Inside Voices: “Transforming Lives through Athletics,” with Jackson Stava

Jackson Stava's path to becoming Seattle Pacific University's fifth athletic director was not a typical route. During his undergraduate years, he was a youth ministry Bible major at Azusa Pacific University, where he also earned a seminary degree, and he wasn't a college athlete or coach like many people are in his profession. Jackson thought he was going to do full-time traditional ministry after college, but God had other plans. Listen to his story and hear how his first job as an APU admissions counselor set him on the path toward college athletics.

Amanda Stubbert: Okay. I have to start with athletic director, what a very specific job. It’s not a coach. So much is like a CEO of a very large company that’s ever changing. What led you to this type of role?

Jackson Stava: It’s a great question. And I think that my path is probably one of the more atypical paths out there. I was not a college athlete. I was not a college coach, which is where many folks in my profession come from. When I went to college at APU, at Azusa as you mentioned before, I actually was a ministry major, a youth ministry Bible major as an undergrad, and spent some time and finished up a seminary degree there, as well.

And I really thought full-time traditional ministry was going to be the direction that I was going to go. However, along the way, I had the opportunity while at APU, my first job out of college while I was working on my master’s degree, was to be an admissions counselor. And I was an admissions counselor, really enjoyed my time doing that. And I began working with all of our recruited student-athletes.

And about a year into that role, the football coach at APU at the time, his name is Victor Santa Cruz, came to me and said, “Hey, would you do a chapel for us before a game?” And I did a chapel and had a great time doing it. And I thought it was a lot of fun. And then the next week, he came up to me and said, “Hey, would you do a chapel again?” And one thing led to another.

And before you knew it, I spent about every weekend at home and on the road with that program for the next five, six, seven, eight years, doing their chapels, being a part of the lives of those young men, and just really serving in a role as chaplain on that team. And through that process while I was in seminary, just fell in love with the transformation that happens in the lives of students through this vehicle of college athletics.

I believe there is no single person that makes a greater impact in the life of a college student athlete than their coach. And knowing that I wasn’t going to be a coach and didn’t feel called to do that, just figured it out that this is the direction I wanted to go, and knew that I wanted to be in administration. I really didn’t know it was going to be an AD right away when I started, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of college athletics because of the transformation that happened.

“I believe there is no single person that makes a greater impact in the life of a college student athlete than their coach. “

So moved from admissions over into compliance, and then spent a good chunk of time there, and moved my way up at Azusa before I got the opportunity to come up here to SPU. That’s the short version of my very atypical path to becoming an athletic director.

Amanda: From being the chaplain of the football team, to being the chaplain of our entire athletics program. I love it.

Jackson: In some ways, you’re right. I tell recruits a lot … when they sit in my office and when I meet with them and talk about coming to SPU, one of the things that I get asked a lot is, people say, “Well, what do you do as an athletic director?” A lot of people don’t know that I exist. It’s one of those roles.

It’s like everyone knows there’s an AD there. Not a ton of people know what I do. And the way that I’ve actually started answering that question is that, I think the role of an athletic director is to hire coaches and hire staff and create a culture within which the development that each institution wants to happen, can happen.

So for me here, I tell students that my job is to hire coaches and create a culture that will allow SPU Falcon Athletics to be a vehicle that can help them realize the fullness of the potential of who God created them to be, by the last day that they play for us.

Because we know that this is not a place that’s going to lead to a long, illustrious professional career. So we talk about that last day they’re going to play for us from the moment they get here, and say, “Hey, who you are that day, the last day you take off your sneakers, the last day you take off your cleats, that’s the goal, that’s the target.”

And my job as the AD is just to make sure that we have the right people in place to make sure that we can get them from point A to point B, for however long we have them.

“My job as the AD is just to make sure that we have the right people in place to make sure that we can get them from point A to point B, for however long we have them.”

Amanda: So is that one of the reasons that you picked SPU: the culture and seeing how they wanted the athletics department to be run?

Jackson: I would say certainly, yes, that one of the things that led me to apply to SPU, beyond the relationships I had with folks that worked here at SPU, or that had been a part of this community, is I knew there was a similar vein in terms of the developmental faith integration aspect to what I had experienced before. To say that I knew exactly what the culture of the department was, and that’s why I applied, I don’t think that’s totally accurate.

I think that culture has shifted and ebbed and flowed as we have brought some new staff and new coaches into the program. It always does. And certainly my arrival, I would hope helped that, too, just to continually push that culture forward. But yes, I remember when I was here on my interview that people would ask that question a lot.

‘Why SPU?’ And the things that I consistently said were SPU has an incredible reputation within the NCAA in Division II, as being a place that really holds intention, the idea of competitive excellence as a student and an athlete, and can do both of those things well. There are very few institutions that can have the success we’ve had competitively, and have great student-athletes as we do. And so I was drawn to that.

Certainly I was drawn to the Christian atmosphere, the faith-based nature of the institution. That’s something that I wanted to continue to be a part of. And that’s something my family and I were excited about. And we loved staying on the West Coast. All of our family is in California. So there are other jobs out there, but we certainly didn’t want to end up in Iowa or Florida, or somewhere that was just very, very far from family.

No offense to our Iowans and Floridians who may be listening, but it was the combination of those things that really made me want to be here. And yeah, it was still a huge adjustment. This place is not Southern California, and so there is a big cultural difference between an experience here and the one that I had previously.

But that vein of faith integration and character formation and student-athlete success being at the forefront of what would make someone believe they had been successful as a student-athlete, that translated. And that was ultimately, the biggest thing that I was excited about to come here to SPU.

Amanda: Well, from an outsider to the Athletics Department, not obviously an outsider at SPU, but I’m not super connected to any one specific team. But what I noticed when you first came and started hiring some new folks is that you put a lot of time and energy into the culture on campus, into the culture of the fans.

And I’ve had so much fun working with you with giveaways and special fan nights. And it’s really fun to see more of that fan base grow across the student body.

Jackson: Yeah. Well, I appreciate you saying that because it is certainly something that we have been focused on. For those that are listening, and if you’re not familiar with our campus, our building is across a four-lane street. And you would think at times, and Amanda you know this, that four-lane street is eight miles. It seems so far.

Amanda: It’s a raging river that cannot be passed.

Jackson: We cannot cross the street. Actually, you can. The little guy turns white, you walk across. It’s a little walk sign, and it’s easy. But no, that was something that we had to do. And certainly part of that is selfish. As an athletic department, it’s way easier to win games when you have a lot of fans in the stands, and a way better experience for your student-athletes to play in front of their peers.

But ultimately, one of the things that I think athletics can do, and this is a conviction that I’ve had since I’ve worked in athletics and saw it in my time in admissions when I started my career, is athletics is often described as the front porch. We are the part of the university that the community sees. We’re often the first thing that people will think about, or the first thing they’ll engage with as they get to know an institution.

And so the idea of institutional affinity of people feeling a deep rooted sense of pride in the idea of being a Falcon, and wearing maroon and the Falcon logo, that’s really important. And I think that impacts a university and the community on a university as a whole. When you think about places that have deep pride in universities and institutions that have deep pride in their institution, a lot of that is tied to athletics.

“Athletics is often described as the front porch. We are the part of the university that the community sees.”

You think of places like Duke and Duke basketball and the fervor that surrounds that. In Southern California, you think of USC and UCLA, and a lot of that revolves around football. And not that athletics should drive everything about a university, but it’s a gathering place. It is an affinity moment. And it is something where regardless of your major, regardless if you’re a commuter, if you live on campus, regardless of anything that you might bring to the table, when you walk into the gym, we want people to feel good about being a Falcon.

And we want there to be a real deep sense of pride in that. So I appreciate you saying that, because we’ve worked hard. We’ve borrowed the Alumni Office T-shirt gun a number of times. Anything we can do to rev folks up a little bit, we’ll certainly take the opportunity to do so.

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing like a shared experience for all of us. It’s a human need, right?

Jackson: Yeah.

Amanda: Those shared experiences where we are on the same team, I think that always feels so good.

Jackson: It does. And I’ll tell you what. This fall so far, and I know we’re recording this at the end of September, the students are insane right now at games. They are hiking in groups of 50 and 100 over the hill to Interbay in the rain. They’re screaming and yelling as fans. I had a player on an opposing team that actually got a red card in a soccer game.

And as I was escorting him off the field, he was clapping for our fans because they were so crazy. And he told them how funny they were and other things. And I asked a couple of the students. I said, “Man, what’s different?” And their response was, “We haven’t been able to do this in two years.”

Amanda: Yeah.

Jackson: There is right now, even more so than normal, a desire to be a part of things, and to feel connected and to have those shared experiences. So we hope that continues and that we can really continue to build on that, and be an outlet for our students in that way this year.

Amanda: For sure. Just like everyone else on the planet, you don’t know how grateful you are until something’s taken away.

Jackson: Yeah.

Amanda: We didn’t realize how grateful we were for shared experiences, until we couldn’t have them anymore. At least not in the traditional way. And speaking of that, these recent months, this whole last school year, talk about a pivot. We’re all pivoting. They’re trying to teach online, they’re trying to do labs online.

No one had it easy. But when I think of athletics, just a shutdown, just there was nothing you could do for a very long time. And I’m guessing, you relied on those chaplaincy routes to get those student-athletes through, especially those first months. Do you want to talk about that for a minute?

“There is right now, even more so than normal, a desire to be a part of things, and to feel connected and to have those shared experiences.”

Jackson: Yeah, I’d love to. I’ve said before to many colleagues and friends that it’s an experience that taught me more than anything probably could in terms of leadership and culture and other things. Certainly not one I ever want to repeat to learn it again. I think we’re all good with just doing this one time. But it was wild.

I tell this story, and I wrote it in a letter to our fans. Right when COVID started in March of ’20, we were selected, our men’s basketball team was selected to play in the West Regional NCAA basketball tournament. We headed to the airport. And on the way to the airport, everything was normal. By the time we got to the airport, they told us that we were probably not going to be able to have fans in the stands, other than family.

By the time we landed in San Diego, that had been confirmed that only family could enter. That night, we went to dinner and Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID on the Utah Jazz. The next day, the NCAA, Major League Baseball, everyone canceled all of their events. 20 minutes later, I booked our flight home. We weren’t on the ground 24 hours. We got back, we shut everything down.

And we had 200+ student-athletes that went from sport being in many ways, if not the central, a central part of their life from the time they were 2, 2, 4 years old, to having to just stop. And we sent everybody away, and we could not practice. We could not lift weights. We could not gather. And I was flummoxed. It was, what do we do? We’re an Athletics Department that now can’t do that.

But what came out of that, Amanda, is our coaches, and I cannot speak highly enough of the head coaches that we have here at SPU, they rallied together. They banded together, they talked to each other, and they pivoted so quickly. Yes, they were frustrated that we didn’t know what the future held, and that we lost games, and seasons were canceled, and seniors didn’t get a senior night, all of those things that we all experienced together.

But they pivoted so quickly and said, “Well, if this is our reality, how do we dive into leadership development more? If we can’t spend the time that we normally spend together doing sport, how do we talk about faith in a different way? What does leadership look like? What does character formation look like?” And they began to work with their students on all of those other things, knowing that that’s what we’re called to do.

And you’re very kind in saying that I was the one that pulled on my chaplaincy roots in the middle of that. Certainly I think I did with my coaches, but our coaches just impressed me all the time. I said during COVID in athletics, and I’ve said this many times, one thing that COVID did to folks that work in college athletics, is it really emphasized and shone a spotlight on where your priorities are.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jackson: There were a lot of coaches out there in the country who would talk to me, or talk to coaches here at SPU and say, “Well, wait. You’re having meetings with your team? For what?” And our coaches would explain what they’re doing. And these coaches at other institutions would say, “Oh, well, we haven’t been able to do fill-in-the-blank sport. So I haven’t talked to my team in nine weeks.”

Amanda: Wow.

Jackson: And that blew my mind, and just reminded me again, that the women and the men that are our coaching staff and our administration and athletic training staff, and support staff here, they’re really, really a special group. And I am convinced that much of the success we are seeing this fall, which we can talk about, is because of the foundation that was built even deeper during that time of COVID. So yes, it’s been wild.

And then from there, all of last academic year, we were grateful to be able to be together. We were in pods of five for a good chunk of last fall, and trying to figure out how to play soccer in groups of five, with masks and spacing in between people. But every step along the way, our coaches pivoted, and our staff did. And we adjusted. And we figured out, “Okay, how do we make this work for our students?”

And I’m convinced that that’s why we had such great success in the little bit of competition we got last year, but certainly why we’re set up for the success we are this fall.

“We were in pods of five for a good chunk of last fall, and trying to figure out how to play soccer in groups of five, with masks and spacing in between people.”

Amanda: I hear about marathon runners training at high altitudes, so that when you come back down, you have that extra bit of oomph that you’ve learned. Do you feel like this last year of practicing in little pieces and with masks on, do you feel like now that you can be back to normal … I don’t know that we’re back to normal, but we’re so close.

Jackson: Yeah.

Amanda: Do you find that the athletes are actually performing with that extra oomph of being able to have the restrictions then removed?

Jackson: Yeah, I think so. And I think we’re seeing that across the board. I think it’s an appreciation for something that was taken away, right?

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jackson: You never appreciate it until it’s gone. And the level of gratitude and appreciation that our students have certainly is playing into that. But that’s not unique to us here. That’s happening across the country. What I think is unique here is you’re right, there were some things that were trained. To use that analogy, some muscles were worked on, some flexibility was gained.

Whatever athletic analogy you want to use, we are now able to draw on a shared experience of having to go through COVID, and doing it in a way that was productive for us as a team, that I think is helping us when we face adversity, because that’s one of the things.

I’m thrilled that our women’s soccer team on the day we’re recording this, and I’ll find some wood to knock on here in the office because they play this afternoon, but I’m thrilled that at this point, they haven’t lost a game this year. And they’re undefeated, and they’re ranked in the top 10 in the country. And I believe they are that talented.

But I also believe part of the reason is, even though they’re undefeated, they have faced some adversity in games. They had to go on the road in some tough situations and fight back through weather and through bad refereeing, which we always have to fight through, and other things to get there.

And that resilience, that grit, that determination, that camaraderie, that teamwork, all of those things, I think we are steps ahead of others because of what we’ve through. So really, really grateful that we’re not going through it again, but certainly, I think it has positioned us well as we move into this year.

Amanda: For sure. For sure. And we’re all rooting for every single one of our athletes. OK. Before we get back to sports, because this is part universal impact personal stories, but it’s also entertainment. And I cannot talk to you, Jackson, without telling the world about a little piece of your career we haven’t talked about yet. And that is directing musical theater.

Jackson: Hey, there you go.

Amanda: That’s not something most athletic directors have in their past. Can you just tell me a few of those stories?

Jackson: Oh, sure. Yeah, you’re right, Amanda. I think if we were to survey the 1,100 athletic directors at NCAA institutions, I don’t know how long the list would be of seminary-trained, musical theater-background athletic directors. I don’t know how much of that there is out there.

Amanda: You might be the only one. Yeah, you might be the only one.

Jackson: That might be a list that’s just mine, which, hey, if that’s the case, I’ll take it. My mom, from the time I was born, she was the kids’ choir director at our church. And so music and musicals, that was just always a part of our life. And I loved it. My dad was the sound guy at church, the tech guy. And so I just grew up around production and around music, and around theater, and really loved it.

I was a musician growing up. I played the trumpet, all the way from the time I was in junior high and into college, and was a part of a number of different things. And just really loved the arts and loved that creative side. So yeah, when I was in high school and in college, it started with some … Obviously, I loved theater and loved musicals and all that.

“I was a musician growing up. I played the trumpet, all the way from the time I was in junior high and into college, and was a part of a number of different things.”

But what started as, hey, I was a sound guy for some local theater companies, turned into one of my good friends, Eric, and I writing some kid’s choir musicals for the choirs that my mom was directing at our church. And we wouldn’t write the music or all of it, but we would certainly write all the drama pieces and the acting in between.

And that led to me working with different theater groups at high schools and other places in the area. And yes, I got to work with some pretty incredible folks. I think that the last piece that I did, or the last musical I was really a part of, before having to transition and work full time, we did a production of Les Miserables in my hometown a couple of different times.

And it was just a really fun way to end that experience with my role there. And a little known fact, one of the guys that was in that first production … we did Les Mis twice, two years apart, but Zac Efron was actually one of the kids that I worked with in that show growing up. And I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not to mention on this podcast.

Amanda: I think so.

Jackson: But I think that somewhere in there, maybe I taught him something. I’m waiting for the donation to come back to Falcon Athletics, though.

Amanda: Did he play Gavroche, just from a theater nerd?

Jackson: He did not. No.

Amanda: Oh, OK.

Jackson: He did not. At the time, he was actually getting ready to film High School Musical. And so we had to give him a smaller part because he was in and out, because he was off doing this little musical that we all thought was something that no one would ever watch.

Amanda: Right. This little known thing called High School Musical, flash in the pan. I’m sure no one will ever remember.

Jackson: Yeah.

Amanda: Well, all right. So thank you for that, because I love that story. Because it just goes to show how multifaceted we all are, and how we all have stories that would just surprise those who even that we work with on a day-to-day basis. All right. So back to sports.

Obviously, not everyone is an athlete. But as you say, these athletes that you work with, are learning these lifelong lessons of grit and resiliency. What can the rest of us do? How can the rest of us who aren’t playing a sport or haven’t played a sport since college, how do we get some of that back into our own lives?

Jackson: Wow, that’s a great question. I think that so much of what we do in college athletics, it is just, it’s people. It’s relationships. And it’s those things. And I think that, sure, there are some inherent advantages to learning things like grit and determination when you’re playing a sport. You are physically learning to lift heavier weights.

You are legitimately and literally learning what it’s like to get up when you get knocked down, and to fight through adversity of the other team. But those opportunities to do that exist in so many different places. You learn about adversity and teamwork in musical theater. You learn about it in relationships that you have with a small group at your church, with families that are in your life.

You learn it through hobbies. I love playing golf. And golf is a sport that hopefully, I’ll be playing my whole life. And man, there’s a lot of lessons you can learn there. But I think that really what it is, is it’s just for everyone that wants some of those opportunities, it’s just looking for them. I don’t know if athletics is the only place that you can do those. In fact, I’m certain it’s not.

“You are legitimately and literally learning what it’s like to get up when you get knocked down, and to fight through adversity of the other team.”

But I just think one thing that is so great about athletics here at SPU is we point that out to our students from day one. We tell them, “Hey, we are going to develop your character through X, Y, and Z. And you are going to learn this because of your experience with SPU volleyball.” I think the same can be true for whatever it is that you’re doing in your life.

Whether you’re learning to play an instrument, whether you’re excited about growth in a new job when you’re put … Shoot. How many of us learned to bake bread and do different stuff like that over COVID? Those are all moments where you can learn those things. And seeing success on the backend of anything that you’ve pushed yourself to do, it can be that reward.

We talk a lot, and going back to where we started, Victor Santa Cruz, the old football coach at Azusa, he used to say to his students and I steal the term all the time, he said, “Hey, the win and loss is the tip of the iceberg that everybody sees.” It’s that idea that all of the other data points for success are hidden.

And I would say that anyone out there, whether you’re learning, like we said, to play an instrument or bake bread, or just trying to grow in whatever it is that you’re doing in your life, to be a better communicator, be a better friend, getting to that end result certainly it’s going to feel good. And people are going to see it.

But it’s all the stuff you learn along the way. It’s all that work. It’s all that dedication and time really, I think where the character formation pieces come. So my challenge to people would just be to not overlook it. Don’t just think, “Oh, I did this thing.” But really, applaud yourself and give yourself the kudos that you need for all of the work that you did to get there, because in that work is often where those lessons come.

And when you can do that, and then also one of the things I love about here, if you can do that in an environment where faith is being integrated, and not only see what you’ve done, but to see how God has come alongside you in that, or what God is maybe calling you to, as you experience and explore these new things, it just makes it all the richer. So yeah, I think there’s no shortage of ways people can experience similar things. For sure.

Amanda: Plus, you can also still join a team.

Jackson: Yeah.

Amanda: I’m amazed at how many, especially in Seattle, intramural-type leagues and opportunities that we have, even as adults.

Jackson: Oh, for every age.

Amanda: Yeah.

Jackson: And yeah, it’s for everything. Man, shoot, everyone is playing pickleball these days. And anyone can play pickleball. There’s so many cool things like that to do. For sure.

Amanda: Well, Jackson, I as always, have so much fun chatting with you. But as our time comes to a close, I’ll ask you our famous last question: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that’s going to make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Jackson: You sent me the question, Amanda, and you’d think I have a perfect answer ready for it. But I don’t. And as I thought about that question, certainly there’s a part of me, I could make a funny response and say that everyone should just come to one of our games and that would make the world a better place. And certainly it may.

And I would encourage anyone in the Greater Seattle area to take advantage of that and to come. But I think if I were to say what would make the greater city of Seattle a better place, or this region a better place if everyone did one thing, the thing that I really believe is that answer is I think people need to slow down.

People need to see the process for what it is. It goes back to what we just talked about. In athletics, we talk a lot about the process. There is a process of recruiting, and there’s a process of teams coming together. There’s a process of growth. And that process, that journey, as I mentioned before, that is where the richness happens.

“People need to see the process for what it is.”

That’s where we see the fulfillment of so much of what God is calling us to. That’s where we see how we can bring the kingdom of God into this world, as we engage with people. That’s where you see the personal growth. It is not just the end result. And Seattle is awesome with the industry and the tech and the opportunities, but it also is a fast place. It is rapid. It is always ever-changing.

And I think that this area, for sure, the students that we work with, but everyone, finding a way to enjoy the ride, trust the process, slow down, whatever phrase you want to use, but understand that that journey and slow journeys are oftentimes the ones where the most growth and transformation happens. I think that would help us a ton. And come to our games.

Amanda: Slow down, come to a game. I love it.

Jackson: There you go.

Amanda: I love it.

Jackson: Popcorn is cheap. We only charge a dollar.

Amanda: I love popcorn. I would come to the game just for popcorn, if I’m being honest. All right, Jackson. Thank you so much for your time. Let me end with our prayer of blessing: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hands to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May God bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.


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