Athletic Director Anthony J. Azama gets to work each day at about 6:15 a.m. “I try to get a workout in because to me that’s the most important meeting that I have. If I’m at my best, then I’m giving my best to coaches and student-athletes.
“Every day, I ask myself the same question I’ve asked myself since 10th grade: ‘How bad do I want to be great? And how much of a positive influence do I want to be to others?’
Azama’s motivation stems from one of his own major influences: Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and the woman who said, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
Azama remembers writing a book report on her as a third-grade elementary student in Daytona Beach, Fla., and then having the opportunity to meet and get a picture with her as a senior honors student during her visit to his high school. It’s a photo he has kept his entire life.
“Her story inspired me because she had a desire that tied into her purpose, and she was not going to be denied.”
Driven, smart, and incredibly approachable, Azama brings an infectious positive energy each and everyday. Despite only having been on the job for less than four months, players interact with the new administrator with ease. They call out a “Hey Anthony!” to the man who runs their athletics program as if he were another student walking on campus, or someone they’d see on the weekend.
The students are clearly his priority: He already has met with each team individually. He has been to their games. He is seen on campus. He has told his assistant that a student-athlete or a coach will never need an appointment to see him, and he has every home game, match or meet blocked out on his calendar.
It makes sense. Azama knows what it’s like to be a student-athlete. Recruited to Vanderbilt University out of Daytona Beach Mainland High School, Azama played Division I football for all four years of college.
During his tenure he played under three head coaches, an experience which would prove to be a bit of a roller-coaster ride. “I didn’t walk in being a star recruit,” he said. “I had to earn my keep. Then my position was taken away, and I had to earn it back.”
The experience, he said, taught him resiliency and perseverance.
But his experience in college extended far beyond the football field. “I had a competitive spirit and wanted to do well in the classroom to show that I belonged,” he said, “all the way down to sitting in the front row in the classroom and making sure I asked one to three questions every class, so the professor would know me by name.”
A commitment to service was also crucial. At Vanderbilt, Azama got involved at a community center in Nashville that impressed him so much, he ended up recruiting teammates to work in the center twice a month, tutoring younger kids in math, or bringing clippers and offering haircuts.
“I knew I had teammates with so many different talents beyond football,” he said. “I just helped provide the vehicle to share them.” The experience, he said, was the first time he learned sports can transcend the field of play. “When you have someone who’s 6-4, 6-5, 300 pounds, sitting in a kindergarten chair and sharing a moment with a young person, that really changed my mentality as it pertained to the power of sports,” he said.
Azama said it was a gift to see the game through a different lens — and it’s that same lens through which he views the student-athlete experience at Washington University. “Those of us who are lucky to have the ability to play a sport, I want us to be three-dimensional: To be leaders in the classroom; to be competitors in the sports that we love; and then to be engaged in the campus community, as well as in the surrounding community.”
Azama calls this “maximizing the moment” and it’s why he believes the student-athlete experience is one of the best internships available. It’s also why he considers every sport under his tutelage equally important. “I tell people, ‘You don’t have to know anything about the sport, or be in love with it,” he said. “But get to know our kids and you’ll fall in love with them.”