As director of athletics at Rollins College, Pennie Parker is making waves in a profession that continues to be male dominated.
Parker was tabbed to lead Rollins athletics in 2006. The move put the school, an NCAA Division II institution located in Winter Park, Fla., in unique company. Only about 20 percent of NCAA athletic programs across all levels are led by female athletic directors.
Parker had worked at Rollins since 2002, originally joining the Tars athletic staff as assistant athletic director and senior woman administrator. She had previously held positions as assistant athletic director for compliance at Jacksonville University, director of compliance at Florida State University and compliance assistant at the University of Georgia, her alma mater. She got her start in the field as a result of some unsuccessful attempts at finding the right career path. “After graduating from college, I had several jobs before landing my first job in athletics,” she says. “None of those jobs fulfilled me, and they didn’t bring me much joy. I knew I loved college sports, and that it would provide me with the passion necessary to be successful.”
Despite building an impressive resume in athletics, Parker hadn’t necessarily envisioned herself running a department prior to her promotion at Rollins. “I didn’t enter the field with the goal of being an athletic director, but as my career path expanded, I knew I wanted to take on more and more responsibility.”
That desire to shoulder responsibility has been evident since she was appointed AD. In addition to the rigors of leading a program with 23 varsity sports and about 480 student-athletes, Parker is very active in professional associations and committee work with the NCAA. This year alone, she has assumed a position on the NCAA Division II Management Council and the executive committee of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, or NACDA. The Management Council is charged with recommending administrative policy and regulations that govern all of Division II. She has also been selected to serve on the NCAA Legislation Committee. If that weren’t enough to keep her hopping, Parker is the second vice president of the Division II Athletic Director’s Association. In 2013, her peers recognized her as the Under Armor Division II Athletics Director of the Year.
Over the years, Parker has built a strong network of fellow female administrators who have helped her balance the demands of her position. “Each of them has taught me something about being a leader and being true to myself,” she says. “I believe we all struggle with balance in our lives, and I appreciate hearing their experiences and how they strive to keep everything on track.”
One mentor who particularly made an impression on Parker was Lois Webb, who served as athletic director at fellow Sunshine State Conference member Florida Southern College when Parker began her stint at Rollins. “As I attended our SSC meetings, I was always impressed with how each decision she made reflected what was best for the student-athletes and coaches,” she recalls. “They were always her priority.”
That influence is evident as Parker talks about her role on campus and interaction with student-athletes. “It’s important for athletics to be an integral part of the institution and its mission,” she says. “As AD, it is my job to advocate for our programs and our student-athletes and to be sure we are part of the fabric of the institution.”
She says her favorite part of her job is spending time with student-athletes and attending their competitions. She worries about the pressure that parental expectations may exert on young athletes. “Unfortunately, so many parents have forced their children to play sports from an early age, and often times, the student-athletes are burned out by the time they get to college,” she explains. “They are no longer interested in playing their sport, but they are afraid to let their parents down. As a parent myself, it is so important to remember to let your children choose their passion and support them on their journey.”
Parker’s own love of sports began with experiences she had with her father. “I remember going to Georgia football games with my dad and thinking I was the luckiest girl in the world,” she says. Perhaps fittingly, she met her husband, Don, at the Georgia-Florida football game in 1995. (Although he is a Gator fan, the two of them have still made it work.)
When she does have spare time, Parker likes to unwind with yoga. She also loves spending time with her family and pets.
As she forges ahead in her various leadership roles across a fluid collegiate athletics landscape, Parker is uncertain what the final model may look like. She notes that there are many financial implications attached to the plethora of topics being discussed across the NCAA. She’s hopeful those who hold a stake in decision making will be mindful of the impact for all participants in college athletics, not just those at the most elite athletic institutions.
One change that has excited her over the years is the increase in interest and funding for women’s sports. “Women’s athletics has come so far since the days of Title IX,” she says. “I’m thrilled with the exposure and support for the women!”
Perhaps one day down the road, a similar enthusiasm will apply to Parker’s generation of women athletics administrators should their work help push the number of female ADs above its current 20 percent mark. Parker offers simple advice to young women who may carry that torch forward. “Pursue your dreams!” she says. “It isn’t an easy journey, but it is a rewarding career path.”