Lueken did things the right way, and now it’s the right time to step down

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Have you ever built a tile shower?

If Brian Crow, the chair and a professor in the Sport Management Department, wants to install a tile shower or build a back deck on his house, he calls Paul Lueken first. While Crow admits that Lueken isn’t that much older himself, he still looks at Lueken as a father figure of sorts. If you want to build a deck, he’s your guy; if you need advice on Division II softball, he’s your guy.

If Crow and Lueken are out on the golf course together — which may or may not have occurred at least 30 times this summer — the pair can’t go a full 18 holes without six or seven phone calls or text messages blowing up Lueken’s phone. On any given day, Lueken is flooded with requests about how to handle a certain situation or how to solve a problem in an athletic department.

After 26 years serving as the Director of Athletics at Slippery Rock University, Lueken has been through almost any challenge you could imagine as the AD of a major Division II university. Sports have been cut, sanctions have been weathered (handed down from the administration before Lueken) and Slippery Rock has had an entire semester of athletics wiped out from a global pandemic.

Now, Slippery Rock must weather the changing of the guard as Lueken has announced he will step down as the AD, effective Jan. 1, 2021, through Rock Athletics.

Joanne Leight, the chairperson and professor of the Physical and Health Education department, will serve as the interim athletic director next semester — a role she says she’s happy to serve as a way to give back to the university she calls home — while Slippery Rock University will conduct a nationwide search for the person brave enough to step into Lueken’s shoes.

How it should be done

First to arrive, last to leave. That’s a mantra that Lueken lives by, even as a veteran AD of nearly three decades. A self-proclaimed grinder, Lueken isn’t happy to rest on his laurels. Even when it would be an easy excuse now. A man hardened by years spent mowing lawns, laying bricks and building houses as a youth, Lueken has let that work ethic carry through his entire SRU career.

When the world turned gray — both literally and figuratively — as sheets of snow and sleet fell from the skies at nearly 90-degree angles, Slippery Rock football trailed Minnesota State-Mankato in the NCAA Division II national semifinals decisively. Thousands of SRU fans who braved the arctic weather in the cold, wet metal bleachers had left, but, still bundled up from head to toe, Lueken dutifully trotted across Bob DiSpirito Field, snow shovel in hand, to ensure the lines were able to be seen by officials. Trailing by 40 late in the game, Lueken stood on the sidelines, unwilling to abandon his sinking ship — frozen ship?

“That’s another thing the new AD is going to have a tough time doing; you’re going to have a hard time finding someone who will go turn the lights off at the fieldhouse at 10 o’clock at night and then be there at 7 o’clock to water the softball field grass,” Crow said. “Not that he had to do it, but he wanted it done right.”

Lueken loves college athletics, especially Division II athletics, and above all else, he loves Slippery Rock University. But it’s finally time for a new path in life; Lueken is almost 60 years old now, and he’s right on track with his life plan.

The coronavirus pandemic, while it did re-introduce Lueken to a life where he isn’t seated in his office at the Morrow Field House at the crack of dawn every morning, wasn’t the reason why Lueken chose now to retire.

“It was all part of my plan – my life plan or whatever you want to have it,” Lueken said. “It was to retire at age 60 if I could comfortably. I turn 60 in December. It was a good time for that; I could retire comfortably and do some other stuff.”

The timing was perfect, Lueken said, but COVID-19 just sort of popped up.

If you want to define “popping up” as forcing the cancellation of all remaining athletic activities back in March and the suspension of almost all athletic activities this semester, yeah, it just popped up. It was one of the few negatives in Lueken’s decision to step down.

Besides the obvious disappointment of being unable to interact with Slippery Rock University student-athletes and the shutdown of nearly everything related to SRU athletics, Lueken had his goodbye planned perfectly. That will not be the case anymore; it will be an unceremonious end for the man who revolutionized Rock athletics.

“I’m on the Division II national football committee,” Lueken explained. “I wanted to go out with a full fall sports season — with successful seasons — and my last athletic event would have been at the Division II national football championship game, hoping that Slippery Rock was in that game. That would have been my culminating experience because that game would have been in December and I would have been there no matter what.”

After last season’s near-miss in the national semifinals, Rock football had geared up for another run. Lueken wanted to be a part of that championship run — that celebration — just once. That won’t be possible now.

There will be a new benefit of not being the man in charge anymore, however.

“I actually look forward to going to the games because when something goes wrong, I don’t have to fix it,” Lueken said. “If we’re up by 50, in the fourth quarter, I can leave and not have to stay around.”

Yes, Lueken will only be a fan now. But he’ll be a big fan.

A legacy to be remembered for 

Where do you start when bringing up the legacy Lueken has created for himself at the only place he’s known as “home” in his professional life? The record athletic and academic growth? The ways to save money while rapidly increasing the scholarship pool for SRU student-athletes? … The “rightsizing” in 2006? Maybe just the beginning?

August of 1994 was well before most current students at SRU were born. It was a different time, a different world than the one we live in today, and Lueken was handed the reins of the SRU athletic department on the heels of an athletic scandal that rocked the university with heavy sanctions stemming from a violation of the men’s basketball program in 1993.

Lueken, in a prior interview with The Rocket, admitted it was a tough time as he was a coach and revenue generator, not a compliance officer. But he learned quickly, and he put the situation behind him. Aside from handling NCAA-levied sanctions, Lueken dealt with the task of attaining tenure as all faculty members are required to do.

Previously wondering whether he’d just spend three to five years at SRU, potentially using his position as a stepping stone to a Division I institution, toward the end of the tenure process, he realized that Slippery Rock was where he wanted to be.

His children were enrolled in the Slippery Rock School District, Slippery Rock was a great place to raise a family and it was suddenly hard to leave — not that he really wanted to leave in the first place. If Lueken likes a place, if he and his family are comfortable, he prefers to stay in one place. One place to grow and transform as his own. The idea of jumping from job to job, a common theme in today’s athletics climate, is an extremely unappealing thought for Lueken. Lueken couldn’t imagine the strain constantly moving, from Illinois to Pennsylvania to potentially New York or California, would have on young families — as his had been at the time.

“We came out here, and we left where I grew up — where I grew up in Illinois — and we came out here and started a new life,” Lueken recalled. “Now, we’ve got four adult children, a granddaughter with another grandchild on the way, and this is now home for our family.”

Few coaches have outlasted Lueken at SRU — Laurie Lokash in her 37th year with Rock volleyball, Jeff Messer in his 35th year with Rock baseball and John Papa in his 34th year with Rock cross-country and track & field to name them — and he’s hired all the rest. Starting with Aebersold all the way through Bill Behre, Lueken has worked with six SRU Presidents.

Aside from the six coaches in place before Lueken arrived, along with the aforementioned “Big 3” of Rock coaches, Lueken has been responsible for the hiring of 35 Rock coaches of varsity athletics currently offered by SRU.

One of those hires was Leight, a softball coaching hire in 1996. A two-time SRU grad, Leight will be forever grateful to Lueken for the opportunity to return to her alma mater.

“That was 25 years ago, and Paul [Lueken] has been a constant presence in the field house all that time,” Leight said. “His loyalty to the university is a reflection of his character.” 

Lueken brought in Kevin Reynolds to turn around the basketball program after years of languishing in the basement of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and after the Reynolds situation went south, he kept Ian Grady on to right the ship. After legendary Rock football coach George Mihalik retired in 2015, Lueken gambled on Shawn Lutz to continue Mihalik’s legacy (rewarded with two PSAC titles and a trip to the national semifinals in 2019).

After the legendary Noreen Herhily retired from Rock women’s soccer in 2014, Lueken hired Jessica Giegucz, who has just won 64% of her games with SRU and a PSAC title. In 1998, after a successful but unspectacular career from Jim McFarland, Lueken replaced McFarland with Matt Meredith and the SRU tennis has experienced record growth and success.

Headlined by a PSAC title in football, women’s outdoor track & field and women’s soccer this past season, SRU has won 39 PSAC titles and 11 individual national titles since Lueken ascended Rock athletics.

The crowning achievement, a 2007-08 F. Eugene Dixon Trophy for overall athletic excellence, for Lueken was the continuation of two decades of sustained consistency. SRU finished in the top five 12 times since the 2000-01 season and never lower than eighth in the same time period.

In this past decade, Lueken has brought in coaches that have allowed SRU to flourish not just from an athletic perspective, with PSAC titles in football, women’s soccer and women’s indoor and outdoor track, but from an academic perspective.

“I’m most proud of how we’ve transformed the student-athletes’ academic performance here,” Lueken said. “The coaches bought in, the student-athletes bought in, the administration bought in and we were able to get some things accomplished through the help of the whole campus community with some priority scheduling, a variety of different things — different scholarship funds — so we could bring better, more high-quality student-athletes here. It’s equated into championships.”

When Lueken took over in 1994, thanks to Rock Athletics, we know that the SRU student-athlete GPA was 2.614. In 2020, that number has risen to a 3.552 GPA among all SRU student-athletes — the highest in single semester history. Lueken could not claim all credit, pointing to the “pass/no credit” option for students in the coronavirus-shortened spring 2020 semester. Regardless, since 1994, the GPA of SRU student-athletes is 3.064.

“I think Slippery Rock really does follow that model of ‘student-athletes’ instead of ‘athlete-student’ that you see at other places,” Crow said. “And that probably comes from him being a student-athlete at Division III, and he’s always known the importance of getting a good education.”

Torry Rollins, associate athletic director at SRU, points to the academic success of SRU student-athletes as the highlight of Rock athletics during his time at SRU since 2011.

Athletics have been emphasized at SRU, and Lueken has been a driving force not just among student-athletes but among all students. Crow calls Lueken the “Godfather of PSAC ADs” for his ability to place former students in positions not just around the conference but around the country.

SRU Assistant Athletic Director of Compliance and Senior Woman Administrator Andrea Miller Grady wouldn’t be in the position she’s in now without Lueken’s guidance. As an exercise science major during her undergrad years as a lacrosse student-athlete at SRU, wouldn’t have typically interacted with Lueken. Instead, he provided mentorship during and after her time at The Rock.

“We just really have a good group of kids — of young people that are here — doing what they want to do, and we’re trying to help them succeed in doing that and everybody’s going in the same direction,” Lueken said. “That’s what is the most pleasing and comforting thing to know walking away.”

However, like any leader in the history of ever, life hasn’t always been easy. Work hasn’t always been easy.

“If you’re someone in a leadership position, it doesn’t matter what position you’re in, you’re not going to make everybody happy,” Lueken said. “If you are making everybody happy, it probably means you’re not doing anything.”

In 2006, SRU made the decision to cut eight varsity sports: field hockey, golf, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s water polo, men’s tennis and wrestling. The decision, which Lueken said was in the efforts to sustain and become more competitive across the department (along with a lack of funding), led to a Title IX lawsuit from members of the women’s swimming and water polo teams.

“That day we announced we were cutting college sports, it was probably, in terms of my jobs at Slippery Rock, the hardest day of my job ever,” Lueken said. “I didn’t want to discontinue any of those programs.”

SRU eventually reinstated the field hockey program, but for Lueken, the damage had been done. The alumni of the sports that had been cut, on both sides, did not — and still don’t –think too kindly of him. But he understands that. It wasn’t easy for anyone.

“I’ve heard from some alumni that I’m the reason why they don’t give to athletics — financial aid,” Lueken said. “Well, now that I’m gone, now that I’m retired, open up the checkbooks, baby. I jokingly say that, but I’ve heard that, trust me.”

The decision to “rightsize” the program wasn’t easy, it wasn’t well-received, but it was necessary for the future of Rock athletics. The decision made SRU stronger as a whole, evidenced, as Lueken said, by the Dixon Trophy soon after. The money that those sports did not receive was used through the rest of the department, leading to new facility upgrades and stronger teams. The decision to cut those sports isn’t too far off the decisions most ADs are facing around the country.

“Right now, across the country, guess what?” Lueken asked. “What are they doing? They’re cutting sports. Because the money is not there. And that’s not the reason we did it. I feel bad for all those sports that are getting cut, mainly at Divison I institutions, because the money is not there. I feel bad because football is not getting touched, and they should.”

“SRU is in full compliance with Title IX and one of only two schools in Pennsylvania that meet compliance through proportionality as reported on EADA reports submitted to the Department of Education,” Rock Athletics said.

Among the broad success of SRU athletics, Lueken was able to allocate funds to redesigning and revamping many athletic facilities across the campus. Almost every facility has seen upgrades, Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, Morrow Field House and among others, but under Lueken, Jack Critchfield Park has been built, upgraded and turned into one of the premier baseball facilities in the country. Additionally, the women’s soccer, field hockey, softball and lacrosse offices have all been constructed on the SRU campus. Rollins feels like he can firmly say he was partially responsible for some of the upgrades to SRU’s facilities, having overseen the financial aspects of most of them.

“During his tenure,” Rock Athletics said, “SRU has increased community and alumni involvement in the athletic program. Lueken also initiated The Rock Athletic Club and a corporate sponsor program, with annual fundraising for Athletics increasing by more than 250%. The athletic scholarship program is now supported by more than 50 named scholarships. During his tenure, Slippery Rock’s scholarship fund has climbed from just over $300,000 awarded annually to more than $1.1 million awarded annually.”

With a state-of-the-art football and baseball field, hosting football, baseball, field hockey, lacrosse, men’s and women’s soccer on occasion, and improved facilities for all varsity athletics, SRU boasts one of the best athletic departments in Division II athletics.

Where to go from here?

Through all the hardships faced in his athletic career, by far the most difficult moments came at home. Lueken’s beloved wife, Rose Ann, had fought a 13 year cancer battle when she passed away in 2010.

Lueken went through the darkest days of his life. Thoughts of work, thoughts of sports, meant little — if anything — as Lueken coped with the loss of his partner in life. He leaned heavily on the support of the SRU community — and of course his family — in the days, weeks and years that followed, crediting that support system as getting him through the dark days.

Crow was one of many who reached out and helped bridge an impossible transition.

“I thought, ‘what could I do to help my buddy, Paul?'” Crow said. “So I arranged a golf trip to Myrtle Beach; we went for five days and played 10 courses — probably lost a hundred dozen balls each. Going through that with him, we became pretty close and it’s remained that way since.”

When Lueken came out to Slippery Rock, a brand new adventure for his burgeoning family, he wasn’t sure what the future held. Upon being hired as a young AD, a message was drilled into his head, one he wouldn’t soon forget.

“When Dr. Bob Aebersold hired me — he was the President here when I came — he told me, he said, ‘Paul, you’re not going to accomplish what you want to accomplish in a year, or two, or three, or five, or maybe even 10. What you want to do is a long-term commitment. But there’s a lot of opportunities here for you, so the longer you stay, the more you’ll get done,'” Lueken said. “And, he was right.”

Lueken loves Illinois, but Slippery Rock is home now. And it’s been home since that talk with Aebersold sold all those years ago.

Life without Division II athletics — SRU athletics in particular — will be weird at first, but there’s plenty to do around the house. The house that Lueken and his wife, Donna, plan on staying in for a while. Donna still teaches at the high school after all.

The writing has been on the wall for a while now, even if it wasn’t always with a sharpie. When Lueken’s family tailgated before a football game last season, he was able to stop by. For a short time. He stopped by, said hello, took some pictures and headed back up to the field. It was short and sweet. After the game, Lueken’s granddaughter stepped onto Bob DiSpirito Field for the first time.

What more can you ask for after half a lifetime spent in SRU athletics?

Life moving forward will be different, weird at times, but it won’t be without college athletics. As a true Division II and PSAC lover, Lueken has offered to help PSAC commissioner Steve Murray with challenges arising in the spring. If consulting work and helping friends and colleagues in their pursuits arise, Lueken won’t say no. But he won’t have to say yes anymore.

As the AD of a major Division II program, Lueken hasn’t avoided criticism, as he said — if you’re making everyone happy, you aren’t doing your job — but he’s pleased he can hold pleasant conversations with most of the student-athletes he’s had during his time.

The ones with the biggest problems — recent football alums — tend to find issue with being unable to crowd the home sidelines during Rock football games. It’s a tough choice, and some of the former student-athletes don’t much like Lueken for it, but after an all-day tailgate, it’s usually the right decision.

Despite the difference in opinion, Lueken puts his arm around those guys and says, “I’m sorry, you still can’t stay down here.”

You can’t stay anywhere for too long, but you can love the journey. And like all stories, all journeys must come to an end. Just don’t say goodbye quite yet.

In the meantime, don’t look for Lueken on the golf course. He’s rather busy.

Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his fifth semester on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered every sport that SRU has to offer, and with the lack of sports this coming semester, he is looking forward to finding alternative ways to deliver sports news to the SRU community. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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Karl Ludwig
Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his fifth semester on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered every sport that SRU has to offer, and with the lack of sports this coming semester, he is looking forward to finding alternative ways to deliver sports news to the SRU community. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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