Ed McLaughlin sits at his beige, marble-topped desk inside his new office at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. The cosmopolitan layout is open along one side to showcase the glistening Verizon Wireless Arena, the crown jewel of the VCU Athletics program, below. From inside, McLaughlin can see the most visible reminder of the program’s greatest moment, VCU’s Final Four banner, hanging proudly from the white, steel rafters.
The room is pristine, and for good reason. The former Niagara athletic director has barely had time to unpack. Just a few weeks into his tenure as VCU’s athletic director, he’s had to hit the ground running. There’s a $10 million basketball practice facility in the works, fall sports seasons are off to the best start in school history and he’s short at least two senior staffers and a secretary, who left when Norwood Teague departed for Minnesota in May. He’s even received inquiries about next year’s Washington Redskins training camp, which will relocate to Richmond.
As he lays out his vision for the program, which moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference this summer, his cell phone rumbles atop the desk. It’s Men’s Basketball Coach Shaka Smart. Minutes later, the office phone chirps impatiently. Then, a staffer pokes his head into the office, looking for McLaughlin.
McLaughlin is genuinely busy, but he also seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. As people tug at him from every direction, he aims to calmly prioritize.
“It’s been busy, but in a good way,” he says. “The challenge becomes making sure you don’t wait two weeks to talk to someone that shouldn’t have to wait two weeks to talk to you. There’s a balance between going a million miles an hour because you want to do things so well, and then realize, I probably should’ve called so-and-so or I probably should’ve gone out and said ‘hi’ to that team or whatever. In your first few weeks you can’t miss those because you don’t get them back.”
The 39-year-old McLaughlin has been preparing for this opportunity in one way or another for most of his life.
The youngest of three children, McLaughlin grew up mostly in Natick, Mass., a town of 30,000 just west of the Boston city limits. His father owned a construction business, while his mother was a schoolteacher. McLaughlin says his parents’ blue-collar approach taught him the value of a hard day’s work, and he spent his summers helping with his father’s construction business.
“I had to fill the dumpsters and do the demolition work and carry [stuff]”, McLaughlin said. “I had to do all the stuff those guys didn’t want to do.”
McLaughlin also developed a love of sports. He grew up playing baseball and football, and Opening Day at Fenway Park was an annual family tradition. McLaughlin also dissected the Boston Globe sports section every day. For decades, the Globe sports section was considered among the best in the nation, with a dream team roster of journalists that included Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy, Bob Ryan and Jackie MacMullan. McLaughlin devoured their works and decided he wanted to be one of them someday.
Years later, as a student at Boston College, McLaughlin became the sports editor of the school paper and also wrote for the athletic department’s magazine, Eagle Action. Sportswriting provided McLaughlin with an enviable experience. As a junior, he covered Boston College’s win at Notre Dame in football. The following season, he was in attendance when BC played at Michigan.
He also covered the Eagles’ run to the Elite Eight during the 1994 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which included wins over top-ranked North Carolina, as well as a Bobby Knight-led Indiana team in the Sweet 16. He even met Bill Raftery in a hotel bar. McLaughlin was having the time of his life.
During the first round of the tournament that year at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., Indiana’s Sherron Wilkerson broke his leg in the Hoosiers’ game with Temple, causing a lengthy delay on the floor. McLaughlin headed to the media room for a bite to eat. The room was practically deserted, but as he ate, North Carolina Coach Dean Smith wandered in and pulled up a chair at McLaughlin’s table. The two struck up a conversation, the hall of famer and the cub reporter.
“He just sat down and we were just chatting about things. I was awestruck,” McLaughlin said, still beaming over the chance meeting 18 years later. “We talked about me being in college, what I was studying. In true Dean Smith fashion, he made it about me.”
McLaughlin, days removed from his 21st birthday, also picked up some advice from the coaching great. Dressed in a sport coat and tie, Smith applauded McLaughlin’s attention to his appearance.
“He said, ‘in this business, you always have to act like the President can stop by at any time,’” McLaughlin said. “And that’s never left me to this day.”
As much as he was enjoying his front row seat at the best college athletics had to offer, the experience was actually pulling McLaughlin farther away from a career in journalism.
Success in college athletics produces a collective satisfaction that is hard to duplicate. As much as the players and coaches relish victory, so too does the play-by-play announcer who brought the game into fans’ living rooms, as does the development staffers who raised money so the team could have comfortable travel arrangements, as does the marketing director who helped fill the arena, and so on. There’s a necessary disconnect in journalism that neuters the experience. There can be no rooting interest, other than for a juicy story or an eye-catching lede. McLaughlin took notice. Then he took inventory of his career path.
“When I was at Boston College, I fell in love with college athletics, and I knew I wanted to be an NCAA Division I athletic director.”
After graduating from Boston College in 1995, McLaughlin worked in media relations and sports information at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass. and at the Hockey East Conference, which operated out of the college. He later became an assistant athletic director at the school, a jack-of-all-trades position he credits with helping him become well-rounded.
In 1999, he married his college sweetheart, Shelly, a former Boston College cross country runner. A year later, he accepted a facilities position at American University in Washington, D.C. In 2004, he agreed to become the school’s associate director for external affairs, as well as executive director of the Eagles Club, the school’s athletic fund.
McLaughlin realized that in order to become an athletic director, he’d need experience working in fundraising. American had never had anybody in charge of annual giving, so when McLaughlin was approached about the possibility, he jumped at the chance. He had no idea what he was getting into.
“[They said], we’ll move you over and it’s not that hard to do. You just send some letters out and talk to donors and it’s easy,” McLaughlin said, amused by the absurdity. “And I fell for that one, hook, line and sinker. I had no idea the level of organization and attention to detail you had to have, while still being able to communicate well.”
Although he sensed he had bitten off more than he could chew, McLaughlin was determined to succeed. So, he asked questions, lots of them.
“I just started reaching out to different fundraising people,” McLaughlin said. “I looked around and figured out who did it well, whether it was people in our league, or if we’d go play a game somewhere, I would go [talk to someone there]. A couple of times when I was on vacation, if there was a school in the area, I’d look at some of their stuff, and if I thought it was good, I’d call them up and say to the person, ‘you mind if I buy you a cup of coffee, and we’ll just talk?’“
His diligence paid off and helped get the Eagles’ fundraising efforts out of infancy.
Much of McLaughlin’s work at American was done with the department in some stage of transition. The school had four different athletic directors during his tenure. The ever-changing landscape proved difficult to negotiate, but provided valuable lessons.
“That time taught me what to do, what not to do, taught me how important it is during transitions and when you are an athletic director that culture and continuity are so important, and not compromising what you believe in is so critical as well,” McLaughlin said.
In 2006, McLaughlin got his first shot to apply what he had learned, when he was named Niagara’s athletic director. He was just 33 years old.
His tenure at Niagara was a success on many fronts. The Purple Eagles won more conference championships in his six years than the previous 75 combined. Niagara student-athletes recorded a 3.30 grade point average during the 2007-08 school year, the best in program history. In 2010-11, 70 percent of student-athletes had a GPA of 3.0 or higher. McLaughlin also oversaw multimillion dollar upgrades to the school’s basketball and hockey facilities, as well as the construction of Niagara Field, home to its soccer and lacrosse programs. Revenues climbed by more than $500,000.
“I think we built a culture of, maybe we don’t have all the resources in the world, but we’re going to outwork everybody,” McLaughlin said.
When he was introduced as VCU’s sixth athletic director at a July 24 press conference on the floor of the Verizon Wireless Arena, McLaughlin wasted little time laying out his bold vision.
“There are a lot of people in this business, a lot of ADs that take jobs, but not a lot of them can say when they wake up, ‘We can win a national championship here.’ It’s inspiring, and I think VCU is a place where we can win a national championship,” he said.
VCU has been close to a national title twice, reaching the Men’s Tennis Championship Match in 2000, as well as the Final Four in men’s basketball in 2011. McLaughlin believes if he can help create the right environment, VCU can win its first. He also believes his experience, including the bumps along the way, have put him in a position where he’s confident enough to set lofty goals.
However, McLaughlin says the road to any championship will be paved by a certain set of ideals, from which he will not waver.
“I believe in integrity. I believe in doing things the right way. I believe in hard work. I believe in winning championships,” McLaughlin said. “More importantly, I believe in the student-athlete experience. I love mentoring student-athletes. I love being around student-athletes and helping them go from their teen years to adults. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
McLaughlin, now a doting father of three, recalls how his own experiences as a student journalist, then as a young, eager athletics staffer, shaped his career and eventually brought him to VCU.
“College has got to be about experiential learning. For all of our student-athletes, we have to make sure their experience is great so they are ready for the world,” he said. “Those are things you learn in college that you don’t have the opportunity to if you’re just in the classroom. You have to experience college. The people they meet, the places they see, the experiences they receive makes them the people they are today, just like it did for me.”