Mary McElroy, MSM 2000, didn't set out to have a sports-related career, much less become the first African-American female athletics director in Division I at a non-historically black university or college.
She claims her professional path has been "totally happenstance" but admits she's never lost her love of playing sports. McElroy, who became Georgia State University's new director of intercollegiate athletics in July, started playing softball in second grade and never stopped. Both a softball and basketball player during college, the 41-year-old Smyrna resident still runs bases as a member of two church-league softball teams.
"I never really got it out of my system," says McElroy, who previously served as senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator at Georgia Tech, where she worked for six years. "I'm very competitive. I like to win."
She moved to Georgia State at a pivotal time for the school's athletics programs, with the university making a highly anticipated switch this fall from the Atlantic Sun Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association. McElroy is also exploring the possibility of starting a varsity football team there.
Getting students to return to the school's downtown Atlanta campus for evening sporting events has traditionally been a problem for the commuter-heavy school. To solve it, McElroy has enlisted Georgia State business students to study logistical and marketing means of boosting attendance. Increasing corporate sponsorships of the school's sports is another one of her major goals.
"It's nice being the boss - on most days," she says, chuckling. "I like being able to influence an organization and determine its future."
McElroy credits her Georgia Tech education with preparing her to handle the business side of sports and meet the challenge of supervising 70 people. Her military experience also played a huge role in honing her leadership skills. A native of Great Mills, Maryland, McElroy earned a bachelor's degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987 and served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, rising to the rank of captain.
After leaving military service in 1992, McElroy strongly considered a corporate career but took a job at the U.S. Naval Academy because her husband, Terry, was stationed as a Marine in Annapolis, Maryland. She became senior woman administrator of the school's Athletic Association as well as assistant athletic director for NCAA compliance.
After moving to Atlanta, where her husband works as a corporate pilot for Home Depot, McElroy decided to give the business world another shot, enrolling in the Scheller College of Business's Master of Science in Management (now MBA) program. The school's high-tech focus attracted her because of the wide variety of technical training she received in the military. But she was back in athletics before even graduating. A school project helping Tech's Athletic Association with strategic planning led to a full-time job she held while completing her studies.
"I'd wanted to do something with the technical side of my brain, so I specialized in operations management, but I got sidetracked by athletics," says McElroy, a mother of two sons, ages fifteen and twelve. "So the left side of my brain is atrophying again, but I try to keep it sharp by helping my kids with their algebra homework."
McElroy, the third-oldest of eight children and the first in her family to go to college, always tells young people to follow their dreams. "Don't let anyone tell you can't do something because you can," she says. "I'm a self-made person, thanks to my parents instilling a strong sense of values and a determined work ethic that won't let me take no for an answer."