LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva got his start in the athletic world while playing quarterback at Lehigh in the 1970s. Upon earning a bachelor’s degree in 1975, Alleva became a graduate assistant football coach at Lehigh while working on his MBA, which he earned in 1976. Alleva continued in the sports arena, eventually becoming athletic director at Duke and now LSU. In this exclusive interview with FootballMatters.org, Alleva discusses how football has always played a role in his life and how the game translates into the business world.
Football Matters: When you look back on your career in football as a coach and a player at Lehigh, what are some of your earliest memories about why the sport was special to you?
Joe Alleva: I always enjoyed playing football because of the camaraderie that you developed with your teammates. Back in the day when I played quarterback, I got to call my own plays. Calling your own plays was so much fun. You had to put together a plan on how you wanted to attack. These days, offensive coordinators call all the plays, so that’s taken out of the equation. When I was playing, quarterbacks called their own plays and that was the most fun. You’d get in the huddle and talk about who can beat who and what play would work, and you’d talk to a wide receiver to see if he could beat his man on a particular play.
It developed a lot of accountability in the huddle, people taking responsibility for what they were doing. I think the most fun about playing for me was the camaraderie that you built with your teammates and the lessons you learned. In football, when you get knocked down, you have to get back up again. It teaches you lessons in life. Not every day is a great day in life. When you get knocked down, you have to get back up again. I don’t think there’s a game that makes the value of everybody doing their job so important. I could be the best quarterback in the world, but if the offensive line doesn’t block, I can’t get anything done. If the guys don’t catch the ball when you throw it to them, nothing happens. Everybody has to do their jobs for things to work. It just takes one guy not performing and it messes up the whole play. And that’s the same thing that’s true in life and in business, everyone has to do their job for that company to proceed. I think there’s a tremendous amount of similarities between the game of football and the game of life.
FM: Did you have a mentor for your football career, and can you talk about what that person meant to you?
JA: I don’t really consider one of my coaches a mentor, but my biggest mentor was my dad. I don’t think my dad missed one game I ever played in from the time I was eight years old all the way through college. He was my biggest fan, my biggest supporter. He taught me a lot of values about hard work, dedication and being loyal to what you are doing. My mentor was my dad, no question about that.
FM: In your career as an Athletic Director, how do you still use lessons you learned on the football field every day?
JA: I really use those values every day. There’s no question that you are only as good as the people you have working with you. Like I said about being a quarterback, I could be the best athletic director in the world, but if I don’t have good people around me, I’m not going to succeed. You have to try to get people who are willing to work hard, be loyal and understand the value of doing their job to make the whole athletic department better, no matter if you’re the head coach in football or you’re the guy mowing the grass. They are all very important in the mission of what we’re trying to do, and that’s achieve excellence and if any of those areas fall down, then we’re not going to achieve excellence. Whether it’s in the academic center, the training room, the groundskeepers, the coaches, they are all vital in trying to achieve excellence.
It’s the same way on the football field. Whether it’s the guard or the wide receiver or the fullback, every person is equally important.
The other thing that’s really important to me is loyalty. I believe that people have to be loyal in what they’re doing. I won’t tolerate any disloyalty. I think that’s important in football, too. You must be loyal to your teammates and to your coaches as well.
FM: You made the move from athletic director at Duke to LSU. What role did football play, if any, in that decision?
JA: Duke is having some success in football right now, and I’m very proud of that because I did hire David Cutcliffe there, and he’s doing a great job. But prior to him coming, we didn’t have a lot of success in football, going back to when Steve Spurrier was the head coach in the late 80s. Between Spurrier and Cutcliffe, we didn’t have a lot of great football. And even when we had great football, we only put 30,000 people in the stands.
When you come here to LSU and you play in the Southeastern Conference, you’re playing in front of crowds of between 80,000 and 100,000 people. Football is an unbelievable passionate sport here, our fans are so passionate about it and it’s almost like a religion. So that did play a part, I did want to come to a football school and LSU definitely fits that criteria.
FM: In a few sentences, can you tell us how much football has meant to you and your life?
JA: Not only does football teach me values and leave me with lifelong friends, when I got out of school at Lehigh, I got my first job at Duke University because of my being a football player. There was a recruiter from Duke and that recruiter had ties to Lehigh football. I actually got my foot in the door because I was a football player. It opened doors for me that probably wouldn’t have been opened had I not been a football player.
I didn’t start at Duke in the athletic department, I started working for the Controller of the university and because of my athletic background, I ended up gravitating to the athletic department as the business manager. So, athletics provided me the entrée to get back into athletics and from there, I was able to work my way up to become athletic director. There’s no question that my career was directly impacted by my football experience, combined with my educational experience.
There’s no question in my mind, none, that I would not be in the job I am in right now had I not played football.