Robbins hits the ground running in new position as Edinboro Interim Athletic Director

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Wednesday, September 26th, 2018 at 6:22 PM
Robbins hits the ground running in new position as Edinboro Interim Athletic Director by Chris Rosato Jr.

It might have been easy to miss the announcement in April that Dr. Katherine Robbins would be taking over as interim director of athletics. 

After all, the revelation came in the bottom half of a release from the university announcing that Bruce Baumgartner, who had served in that role since 1997, had accepted a position as assistant vice president for university advancement. Her name did not even appear in the headline.

In the ensuing weeks as part of the department’s shake-up, the administration had to replace the school’s head wrestling coach, cross country coach, lacrosse coach and women’s basketball coach — and subsequently, assistant women’s and men’s basketball coaches. Whether you knew of her or not, she was already helping to steer the department in a new direction.

“I had to hit the ground running. We had a lot going on,” she said. “Even before I got over here, I sat in on the search, with Bruce, for the new head [wrestling] coach. In the meantime…coach Foster from cross country had gotten the job offer from Tennessee, so it was very busy.” 

While the beginning of her tenure has not received much attention from the outside, those within the athletics department have taken notice of her efforts. Head Track and Field Coach Anne Cleary said Robbins’ passion and optimism has been contagious.

“She brings a lot of energy and excitement to the program, which is great,” she said. “I think it’s all really exciting for us moving forward. The school, in a whole, is kind of in a transition period, and I think [Robbins] in her short time already has shown that the athletic department can come out of this transition better than we went into it.”

Associate Athletic Director Todd Jay, who has worked at Edinboro since 1985 and in his current position since 1998, said the new director of athletics has been met with enthusiasm from players, coaches and administrators alike.

“Why I knew that she would be good [as athletic director] is her love for the athletes,” he said. “There is a renewed energy in our building that hasn’t been there in a long time.”

Now five months into her new role, Robbins is finally beginning to settle in. While the attention may never have been on her, it has shifted from the abrupt personnel changes to how the department will move forward. Meanwhile, her focus has been on improving the student-athlete educational experience.

As an undergraduate student, Robbins earned All-American honors three times in water skiing. She would go on to earn her master’s degree before attending Clemson University to earn a doctorate degree in special education. She specialized in working with students with high-incidence disabilities and mild learning disorders. These are diagnoses such as ADHD or certain behavioral disorders, which are sometimes referred to as invisible disabilities because they can be hard to spot by an undiscerning eye. 

However, she found herself working with student-athletes as early as graduate school. She explained that even though most student-athletes do not have diagnosed learning disorders, some come to college underprepared or find themselves having to be responsible for their own education for the first time, while the concepts used to help those with mild learning disabilities can easily be applied to student-athletes.

“I’m an advocate for higher education and I know the importance of getting a college degree, and we all are student-athletes, not the reverse,” she said. “Many of them don’t have a diagnosed disability, but…everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, so some students struggle in different academic areas. I think my experience working with the higher-incidence disabilities, the invisible disabilities, has really helped me be successful with some of the student-athletes who really struggle.”

Cleary said part of what has made Robbins’ time so productive is her willingness to personally get to know all of the university’s student-athletes and support the department.

“We have 350-400 athletes. That’s a lot of athletes, and she’s going around trying to meet with people, doing everything she can to get to all of the events,” she said. “She’s just doing a phenomenal job. We are very lucky that she got moved over to help us.”

Robbins has also overseen new projects within the department. Last week, the university announced the creation of an esports team, the result of months of planning and coordination between the athletics, admissions and marketing departments. She said more announcements are coming as projects get finalized.

“I think I’ve learned a lot in a very short period of time, and I think we’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in a short period of time,” Robbins said. “We have high quality coaches and athletic staff, and I think we’re in a really exciting time. The leadership at Edinboro has been extremely supportive and very collaborative, and there are a lot of campus-wide initiatives…I’m really excited about the future of Edinboro and Edinboro athletics.”

Before being named interim director of athletics, Robbin served as the assistant chair of the department of counseling, school psychology and special education. There, she handled mostly administrative duties and hiring of staff, not unlike she experienced when she first took her new position. In fact, she said the scope of her responsibilities now is similar to her last position, just on a larger scale. The main challenge she’s experienced has been budgeting, something she didn’t have to worry about before.

“I did have to learn some new skills on the fly that weren’t part of my responsibilities as the assistant chair,” she said. “I have to make tough decisions about how we allocate those dollars. That’s the toughest part because our student-athletes work really hard, and I would like to be able to give them more.”

Adding to the difficulty of learning to budget for a large, traditionally tight-laced athletics department is Edinboro’s declining enrollment, which has drawn a large amount of attention in recent years. Some of the recent declining enrollment has been deliberate as the university sought to raise admission standards, but both Robbins and Jay pointed to the recent increase in student retention rate to the benefits of that tactic.

“She’ll be the first to tell you that the frustration that we have is because, like any other business, it’s resources,” Jay said. “These kids need scholarship money and for so many reasons. And it’s the competition...it’s what other schools can offer that we right now are challenged [with].”

The administration has also been working to restructure their scholarship system. Both working out a budget and a scholarship model are geared toward getting athletes at Edinboro what they deserve, she said, something the university struggles with.

“I think there is a perception that our athletes are on full rides, but most don’t receive any money at all,” Robbins said. 

In fact, she credits the student-athletes with making her hard work worthwhile. Still, as much as she said she enjoys the work she is doing to advance the athletics department, it’s the student part of the student-athlete equation that pulls at her the most.

“The toughest part...I would say I miss teaching, so that’s tough,” Robbins said. “I love teaching.”

The interim director of athletics position lasts for two years, long enough to help stabilize the program amongst so many changes and set it on its new path. When the position is filled for good, the school will have a fully-functioning esports team and, hopefully, attract even more athletes from around the country to become a Fighting Scot.

Chris Rosato Jr. can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.

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