Following the departure of Mollie Marcoux ’91, John Mack ’00 was appointed as the new Ford Family Director of Athletics at Princeton in 2021. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Mack spoke about what has changed since he was a student, the relevance of his diverse work experiences to his current role, and his goals as athletic director at Princeton.
The Daily Princetonian: Tell me about yourself. How did your recruitment process start? What was it like being an athlete at Princeton in the late 1990s? What was student life like?
John Mack: I grew up in a small town in Michigan, outside of Detroit. If you were an athlete, the University of Michigan [and] Michigan State were the two big options.
I had a scholarship offer to go to the University of Michigan. I was thrilled; I was going to go and be happy. But the track coaches at Princeton started calling and recruiting, and every other week, we’d have a conversation [where] they started telling me about this place.
I came to Princeton to tell them no, since they kept calling, even though I told them I was going to go to the University of Michigan. I came on my Princeton recruiting visit wearing a University of Michigan jacket, which my coaches never let me live down. But from the moment I got here, I fell in love with the place. I think I came with a lot of assumptions about what life at an Ivy League school was like [and] what the people would be like, and those were all quickly put to rest.
DP: You’ve worked in other fields before coming back to Princeton. How have they shaped who you are today and the experience you bring to the job?
JM: I think the diversity of my previous work as a pastor and as an attorney helps shape the way I come to work every day. I’ve told people, when you are pastoring and when you are an attorney, you are seeing people at their best and at their worst, and [the job of pastors and attorneys] is to love [people] at their best and at their worst. I think in many ways, that’s what college is. We see students at their best and at their worst, especially in athletics. You have the highest of highs, then you have the lowest of lows, and the job is to help students who are in a really critical part of their life navigate through that.
DP: Reflecting on your first year, what goals do you feel you’ve achieved and what are you looking ahead towards for year two?
JM: I jokingly tell people I did a fantastic job of staying out of the way last year. Our teams had a lot of success, but, I think the beauty is that Princeton was in fantastic shape when I got here. My predecessor, Mollie Marcoux, did an incredible job leading the department during her seven years, and so for me, I really wanted to spend most of the first year listening. What are the things that I don’t know? Where are the issues that I’m not as familiar with?
One of the things that we did this past year was having our first-ever Tiger Coaches Summit to really invest in our coaches and professional development. We had a retreat that allowed them to sit and talk to each other and interact and pick each other’s brains in ways that they don’t have an opportunity to do during the year. One of the other really important things to me was focusing on our DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] efforts not just for the student-athletes, but across campus. The university recently announced the partnership with Godfrey Fitzgerald Salon, we played a big part in making that happen.
JM: Given that you understand the academic rigor here at Princeton, how important is it to you that the athletes here are not only athletically proficient but academically prepared for all the challenges that Princeton will throw at them?
I think for me, the academic rigor at Princeton and our athletic success go hand in hand. You know, those are the two non-negotiables of being a student-athlete at Princeton or being a coach at Princeton. When I do interviews for coaching positions, the first thing I say is a successful coach here has to understand the academic life that our students have and that sometimes they may miss practice. Sometimes you may have to not have practice. You have to schedule games and travel in consideration of what class times are like. If you can’t understand that part of being here, you won’t be successful and our student-athletes will not have a good experience. One of the things that I’ve tried to do is share my experience. I struggled the first two years getting up to speed academically because I wasn’t as prepared as a lot of students were, and trying to message to students what the path to success looks like at Princeton.
DP: As a former Division I athlete, how has the experience of being an athlete evolved over the years, and what is Princeton doing to support players with interests in going pro, or who are interested in taking advantage of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals, as well as balancing career/academic ambitions?
JM: I think being a student-athlete at Princeton has changed incredibly. One, the athletes we have now are infinitely better than the athletes who were here when I was a student-athlete. We didn’t have guys like [football’s senior wide receiver] Andrei Iosivas walking around when I was a student-athlete.
I also think the reality of mental health is so prevalent now that it’s such a part of the day-to-day experience and making sure that we are providing all the resources necessary for our student-athletes to have a well-rounded and successful experience. That has [all] changed.
When I was here, we didn’t focus on nutrition. We didn’t talk about sleep. It was just understood, you know, to sleep as much as you needed to and then do lots of work. But now we understand differently the role that sleep plays in performance, both for student-athletes and students in general. I think college athletics is a much more complex experience now. I think for me, that’s part of why I wanted to come back — because of the experience that I had as a student-athlete, and because there were people here to help guide me along the way. I tell the story all the time about Hank Towns — he was our equipment manager. He was an old Black man. He worked here for 35 or 40 years, and he still comes around.
When I came on my recruiting visit, my parents met Hank and he and my father hit it off instantly. When [Hank] was leaving to go back to the equipment room, Hank said, Mr. Mack, I got to go. But I can tell you this: If you send your son to Princeton, we will take care of him. That message resonated with my father till the day he died. And I think because of the impact that Hank had when I got here, he took care of me. He’d take me to his house, take me to his church. He really made Princeton feel like home. And I think because that was what someone did for me, I owe it to the universe and to the generations of current and future student-athletes at Princeton and students as a whole to offer that same kind of help and support as they navigate this place.
DP: Princeton Athletics recruits student-athletes from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds. As a Black college athlete yourself, what are you doing to establish diversity amongst all the teams?
JM: Maintaining a diverse student-athlete population is one of our highest priorities — and to do that while maintaining our competitive success. I think that the only way to ensure that you have the best and brightest is to cast as wide a net as possible in recruiting, both in terms of drawing student-athletes, and in terms of drawing coaches and staff members. The broader the reach we have, the more likely you are to have a diverse pool. I think naturally we’ll put together a really diverse student-athlete cohort and a diverse coaching staff and administrative staff. You have to absolutely be intentional and message to people that it is important for us as a department and as a university [to be diverse], and I think we have the opportunity to continue to grow, develop, and provide a life-changing student-athlete experience for student-athletes from every diverse population. I think that’s what makes being a student-athlete so special: athletics creates a community, a real, diverse community.
Brian Mhando is a contributor to the Sports and Podcast sections at the ’Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections at dailyprincetonian.com.