By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
When Jean Lenti Ponsetto came home after college graduation and told her parents she wanted to take a job with DePaul athletics that paid her $6,000 a year as opposed to a public school teaching job that would pay $18,000 annually, Frank Lenti wondered where he went wrong.
Lenti worked for decades driving a cement mixer so he could send his six children to college, and one of his daughters didn’t know the difference between $6,000 and $18,000?
Jean Lenti Ponsetto
Fast-forward to 2002 when Ponsetto was named athletics director at DePaul.
“My dad acted like my going into college athletics was all his idea,” she said. “Now he’s proud. Now it was his idea!”
DePaul’s athletics department and possibly all of intercollegiate athletics would be different if Frank Lenti had somehow talked his daughter into the more immediately financially rewarding career. Ponsetto began as a coach and worked her way up through the administrative side, putting the values she learned from her parents and as a student-athlete at DePaul to use.
For Ponsetto, the quality of the experience for student-athletes and their growth into empathetic, service-minded adults are paramount to her job as athletics director. She learns all the student-athletes’ names, sports and majors, usually before the end of their freshman year. She sponsors a luncheon for all the seniors just before graduation (an event she says can get “overwhelming” when she thinks about how much growth she’s been able to witness). She surrounds herself with people (staff and coaches) who buy into the DePaul philosophy of making a difference.
“We want the student-athletes to walk away from this experience fully embracing the fact that they’ve been given this opportunity to get this fabulous education,” she said. “Now they need to take that education and go out into the world and make a difference, whether it’s in their career path or in a community-service opportunity that they pursue. They leave here with a strong sense of the importance of contributing and giving back.”
Instilling that sense in the student-athletes begins with making sure they understand that they are respected and important parts of the university community, she said. Creating that type of environment builds connections between a student-athlete and the school, but it is also rewarding in itself.
DePaul Athletics Director (far right) takes pride in helping student-athletes succeed
People ask Ponsetto how she can work such long hours and long weeks, but the hours she puts in and the time she spends on campus are more than a labor of love – they are a privilege.
“I am so lucky I get to come here every day and do this,” she said. “You walk in the building, and even if we’ve had a tough weekend in a sport, there are always smiling faces and kids who are thrilled at the opportunity to do what they’re doing. Every day is a teachable moment. You get so much reward from that. Even if we’ve had a tough year, all of the rewards outweigh any of the downside.”
Often lauded as the first woman to do something or one of only a few women to do something else, Ponsetto takes that responsibility seriously. She has served on several high-profile NCAA committees during pivotal times, including the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee when the bracket expanded to 64 teams and the current ESPN contract was negotiated. She also was a member of the Championships Cabinet when automatic qualifications were expanded. She knows that her national service, especially as a trailblazer for women, is important beyond what it does for her career or even her institution.
“I’d like to be the kind of person who sets the example of making good decisions, being a good leader, being responsible. That’s what my national committee work has been about on some level,” she said. “I do feel a responsibility to make sure I get it done and get it done right.”
She takes that responsibility seriously, something that must give her dad great pride.