As Tuite takes the helm, she’s putting athletes and the Spartan community first.
“We have to show up, because if we want people to support us, we have to support them.”
Morning breaks over San Jose State’s Event Center, grass still wet with dew, and Marie Tuite is on a run. She holds her hands high like a boxer, jogs under the My Story is Here banners that dot the Paseo de Cesar Chavez, and waves to the construction crew who surround the site of the future Spartan Recreation and Aquatic Center. It is seven a.m. and Tuite’s day as San Jose State’s athletics director is just beginning.
When her appointment was officially announced at a press conference on campus in May, Tuite navigated the room like a basketball court, weaving among colleagues and student-athletes with the practiced grace of a player anticipating each successive move. She fielded just one question from the media: Is the mindset toward women in athletics changing?
“I do think it’s changing,” she said, sporting Spartan blue and gold, smiling alongside San Jose State’s third female president. “In the past, there has been the perception that in order to command a room of 100 football players and 15 male football coaching staff members, you need to, one, perhaps be male, and two, even more so, perhaps, have played football. To think a woman can’t manage a football program is not only disrespectful to women, but maybe even more importantly to men. I certainly don’t want to be sitting here in front of you because I’m a woman, but I’m absolutely thrilled to be here as a woman—that I have the opportunity to represent San Jose State.”
Her handshake is strong, her shirtsleeves almost always rolled to the elbow, as if she’s ready, at any moment, to trade in her heels for a sturdy pair of running shoes. Upon learning that her male colleagues developed strong bonds on the golf course, she perfected her golf game, occasionally introducing herself as “Marie Tuite, professional golfer.”
One of seven children, Tuite is a first-generation college graduate whose experience as the lead scorer on Central Michigan University’s basketball team set the tone for her career in athletics. A pace-setter who sets the bar high, she is unafraid to confront obstacles. She credits her work ethic to her father, who worked three jobs to support their family, and her love of competition to her four brothers. Proud mother to two grown men, she’s familiar with the sacrifices that working parents make daily. The third woman ever to be inducted into her alma mater’s Sports Hall of Fame, Tuite became the first woman to hold a permanent position as director of athletics at San Jose State in 2017—one of nine woman athletics directors at 128 NCAA Division I Football Subdivision schools nationwide. As an athlete who competed before the landmark Title IX legislation was introduced in 1972, protecting opportunities for women participating in activities receiving federal support, this fact is not lost on her.
As a senior member of the athletics team since 2010, Tuite helped usher San Jose State into the Mountain West Conference in the 2013-2014 season and took a ceremonial first swing at the new Spartan Golf Complex ribbon cutting in spring 2017. Whether she was recruiting coaches, managing staff or fundraising at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington or Seattle University, over the years Tuite became accustomed to being one of few women—often the only woman—in a decision-making room. Unfazed, she has taken the same approach that has served her as a teacher, coach and mentor to countless student-athletes over the years. She puts the team first.
“Competing on a team with your peers for a common goal sort of prepares you for just about anything in life,” she says. “I think it’s the greatest opportunity to be a student-athlete, male or female.”
Athletics, Yesterday and Today
While Tuite’s primary objectives include increasing graduation rates for student-athletes, generating revenue and competing daily, she believes, first and foremost, that student-athletes must be deeply rooted in community, that alliance to a team represents a much larger social membership. She has known this since her days at Central Michigan, where she was a basketball star and joined an academic fraternity. In high school she played bass clarinet in the marching band and competed as a cheerleader. She knew this as an associate athletics director at the University of Washington, where in 2007 she invited alumnae who had competed prior to Title IX, before scholarships and resources were allocated to woman athletes, to return to campus to receive the sports awards they had never been granted.
“Competing on a team with your peers for a common goal sort of prepares you for just about anything in life.”
“What I loved most about the event was that Dr. Emmert, who is now president of NCAA … stood up in front of this sold-out room of women and their families and apologized,” she remembers. “He said, ‘I’m sorry that we didn’t provide the same opportunities for you as we did for these young men.’ And these women came up on stage, they got their letter and they got their varsity blanket if they graduated. I underestimated how moving that would be for me. It was a touchpoint I’ll never forget in my life.”
By publicly acknowledging the more than 200 alumnae, Tuite and her team granted them access to an even bigger community, a tribe to which she proudly belongs. As much fun as she had playing basketball, her allegiance to sport has always been a reflection of her desire to contribute to something greater.
Spartans Show Up
During the 2016 – 2017 school year, 225 woman student-athletes competed in 13 sports, with an equal number of male student-athletes in seven sports. Tuite sees athletics as a way to bring the entire campus community together. When President Papazian was officially inaugurated as San Jose State’s president in early May, members of the Spartan football team appeared in uniform, their blue and gold jerseys popping out in a crowd of city and university officials. On campus move-in day, student-athletes from every sport showed up at Campus Village to help students move into the dorms.
“We have to show up, because if we want people to support us, we have to support them,” she says. “That’s very important to me. I want a partnership.”
Since early 2016, so much has happened to connect Athletics in its South Campus home to the main university campus at One Washington Square. San Jose State has welcomed a new president, Tuite as athletics director, new Football Head Coach Brent Brennan, and new Men’s Basketball Head Coach Jean Prioleau. During the 2017 – 2018 school year, Athletics has launched Beyond Football, a new program designed to help prepare student-athletes for professional life beyond the sport. The All In football campaign was officially kicked off with a special summer event, appropriately taking place on the same turf where Spartan greats such as Dick Vermeil, Jeff Garcia, Tyler Ervin, James Jones and David Fales made history. Tuite has made it her goal to integrate athletics into campus culture. Regardless of their sport, gender or major, she encourages student-athletes to apply skills learned on the field to their lives beyond athletics.
“To be an athlete, you have to move past your own self-interests, because it’s not about you—it’s about the team,” she says. “You are a reflection of something larger than yourself—the team, the department, and most importantly, the university. Those are wonderful skillsets to have as you enter the world, whether in personal relationships or in the workplace. It is the very best training ground. And, how would the world be different if we moved past our own self-interests?”
An Athlete at Heart
Tuite still considers herself an athlete. Her commitment to athletic achievement remains strong, six decades in the making. Perhaps that’s why, one December day in 2013, she shivered at the starting line for the California International Marathon in Sacramento. In the moments before the race started, she wondered what had compelled her to run 26.2 miles at 60 years old. The answer was simple: Because she said she would.
“In my first job interview, the interviewer asked me, what are your goals?” she says. “One of them, I said, was to run a marathon. I was 22 years old and not a distance runner. And so did I do it in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s or my 50s? No. It took me a while—40 years after I said I was going to do it—but I was so glad I did.”
During the marathon, runners are encouraged to wear layers of clothing. As the race progressed, runners shed shirts and sweaters on the road, which were picked up by organizers who washed and donated them to charity. Even as a single runner amidst a mighty pack, Tuite was fueled by the impact that the marathon would have on the community. It was a familiar feeling—a swell of Spartan pride that started in her feet.