Sean Gillespie brings experience from athletics administration at the high school, collegiate and professional levels to his new position as Georgia Gwinnett College’s athletics facilities and events manager. (Staff Photo: David Friedlander)
Growing up in a military family, Sean Gillespie has gotten used to moving around — not only from on location to another, but from one challenge to another. He’s coached basketball on the high school and college level and even coached a professional team in Izmir, Turkey. And he’s been an athletics director on the high school level in Florida and in college. But now, the 44-year-old Colorado native, who has been part of athletic coaching and administration on the high school, college and professional levels, believes he’s found both a challenge and a location that he could stay with for a while as Georgia Gwinnett College’s athletics facilities and events Manager. Staff Writer David Friedlander recently spoke with Gillespie, who lives in Lawrenceville with his wife Rachel and daughters Mariah, 16, and Makayla, 9, about his new job and how his unique experiences fit in with it, the progam’s new facilities for baseball, soccer, softball and tennis and other topics.
DF: You’ve been involved in coaching and administration in sports at different levels for many years, but it’s your first job as a facilities and events manager. What sold you on accepting this new challenge?
SG: Having been an athletics director (at the) high school (level), doing events and administrating facilities isn’t a new thing. It is at the college level, which means the student-athletes are a little older, and the college coaches are a little more experienced and the facilities are bigger. But really, for the base principles and core values of our expectations of facilities and usage and game day events doesn’t change.
The challenge in all this the fact I was really intrigued by the newness of (GGC’s athletic) program. We’re moving into our second year of athletics — first full year for the facilities. As I look back on my career in coaching and different areas, I’m a builder, and I like to be a part of ground-level things. And of course, (GGC athletics director) Dr. (Darin) Wilson has done a fantastic job establishing the program, hiring the right coaches, the vision of the facilities. So for me, that was really intriguing, being on the ground level of something I think is really special here in Gwinnett County.
DF: Since you brought up Dr. Wilson, I assume you two worked together at Union College prior to coming to GGC? And I assume his presence was one of the things that sold you on taking the job?
SG: Absolutely. I know what his expectations are. I know his standards of excellence and wanting to put together a first-class athletic program and facilities. His track record speaks for itself. I think you’d be crazy not to be a part of his staff.
DF: Now, many of the facilities were not only planned but already built before you took this job…
SG (laughs): I’ll tell you, that’s the best part of all this. I feel like I’ve been handed the keys to a Porsche. I just have to not wreck the car, so to speak. I did miss all the construction part. I know it had a lot of its challenges, but at the end of the day, it came out to be a first-class facility. Now, the responsibility is on me to manage it.
DF: I know in the future, there’s been discussion of adding men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball to GGC’s program at some point in the future. I guess that will be a big challenge for you.
SG: Sure, if there’s not a facility on campus. Of course, our goal would be to have something on campus to facilitate that. If not, then we’d be looking off-site, and it does become a little bit more of a challenge. Actually, my first stint as an athletics director in Orlando, Fla., at Circle Christian School, we didn’t have our own facilities. So, every soccer field, basketball court, volleyball gym, track, we really outsourced it to different facilities in the community. So, I’m accustomed to the game-day management and having to host off-site. It is a challenge, though.
DF: So, with all of the heavy lifting done in terms of building the new facilities — or acquiring them, in the case of the tennis facility — what are the biggest challenges in terms of managing them?
SG: Well, right now, I’m in the middle of putting together emergency action plans. From a legal standpoint and process standpoint, we need to know what we’re going to do when there’s a tornado (in the area), etc., or other emergency situations. Really, it’s like building a house. When you get the building done, there’s all these little details to be done. So, we’ve got some field maintenance still we need to get taken care of — just little things, odds and ends. Student-athletes get here in about three weeks, so we’re in the process of putting together host packets for the teams. Where are we going to house officials? The locker rooms. There just a lot of little details, and we’re still kind of feeling our way around trying to understand some things. We get calls all the time about facility usage. Can our soccer team or baseball team come in (and use the field)? It’s just a fine line of what are our filters in figuring that out.
DF: Do you get a lot of those type of requests from local high schools?
SG: High school-age to club soccer. And you have your better baseball (travel) programs. It’s great. It’s a great recruiting tool. When I hear coaches go through the hallway with potential recruits, I can hear the conversations, and the student-athletes are always, ‘Wow! These are great facilities.’
You have this part of Georgia, which of course is a great place to be, and you’ve got this facility, and it’s clear the college is behind athletics. I think it’s the right spot to be.
DF: Of course, while the facilities are now done, there’s still plenty of construction going on at Georgia Highway 316 adjacent to the campus. What kind of challenges will that bring to planning events for the next year and a half until that construction is done?
SG: I think the construction out towards 316 is something we get used to. Our greatest challenge, as you probably know, is our parking, and making sure we have the safest and most-efficient parking plan is my priority. We utilize the parking deck, but if you look around, there’s not a lot of parking right here on the facility. At the same time, you’d like to think people will put up with a 500-yard walk.
I remember when I was in Orlando, I went to a (University of Central Florida) football game, and a couple of times, I had to walk a half-mile from where I parked to the stadium. I know we’re not UCF, but I think there’s a certain level of expectations in college athletics that you walk. So, our goal is to make (events) as fan-friendly as possible with as easy access as possible. But I think that’s going to be our biggest challenge, the parking piece, but we’ll work with it.
DF: Let’s go a little bit further back in your background. You’ve played, coached and administrated on just about every level of athletics. You even coached professional basketball in Turkey. Let’s start with that because that’s the job that kind of sticks out. How different was that?
SG: Certainly, the challenges we faced in Turkey were the language barrier, just the culture itself. It was obviously Arabic and Middle Eastern, which was an adjustment. But I found the people to be very hospitable. We have great friends there. The thing that experience has allowed me to do is learn how to be flexible and adaptable. So many things changed at the last second. And we’re out near the Iranian border, so we’re out there in eastern Turkey, which has a tendency (for residents) to be a little more poor and the resources aren’t the same. So, you had to learn how to be resourceful and creative and adaptive because it was an ever-changing environment. So that was a great experience, one I look back on and gave me the confidence to go in the country — we went in (not knowing the) language. … I didn’t know any Turkish, and there weren’t many (people) who knew English. About after a year and a couple months, we were fluent (in Turkish), but it took a lot of hard work.
DF: How did your family react to the move to Turkey?
SG: We were in a good spot in life. My oldest (daughter) was 6 years old. My youngest had just been born. It was about eight, nine, 10 years ago. So, it was a good spot in my professional career. … Our objective was to go and try to use basketball to impact the community. I was part of a nonprofit organization, Global Sports Partners, that was a platform to develop sports in the community.
DF: As many places as you’ve traveled to work, do you feel like GGC is someplace you might be able to settle down at for a while?
SG: I’d love to settle in. I’m the first to admit I’m a little bit weary of (all) the moves. Everything we’ve done has been really kind of a process and a stepping stone. I love being in college athletics. I love being around student-athletes. I love the atmosphere and environment, so we’d love to settle in here. I’ve been really impressed with the college itself. I love the area. I’m not really keen on the traffic (laughing). It’s an adjustment for me. But outside of the traffic, there’s a lot to do in this part of Atlanta, and we’re excited to be here. Hopefully, we can be here a long time.
DF: Where are you from originally?
SG: My dad was in the military. So, I was born in Colorado, but we moved everywhere — Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, just a lot of places. So, I was an Army brat, so to speak, and we moved around a good bit.
DF: So, looking at your background, I’m thinking your tendency to wander has a lot to do with your background?
SG: (Laughing) Yeah, I don’t know if it’s something that’s just been ingrained in me, but about every three years, there’s like this itch. What’s the next challenge? But we can’t keep doing that.
DF: I take it your wife knew what she was getting into with all the moves?
SG: Well, maybe not all of them (laughing). But do any of us know what we’re getting into when we’re getting married?
DF: Going back to the move to Turkey, how did your family react to the idea?
SG: I think at first there was definitely a (reaction of), ‘Well, I’m not sure.’ But we went over and did a trip over there and scoped it out and met people — met the general manager of the club. After that trip, there was a comfortability there.
DF: You mentioned your grew up in a military family. If I’m not mistaken, you’re also currently serving in the National Guard. How does that work in terms of having to leave periodically for training?
SG: My responsibilities are to train once a month. Currently, my unit is in Florida, (but) I will make a transition at some point to a Georgia unit. So, it’s once a month, and this year, it’s three weeks this summer that we’ve been training. It’s my way to serve my country in a small, tiny way, and also honor them — I come from a long line of military men in my family. So, I kind of honor them by doing my part.
DF: Is your athletic background solely in basketball?
SG: I played at Pensacola Christian College. I (also) played some baseball in high school, but I played college basketball. I love golf. I play a lot of golf right now.
DF: What made you decide to get into athletics coaching and administration for a living?
SG: I think it’s a great vehicle. There are not too many jobs in the world that has influence on students and student-athletes like coaches do, for good and bad. There are some men in my life that were influential. They just happened to be coaches. It’s something I enjoy. I’m not a coach (now), but on some level, I’m “coaching” those that are working underneath me. I got into athletics because it gave me a chance to impact the lives of kids.
DF: What kind of long-term plans do you have for the facilities at GGC?
SG: We want to create, from an environment standpoint, (for the facilities) to be fan-friendly. We’re not going to be turning it into an NBA halftime show type of environment, but we want our fans to leave here with the experience, whether it’s between innings or at halftime of a soccer game, that they want to come back, and that they had a good time.
Just from a facilities standpoint, Dr. Wilson has some expansion ideas. Certainly we want to improve, and get a press box, on the soccer field. We want to have a building down there, as well, to use as lockers. … There is a possibility that there (are) some spots here where we create some additional parking spaces right here at the complex. Then if you add other sports, such as basketball (in the future), what’s the college doing? Can we tie a gym into that?
DF: I know the initial plans for adding men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball have kind of been put on hold for the time being. But are you already in the back of your mind planning on what to do in terms of facilities when or if those sports are added?
SG: Well, I’m not sure about land acquisition. That’s a Dr. Wilson question. One of the things I’m not going to be surprised at, maybe sooner than later, is a scenario where we have a track around the soccer field. If we do, then we may be looking at adding a track program or cross country.