An opportune turn was to the benefit of sports business
“Amherst was a little bit out of the way. I had to decide, ‘Do I go home or do I go left?’ I went left and I went to UMass with no appointment,” he tells me recently during our visit together in Charlotte. “The place was empty because it was spring break, but the sports management department head [Harold VanderZwaag] was in. I had trouble getting by his secretary, who was protecting him, but I got in and started talking to him. I told him what I’ve done and that I saw that advertisement, but didn’t apply for it because I didn’t think I was qualified. He said, ‘We put another ad in and based on what you told me, you’d be a very good candidate for that. Would you be interested in applying?’ So I applied for that job, which was focused on sports law and a better fit for me.”
Wong got the job, and his left turn in the road resulted in a 35-year career of teaching and developing students in sports business, some of whom sit along the top tier of the executive ranks. His leadership turned UMass into one of the foremost sports management programs in the country at a time when the segment was still in its infancy. Through his hands-on approach in the classroom, he has served as a mentor for many in sports today, and to this day, I hear his name, his work and his teaching praised among today’s top sports executives.
That’s why many will be sad to hear that he will be stepping down as a full-time faculty member at the University of Massachusetts at the end of the current academic year. Wong is ready for another turn in the road, which will likely be rooted in his love of the law and, more importantly, sports.
Wong grew up in Lexington, Mass., outside of Boston. The oldest of five children, he played basketball and soccer. “My father was an engineer. My mother stayed at home. They were very supportive. I just loved sports. I loved participating. But sports was not something they were familiar with,” he says with a smile. Wong focused on basketball, where he developed a reputation as a tough, competitive point and shooting guard, leading his team to the state finals in his senior year. His coach was Rollie Massimino, who went on to become head coach at Villanova. “Rollie was very good in developing me as a person and as a player,” Wong remembers. “He was on the rise.” Sports played a key role in Wong’s personal development. “It taught me everything. Discipline, hard work, teamwork and meeting challenges. All of those advantages helped me develop as a person and as a professional.”
|After 35 years of teaching, UMass’ Glenn Wong will leave the classroom at the end of the academic year.
He graduated in 1977, and two years later began teaching on the campus at Amherst. He was a nervous 27-year-old who looked even younger.
“I was extremely nervous. When I would go around campus to administrative offices, they would ask me, ‘Grad or undergrad?’ So I immediately went out and bought three-piece suits, which I wore on campus every day to try to get them to at least say, ‘Are you a grad student?’ I was very young and doing public speaking wasn’t something I was comfortable with.” Making it more challenging for Wong was his partner in the program, Bernie Mullin, who had filled the position Wong had seen previously. “Bernie is a natural. He is charismatic and engaging. I was trying to compare myself to him and that was a losing battle,” he laughs.
The hiring of Mullin and Wong marked a turning point for UMass’ sports management program, as founders VanderZwaag and Guy Lewis changed its focus. The two were trained in physical education but decided to hire people with business backgrounds. “They wanted a marketing person and a law person. They believed that was the direction the program needed to go in,” Wong recalls. With Mullin focused on sports marketing and Wong on sports law, the program began getting national notice. “It took some time, but eventually some former students began to reach the upper levels of sports. When that happened, we had much more to talk about. We had examples of the fact that we’ve been able to select and prepare people who had the ability to be leaders,” Wong says proudly.
I told Wong about all the compliments I hear about his style in the classroom, and he humbly, shyly, shakes his head to defer any credit. He says any success in his teaching has been in his approach to think like a student. “I’ve always tried to put myself in the position of the student. I’ve tried to consider all the things that I did not like as a student, and I’ve tried to do it differently. … I’ve tried to understand what the students are interested in, what motivates them and what helps them learn. What I’ve found is what really interests them are relevant current topics that they see they might use at some point in the future.” That’s led to real-time, critical thinking and performance, such as having students form salary cap decisions based on current rosters, or arguing the recent New Jersey gambling case before the Supreme Court, or preparing a salary arbitration case for a player. “What I found is that the things they’re following, that they’re interested in, that they find relevant, that is what really catches their attention,” he says.
He’s seen more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students through his classes over the years, and firmly acknowledges the “quality of the students has increased significantly.” “The students today are much better prepared and are more serious about their career,” he says. “They know how competitive it is out there.”
When it comes to their career development, he stresses early involvement in volunteer opportunities, experiential learning and internships. “The challenge is going from internship to the first job,” he says. “We can help them with the internship. We try to help them with the first job, but it’s harder. Internships are the way in, that’s the front door.” Wong advises students on everything in the interview process, from how to dress to questions to follow up. “You cannot make any mistakes,” he stresses. “You have to be very well-prepared, but you have to go in with a résumé that gives the interviewee something to talk about. It could be a combination of their volunteer work, work experience, maybe some experiential learning at school and maybe some of their study projects or some papers they do in the program. But there has to be some stories to tell.” Wong stresses that his help will only go to a point, and it’s up to students to close the deal on their first job. “I have a reputation of being conservative in terms of who I recommend. That was a conscious decision on my part,” he says.
While I pressed about industry concern over the proliferation of sports management programs and questions about the quality and long-term benefits of them, Wong chooses his words carefully.
“Students really need to dig into the program to see who is teaching the courses, what they’re covering and the substance of those courses,” he says slowly. “They should also ask about what the recent placement record is of the program, and what the long-term outcomes are of people that have gone through the program. An important part of the assessment process is for young people to see what the track record is of that particular program.”
“I’ve always tried to put myself in the position of the student. I’ve tried to consider all the things that I did not like as a student, and I’ve tried to do it differently. ”
“The challenge of attracting diversity to our program is very real. It’s an uphill battle. There are diversity issues in terms of ethnicity and gender. The undergraduate level is still largely white male. I was very proud of the fact that in 1997-98, we had more female students in our graduate program than male students, but we were a highly selective program. We were getting 200 applications for 25 slots. But the pool isn’t there. The diversity issue is very important. It has to be an organizational commitment.”
At 62 years old, Wong has the look and air of a man at ease, happy with his life and professional choices. He’s proud of a teaching legacy that includes successful stints as a department head, to teaching the first sports law class in a sports management program, to most importantly, teaching thousands of young people and guiding them into the start of their careers. “That’s what I’m most proud of,” he says quietly.
Glenn Wong’s life changed when he took a left turn and went out of his way toward Amherst all those years ago, and he has many more roads ahead. He’ll continue to be a teacher, researcher and writer, and do more sports industry work. But he also plans to be heavily involved with volunteerism.
“I don’t think I would change anything in my life,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve been able to find a place in the area that I really wanted to work in. I’ve had some different opportunities over the years to move in different directions — athletic director and university administration. But I decided what was important to me was sports law, and I’ve had an opportunity on the teaching end and also on the practicing end. That’s what I wanted and all I could ask for. In addition, my children are both very heavily involved in athletics and work in sports. So I’ve been very lucky.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.