Nan Carney-DeBord ’80 was a field hockey and basketball player during her student years (she was inducted into the Denison Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998), and she had every intention of pursuing a career in medicine. But after a January term, during which she worked as a volunteer coach at Granville High School, she was hooked on sports. She earned a master’s degree at Kent State, then spent 25 years as head women’s basketball coach at Ohio Wesleyan, where she took the Bishops to six NCAA Division III tournament berths and five North Coast Athletic Conference championships. She was a seven-time NCAC Coach of the Year and was named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Division III National Coach of the Year after her team’s run at the national semifinals of the 2001 NCAA Division III tournament.
Now she’s back at Denison. Last summer, Carney-DeBord assumed the role of the college’s director of athletics. As she approaches her first anniversary at Denison, she talks about her superstitions, the secret to the art of slalom, and why college athletics should be about much more than sports.
Most people don’t know that My interests go well beyond athletics. I love the arts and music. We all play the piano in my house. My younger son also plays the viola. As an undergraduate, I purposefully didn’t live with athletes. I lived with a dance major and a German major. Another thing people may not know: I’m addicted to M&Ms.
In 2001, when I was head coach at Ohio Wesleyan, we made a run to the Final Four of the national tournament. We always got dressed up for the games, and for one, I wore pearls. Everybody made fun of me. But when we won the game, they said: “You’re gonna have to wear them again.” I wore those pearls to every game after that.
I should say I like to watch basketball on TV. I do like the Celtics, and I do watch the WNBA, but the truth is I have two golfers—both of my sons compete—and my mother and father were avid golfers. I used to think watching golf was the most boring thing. But now I understand it a little more, and I watch some of the major tournaments—but never all 36 holes.
I golf. I ski. I water ski—even at my age. My 19-year-old and his friends wakeboard, and they’ll invite me to come along because they want to know how to slalom. I have an old water ski—a wooden-cut O’Brien. It’s sweet. It’s about ready to die, but I can’t give it up. I also have a new fiberglass ski, but I like that old one because I can really get low to the water. So I slalom, and the boys crack up.
Even though I was involved in Division I athletics while in graduate school, I didn’t like it. There is an imbalance to Division I. There are too many hours—six to eight hours a day—dedicated to sport. And there’s a lot of structure—when to study, when to eat. I prefer the balance of Division III sports, and I love the academic component of it. A lot of what I learned as a student at Denison was in the dorms and in unstructured environments. I believe that the Division III experience is more empowering and less controlling, and you play for the pure love of the sport.
Denison’s new pool, which will welcome swimmers and divers this fall, is three times the size of the old pool. From a competitive standpoint, this certainly will help our varsity teams continue their national dominance. But the overall expansion and renovation of the athletic facilities (set for completion in 2013) will also mean we’ll have a lot more space for everybody—faculty, staff, students, the nonvarsity athletes—for recreation. The new building will also unite us as a department. All faculty and staff offices will be on the same floor. We’ll have new and updated locker rooms. We’ll have new conference rooms, so we can meet and greet not only with recruits, but with alumni, too.
Our goal is to be the quintessential Division II athletics program. We want to compete for the Learfield Trophy, which goes to the top Division III institution in the country. I believe we are capable of doing so, but we also want our students to continue to be more than athletes. They possess advanced physical skill, but it’s not unusual for athletes to be in a music or theatre production or on the student board of an academic department. It’s important to recognize that that’s difficult to do, but it’s also special.
Carney-DeBord got more than a solid education and refined athletic skills as a Denison student (that’s her, seated at right). Lynn Schweizer, then the basketball coach and now the senior associate director of athletics, became her mentor, and Carney-DeBord’s courtship with future husband Jack Carney DeBord ‘78, literally began on the basketball court.