many companies, it was a little easier for us because our job is in person. We do have what we’ve worked on, a lot of people take one day (a week) and work from home. I think there’s been some good that’s come out of this. You’re not just coming back and getting back to 100 miles an hour again. When we started down that road, we realized we can’t have everyone doing it even if it’s how we did things (before). There needs to be balance, there needs to be more discussions with people on their mental health and how they are. I really think more focus on supporting your team and your staff, your culture more than anything. The great resignation – people are leaving jobs and everything like this, outside of “I want to live closer to home” – those type of things, we really haven’t lost any people in our department. We’re working on our Gryphon Way and all those things that have helped us coming out of COVID. There is way more being in touch with your team and your staff versus “everybody wants to work here and you’re replaceable, we’ll find someone to come in and work the 80 hours” – you can’t do that anymore.
Having the work/life balance is something that a lot of people discovered that they needed over the break. A lot of self-work and self-help were key things that we’ve found have helped in our research.
I’ve had a lot of people this year say, “I used to see you at a lot more games pre-COVID”, and I would say yes, however my kids are now three years older and play triple and double- ‘A’ hockey. As a father, I want to be at their games – it doesn’t mean I’m not following along on my phone (chuckles). I think people have really looked inward at what’s important to them and understand that this can’t be your life (overcommitting to work), including myself.
Branching off of that, were there any aspects of the pandemic that were good for you?
Yes. I have never spent more time with my wife in 21 years of us dating and being married. For some, that’s a bad thing. I know a lot of people who got divorced over that. For us, it actually brought our marriage, our family time, and our relationship closer. My job has been non-stop. It’s the most time that we’ve spent as a family. I really enjoyed the family meals, that I was home during the societal issues that took place. That we could have those impactful, meaningful discussions with our kids. I got to – although they didn’t play games that year – to be the assistant coach of my son’s hockey team and be on the ice for every practice that year, even with a mask. I’ve really reached into what’s important to me. It’s the first time in my life where I have been able to disconnect from work and be able to separate home life and work. It’s been one thing I’ve been able to come back with. I’ve been able to keep that separation and that work/life balance I’ve never had in my life. Ever. The importance of my job not being first, and my family being first, it was a hard thing for me to realize during COVID that it’s that I had been doing. We discovered that my son had a severe learning disability during COVID because he was home working online, and we realized he couldn’t read or write English or French. I don’t think we would have discovered it had my wife not had him sitting beside her every day. It led to us getting a speech therapist working on his reading and writing, and then going through the process and diagnosis of high-functioning ADHD – my youngest one Euan – it’s been three years we’ve been working on it. He’s now in fourth grade, and this year he had the best report card I’ve ever seen from him, all A’s and B’s, no C’s, no D’s. We never thought we’d ever see that. There’s a lot of good that came from that (the break). You’ve got a lot of lessons to be learned and (need to see) what good can be taken away from that time. If you don’t, what’d you do for three years?
Exactly, I’ve had the opportunity to meet your family and they reflect all the values that you preach here and pass along to everybody else in the community. It’s awesome, especially working on ice with your kids. Based off of using time over the break, did you pick up any new or old hobbies? I did some background research and wanted to know if you made your return to the tennis courts?
I did. My biggest disappointment that I haven’t really gotten back to was that for the first time in my life, I stopped hockey. COVID happened and I haven’t gotten back to it in a way that I thought I would or hoped I would. I skate once a month at the noon skates, but now my joints didn’t hurt, my hips didn’t hurt, my lower back didn’t hurt after… I thought “this feels good”. I transitioned to (rowing) and working out five times a week in my basement. I did get back on the court and hit the tennis ball especially when it was nice outdoors. I did it with my kids as well which is awesome. I think the best thing was that I’ve been here 7 years, it would have been 4 and a half during COVID, I really hadn’t explored my neighborhood or all the different streets in the area around it, so we went on dog walks twice a day with our family. I really enjoyed the family walks. We all got bikes and we biked everywhere, that has continued with our family as well. The walks and the bikes were something new that we continue to do. I loved getting outdoors with my kids from a mental health side for me. The other thing is I never golfed so much since I lived in California… my golf game got really (good), and the boys and I played 9 holes of golf all the time. I think they played 16 rounds during the first year of COVID because golf was one of the only things you could do. You could do a foursome as long as it was within your household, so I got to go golfing with the boys all the time. I really enjoyed that, and they became pretty good golfers because of COVID, and they really love it.
That’s awesome, because with sports such as golf or tennis or even working out at home you can do it with your family. I know personally for myself it was something I was doing a lot. I felt like it was a good segue into the next year of being able to do that and progressively being able to do a little bit more every year. Especially last year being one-foot-in one-foot-out into this year being full steam ahead. How did your family attitudes change with your family being able to do more and more activities as the pandemic progressed?
For our boys, it was playing meaningful hockey games, you would understand that. At their age, they missed what I call a critical year of development which every kid their age was in the same (boat) for. This was the first year that they experienced tournaments. (Last year) the league was there but with no tournaments. The kids got to go to Lake Placid (and) the Can/Am tournament in Michigan, so experiencing the tournament and staying in a hotel was pretty cool for them for the first time. It’s not something where it was like “I’ve done this before and I miss it”, it was “I’ve never done this and now I get to experience it”. I think it was for my wife and I, a little bit of shock for us going from zero to 120 miles per hour because again, coming back was the first time we got to experience a full season of AAA and AA and all that goes on with it. It’s like you need three parents to have two kids in rep hockey. I think we really try and ground ourselves to try and find family meals where we can. Just this weekend on Family Day we made a very conscious effort to have that dedicated time for us as a family. Similar to what we did in COVID. I think we put more value on that and make more of an effort to have those days again where we can (do that) where pre-COVID we couldn’t. I’m really just grateful that I took a lot from COVID, and I’m really grateful of the time that I had at home for those two years with my kids, given how much I missed of their early childhood days with my work. I think I’m a better person coming out of it, and I know that’s not for everybody. I know everybody went through their own journey and process during, but my priorities are re-shaped, my commitment to my relationships and really reconnecting with your core friends – if you had 20 friends, you might have 7 or 8 that really matter and that I’d invest my time in. I think I reconnected those relationships in a good way as well.
Would you say that the positive energy that you left the pandemic with due to your core group of friends and with the relationship of your family being a lot stronger, bringing that to the workplace encourages more of a positive environment here? Seeing as a student that the staff are excited, it makes us more excited.
One hundred percent. I think that if an employee says something stupid or makes a comment, or something’s not right, I don’t look at it like “how dare they?”, I look at things differently, such as what’s happening in their life. Things like are they struggling today? Is there something deeper rooted that’s going on beyond that comment? I think I look at things different now. Again, wins and losses to some are everything, but to me, it’s not always about winning now. I think what sports brings, we know there’s so much more beyond that and it’s why we do sport, why we play sports and the things that come with it are more evident than wins and losses. Yes, there is huge investment in our program in money that goes behind it, and yes, we want to win national championships. If I had a coach on my staff where I didn’t think they wanted that too, they probably wouldn’t be here. I think the world of sport and the world of coaching has completely changed since pre-COVID too. I think having a more supportive environment and having more difficult conversations openly and honestly, connecting the individual and supporting them. Everybody is on a different journey. Thinking about how you can support them on their journey and having that discussion is more important than anything. The emphasis on a good culture and supportive environment means more today than I think it ever has.
Being able to see the culture from the bottom looking up for the student-athlete, do you feel as if that culture radiates through the population on campus from the top?
I hope so. I feel it when I go into the fitness centre on the weekends. I know I’m going to feel it at the women’s (hockey) playoff games and at the women’s basketball playoff game tonight. I know I felt it at the alumni events. I didn’t touch on that yet. The alumni events this year, we had bigger numbers than ever. People wanted to be re-connected, people wanted to come back. People brought their families. It was across all different sports; it was the biggest turnouts we ever had. I do feel that in all the Gryphon places I go if that’s fair to say. I hope that the same excitement comes back next year. I hope the number of people that come out to the games continues to grow. It was such an unbelievable atmosphere that nobody really knew that our football team went 1-7 besides a handful of people (chuckles).
The fans were flocking to the doors for homecoming, personally I know the Frosty Mug game was unbelievable –
Best ever. The on-ice script was pretty well written too. The atmosphere, the vibe, the comeback. A lot of people said it was the best one ever.
Me personally having been to five or six Frosty Mugs and playing in two, along with watching the team and growing up Guelph, it felt different this year with the way the student body showed up and the way the Athletic Department presented the game. It made it feel almost as important as the fall Homecoming.
Exactly. In all my life I’ve never seen a crowd cheer as loud as when the visiting team’s centreman gets kicked out of the faceoff. That to me was a highlight of that night when he gets waived out of the draw and the crowd goes nuts. Where in the world have you seen that. Not even in game seven of the Stanley Cup, the crowd cheering that loud for the centreman getting kicked out of the faceoff.
I think to go along with the rest of the accomplishments of the Athletic Department this year, I know that there’s been a few championships and a few more to come. Where do you see the direction of the Athletic Department post-COVID?
It’s team by team. It’s where every team left off. Some teams are so young. It’s the youngest football team we’ve ever had. We were going after the national championship the year COVID hit, and we’ve lost so many players (since). We’re young on women’s volleyball. A couple of the other teams too. We have a couple teams like the track and field team who have the strongest team in their history, which is hard to believe, but they’re old. They’re a senior team. Each team and how they’ve been impacted in COVID has been different. The drop-off versus the recruitment versus rebuilding versus being a senior team that’s “our year, it’s really inconsistent across where we had a lot of consistency before. It’ll be really interesting to see by 2025 where we are. When COVID hit, we were one of the most feared schools for any sport in the country. Some would say we didn’t have as many (OUA) championships or national championships as we had in the past, but we had lots of success stories such as men’s rugby having their best year in history and winning their first (national) bronze medal. Wrestling had a huge drop-off, they’re pretty much all first and second years because they had so many seniors that departed. I don’t think we realized coming back in because we were so focused on return to play and getting people back, all the changes of the health protocols that we’re now realizing that all our teams are in different spots. It’s very difficult to have a pulse on it.
Do you feel that there is a really strong sense of resilience among the student-athletes after the pandemic?
Unbelievable. I also think there’s a larger willingness than ever to call it in, to speak out, to ask for help, to say “I’m not doing well”, to call out an atrocity. I think that more than ever. I find a lot more conversations than before are now more important conversations, and that’s really good. People’s resilience has been tested beyond anything. I think of my 9 and-a-half-year-old and 11 and-a-half-year-old sons who understand what happened with Trump, to what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine, to being able to talk about Residential Schools and police brutality and Black Lives Matter, and the pandemic. I don’t even know if I could talk about any of that when I was 9 or 11. There’s hope because of what everybody’s been through. I hope no one ever has to go through something more difficult than that. I think in time as we see the decades turn, we can turn the corner into being a better society than ever because of the struggles that society went through collectively and learning from those times.
How do you think the Gryphon mission has changed or renewed in the post-COVID world?
From a fit and rec side, definitely we’re here to create a place for mental and social wellbeing versus just come exercise and play. I think 100%, I was just talking about this with my associate AD Wally (Gabler) today – we did the championships, the wins and losses were so great and mattered so much, there’s more emphasis now on the student-athlete experience and the support. I talk about that from physical, mental nutritional, strength and conditioning, academics, life after university and sport, leadership opportunities, education, training, the tough discussions… I would put those 10 before a win and loss or championship. If we’re doing that right, and doing those 10 first, the championships and the wins will come. Before, when we were focusing on wins and losses, it worked, but society’s changed. I feel that by doing those things first and looking at the student-athlete experience, we’ll bring the top-level talent here, and we’ll bring the championships here. It will all take care of itself if that’s done first.
As a student athlete, I completely agree. Success follows a championship culture, and we appreciate everything you’ve done to provide that here. Thank you for your time.