Hamline News

Jason Verdugo, Change Agent

Photo of Jason Verdugo

Associate vice president and athletic director Jason Verdugo, one of only a handful of Latino athletic directors in the country, speaks about how his personal and professional journey informs his work on diversity and inclusion in athletics at Hamline.

Jason Verdugo traces his love of athletics back to growing up in an active, sports-loving family in the small mining town of Hayden, Arizona, and later in Tucson. He earned a football scholarship to Arizona State University, where he completed a Bachelor of Arts in history while playing both football and baseball. As a junior, he was drafted as a pitcher in the sixth round by the Anaheim Angels, but returned to school to finish his degree before being drafted again by the San Francisco Giants. He spent three years with that organization before moving on to a coaching career, beginning with a one-year stint at McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona.

Verdugo has been a fixture on Hamline’s campus since 2001, when he joined the athletics department as head baseball coach. In 11 seasons, he transformed the program, becoming the most successful baseball coach in school history with more than 200 career victories, and he led the team to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division III national tournament. In 2008, Verdugo managed the Evansville Otters in the Frontier League, and for five seasons, he was a pitching coach for the Saint Paul Saints, mentoring several athletes who went on to play in the major leagues.

Since 2012, Verdugo has been athletic director at Hamline, overseeing the management of the university’s 20 varsity athletic teams. During his tenure, Hamline has developed a standout women’s lacrosse team and moved the baseball team’s home games to CHS Field, the home of the Saints, and the hockey teams’ practices and home games to TRIA Rink, the main practice facility for the Minnesota Wild.

Verdugo is a leader at the national level as well, serving as a member of the NCAA Division III Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, which works to achieve ethnic and racial diversity and gender equity in D-III schools. He is on the education committee of the National Association of Division III Athletic Administrators and is a lead facilitator and graduate of the prestigious NCAA Pathway program, which develops and supports athletic administrators from underrepresented groups as they move into director of athletics positions. In 2018–19, Verdugo was named the D-III Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year in recognition of his commitment to student-athletes and his positive contributions to Hamline and its surrounding community.

As evidenced by his leadership and accomplishments as Hamline’s director of athletics, Verdugo was elevated to associate vice president in 2019. As the associate vice president and athletics director, he reports directly to the university president, Dr. Fayneese Miller, and serves on the president’s leadership team, allowing him to help make decisions that positively impact all students, not just student-athletes.Student-athletes comprise approximately 25% of Hamline’s student body.

How did your childhood and your development as an athlete shape you?

As a kid, I lived in the small copper mining community of Hayden, Arizona, a town of roughly 2,000 people, mostly Mexican-Americans. We moved to Tucson when I was in sixth grade, and I went from being in a predominately Hispanic community to being the only Hispanic kid in class, so I experienced a bit of culture shock. It opened my eyes to a bigger world beyond what I’d experienced. To that point, my life revolved around athletics. All the kids in Hayden played sports, mostly out of necessity to have enough kids for a game. In Tucson, I saw that it was possible to have other interests and passions.

But athletics remained my focus, as everyone in my family was an athlete and our family life was built around sports; it was just what we did. I was fortunate enough to go to Arizona State on a football scholarship and to play both football and baseball there, which is pretty unique at the Division I level at an institution like that. People had started talking about me potentially getting drafted out of high school to play professionally. But going to college was important to me and my family, and so when I was drafted during my junior year in college, I decided to finish my degree instead. I dropped football — which was hard, because I loved the game and had great relationships with my teammates — and focused on getting better at baseball. I’m very proud of being a two-sport collegiate athlete and graduating on time.

You did go on to play professional baseball for a time. Why did you transition to coaching and athletic administration?

Being a teacher and coach was always my intention. My dad and brother both coached and I saw that it was a good life. [His dad, David M. Verdugo, coached football, basketball and track and was the principal and athletic director at Hayden High School in Hayden, Arizona; his brother, David Verdugo, is superintendent for southern Arizona’s Rio Rico School District.] Through conversations with them, I could envision a similar career trajectory to theirs — teacher to coach to athletic director — and that’s essentially what transpired in my life.

Participating in the NCAA Pathway program, which supports women and members of underrepresented groups in becoming athletic directors, in 2011 was transformative for me. It’s a yearlong program for those who aspire to take their careers to the next level, and it helped me prepare for all that I would face in my role as an athletic director. The timing was ideal, as the next year, Hamline’s athletic director position became open. I had poured so much into transforming the baseball program, and I was ready to continue that intensity on a grander scale. I was looking to have an impact across the entire program.

How do you define your role as athletic director?

My main goal is making sure that student-athletes have a great experience while emphasizing the importance of academics. We provide excellent coaching, mentoring and support in an environment in which teams strive to finish in the top four standings in the conference, which will give them an opportunity to be in the playoffs and compete for a championship. That’s always our aspiration, and in order to get there we need talent, hard work and organization.

What is the culture of athletics at Hamline?

There is a lot of camaraderie among the student-athletes; they are passionate about what they do. Of the 450 student-athletes in our varsity program, 20% are from out of state and roughly 12% identify as people of color. We have a good range of diversity in a lot of ways, but I’d like to see those numbers increase. We also have great leadership in a president who cares about how we perform, and what we do in the classroom, and how we represent ourselves in the community.

Can you address the perception of a lack of racial sensitivity within the athletics program?

I’m not naive (enough) to think that we don’t have student-athletes of color that have had experiences that have been uncomfortable. The prominence of athletics on every college campus typically illuminates those experiences, and they tend to cast a shadow over an entire program; that’s our reality. It’s our job to use these situations as opportunities for education, to embrace them, own them, and then try to get better from them. When those things happen, we need to set a standard, and say, “Here’s where we are. Here’s what we need to do. Here’s what the expectations are going to be.”

How are you working to create a stronger community of inclusion?

Three things I do nationally as an advocate are being a facilitator in the NCAA Pathway program for up-and-coming athletic directors, serving on the NCAA Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, and mentoring students in the NCAA Immersion program, which works to build a pipeline of ethnic minority recruits. I hope this work leads to a positive cascading effect on what we do at Hamline.

Beginning on Aug. 1, every NCAA D-III institution has to have a diversity inclusion designee (Verdugo was instrumental in the NCAA’s adoption of this new regulation in 2020). Ours is David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence. Last spring, I brought a colleague of mine to campus — Sheridan Blanford, who is the director of inclusion and engagement for athletics at the University of Wisconsin — to work with more than 100 student-athletes, and she’ll return in the fall to continue engaging coaches and teams in having difficult conversations around inclusion and racial justice.

I also want to bring together a group of faculty members, coaching staff, student-athletes and students who aren’t athletes similar to the NCAA Diversity and Inclusion Working Group that I’m a part of. So rather than just relying on Dr. Everett to lead dialogue, this group could lead the way on diversity programming, to have those important, and often difficult, conversations as issues arise and current events dictate. It’s another opportunity for students to be campus leaders.

How will the national focus on racial justice inform Hamline’s work on diversity in athletics?

After George Floyd’s killing and the initial protests, emotions were running high. I was thinking a lot about my former teammates and colleagues, many of whom are Black, and my son, who lives in a group home, and his caretakers — his family, really — who are Black. We waited a bit for people to process things, and then brought together Dr. Everett, captains and other student-athlete leaders and asked, “How can we take something that has been so difficult and tragic and use it to do better?” I was incredibly proud of our Black athletes and their willingness to express things that white athletes need to be aware of, or be educated about, or try to think about from a different perspective. The biggest takeaway is that racial justice can’t come about through one meeting or be a slogan on a T-shirt. There’s been some really good movement, but it’s a long game, and it’s about continuing to push the dialogue.

In athletics, our intention is to increase the diversity of our rosters by seeking out players who can help Hamline be competitive. We continue to focus on recruiting talented student-athletes of color, and then giving them playing opportunities, as well as the support they need to be successful. The recruiting process is highly competitive, and we have some work to do in terms of the money that’s associated with certain sports. We’ll focus on locally diverse areas and schools, but we’ll also need to leave the state of Minnesota to recruit nationally, which takes money. We need to be intentional about representation of women and ethnic minorities in our coaching and administrative staff as well.

How will you challenge Hamline athletics to take the lead on diversity issues?

We’re going to have to be reliant upon everyone to make a concerted and consistent effort in what we do. For example, even a team like men’s hockey, which is overwhelmingly white, can be involved in difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racial and social justice issues. Education is going to be very important in making lasting change. We are talking about issues that might impact a classmate or a professional colleague; those issues might be something that aren’t at the top of mind simply because of your environment, but now it’s got to be important to you if we're going to make sweeping, significant and successful change. That change must be at the hands of people far and wide, not just done by Black or ethnic minorities who are currently pushing the envelope.

It’s very important to me, based on my background and career, that the Hamline athletics program continues to talk about diversity and racial justice. As an athletic director, it’s my responsibility — and my colleagues’ responsibility nationally — to keep the dialogue going. I hope there will be a movement led by student-athletes and that we can support them as they use their voices to push for change.

Written by Marla Holt
9/3/2020