Lesley Irvine had a choice to make in 1998.
The recent college graduate could stay in her native England and teach or take the less conventional route of moving to Iowa to play field hockey while earning a master’s degree.
Choosing the latter set the tone for a series of career moves that led to her recent hire as the new vice president and director of athletics at Colorado College.
“It’s really fundamental to who I am and why I am so unapologetic about what athletics can do for someone,” she says of her move. “I am a first-generation college kid who is a little bit of an out-of-the-box thinker. I am grateful that athletics has opened so many doors for and given me opportunities I would not have had otherwise.”
One was meeting former University of Iowa women’s athletics director Christine Grant, who consulted on the Title IX task force in 1978 and testified before Congress during the lawsuits against Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding, including intercollegiate athletics programs.
“She is such a legend,” Irvine says. “She was a field hockey player born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, where my dad was born, so that started a quick friendship. She is just a tremendous advocate for women’s athletics. I am honored to call her a friend.”
During Irvine’s successful coaching stint at Stanford University, she says administrators on the National Collegiate Athletic Association field hockey committee suggested she consider joining their ranks.
“Sometimes other people see something in you that you don’t always see,” she says. “I had been coaching for 10 years. I found myself falling out of love with the Xs and Os and being more passionate about the bigger picture.”
Xavier University Athletics Director Greg Christopher, then at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, noticed Irvine’s potential and hired her despite her lack of administrative experience.
She worked at BGSU from 2010-15 before becoming the first full-time athletics director in 15 years for Division III Pomona Pitzer. Under her leadership, the Sagehens won 15 Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles and led the league in all-academic selections the past three years.
“I have direct experience as a leader in environments where the students are high achieving,” she says. “High academics and high athletics go hand in hand. One does not detract from the other. That is really important.”
CC’s engagement with athlete alumni and the upcoming construction of the Edward J. Robson Arena, the new on-campus home for Tigers
hockey, were some of the reasons Irvine applied for the job, which came open when Director of Athletics Ken Ralph moved on to the University of Maine.
“There is a very clear commitment to CC being a dynamic, progressive environment that isn’t shy about saying we want to be excellent,” she says.
“I am an alum of an athletics program and I know it really matters. We want to honor the past and engage our alumni so they feel a part of our future.”
Irvine officially starts on June 1, though she says, “I’m doing as much as I can to be engaged with the planning meetings,” noting much of the new arena groundwork was in place.
“It sounds clichéd, but it is important to have the right people engaged in the process to make sure the college is doing all it can to speak to the concerns [of fans and residents]. I am so passionate about what this arena will do for the hockey program, community, and the rest of the college and athletics department.”