During his career in college athletics, mentors told Gene DeFilippo that he “would know when it was time to go.” After 15 years as Boston College’s director of athletics, DeFilippo knew it was time, and announced his retirement Friday. He will leave his position Sept. 30 and take a mini-sabbatical, then teach courses in sports management and work as a consultant. DeFilippo views his retirement as “changing gears” and “going from one phase to another.”
The announcement comes almost eight weeks after DeFilippo was diagnosed with a treatable form of melanoma. He said the cancer was “a wake-up call, but it’s nothing serious.” DeFilippo added that doctors believe they have removed all of the cancer and that he has “nothing to worry about in the future.” Still, the melanoma brought clarity to his decision and made it somewhat easier to leave his post.
“I’ve been thinking about it for some time,” said DeFilippo of retiring. “I’ve been in intercollegiate athletics for 40 years. I’ve spent 19 of them as a director of athletics, four at Villanova and 15 at BC. That’s a long time to be on 24/7. It was just time. It’s time for me to move on. It was time for BC to have some new leadership in the athletics department.”
Starting Oct. 1, senior associate athletic director John Kane will take over as interim director and will remain in that position until BC hires a successor.
During DeFilippo’s tenure, Boston College teams compiled an impressive list of accomplishments, including four national championships in men’s ice hockey, 11 national team and individual titles in sailing over the last five years, and 12 straight winning seasons in football. Under DeFilippo’s leadership, BC invested millions of dollars in athletic facilities upgrades, including renovations at Conte Forum, Alumni Stadium, and the Newton campus sites for soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse.
DeFilippo is particularly proud of BC’s high-ranking graduation rate for student-athletes, as well as the college’s national recognition for athlete-initiated community service. Additionally, in a telephone conversation Friday, he highlighted the fact that BC is one of only three BCS schools never found guilty of a major NCAA violation. When he arrived at BC in September 1997 at age 47, however, it was less than a year after 13 football players were suspended for their involvement in a betting scandal. DeFilippo helped guide the program through the scandal’s aftermath and to the most successful period in its history.
Beginning in 1999, BC football teams appeared in 12 consecutive bowl games. The Eagles’ streak of 12 winning seasons in football ended last year.
“Gene devoted himself to building a strong, successful athletics program, one that reflected BC’s commitment to quality academics and institutional integrity,” said Boston College president the Rev. William P. Leahy in a press release. “Doing that has been his passion and joy, and the BC community, particularly our student-athletes, have benefited immensely from his care, advice, and hard work.”
Added men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue, “What Gene has meant to Boston College is hard to put into words. He reinvented the athletics department in his 15 years as AD; everything we have is based on Gene’s vision. It’s very rare that you find someone who has the vision and the guts to follow it. He is going to be missed.”
It certainly took vision and guts for DeFilippo to engineer BC’s move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference. DeFilippo considers the switch part of the “good times” during his tenure. But he noted that the move was “one of the more difficult times in my life with a lot of criticism coming from all sections.” At one point, Connecticut and Pittsburgh sued BC over the change in conference allegiances.
“Gene’s done a great job here in 15 years as the athletic director,” said football coach Frank Spaziani. “In tremendous change in the college landscape, he’s been out in front of it and leading the university. We’re better off for the 15 years that he has been here . . . All I can say [about the move from the Big East to the ACC], in hindsight, it’s been a great move for the university. We’re happy that we’re here.”
DeFilippo added that “you’re going to make a lot of decisions” during a 15-year stay at a school and that “some decisions are a little bit more difficult than others.” He ranked firing basketball coach Al Skinner in 2010 as among the more difficult, along with the firing of football coach Jeff Jagodzinski in 2009. DeFilippo told Jagodzinski that he risked losing his job at BC if he interviewed with the New York Jets. Jagodzinski met with the Jets and DeFilippo promptly dismissed him.
Asked if he had any regrets about how he handled that situation, DeFilippo said, “I don’t think so. No. No real regrets. As a leader, you do what you think is right. You try to stand tall and do it. It was what I thought was right at the time. So, we did it. With leadership goes making those difficult decisions.”
Now, DeFilippo will leave the difficult decisions to others, cheer BC from the sidelines, and spend more time with family.
“I hope that the vast majority of Boston College graduates would say that they had a wonderful experience participating in intercollegiate athletics,” said DeFilippo. “That would be the thing that would be most important for me.”
Globe correspondent Craig Forde contributed to this report. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.