Posted on Mon, Jun. 26, 2006

[size=18px]A catch for U[/size]

Pioneer Press

'I always had my sights on doing more than what I did for the Vikings. That role was so limited.' — Leo Lewis

Nearly every minute of Leo Lewis' daily schedule in the University of Minnesota athletics department is accounted for with meetings, planning sessions or phone calls to set up more meetings.

The busy routine is unavoidable for the former Vikings wide receiver. Lewis handles a number of functions under his formal title as associate athletics director for student-athlete development, a new position created by Gophers AD Joel Maturi.

After six months on the job, Lewis, 49, believes he finally has found the perfect position to blend his athletic and educational acumen.

"I always had my sights on doing more than what I did for the Vikings," Lewis said, referring to his defunct player development position with the NFL team. "That role was so limited."

Since Maturi hired Lewis in December of 2005, Maturi and others have envisioned a new era for the Gophers athletics department — a department that did not have an African-American in upper management since former athletics director McKinley Boston left the university in 1999.

Lewis, who has a doctorate in kinesiology and two master's degrees — marriage and family therapy and physical education — has no illusions about his groundbreaking position. He knew when he was first approached about the job last fall that Maturi wanted to fill the job with an African-American.

Maturi hired Boston early last year as a consultant to help address diversity issues in the athletics department. Boston, now athletics director at New Mexico State University, recommended to Maturi that he needed to add a "person of color" to his management team to help the department "reconnect with the African-American community and former minority student-athletes."

Lewis has embraced the diversity component of his position, which includes academic advisement, counseling and fundraising.

"I'm OK with the role of being a connector to certain communities," he said. "There's been a lack of representation here at this level. The diversity issues are just a part of my overall job, but it's an important part, and I understand that."

Lewis also supervises the strength and conditioning staffs for all 23 intercollegiate sports at the university. Each staff reports directly to Lewis.

Maturi said the new position includes an independent budget for Lewis, a move that further supports Maturi's efforts to renew ties with the African-American community in the Twin Cities. Community leaders have criticized the department for failing to recruit more athletes from the St. Paul and Minneapolis city conferences and for the lack of minorities in key management positions.

"We're starting to walk the talk," Maturi said. "We said we were going to do this, and we've done it. From the day I got here four years ago, there were concerns and criticisms about us not having African-Americans in upper management, and those concerns were very justified. We had a need in our department, and Leo's expertise and background helped us fill that need."

After retiring from the NFL in 1992, Lewis ran a player development program for the Vikings for 14 years. He also conducted a research study for the NFL on players' post-career needs and objectives. Lewis was among former Vikings coach Dennis Green's first cuts when Green took over the team in 1992. Green, however, wrote a letter of recommendation on Lewis' behalf to Maturi and the search committee.

Lewis' long affiliation with the Vikings, which began in 1981 as a rookie receiver from Missouri, ended in the spring of 2005 when new owner Zygi Wilf restructured the organization and dissolved Lewis' position.

Before Lewis accepted the Gophers job, he talked with Boston, who has an extensive background in college athletics administration. Boston, a former athletics director at Rhode Island and Kean College (Union, N.J.), has become a mentor to Lewis and believed Lewis was the "right fit for the job."

"Now the university can do some things," Boston said of Lewis' presence in the Gophers' administration. "Leo has the credentials of being a success as a pro athlete and in pro sports management. Those things present him as a full package to the university; experience as an educator and administrator."

Clarence Hightower, executive director of the Minneapolis Urban League and a member of the search committee for Maturi's new position, believes Lewis represents a long overdue "voice" in the department for the African-American community. Hightower said Lewis' hiring supports Maturi's diversity push, but the department still "has a ways to go."

"It's broader than hiring one or two administrators," Hightower said. "There has to be a culture at the university that has to be embraced. The history is still there, but I'm willing to give the university a fresh start. The process has to start somewhere, and Leo is a positive step."

Lewis' visibility and background will remain a key area for the department. Lewis helped coordinate marketing efforts for the department with two longtime publications in the Twin Cities African-American community — the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder and Insight News.

Lewis got his first taste of controversy in April when Maturi asked him to help review the troubled women's basketball program after five players left the team following the 2005-06 season. Lewis met with the players to help gather information on why they no longer wanted to play for coach Pam Borton.

Maturi did not reprimand Borton but said she needs to improve "communications issues" that led to the departures.

"My whole approach is to be as proactive as possible, so you don't have to put out fires all the time," Lewis said. "I want to be able to connect with student-athletes as soon as they get here as freshmen, so they know what is expected of them and what they should expect from us."

Ray Richardson can be reached at [email protected]

A catch for U