Bob Scalise’s Rules for Life

Scalise led Harvard's Athletics Department to athletic achievements, weathered its crises, and defended it from succumbing to the growing professionalization of collegiate sports. He will retire this summer.
By Ema R. Schumer

Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise announced in October 2019 his intent to retire in June 2020, after nearly 50 years at Harvard serving in a variety of roles including coach and Business School associate dean.
Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise announced in October 2019 his intent to retire in June 2020, after nearly 50 years at Harvard serving in a variety of roles including coach and Business School associate dean. By Timothy R. O'Meara

In May 1970, the Kent State shooting was roiling America, young people were disillusioned with authority figures, and college campuses were the locus of frequent, rowdy protests.

But Robert L. “Bob” Scalise, then a lacrosse player at Brown University, had a game to play.

After the May 4 shooting, his teammates called a meeting to decide whether to forego their game the following weekend against league rival Cornell in protest. Peter S. Rush, Scalise’s high school classmate and Brown teammate, said the idea of postponing the event did not sit well with Scalise.

The merits of the cause aside, they had made a commitment to play the game, and in Scalise’s view, that was what the team should do.

After hearing Scalise’s arguments — unusually forceful ones for the quiet college student — the team voted to play.

“Bob was never a loud mouth. Bob would state his position, and state his position firmly, always articulate, very much persuasive. People looked up to him,” Rush said.

Fifty years have passed since Scalise’s speech to his teammates, but his approach to college athletics remains much the same. Whether a player, a coach, or an athletics director — his current post at Harvard — he has always believed that college sports should instill strong ethics as much as physical skills.

In delivering that message, Scalise has led Harvard to athletic achievements and defended it from succumbing to the professionalization of collegiate sports — a trend that has swept the country in recent decades. After 19 years as the head of the department, he will retire this summer at age 70.

Since assuming his post as Director of Athletics in July 2001, Scalise has seen Harvard capture 22 national titles and 144 Ivy League championships.

As an athlete, he broke school records at Brown. Becoming the head coach of Harvard men’s lacrosse team just a few years out of college, he led the team to an Ivy League championship and set new standards for the previously floundering program. Around the same time, he worked as the first coach of the Harvard women’s soccer program, which became a varsity sport a few years after the passage of Title IX.

After attending Harvard Business School in 1987, Scalise left Harvard to pursue a consulting career in the private sector. Several years later, he returned to Cambridge to assume leadership positions at the Business School, and subsequently returned to Harvard Athletics as its new director.

Scalise’s tenure as Harvard’s seventh Athletic Director was bookended by national crises: He took the helm of the department just two months before September 11, 2001, and he will leave his position amid a global pandemic that has halted his department’s 42 varsity programs from play and forced them to find new ways to stay relevant.

Despite the crises that punctuated his tenure, colleagues and family members say Scalise has led based on a set of rules and values: hard work, kindness, collaboration, curiosity.

Those values steadied his family as well as his department — although the two are hard to separate. He and his wife, Maura C. Scalise ‘80, an All-Ivy swimmer and former Harvard swimming and diving coach, raised four children, all of whom attended Harvard College and suited up for the Crimson as varsity athletes.

‘Brown State’

Bob Scalise has always been a leader.

Born in 1950 into a lower middle class family in Long Island, N.Y., Scalise was recruited to play lacrosse at Brown University, where he graduated in 1971.

When Scalise headed off to Providence, R.I. at the turn of the decade, the country was divided in part by the Vietnam War. While young people were at the vanguard of the antiwar movement, Scalise focused on his responsibilities, his teammates, and his family.

He shattered records on the lacrosse field, leading the country in scoring as a junior and setting an NCAA record by netting 11 goals in one game. He received the Brown University sportsmanship award and the Sports Illustrated Award of Merit his senior year. Off the field, he married his first wife and had a child, holding part time jobs to provide for his family.

Rush said he remembers Scalise as quiet and dedicated to his off-field responsibilities. On the field, though, he was unafraid to play rough. He had a special “move”: stepping on a defenseman’s foot to get open.

“Coming from Long Island, we played a real rough and tumble game. We really shocked the preppies in terms of the kind of game we played,” Rush said. “Brown lacrosse — they still use the term — [was] sometimes called ‘Brown State.’ ‘Brown State’ came out of our era which was our down and dirty, we’ll knock you down, we’ll step on your foot to get an edge to score another goal.”

Scalise was an honorable teammate, too. The soon-to-be coach would encourage his teammates and mentor younger players instead of criticizing them, according to Rush.

Rush added that Scalise’s accomplishments as an Ivy League athlete and administrator meant even more given their upbringing as “lower middle class kids from Long Island.”

“Just going to the state school seemed like that would have been good enough,” he said. “The high school we went to, I mean, big dreams were becoming cops, firemen, schoolteachers. I mean, we didn’t have professors and lawyers and things like that.”

Becoming Director of Athletics at Harvard would have been unimaginable, Rush said.

‘Who Is This Crazy Man?’

Scalise’s talents as a lacrosse player may have landed him a job as head coach of the Harvard men’s lacrosse team. But, when he arrived in Cambridge, he quickly learned that sheer will alone would not be enough to lead his team to victory.

“My biggest problem in teaching the lacrosse players that we had here was that I was a very good lacrosse player and everything seemed so natural. And I remember thinking back saying, ‘you just do it like this. It’s so easy,’” he said. “It was an adjustment for me.”

After assistant coaching at Brown immediately after graduation, Scalise started the coaching job at Harvard in 1974. He took over a team that dwarfed in talent compared to “Brown State,” and one made up of players who viewed their young coach with some skepticism.

“We tried to instill the things that championship teams do and how they pursued excellence,” Scalise said. “I think the students reacted that ‘holy mackerel, who is this crazy man making us do these things?’”

Former captain of Harvard men’s lacrosse Kevin McCall ‘76 said Scalise experimented with some peculiar strategies during his first season coaching.

“We did a lot of interesting things that my teammates and I look back on and roll our eyes at,” he said. “We jumped over helmets. We did all sorts of interesting and weird fitness routines that Bob came up with.”

Still, McCall said the players gave Scalise, who was only a few years their senior, “the benefit of the doubt” because of his prior successes as an athlete. And sure enough, six years into the job, Scalise led the team to its first Ivy League championship in nearly two decades.

But Scalise made perhaps his longest-lasting contribution as a coach outside the sport he played, when he began coaching the women’s varsity soccer team.

He was the first head coach of the program, which was founded in 1977, several years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated gender parity in college athletics.

In 1977, Robert L. Scalise was the first coach of the women’s varsity soccer program at Harvard , staying with the team until 1987.
In 1977, Robert L. Scalise was the first coach of the women’s varsity soccer program at Harvard , staying with the team until 1987. By Courtesy of Nancy D. Levin '78

Much like his term with the lacrosse team, Scalise’s starting point was unenviable. Karen F. Ferry ’78, one of the team’s co-founders, said most of the players had never played soccer before they joined the club team at Harvard. Initially, the department supplied Scalise with just three soccer balls for the whole team.

Still, Scalise taught the players the rules and art of the game. Though athletics administrators paid less attention to women’s teams than they did to men’s teams, Ferry said he took the players “entirely seriously from the start.”

“From day one, that was the message he sent, ‘We are a competitive soccer team,” she said. “And it didn't matter that we were women and it didn't matter that we were low level.”

In roughly a decade coaching women’s soccer, Scalise led the team to three Ivy League championships, two NCAA tournament appearances, and a 113-38-11 overall record. He became the first coach of women’s college soccer to win 100 games.

Bob Scalise’s Classroom

Despite his successes with the lacrosse and soccer program, Scalise decided he did not want to be a coach forever.

In 1989, he earned a Master of Business Administration from the Business School, and stayed on in an administrative role following graduation. He then spent several years in the private sector serving as director of recruiting at the management consulting firm Bain & Company before returning to the Business School. Six years later, he became Harvard’s Director of Athletics.

Despite his efforts to change careers, Scalise said he realized he was best suited to jobs where he could work to fulfill a greater mission.

“I had always been in a mission-driven organization because coaching is mission driven,” he said.

While Athletic Director, Scalise has underscored the overarching principle of the program: “Education through Athletics.”

Former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, who appointed Scalise to serve as interim Executive Dean of FAS in 2008, said Scalise recited the mission of Harvard Athletics and the College during meetings they attended.

“He would always talk about the mission of Harvard Athletics. What it means, why we’re there, what we’re trying to accomplish for our students,” he said. “He was always grounding the decisions and what we were going to do based on what was best for Ivy League athletics, for Ivy League athletes, for our students and what they wanted to accomplish here.”

Executive Director of the Ivy League Robin Harris said she also remembered Scalise’s leadership during meetings, and the way he would begin them in particular.

“His leadership skills and his willingness to talk to me about how he approaches things allowed me to learn really important approaches to leadership and for example, how you start a meeting matters,” she said.

Former Harvard Athletics Senior Associate Director Patricia W. Henry said Scalise often emphasized a central plank of the Ivy League mission: the importance of athletics as a tool to educate and develop students. Scalise promoted this philosophy during a time in collegiate athletics defined by professionalization and profits. Breaking with that national trend, Scalise has been a vocal critic of proposals to pay college athletes and to make exclusive academic resources available to student-athletes.

Before athletes even come to Harvard, Scalise expects them to embody the Ivy League’s principles, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. “Bill” Fitzsimmons ’67.

“When he first became Athletic Director, he asked every coach when they were putting people forward for consideration in the admissions process to not just tell everybody including the admissions office how good the player was athletically, but rather what the person was like as a human being,” Fitzsimmons said.

At home, Scalise applied essentially the same principles, according to his family members. His oldest son, Michael J. Scalise ’10, who played for Harvard’s varsity lacrosse team, said his father taught him that there is little difference between being a good athlete and a good person.

Robert L. Scalise’s family, from left to right, includes son Michael K. Scalise ‘10, daughter Rosemary S. Scalise ‘19, Robert L. Scalise, son Matthew R. Scalise ‘15, sister-in-law RoAnn Costin ‘74, daughter-in-law Breck Scalise, wife Maura C. Scalise ‘80, and Alexis D’ Nicolia ‘16.
Robert L. Scalise’s family, from left to right, includes son Michael K. Scalise ‘10, daughter Rosemary S. Scalise ‘19, Robert L. Scalise, son Matthew R. Scalise ‘15, sister-in-law RoAnn Costin ‘74, daughter-in-law Breck Scalise, wife Maura C. Scalise ‘80, and Alexis D’ Nicolia ‘16. By Courtesy of Maura C. Scalise '80

“As kids, it was not just playing sports and not just winning and losing, but that was his classroom. It was even apparent to us as young children that that’s how he was teaching us a lot of lessons about life, the little things,” he said.

“I’ve had similar conversations with him about the role that athletics should play, and does play in the college experience,” he added. “It’s not a separation between athletics and academics. It’s one big integrated approach to teaching people how to be good people.”

‘A Real Compliment’

As Director of Athletics, Scalise was tasked with overseeing the greatest number of collegiate varsity teams in the country. Even with so much to manage, no detail was too small for him — not even the type of grass growing on Harvard’s fields.

Former Senior Associate Director of Harvard Athletics Jeremy L. Gibson said Scalise’s attention to detail stood out to him the first time they met, when he toured candidates for the Athletic Director position around the athletic campus in the summer of 2001.

“I was going around the field with Bob and I just remember back then he was so meticulous and kind of planful in terms of the questions he was asking, even down to wanting to know about what type of grass was growing out on the backfield,” he said. “He always asked a lot of questions. And I think, more importantly, he listens to the answer.”

After being tapped for the position, Scalise continued to pay attention to the grounds. He said one of his proudest accomplishments was transforming the physical footprint of the athletic complex. He replaced chain link and barbed wire with trees and fences.

“We transformed our athletic campus from an industrial complex with chain link and barbed wire on the fences to more of a campus,” he said.

At the 136th rendition of The Game,  Yale's Director of Athletics, Victoria M. Chun, honored her Harvard counterpart, Robert L. Scalise, with a piece of the original Yale Bowl.
At the 136th rendition of The Game, Yale's Director of Athletics, Victoria M. Chun, honored her Harvard counterpart, Robert L. Scalise, with a piece of the original Yale Bowl. By Timothy R. O'Meara

Gibson added he aspires to emulate Scalise in his current role as Director of Athletics at Merrimack College — a goal one of his colleagues who also worked at Harvard has often pointed out.

“I’ll say something or do something, and she’ll say, ‘You just sounded like Bob,’” Gibson said. “And it’s a real compliment. It’s not that I’m trying to be someone else, but there are just some philosophies around college athletics that Bob was so clear on and frankly I believed, that we’ve tried to emulate in some of the things that we’ve done at Merrimack.”

Scalise — who began his coaching career at the age of 24 — empowered coaches as Athletic Director, significantly expanding the number of endowed coaching positions and setting in motion more comprehensive professional development for coaches.

Harvard softball head coach Jenny L. Allard, the winningest coach in Ivy League softball history, said she and her program have benefited from Scalise’s leadership. In addition to revamping her team’s facilities, Allard said Scalise encouraged her to create a program that was not only successful in terms of the number of games it won, but also in the values it instilled in players.

Having once advocated for every athlete on the women’s soccer team to have access to a soccer ball, Scalise said he was sensitive to the need to equip each team with the resources they needed.

“I’ve always had this philosophy: I love all of my children. I don’t necessarily — I have never treated everyone identically. But I try to treat everyone fairly and give them the resources they need in order to be successful,” he said.

But Scalise faced challenges, too, in one of the most integral programs to his time at Harvard. Three decades after leaving the women’s soccer team, the team was once again at the center of Scalise’s professional life — this time, off the field.

In 2016, The Crimson reported that the men’s soccer team had been writing a lewd “scouting report” of their female counterparts, ranking them by physical attractiveness. As a result, Scalise and then-University President Drew G. Faust decided to cancel the men’s soccer team’s season.

Scalise described the incident as one of the most painful parts of his tenure as Athletics Director, and said it still lingers in his mind.

“Regardless what team it was, it impacted me because it impacted students under my watch,” he said. “These are kids being mean to other kids. And I never liked that growing up and I still don’t like that.”

‘Do The Right Thing’

Harvard Athletics planned to be celebrating Scalise’s tenure this spring. Instead, his department has been in crisis mode.

Not one to sulk, Scalise said he has continued to provide his department with leadership as it navigates the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In a sense, I’m doing what I’ve done,” he said. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh, I'm missing out on this,’ or I don’t think of it that way. I'm still doing service to a great institution with great people.”

Maura Scalise, his wife, said she and her family have cherished their ties to Harvard Athletics.

“The position was for Bob, and for our family, sort of like a dream come true,” she said. “It just sort of encompassed all of Bob’s strengths in one position, and we loved it. We loved it. It went by so fast.”

On July 1, Scalise’s successor — Erin McDermott — will take over the reins of Harvard Athletics as its first female director. Asked what advice he has given McDermott, Scalise did something typical: He laid out a set of five rules he believes should guide a Director of Athletics.

Rule Number One: To make good decisions, you need good people around you.

Rule Number Two: Act in the best long term interest of Harvard Athletics and the University.

Rule Number Three: Spend money as if it were your own.

Rule Number Four: Love all of your children, but don’t treat them identically.

Rule Number Five: Don’t micromanage.

After a moment, Scalise said five rules wasn’t enough, adding one more.

Rule Number Six: Always try to do the right thing.

—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.

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