As Athletic Director At Sacred Heart, Bobby Valentine's Life Takes Another New Direction

Bobby Valentine travels through life wearing a backpack, in a strictly metaphoric sense. It is bulging at the seams by now, hauling nuggets of the experiences he has encountered during one of the most diverse lives any Connecticut athlete has ever had lived.

“Life is just filling up your backpack,” Valentine said. “Some are good and some are bad. But they belong to you, so you put them in the backpack and when you face the next challenge you dig into the backpack to help you get through the crossroads”

On this day, he is wearing a sports jacket, comfortable shoes and his perpetual smile. It is game day at Sacred Heart University, the women’s basketball team facing New Hampshire at the William H. Pitt Center.

Valentine is on his customary stroll, his right hand extended, ready to offer a hello or hug.

“Bobby loves to just sit in the lobby of the Pitt Center,” Brad Hurlbut, SHU’s deputy director of athletics, said. “He doesn’t hide in his office. He’s a very social animal. That’s when he really thrives. When he sits behind a desk he tends to get a little ornery.”

In February 2013, Valentine, 67, a Major League Baseball player for a decade, the former manager of the Texas Rangers, Mets and Red Sox, was nearing the end of his run as director of public safety in Stamford – a job he accepted for a token $10,000 salary - when his phone rang.

It was John J. Petillo, the president of Sacred Heart. Don Cook had announced his retirement as athletic director and Petillo was looking for someone with panache to guide his burgeoning Division I athletic program into the future.

“When I received that first phone call, I was thinking they needed a donation,” Valentine said. “I came up to campus, had a meeting with the president, asked him what he really was thinking. He said, ‘I don’t need your check, I need your time.’ And I said to do what? And then he basically said he wanted me to be his AD. I told him, I don’t even know how to spell AD and I don’t think it’s for me.

“Then [Petillo] said, ‘No, I think this is exactly for you. You are the guy we need. When I asked him what the job entailed, he told me I had a blank canvas and this [department] would be my studio. By the next day, I had decided to take the job; why not, it sounded exciting, even though it was something that I had never done. … I was off and running.”

A Life In The Spotlight

There was always something with Valentine, even at a young age. He was a champion ballroom dancer as a teenager. He was president of the student council. He played the Japanese interpreter in a production of “Teahouse of the August Moon.''

He still is considered by many the greatest all-around sports star in Connecticut high school history. He was All-State in football, baseball and track and field, holding state records for career touchdowns (53) and the 60-yard dash.

He was the fifth overall pick of the 1968 amateur baseball draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers and made his MLB debut in September 1969, ultimately spending 10 seasons with the Dodgers, San Diego Padres, California Angels, Mets and Seattle Mariners.

Valentine was a third base coach for the Mets, made his managerial debut in 1985 with the Rangers and took over the Mets in 1996, leading them to consecutive postseasons, including the 2000 World Series. Including his one season with the Red Sox in 2012, he collected 1,186 major league victories.

In 1994, Valentine became the first American to accept a management position in the Pacific League of Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines. He returned to the states after two years, then went back to lead the Marines again from 2004-09, winning the 2005 Japan Series Championship.

But it wasn’t just the baseball. He has been a broadcaster and a successful businessman with multiple ventures. Most notably, since 1980, he has owned and operated Bobby Valentine’s Sports Gallery Cafe, a bar that is located in his hometown of Stamford. In January 2014, he opened a franchise in Windsor Locks near Bradley Airport.

It was clear: Sacred Heart was anxious to become Valentine’s next obsession.

Valentine’s Fields Of Dreams

If you want to reach Valentine in his campus office, you go through Sheryl Madison, his executive assistant, who has worked for the university for nearly 40 years. She is the gatekeeper.

“He’s gets a ton of baseball cards to sign and signs every one of them. Sometimes they pile up, but he signs them all. It’s very interesting,” Madison said. “It’s great. Bobby is terrific, so philanthropic, always happy to help people, so outgoing.

“I grew up in Jackson Heights (N.Y.) and have been a Mets fan all my life. I watched Shea Stadium being built when I was on the school bus. I’ve loved baseball my whole life, loved the Mets and Bobby all these years. … and now he’s working here!”

Madison helps Valentine juggle his active social schedule. When he was hired, the university knew he would need help with the day-to-day operation. So SHU hired Hurlbut to be Valentine’s deputy director of athletics and Meghan Miller as its senior associate athletic director for compliance/senior women’s administrator.

“Chris has been a godsend with all of the experience he brought with him. He understood all of the things that I wasn’t going to take the time to learn,” Valentine said. “Meghan was another piece to the puzzle because I wasn’t going to read the 400 pages [of compliance rules and regulations]. So I’m protected with someone on the operations side and someone on the compliance side.”

Freed to tackle other projects, Valentine’s four years have been fruitful.

“I really didn’t have a vision. When the president called me, I had to dig deep into my backpack to even figure out where Sacred Heart was,” Valentine said. “I’ve driven up and down the Merritt Parkway all of my life and when he told me it was off Exit 47, I said, ‘I think I was there once, I might have been in the gym, maybe saw Dave Bike [SHU’s former men’s basketball coach]. There wasn’t a real knowledge of the landscape. So I took things step by step.”

Valentine was not happy when he noticed the disrepair of the athletics’ strength and conditioning program, understanding what a disadvantage it created for his athletes. He was disappointed with the lack of a dedicated study area. His first fundraisers tackled those projects.

He has overseen the installation of modern video and scoreboards for the football field and the Pitt Center and the replacement of the playing surface on Campus Field, as well as its surrounding track.

The football team received a locker room renovation and both the men’s and women’s lacrosse locker rooms have enjoyed a face lift. Valentine also added the university’s 32nd varsity sport — women’s rugby.

But most impressive of all, behind the north end zone at Campus Field, the Bobby Valentine Athletic and Recreation Center is now under construction. The three-story building will house indoor track, locker rooms, offices, bowling alleys, a rock climbing wall and an exercise/weight training room for the student body not involved in varsity athletics.

Valentine, making sure to always be wearing his SHU lapel pin, has used his celebrity to raise money for these projects. He spends a lot of time in New York City reconnecting with friends and business associates who could be potential donors.

“As you know, that’s always been part of my MO,” Valentine said. “When the president called, he understood I didn’t know much about Sacred Heart. But he knew he was going to use my ambassadorship style to help brand what we have here; to get the word out that there’s this little jewel in Southern Connecticut.”

Hurlbut remembers the day Valentine rode his bike to his office to ask what he thought about bringing Valentine’s friend, Paul Simon, to campus to perform at a fundraiser.

“We go about things a little differently here now,” Hurlbut said. “Bobby ran into Paul somewhere and he told Bobby that if there was anything he could do, like a little concert, perhaps, he’d be happy to do it. ... So just before Thanksgiving, [Simon] came and played for about 110 people and we raised a lot of money.”

Campus Presence

The bicycle that hangs on the wall of Valentine’s office is not a showpiece. It’s maybe his favored form of transportation. It is not unusual to see him pedaling from building to building, making stops for meet and greet sessions.

“We just opened up a diner on campus which is right next to the softball venue. He said to me when it opened, ‘That’s going to be my new office. That booth over there is where I am going to stay all day,’” Hurlbut said.

During these spins he stops to say hello to his coaches, making sure at the same time not to appear nosey or insistent.

“I tell my coaches that I am like a continental breakfast at your hotel,” Valentine said. “I am there if you need me. But you don’t have to eat breakfast, if you don’t want to…. If they are frowning or really searching, they know where to find me.”

When he’s done riding his bike, you can almost always find him in the Pitt Center, sitting in one of its new lush sofas or chairs, engaging and engaged.

“He’s rarely ever in his office because he’s always out talking to people, always around communicating,” said Sean Hoehn, a junior guard on the Pioneers’ basketball team. “He’s famous. It’s really cool, but I just know him as Bobby, not as some famous guy. He’s like one of my friends now. … When I see how he communicates with people, how he always has a smile on his face every single day, I know that’s how I want to be in my life. I want to love something as much as he loves what he’s doing.”

So, what’s next, Bobby?

To know Valentine is to understand there is always room ifor adventure.

He doesn’t spend much time at the ballpark anymore, unless he is invited to assist in some charitable function.

“But I do sit and watch a lot of the late-night games [on television], he said.

He has no interest in returning to professional baseball, either.

So when asked how long he might stay at Sacred Heart, polishing up his new jewel, he simply grins.

“I live life, I don’t plan life. … I’m not that kind of guy,” Valentine said. “I wake up in the morning and tell myself that I need to have a good day. And when I go to sleep at night, I check off either the ‘did it’ or ‘didn’t do it’ box. Then I wake up the next day and do it again.

“Planning? It’s not my gig. I don’t live my life like that. When I was a player, I played. When I was a coach, I coached. When I was a manager, I managed.

“I don’t know what’s in store. I am going to try and be here, continue to ski and ride my bike every day. I know those things. But in terms of the where, when and how in 10 years, I have no idea.

“It’s my responsibility to be happy. Happiness is the thing you get out of being who you are, not what you are and I’m OK with that.”

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