Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Six years in, Rawak has brought unprecedented success to Blue Hens through athletics rebuild

SportsField HockeySix years in, Rawak has brought unprecedented success to Blue Hens through athletics rebuild
Patrick LaPorte/The Review
Sarah Jenkins (middle) is introduced as Delaware’s women’s basketball head coach alongside athletic director Chrissi Rawak (left) and university President Dennis Assanis (right)

Managing Sports Editor

Nine days after the Blue Hens women’s basketball team played in the NCAA tournament last March, head coach Natasha Adair left for Arizona State. In the span of only six days, a final decision was made on Adair’s successor following a national search. 

Welcome to the life of a Division I athletic director.

Athletic director Chrissi Rawak has been the leader for one of the craziest time periods in Blue Hen athletics. Both basketball programs qualified for March Madness, three national head coaching searches were recently completed and the men’s lacrosse team took the conference title for the first time in over a decade.

Delaware is not Rawak’s first experience of the fast-paced nature of college athletics, but it is the first time she has been at the helm making the decisions. She had previously gained notoriety for her success with fundraising efforts at the University of Michigan that contributed to many facility upgrades. 

After serving as an associate athletic director at Michigan until 2016, a persistent President Dennis Assanis sought out Rawak for the athletic director spot at Delaware, after having a mutual connection with her at Michigan. He dialed Rawak twice to offer her the open position at the university.

“I was not looking for an athletic director opportunity,” Rawak said.

But with family on the East Coast and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an athletic department, Rawak answered the second call and accepted the job. 

Nothing about the job’s first days presented an easy fix, but Rawak said she went on a “listening tour” throughout the department to figure out what specific programs needed in order to rebuild and the direction needed for the athletic department as a whole.

“We really took time to organize ourselves to be much more efficient, much more effective and much more clear that the resources we were using were aligned with what we were trying to achieve,” Rawak said.

The state of Delaware athletics was one of “internal turmoil,” Rawak said. Football was floundering, both basketball programs had sunk far from their successes just years prior and many of the smaller programs had no direction or consistency.

One of the lone bright spots at the university was Rolf van de Kerkhof’s field hockey program. When Rawak came to Delaware in May of 2016, the field hockey team had three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

“Rolf’s program is the model,” Rawak said. “He’s done a phenomenal job in not only building it from the ground up, but sustaining it. It’s way easier to get to the top than it is to stay at the top.”

That fall, the roster reloaded and the team went unbeaten in conference play. Along with taking down No. 1 Duke, the Blue Hens soared over three other opponents to capture the NCAA Championship. 

But success in athletics is multifaceted in Rawak’s mind. Many other teams were in peril or dealing with a change in leadership. Immediately upon taking the job, Rawak underwent a national men’s basketball coaching search, landing on Notre Dame assistant Martin Ingelsby.

In October of the same year, football head coach Dave Brock was fired amidst a four-game losing streak. The volleyball program’s two leading coaches were placed on administrative leave and fired.

Courtesy of The Review
Current men’s basketball head coach Martin Ingelsby looks on during his debut with Delaware back in November of 2016.

Change was imminent in Newark and Rawak made it clear that a rebuild would be a complete transformation, not just a focus on one sport.

“I’m interested in sustainable success, I don’t want just one program to win, or one program to win one year,” Rawak said.

Six years into her tenure with Delaware, multiple teams are delivering with tangible results. 2022 was a year to be remembered in Blue Hen country. 

Field hockey won another CAA Championship and notched an NCAA tournament win at home in Fred P. Rullo Stadium. Volleyball had just their second season over .500 since 2012.

Patrick LaPorte/The Review
Fans watch the action at Fred P. Rullo Stadium in an NCAA tournament game that the Blue Hens ended up winning over Fairfield in overtime.

In March, women’s and men’s basketball took home CAA Championships, enjoyed Selection Sunday watch parties at the Bob Carpenter Center and played in the NCAA tournament.

“The fifteen days of amazing publicity we had was so fun,” Rawak said of the two basketball titles. “Whether you liked athletics or not, I think people at least felt proud to know that we were playing in the NCAA tournament.”

Men’s lacrosse took home another CAA title for the Blue Hens, while women’s lacrosse qualified for the CAA tournament for the first time since 2018. 

But alongside all the success, national searches have been a constant in the job for Rawak.

A year after a spring season featuring a conference title and a trip to the FCS semifinals, football coach Danny Rocco was fired after a 5-6 season last fall. Rocco was the first coach that Rawak had both hired and parted ways with.

Around a month earlier, men’s soccer coach Ian Hennessy, who had been with the program for 16 seasons, was let go after posting a 2-12-1 record. 

Rawak replaced Rocco with Ryan Carty, a university and football alum who has brought a dose of youth and energy to Newark. Tommy McMenemy, a former associate and assistant from Rawak’s time in Ann Arbor, was named Hennessy’s successor.

For Rawak, five criteria stand above the rest in selecting new head coaches: recruiting, development of talent, being a “systems thinker,” wanting to be at Delaware and being a winner. 

“I start with the student-athletes and get their feedback,” Rawak added. “They’ve really helped shape this department with their voice and their feedback.”

When Adair stepped down after the women’s postseason run in March, Rawak had been quite accustomed to the national fray of head coaching searches. With many openings across the country, she moved quickly in the hiring of new head coach Sarah Jenkins.

“If there’s a trigger and we know who we want, I have to move,” Rawak said. “I can’t lose those great people, I won’t. They are the ones that ultimately help shape the experiences of our student-athletes.”

Jenkins, a former associate under Adair in her early years at Delaware, will have to endure a large roster turnover with Jasmine Dickey entering the WNBA and point guard Tyi Skinner heading out to Arizona State with Adair.

For a mid-major school like Delaware, Rawak recognizes that head coaches with success are prone to take career jumps. But the expectations of sustained success across all sports remain, and with that, comes equally high expectations from the fanbase.

“People were very upset about a lot of things,” Rawak said of the fan response in 2016. “I actually really appreciate [feedback], I may not always agree, but what it says to me is they care. I need to respect that and take the time to hear it.” 

Rawak, with a university contract through 2026 as one of the only Division I full-time female athletic directors, will continue to work through that feedback from Blue Hen fans and alumni, looking to replicate and build on what has been a wildly successful year in university athletics.


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