To say that athletics defines Joe Worlund may be a bit of a stretch. But to say that Worlund has defined much of what happens in the Athletic Complex may not be too far-fetched.
Whether directing a fledgling intramural program, assuming a role on a 10-time University Athletic Association volleyball coaching staff of the year, or serving as assistant athletic director — his current role, Worlund has made a profound impact on the athletic department.
When he first arrived here, Worlund thought — as many people do when entering their first jobs — that he’d stick around for maybe three or four years, then find somewhere else.
“I wanted to get my feet wet and then move on,” he laughs now, 24 years later.
That he is even here at all is interesting enough. Born and raised in Southern California, Worlund finished high school in the Seattle area before packing his bags — and baseball bat — for Graceland College in Iowa.
“It’s a church-sponsored school,” he explains. “My mom and dad met there, my brother and sister both went there, it was just one of those things I was always going to do. I didn’t really think anything of it, it was just something I knew growing up.
“I was playing high-school baseball and the coach asked if I wanted him to help me get recruited, and I told him to not bother, I had already made up my mind.”
After earning four letters and the team MVP award in his senior season at Graceland, Worlund was looking for a reason to stick around the Midwest — his girlfriend (now wife, Pam — they’ve been married 25 years) was a year behind him in school.
After serving as intramural director at Graceland, he found a program at the University of Iowa with a graduate assistantship where he could continue to work with intramurals and pursue a master’s degree in recreation education.
“I didn’t even know it was out there,” he laughs, “and suddenly it was a possibility. I followed through on it, interviewed and spent two years in Iowa City.”
Then came a fortuitous stroke. Current WUSTL Director of Athletics John Schael had served in a similar capacity with the University of Chicago. And as Chicago was a charter member of the Big Ten conference, it was still invited to annual meetings. Over the course of those meetings, Schael got to know the Iowa director of recreational services — Worlund’s boss — pretty well.
When an opening came up at WUSTL in the intramural department in 1982, Worlund submitted his application — along with about 100 other interested people.
“I’d like to think that John knowing my boss at Iowa helped get my résumé pulled out of the pile,” Worlund says with a smile.
Then came another stroke of good fortune. While growing up in California, Worlund played club volleyball. And Graceland had a men’s varsity squad, so he knew the game pretty well.
And when a first-year coach named Teri Clemens came to WUSTL to revive a struggling volleyball program, she used Worlund as a sounding board on several volleyball issues. She didn’t have an assistant coach and Worlund knew the game well enough to hold up his end of an X’s and O’s conversation.
And the seed was planted.
The next thing he knew, Worlund was facing the chance to either be an assistant baseball coach or an assistant volleyball coach — both sports had openings.
He chose volleyball.
“Mr. Schael gave me the choice, I said ‘volleyball,'” Worlund says. “He asked me why, and I told him it was because they were going to be good. I could tell from the year around Coach Clemens that it was going to be a different level than I had ever been affiliated with.
“In hindsight, that was pretty foresighted, because the team was nothing to speak of that first year — it was 12-18. But you could tell from her attitude and experience. That’s how it all started.”
Indeed. Just four years later — in 1989 — WUSTL had won its first NCAA Division III volleyball championship. After losing in the finals the next year, the Bears rattled off six straight national titles from 1991-96, when they went a combined 253-17.
In all, Worlund ended up coaching with Clemens for 12 of her 14 years, and the coaching staff was recognized with 10 UAA coaching staff of the year awards.
All the while, he served as intramural director.
“When I moved to athletics in 1988, Joe was the intramural sports director and I worked as his administrative assistant,” Kathy Lasater says. “All these years later and, while Joe is now an assistant athletic director and I’m still holding down the fort in IMs, I’m lucky that I still get the chance to work with him on a daily basis.
“Joe is the ultimate ‘cool dude.’ Laid-back attitude, great sense of humor, easily approachable and a terrific athlete in his own right. But his best quality? He is, quite simply, one of the fairest-minded people I know — which makes him an excellent administrator. He’s one of the good guys!”
In 1995, he was afforded the title that he currently holds, assistant athletic director. Although he’s quick to point out that the title was just that — only a title, with no added responsibilities, duties or reimbursement.
“I was intramural director, assistant volleyball coach and assistant athletic director all at once,” Worlund says. “They needed more people with the (athletic director) title to help run UAA or NCAA events.
“I ran the NCAA regional baseball tournament in 1992 when we hosted — and my title was intramural director, which didn’t sound right. So they gave me the title, in title only, to help out when it was needed.”
In 1998, he gave up both coaching and intramurals to assume full-time assistant athletic director responsibilities. Moving on up, literally, he has a second-floor office in the Athletic Complex, complete with big windows and sports lithographs on the wall. Oh yes, and, giving insight to his sense of humor, a leg — complete with pants, sock and shoe — sticking out from behind a file cabinet, totally unnerving the unsuspecting guest.
“Yeah, that’s kind of the point,” he grins.
And now, he’s much more than a title. He’s a travel agent, tournament host, NCAA liaison and… computer coordinator.
“I won’t say I know nothing about computers, but I know just enough to be dangerous,” he laughs. “When someone has a problem, they call me and I call a tech to come in and fix things.”
Title: Assistant athletic director
Years at University: 24
On playing baseball in Iowa at the NAIA level: “One year, we had a pretty good team. But we were just 12-2 because we had so many rainouts or snowouts. We went into the playoffs my junior year and we hadn’t played for three weeks. We went in and just got our clocks cleaned.”
On whether he misses coaching: “I do not miss coaching. I do not miss the chaos or pressure, or the hours. But I miss a lot the relationships that were developed both in intramurals and from a coaching standpoint. There’s nothing like being in the gym, or being on the road having those experiences that you are building a relationship that is totally different from other student relationships in an advisory role.”
Which brings us back to his main responsibility as assistant athletic director — he coordinates all of the travel for all the athletic teams for UAA contests. Airplanes, buses, vans, hotels — you name it, he does it.
“I cannot say enough good things about Joe,” says fellow Assistant Athletic Director T.J. Shelton. “He has a track record of success, evident by his national championships while serving as assistant coach for the volleyball team; is committed to Washington University and the Department of Athletics, evident by his years of service as intramural and club sports director; and is a strong leader who cares about the welfare of the student-athlete.”
He first started coordinating travel before the athletic department used an agency. It was much simpler, he says, to check a few airlines — American was a favorite — and make a call.
Now, with an influx of downsizing, limited routes and escalating fares, there is an agency the department uses.
“The biggest compliment I ever received was when I was lining up some travel plans and the person on the other end of the phone asked me for my travel agent code,” he says.
“I’d tell them I didn’t have one, that I wasn’t an agent and they were shocked. I just could speak the speak and say all of the right things.”
In addition to being the computer guy and the travel agent, Worlund counts among his duties being tournament host for the Lopata, McWilliams and Teri Clemens tournaments, as well as any NCAA and UAA tournaments the University hosts.
That requires more paperwork, submitting a bid, securing a hotel with a banquet room, running the coaches’ and officials’ meetings, as well as being the liaison between the NCAA tournament representative and the University.
“Joe is especially effective as an administrator because of his ability to interact with the people he serves,” Schael says. “He is able to maintain the best balance between being a professional and a friend and is sensitive to the needs of those he works with and serves.
“Joe’s experiences… have sharpened his skills as a leader, organizer, planner and decision-maker. He understands that, the excellence of individual programs notwithstanding, it is through the successful inter-working of programs that the true excellence of an athletic department can be measured.”
On top of that, the intramural director, equipment room coordinator and coaches of volleyball, soccer (men’s and women’s), tennis (men’s and women’s), cross country and track all report to him for budget, travel issues or anything else that needs his signature.
Busy? Certainly. But busy in a good way, doing things he likes at a place he enjoys.
“You don’t end up being at a place for 24 years without there being something special,” Worlund says. “You look at the makeup of the department and the staff and the number of people who have been here a long time — there are a lot who have been here at least 10 years.
“If you look at other Division III programs, you don’t find that very often. A lot of coaches here have had other opportunities to do things elsewhere, and for the most part, all of us have made a decision to stay at Washington University. I think that is a large part of our success.”