Maguire, 1st leader of NJSIAA from business world, is bringing new approach to high school sports

Former star athlete preaches social connectivity, leadership — and feels sports can be catalyst for bringing communities back together in post-pandemic world

Colleen Maguire, chief operating officer of the NJSIAA. (NJSIAA)

There’s a four-page PDF of guidelines for the fall high school season — detailing everything from face coverings and screenings, to actions in locker rooms and weight rooms, to the length of the regular season and postseason.

But, as high school athletic teams return to the practice fields this week — preparing for a sports season that starts at the end of the month — the new head of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association knows all of it can change in an instant.

“All we can do right now is have the schedule in place and continue to monitor the health circumstances,” Colleen Maguire said.

Maguire, promoted to chief operating officer earlier this year, is the first leader of the NJSIAA who came with a business background rather than one as a former school administrator.

Don’t be confused: She is very familiar with high school sports in the state, as she is one of top female athletes in state history, a two-sport star from South Hunterdon High School in the 1990s known then as Colleen McCrea.

But that’s not why Maguire is determined to get sports going again — under whatever precautions are required. It has nothing to do wins and losses.

For Maguire, it’s about bringing structure back into the lives of teenagers who have seen their world turned upside down. It’s about exercise. It’s about teamwork. It’s about the lessons that come from in-person conversations and engagement.

High school sports also could be something to bring communities back together — when communities are ready to get together, she said.

Maguire recently spoke to ROI-NJ about all these issues — and how the business community is a vital partner in making all of this happen. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: You’re the first head of the NJSIAA who comes from the business world — what are the pluses and minuses that come with that?

Colleen Maguire: I bring an outsider’s perspective, maybe even more of a big-picture perspective, so that’s a plus. But, I also realize I don’t have the same experience as the school administrators. All summer, I relied heavily on feedback from not only our executive committee officers, but also superintendents and principals. I needed to reach out and get as much feedback as possible from all different types of school districts and from all different levels of administrators, from a superintendent to a principal to an athletic director. That provided a lot of feedback on a lot of issues. That was a big plus.

ROI: The NJSIAA has had relationships with the business community for decades, especially when it comes to sponsoring seasons or postseason championships. Talk about those relationships and how they have changed during the pandemic?

CM: I firmly believe high school sports provide so many valuable lessons that will help these kids as they go into their future lives. I think businesses see a lot of value in being a part of that, but they may not realize just how important they are.

My job is to bring that awareness, to show we do more than just offer championships in 32 sports — that we provide leadership training to our athletes and provide education to our coaches and athletic directors, the people who are leading these athletes.

I also have to be honest with the fact that we are a nonprofit. We have a very tight budget, one that significantly is based on variable components that are out of our control. So, when we hit rough patches like this, it’s a direct hit to our bottom line — and that we do need sponsorships and other sources of revenues to help us continue offering all the programming that we offer.

I do believe there are going to be some silver linings that come from this pandemic. One is going to be a reengagement at a local community level with the importance of providing opportunities for our teenagers and or our younger generation. Businesses need to know that there’s a lot more that goes on at the NJSIAA besides seeding some brackets and coordinating some championship events.

ROI: We know a lot of companies step up in a lot of ways; are there any that you want to specifically thank?

CM: I don’t want to leave anyone out. We are very lucky that we have some dedicated corporate sponsors that have been with us throughout. Because of the cancellation of the winter championships and the spring sports season, they may not have gotten as much promotional opportunity, but they’re still all-in. That’s everyone from ShopRite to Wilson to Rothman Orthopaedics, Investors Bank, Atlantic Health and New Jersey Advance Media. Those are just a few that come off the top of my head.

ROI: Let’s get back to the student-athletes. How are you engaging them? How are they different from when you played? Talk about the student ambassador program, where you interact with 2-3 dozen athletes on a regular basis. (McGuire helped set up the program before she was elevated to the top spot.)

CM: My proudest achievement at the NJSIAA so far has been the launch of our student ambassador program. This generation is really knowledgeable. They don’t want to just sit back and listen, they want to challenge you, they want to understand the issues and they want to be a part of a solution. I think that’s tremendous, much different than earlier generations, especially certainly my generation.

ROI: How did it start?

CM: We were going through a couple of key issues and setting policies and stuff. There were all these adults that were talking it through. So, I’m sitting there, thinking in my head, I guarantee you if I go to the average teenager right now, they would say: ‘This is not a big deal. We don’t care.’

It made me realize we really need to get at the heart of our constituency, our student-athletes. What do they think? What matters to them?

ROI: You talk about how proud of their ability to get involved. What worries you?

CM: I fear this generation, while they’re socially connected, they’re losing that in-person, authentic type of interaction and conversation. I see it in my own kids (ages 15, 13 and 10). So, I think the more that we can use the platform of high school sports and hopefully broaden the scope of what it could offer, we can get more in-person engagement, more in-person connectivity.

We need to teach interpersonal skills, so they know how to have conversations with people of different backgrounds. I take that into the approach with the ambassador program. We try to educate them on topics such as how to have difficult conversations, whether it be with your coaches, your teachers, your peers — and the importance of establishing the authentic relationships. We want to build their social (and) emotional IQ.

ROI: This goes back to sports. How much does getting back on the field help with these issues?

CM: It will help a lot. I get emails daily from parents who want their kids back out there just so they can engage socially. Think about it: If kids are in a remote-learning environment, they could go days without any in-person connectivity with their peers.

Kids need structure and engagement. It’s as important as their physical health, which also is changing. For these teenagers, their lifestyles changed overnight. Their physical activity levels went downhill very quickly. So, while the weather’s good and we can be outside, I want as many kids as possible doing something.

ROI: Last question. We have to go back to your career, when you were first team all-state in field hockey and basketball, earning a basketball scholarship to George Washington University. When you look back, what do you remember?

CM: I went to a small, Group 1 school. And, when I look back, I can remember two games where I swear the entire town of Lambertville was in the stands. People that had no kids in the high school, had no involvement in sports, but just wanted to support the local community. That’s what stands out most in my mind.

We had lots of great games, a lot of fun times. But just looking up in the stands after a game and seeing the faces that came out to support the local girls’ basketball team was tremendous.

That’s something I think communities need, that sense of togetherness. I think that really is going to resonate when we come back from this pandemic. Priorities are shifting. I think there’s going to be a new awareness of the importance of the local community supporting their kids and their schools. High school sports are a great way to do that.