Roosevelt University in Chicago, Schaumburg and Online - Logo

Going extra mile to build athletics from scratch

Posted: 08/27/2012

Published by the Daily Herald, August 26, 2012

By Burt Constable

The latest in a series of temporary offices for Roosevelt University Athletic Director Mike Cassidy spills beyond the flimsy cubicle wall and onto the floor's worn carpet, where a black electrical cord winds its way to a portable, battery-operated scoreboard.

“I'm charging it right now,” Cassidy says, leaping from his chair to demonstrate how he can operate the new device with a remote control. “To provide a college atmosphere, you need a scoreboard.”

That's why he hauls this scoreboard to the inaugural game of Roosevelt's new men's soccer program, which comes the day after Cassidy treks to Iowa to catch the women's first soccer game. In the 20 or so hours between games, he drives to his home in Wheaton and grabs a little sleep before running 27.8 miles from the Roosevelt University campus in Schaumburg to its new 32-story building in downtown Chicago to raise money and awareness for the school's athletic program.

“I love it,” Cassidy says. his almost manic smile growing as he appreciates how easy it is for him to astonish folks with all he does in his job as the athletic director for a school that didn't have any sports for two decades. Cassidy came aboard in 2009 with the task of building a university sports program from scratch.

“I got to pick which sports we were going to sponsor, hire the coaches, design the school logo and write the school fight song,” Cassidy says, offering to sing the lyrics that he wrote while driving his wife, Maureen, sons, Kieran, 9, and Brendan, 6, and 4-year-old daughter Maura to visit Cassidy's parents in Memphis for spring break. “I've even taken uniforms home and washed them.”

Entering its third season as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, Roosevelt now sponsors six sports for men and six for women and has an athletic budget that tops $1 million. “We've gone from zero student athletes to almost 200,” Cassidy says.

“He's a terrific guy in every meaning of the word terrific,” gushes Roosevelt University President Chuck Middleton, who praises Cassidy's energy, imagination, enthusiasm and expertise. “He's absolutely the key person to all of this.”

Sports always figured into the career options for Cassidy, who grew up in Glen Ellyn and was a tight end, safety and backup quarterback on his Glenbard South High School football team.

“I played on the worst football team in history,” he says. The team's record for Cassidy's career was 3-32-1, and one of those wins came against a Plainfield school that had been devastated by a deadly tornado the day before, he notes.

“I always knew my athletic ability was limited,” he admits. But he figured he could make it big as a sports broadcaster.

“I was going to be the next Bob Costas,” remembers Cassidy, who studied at Illinois State University before graduating from Columbia College with a degree in broadcast journalism. He worked behind the scenes for ESPN radio and got in on the tail end of the Chicago Bulls championship run.

In 1997, while holding a full-time job working until midnight at the sports radio station, Cassidy landed an daytime internship with the athletic department at the University of Illinois Chicago. Realizing his true calling, Cassidy gave up his broadcast dreams and dedicated himself to sports administration. He was serving as associate athletic director at UIC when he got the Roosevelt job.

Thrilled with the freedom to build the department he envisioned out of nothing, Cassidy still wondered what kind of response he'd get after posting a coaching job notice for a Roosevelt team that had no players and no schedule.

“Within two hours, I had 150 emails,” Cassidy recalls. “Everyone from Division 1 coaches who had just been fired to bus drivers who played basketball once and thought this would be a good place to start.”

One of those applicants was Joe Griffin, an assistant coach at the NCAA Division II school of Eastern New Mexico University, who cut his coaching teeth as a graduate assistant at Michigan State University under the tutelage of acclaimed basketball coach Tom Izzo. Griffin became Cassidy's first hire.

“I had to sell him that I wanted to be here,” recalls Griffin, who says he instantly meshed with the “dynamic leader” Cassidy's vision of “creation” for the basketball program. “I guess we're kind of crazy. We knew we were never going to get this chance again.”

The basketball team won four games the first year, improved to 9-20 last season and will start the upcoming season with a new gymnasium, dreams of a winning season, and a young roster that includes suburban standouts from Warren, Batavia, Palatine, Hersey, Glenbard South and Glenbard East high schools along with transfer students from the College of DuPage and Judson College in Elgin.

The women's basketball team, which also has a strong suburban presence, finished the regular season at 15-15 last year under the direction of Robyn Scherr-Wells, who was the starting point guard during her playing days at Glenbard West High School. She earned a scholarship at the University of Michigan and played on an elite amateur team before entering the coaching profession.

“It's the most unique opportunity you could ever be presented with. It was just too hard to pass up,” she says of her job at Roosevelt and the chance to work with Cassidy. “I saw his vision and thought he had a clear vision and the experience to get the job done. There's so much local talent here, I thought we could build a program mainly building from our own back yard.”

Once regarded more as a part-time school for adults, Roosevelt in the last decade has morphed into a university with more than 6,600 students. Many are younger full-time students who live in dorms on campus and desire a more traditional college experience, Middleton says. The school just opened a new 32-story facility in Chicago. Athletics are part of the change, and have brought more students to the school, the president adds.

While sports teams were a part of Roosevelt beginning in 1949, the programs died out by the end of the 1980s. Rummaging through an old athletic closet, Cassidy found a tennis trophy bearing the name Agassi.

“Yep, Andre Agassi's father played here,” Cassidy says.

The athletic director says he uses the school's lack of sports tradition as a recruiting tool.

“Our career home-run leader has four,” Cassidy told one baseball recruit, who jumped at the chance to play right away and get his name in the record books.

“The road's not going to be paved with gold because you're going to be paving it,” Cassidy tells prospective student-athletes. “It's really selling them on a vision.”

Part of his job is finding facilities where Roosevelt teams can compete.

“Cross Country is the easiest,” Cassidy says. “They just run around the lake and come back.” Roosevelt will play basketball games this winter at the new Goodman Center athletic field house in Chicago. Named after philanthropist Larry Goodman of Skokie, who donated $3 million toward building the $5 million structure, the facility will be available for the fitness and wellness needs of all students and Roosevelt employees. Starting Saturday, Cassidy will be promoted to an assistant vice president position that includes broader responsibilities for the health of athletes and everyone at Roosevelt, Middleton says.

Cassidy says he's still correcting people's misperceptions about the university and its sports program.

“Some people expect us to play Duke on ESPN, and others think we walk through the halls at 6:30 and see who wants to play in the 7 o'clock game,” Cassidy says. He predicts that the university and the athletic department will keep growing.

Or, as he wrote into the school fight song: “From the shores of the lake, better make no mistake, the Lakers are here to stay.”

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