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Fire Up Flames: Garrett Klassy Takes Over at UIC

By Garrett Klassy

Growing up on a dairy farm, one might imagine the daily thoughts about one’s future would start at about the same time as the 5:30 am buzz of the alarm, as I pulled myself up, rolled up my sleeves and got to work.


Hard work.  Every day.


Those are lessons, and perspective creating days that I would not change if given the chance.  Entering college athletics more than 21 years ago, I quickly realized that my upbringing prepared me for what I faced with my new career path.   There is no substitute for hard work, integrity, character and respect.  Over my many years of learning to overcome challenges, moving from one spot to the next and broadening my world as I’d envisioned when I was younger, I’ve learned that being involved in college athletics is the greatest profession in the world.


There is nothing more humbling than having the chance to lead, educate and prepare young people for their lives in, and after college. To show and expose so many young people a world that expands beyond themselves and their home towns and introducing them to multi-dimensional learning.  Leading them to feel the rewards of giving back to the community, and what reaching your full athletic and academic potential takes.  Competing and learning in an elite-level college athletics environment teaches so many of those same life lessons I was fortunate to grow up learning.


I have met many of my best friends, including my wife, in college athletics.  I have had the great fortune of developing relationships with those I’d looked up to and respected so much over the years, learning from them and preparing for my future.   Since that first day working in the University of Wisconsin ticket office, I knew that each and every day was to be used to prepare myself to become an athletic director.


I’m honored and humbled that the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), led by Chancellor Amiridis, is giving me that opportunity. It’s a special opportunity to work for someone with such a strong vision for the future.


UIC is an acclaimed research institution located in the heart of Chicago. I knew it was the right place for me during our discussions when the values and beliefs exhibited by leadership at UIC matched mine.  We now have the great fortune – and responsibility – of pursuing excellence in both academics and athletics in an authentic manner.  Our true belief in the value the enrichment of young women and men provides, is where these shared principles start.


For some, it might seem daunting sitting in the Director of Athletics chair for the first time. For me, being anxious doesn’t connotate any reservation of fear – only immense excitement and eagerness.  As our wonderful coaches certainly know, there is no substitute for preparation, and my enthusiasm comes from the years of learning from all the challenges and accomplishments through the years, each day building a vision and a plan for leading.


I have been very fortunate in my career to work and learn from some of the best that have ever been involved in college athletics.  I owe my career to the lessons I’ve learned from others.   They include the visionary Patrick Nero at George Washington, the innovative Pat Kilkenny and steady Rob Mullens at Oregon, also the late Mal Moore at Alabama.  Bill Moos and Mike Marlow, now both at Washington State, showed me how to lead by example with integrity and confidence, and the late John Sheffield at Wisconsin reaffirmed those lessons from my early days in athletics.


In fact, I arrive here to this position having taken leadership tactics and lessons from so many others too, including the great coaches and administrators I’ve had the great fortune to have worked with throughout my career.  If you’ve prepared fully, in every imaginable way, when the ball gets handed to you there is no fear – only excitement – and a confidence to know what to do with it!


Throughout my working life, I have intently focused on improvement every day.  This is a good lesson for young athletic administrators given to me by my mentors, and that it is best approached from a position of humility.  Relationships are critical in this industry, but are secondary to making sure you’re making your institution better every day, and competing for your coaches and student-athletes in every manner.  By doing this, you are making yourself better every day.  My career has taken me to many different types of institutions; From the largest public universities to smaller, private urban institutions. The one thing most evident at each school, is that I’ve been honored to serve a leader who trusted me with incrementally growing responsibilities, and always challenged me to be my best in benefit to others.


The pursuit of the Director of Athletics position can be all-encompassing – with travel, interviews, and long nights of preparation.  Now, as I take over at UIC, my mind shifts to governing, leading and meeting those whom I’ll share a collective vision.


While there is much more to learn about UIC, I have conviction that we will be an athletic department supremely focused on the student-athlete experience every day. UIC student-athletes will live in an environment that allows them to compete athletically at the highest level, graduate with the degree of their choice, feel the rewards of giving back to the community and prepare each to change the world. Our coaches and staff will strive for excellence in everything we do and we will focus and compete to be better than yesterday.


That is the culture I will work tirelessly to foster. One of accountability, communication, teamwork and integrity – supremely focused on making sure that when a student-athlete graduates and moves on, they look back and know that choosing to come to UIC was the best choice they’ve made in their lives.


To accomplish this goal, our staff will have energy, passion, and the desire to be the best.  There will always be a plan and we will be prepared and focused on the process, but always looking for innovation and opportunity.  Again, the road to success is not a secret.  The ingredients are common.  Whether growing up on a dairy farm or leading UIC, it is that old fashioned blue-collar work ethic, attention to detail, extensive preparation, and a culture of relentless competitive spirit and integrity.


At UIC, we are very fortunate that many of our great alumni live in the Chicago area and our progress will be evident to them. We will work hard every single day to engage our alumni in a way that is meaningful and rewarding to all stakeholders.  Our story, and the individual stories we create will be told and shared across the city. Our identity will be on display and celebrated with pride only those invested in our success can truly feel.


That means finding out what is important to them, finding investments for our operations, bringing our family back to campus to see what is being accomplished and to support our student-athletes at our athletic contests.  Each and every UIC Alumnus – and the city of Chicago – will see an active, outward looking and exciting athletic department.

We will create an environment at our sporting events that will have fans wanting to come back to future events.  We will need the support from the UIC students to create a fun atmosphere for our student-athletes and for our fans. We will work relentlessly to make sure that everything from parking and transportation, ticket purchasing, in-game entertainment and concessions is run at the highest level. These student-athletes deserve support and we will work tirelessly to create the experience that will make it easy and fun to give them that support.


Finally, I want to thank Jim Schmidt for his 22 years of premiere service as Director of Athletics at UIC.  The University and the Department of Athletics are wonderful places because of people like Jim, and the incredible hard work and dedication applied over so many years.  I’m honored to be the person to build on so many past successes and accomplishments.


Today is one of the greatest days in my life – not of personal accomplishment – but because of opportunity I’ve discussed here to shape and enrich the lives of our students.  As I begin this new chapter, of course I reflect on those days contemplating what my world would  look like someday, as I wandered out into the morning cold and darkness to begin another day on the farm. Now, it is here.  My every thought and action will be about our collective journey forward in service to each student and to UIC,  as I approach this opportunity with optimism and a determined purpose.


Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, Fire Up Flames!