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Tommy McClelland still picks up the phone

Photo Courtesy Jeff Fitlow Brandon Chen / Thresher

By Riya Misra     9/5/23 11:50pm

At Louisiana Tech University’s first football home opener in 2014, fireworks lit up their field — but not for them. In the last eight minutes of the game, their opponents from Northwestern State University had scored 10 points, then sealed their 30-27 victory with a tie-breaking 50-yard field goal. Not anticipating a loss, Louisiana Tech had pre-planned fireworks to celebrate their home opener.

“I was pulling into a hospital in Shreveport … The phone rang and it was Tommy [McClelland],” Greg Burke, the then-athletic director of Northwestern State in Natchitoches, said. McClelland was Louisiana Tech’s athletic director at the time. 

“I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but … he said, ‘Well, I’m finally bringing myself to the point where I can pick up the phone and give you a call,’” Burke said. “And we laughed.”

President Reggie DesRoches announced July 30 that Tommy McClelland would join Rice as its athletic director. The position had previously been held by Joe Karlgaard, who left Rice in the middle of July for a job in the private sector.

Prior to starting at Rice, McClelland was Vanderbilt University’s deputy athletic director. Before that, he held athletic director positions at both Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La. and McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. 

“We were all very much on the same page in seeking someone who had a broad basis of experience in college athletics,” Rice Faculty Athletic Representative Leo Costello said. “It’s a winning business. It’s competition … but nobody wanted someone who was going to win in spite of the academic rigor of Rice.”

McClelland’s basis in athletics is rooted in his childhood. He fell in love with sports as a player, he said, before he ever thought about management.

“If I rewind the clock to being a young child … I was first introduced to sports as a participant, whether it was little league baseball or, as we called it in my community, biddy basketball,” McClelland said. “I appreciated the lessons that it taught me about teamwork, about failure and overcoming that failure.”

McClelland was a student-athlete at Northwestern State University, competing both as a football player and javelin thrower. He credits his undergraduate years at Northwestern State for fostering an interest in sports administration, which he later pursued through Northwestern State’s corresponding graduate program. McClelland wanted to stay close to the game. This was his solution.

In 2004, Northwestern State’s master’s program in sports administration required a six-week internship. McClelland chose to stick close to home, interning under Burke.

“You may have to ask [McClelland] why he decided to stay at Northwestern [State] and get his master’s because he could have gone to any number of schools with his credentials and his academics,” Burke said. “I do remember when he came to see me and to ask if he could do his internship in our office. Of course, I knew enough about him that nothing told me ‘No, I don’t want this guy.’”

Burke and McClelland had known each other since the latter’s student-athlete days, Burke said, but McClelland’s internship was the “genesis of when [they] became connected.” The two went on to forge a friendship spanning nearly two decades, even when McClelland accepted a position at rival McNeese State University.

At McNeese, McClelland worked as an events coordinator for nine months before applying for the newly-vacant athletic director position. He got the job. At age 25, McClelland was the youngest to hold that title at an NCAA Division I school.

“That was [being at] the right place at the right time,” McClelland said of his hire. “I was not qualified for that job. I was 25 years old. But I earned the opportunity every day afterwards.”

“How many people can look themselves in the mirror and honestly say that they were capable of assuming oversight of a Division I athletic program at age 25?” Burke added. “I’ll tell you, I’ve got the answer for me — I could not.”

McClelland, in turn, hired another recent graduate: In 2007, Ryan Ivey, just one month older than his boss, became McNeese State’s assistant athletic director.

“It was two 25-year-olds trying to elevate McNeese State,” Ivey, now the athletic director at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, said. “We both had dreams and plans of growing in the business, and we knew that we needed each other to do that.”

Achieving high at a young age, McClelland said, set a lofty standard for the rest of his career. After fourteen years as an athletic director, six at McNeese State and seven at Louisiana Tech, McClelland accepted a lower-ranking job at Vanderbilt. It was a move questioned by many around him, he said, but Nashville was better equipped for his family.

“From a personal standpoint, my oldest son is autistic and having the opportunity to go to a city that had more resources for him was highly important,” McClelland said. “Although it may have not been what people thought I would do for Louisiana Tech, it was still an investment in my career, while also [an investment] in my family.”

McClelland commutes regularly between Houston and Nashville, where his family still lives for now. He flies out on day trips to see his son’s sixth grade football games. He takes any opportunity to bring up his family in conversation, even unprompted. He talks more like his father every day, he says.

“My wife is from Nacogdoches. I’m from Southwest Louisiana. This is us moving home,” McClelland said. “[My kids] have grown up in this lifestyle of being at every sporting event, supporting our student athletes … [inviting] teams over into our home and cooking for them. They’ve grown up just being a part of the athletics fabric of [a] university.”

While college athletics may be ingrained in his sons, McClelland said he’s approaching his new role — for the first few months, at least — slowly.

“I have to take the approach of listen, learn, lead,” McClelland said. “It’s irresponsible to say ‘This is how I did it before and we’ve got to do it this way.’ Rice is different [from] Vanderbilt, Rice is different, certainly, [from] Louisiana Tech or McNeese.”

Yet, despite McClelland moving through three different universities and a slew of colleagues, Burke and Ivey make the exact same observation about him: He still picks up the phone to call.

“There [are] a lot of rewarding parts about working in college athletics,” Burke said. “But to me, the best part is those relationships with coaches, administrators and student athletes that pass the test of time. They endure.”

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