Ithaca College recently announced Susan Bassett will be the new athletic director starting on July 1st. Below, Sport Media alumna Jodie Eichel tells the story of Susan in a Sport Publications class piece originally published April 11, 2011.
By Jodie Eichel ’12
As corny and clichéd as it might sound, one change, one experience, one loss can alter a person’s life forever. Imagine being an 18-year-old kid named Susan Bassett. You’ve just finished your first semester at your dream college and are coming off a successful field-hockey season, starting as a freshman. It’s winter break, December 22, 1975, and you’re walking along with your best friend, Cara, and all of sudden disaster strikes. A hit-and-run drunk driver crashes into you. In a flash, your best friend is dead, and you are seriously injured. At the very least, assuming you recover from the trauma of the accident, your athletic career appears to be over.
Bassett survived the accident but received neurological damage to her left leg. She thought that her goal in life, to be a physical education teacher and coach, had become unattainable. Little did she realize how far that was from the truth. Bassett, who graduated from Ithaca College in 1979, is now the athletic director at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a leader in the world of Division III athletics.
Still in the hospital as the second semester commenced, the shaken young woman missed the second semester of her freshman year to recuperate and undergo physical therapy for her leg. Then she came back to Ithaca the following fall to figure out the next move in her life. As it turned out, her athletic career, which had included swimming as well as field hockey, was essentially over. She initially thought that meant she would not be able to be a coach either. “I made a lot of choices based on thinking I couldn’t be a high school coach anymore because I was no longer able to be a competitive athlete on teams,” Bassett says now. She thought that in order to be a great coach, you had to have a great career as an athlete.
It took some time for Bassett to find the right path. She was not sure where she was headed. She wasn’t even sure if her injuries would allow her to participate in all of the physical education classes. Eventually, though, her determination won out. “I had an advisor at Ithaca when I first came back that said maybe you should get a different major, maybe you can’t do this,” Bassett recalls. “And so my response to that was I got a different advisor.” She made a few adjustments in her game plan. She switched her emphasis from physical education to athletic training because she thought that was another way for her to get into sports and coaching. She graduated from Ithaca with a B.S. in physical education with a concentration in athletic training and went on to receive a master’s degree in adaptive physical education, which focuses on students with disabilities, from Indiana University in 1980.
By then, she had a nickname, “Basserino,” given to her by the legendary Ithaca College field hockey and softball coach Doris Kostrinsky. It didn’t take her long to get started on her coaching career, even if she hadn’t been a star athlete. Soon, she was the head coach of the women’s swimming and diving team at William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., where she would coach 22 All-Americans. Then she moved on to become the aquatics director and head men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach at Union College, where she coached 92 All-Americans and was named Division III coach of the year in 1993. She then went back to William Smith College to move into sports administration as director of athletics, as well as an associate professor of physical education.
Fifteen years later, she is the athletic director at Carnegie Mellon University, where she continues to enjoy success. Even though Carnegie Mellon is known as a rigorous academic institution, her athletes have a higher grade-point average than the student body as a whole. Her teams have done well on the field as well, winning seven conference championships in six sports.
In addition, she is the first Division III athletics director to become president of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA). The association is an advocacy organization that strives to make sure that women in the world of collegiate athletics are not left behind and recognized. “[NACWAA] is working hard to empower more women to be able to advance in this career, to assume responsibility to take on and go for these big jobs,” says Bassett.
As anyone can see from Bassett’s achievements, she did not let a life-altering experience stop her in her tracks at age 18. She credits Ithaca College, its faculty and her friends, for helping her move on and for reminding her that she still could do everything she originally wanted to do. She also credits Delta Psi Kappa, a national professional health and recreation sorority, for supporting her during hard times. The sorority was located in Terrace 2 dormitory during the 1970s. Bassett moved there after she returned to school her sophomore year and stayed until she graduated.
In 2005, Basset was inducted into the Ithaca College Athletic Hall of Fame for her accomplishments on and off the field. Bassett says it “kind of blew me away” to be recognized and honored by Ithaca, “a school I hold in such high regard and attribute so much for my success.”
And now, more than 35 years later, she understands the role the accident played in her life. She doesn’t like to dwell on it or talk about it with others. But she sees the tragedy of losing her best friend as an event that gave her life focus and motivation. “I had a lot of guilt obviously to survive that accident when my best friend died, and I was determined to sort of do this for Cara and for me,” says Bassett. “That I had to live a life of meaning and be productive and successful because I owed that to her. I do think that experience really formed — helped form — who I have become.”
What she has become is someone who makes a difference.