by Bob Rose
The UNC Asheville athletic department is a modest NCAA Division I program by comparison to other top-level programs in North Carolina, such as the North Carolina Tar Heels or Duke Blue Devils. However, the Bulldogs’ longtime athletic director Janet Cone is a mover and shaker among college sports administrators.
Cone is a former women’s basketball coach at Samford University; St. Leo University; Western Carolina University; and Mars Hill University. Past honors include being named the Division I-AAA Athletic Directors Association’s 2019 Builders’ Award — an accolade for athletic administrators who build college programs from the ground up — and the 2013 Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year.
Besides directing the UNC Asheville program, Cone also helped create the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, which attracts many national events. She has served as a former chair and continues to be a founding board member of the commission. She also recently finished a five-year stint serving on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, which selects and seeds the 64-team brackets for March Madness.
During her tenure at UNCA, Cone has overseen significant physical improvements to Bulldog facilities, including the opening of the Wilma M. Sherrill Center, which houses Kimmel Arena, a new tennis venue and the expansion of the Karl Straus Track Facility. She is currently spearheading a campaign to build on-campus baseball and soccer stadiums.
Xpress recently spoke with Cone about student-athletes during COVID, mentorship and goals for 2022.
This interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
COVID shut down intercollegiate athletics from fall 2000 to spring 2001. What were your biggest challenges during that period and what’s your greatest focus now in the athletic department?
During the first wave of COVID there were three things we focused on: finding a way to bring student-athletes back to campus safely, developing protocols for them to practice safely and also protocols so they could compete in games. By last spring, all of our sports were back in competition. We also did some reorganization, with a huge emphasis on the mental health of our athletes. Certainly, the last two years have been a much different experience for student-athletes.
Of course, COVID is still around us, so we have much the same goals this year. We just need to stay calm and focus day to day on several areas such as diversity and inclusion, health protocols and competing successfully in the Big South Conference.
Your athletic department features a rather unique mentor program. Tell us about it.
It’s called the Leaders to Leaders Mentorship program. For the past five or six years, we’ve paired community leaders with our student-athletes. We are so blessed to have professionals who either grew up here, moved here and came back to Asheville. We offer this to any student-athlete who wants a mentor to help guide them in a particular future career. Right now we have about 70 student-athletes in the program. If he or she plans to pursue a career in law, their mentor might be a local attorney. Or if they want to get involved in communications, maybe it’s a PR specialist. It’s backpacks to briefcase. It’s just a great add-on when we recruit. And the mentors say they get more out of the program than the students do.
What did you find so attractive about UNC Asheville, and why have you chosen to stay here so long?
When I took the job 18 years ago, I was attracted because of the chancellor’s great vision for athletics and I truly believed my skill set could help fulfill that vision. Now I’ve worked for four different chancellors and have been able to make a difference in so many young student-athletes’ lives. I’ve also worked with so many great coaches who are committed to helping their athletes both in the classroom and on the field. I have had other opportunities, but I’ve stayed here because I still think I can make a difference. That has been my motivation.
Asheville’s population is steadily growing. Yet the UNC Asheville basketball teams haven’t shown much increase in home attendance. With NCAA Division I status and a new arena, why do you think the community doesn’t show more interest?
I think it’s two things. Even though we’re the only Division I program in town, Asheville is a city with many things to do. Whether you want to kayak, hike, get involved in live music or art, there’s a lot going on here. Also, we have to do a better job of telling our story, so people will connect and want to come over here. We’ve got a great arena that’s easy to get to. If I’m new to Asheville, it’s a great way to meet people. It’s fun, family entertainment. And if you’re a die-hard basketball fan, here’s your chance to get really up close and personal. There isn’t a bad seat in the house.
As a member of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee, your national profile has risen. What lessons have you learned in that role? Explain the process you and the other members go through each season to select the 64 schools for March Madness.
It’s like being on an elite team of people that are really focusing on doing the best job they can to absolutely choose the best 64 teams. It’s not something you just do in March. It’s a year-round thing, a lot of work. But it’s worth it.
I have some great teammates, and I meet a lot of people across the country, including CBS and Turner executives, coaches and other athletic directors. But to me, the most important aspect was just having the opportunity to represent UNC Asheville and the Big South Conference.
What are your goals and vision for the athletic department in 2022?
Our goals remain the same. We want to provide the best Division I experience as possible for our student-athletes so they can reach their potential in both athletics and academics. We also want to provide folks in Asheville the best possible experience as a fan or mentor. We want to get better every day. We want to continue to graduate our student-athletes and win on the scoreboard.