PITTSBURGH — Athletic director Peter Roby is not with the Northeastern Huskies at the Consol Energy Center this week. Roby was in Dayton for NCAA first-round games Tuesday and Wednesday, then drove to Columbus to oversee the NCAA subregional at Nationwide Arena in the heart of Buckeye Nation. He says he’ll watch the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament game vs. Notre Dame on television or his iPad Thursday.
Roby wears a lot of hats. In addition to being Northeastern’s AD, he’s also in the middle of a five-year term as a member of the NCAA’s tournament selection committee, and the latter role supersedes his job as Husky sports boss during this first week of the tournament.
“I get so nervous watching our team play, it’s probably better for my health that I’m not there,’’ said Roby. “I’ve never been there as a player or a coach, so this is a bittersweet moment, but I wouldn't trade this for anything. To be on the committee is one of the highlights of my career, but for our team to make it and knowing our kids and coach are being rewarded for their hard work . . .
“If this is the tradeoff, so be it.’’
The Huskies are in the Steel City as the 14th seed in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament, and on Thursday at lunchtime they play third-seeded Notre Dame for the right to advance to the Round of 32. This will be Northeastern’s first March Madness appearance since 1991, and it is a very big deal for the thousands of folks vested in the too-often-overlooked jewel of a school on Huntington Avenue.
Roby may not be here in the flesh, but he’s responsible for those who are here. And, as always, he makes those around him better.
I know Peter Roby because our children went to school together and I got to play pickup basketball with him when the kids were young. Among folks who play team sports (even when we are long past our primes), it’s a universal truth that you really get to know people when you share the field, the ice, and the ball/puck with them in athletic competition. Even informal games.
Back in the golden 1990s, we called it “old man basketball.’’ It was just a bunch of dads playing pickup ball on Sunday mornings. Except for Roby, we were all ham-and-eggers, with suspect high school hoop résumés. Roby was 6 feet 7 inches, in great shape, and a former cocaptain at Dartmouth.
Roby brought a certain dignity and presence to our weekend warrior outings. He had been head coach at Harvard and an assistant at Dartmouth, Stanford, and Army. He knew how to call out the switches and execute the pick-and-roll. He knew how to maximize the fading skills of the fast-aging dads of Newton. He knew how to make everyone else better.
And that’s what he’s doing now. In a professional sports town that occasionally brags about Harvard, Boston College, MIT, and Boston University, Roby is running the athletic department at Northeastern in an era in which the onetime commuter school is emerging as a gleaming jewel in Boston’s emerald necklace of higher education.
NU is eating with the big dogs in 2015, and the Huskies’ appearance in the Dance signifies another step in the steady path to national prominence and recognition.
“I like the challenge of trying to create relevance with our marketing and our branding and our teams,’’ said Roby. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. I’m proud of what we’ve done academically and how our kids represent us.’’
It’s not always easy working the college game in a pro sports town. BC couldn’t get any attention with the nation’s second-ranked football team in 2007, and Division 1 basketball programs on Commonwealth and Huntington Avenues don’t draw fans or attention the way programs in Lexington, Ky., and South Bend, Ind., do.
Roby has lived through the darkness that came with elimination of Northeastern’s 74-year-old football program in 2009.
“It was the hardest professional time of my life,’’ he said. “I think we’ve come through it as well as we could come through it. Every year you get a little more removed from it, but you still feel the tension when you’re around folks. That’s only natural. It’s probably me as much as it is them. I think we’re benefitting from some of those decisions with respect to our other programs now.’’
For five days last week, Roby was sequestered with the other nine committee members on the 18th floor of the Conrad Hilton in Indianapolis after his Huskies clinched an automatic NCAA berth with a victory over William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association title game.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,’’ he said. “You’re so thankful and appreciative of the process because of your own team and the significance.
“I always felt the burden of getting it right, but then to have gone through the conference championship and see our kids win it and knowing you’re going to be in the field, going to Indy was such a high and an expectation.’’
He was not allowed in the war room when plans for Northeastern were being discussed by the rest of the committee.
“That’s the rule,’’ said Roby. “My goal has always been to be asked to leave the room, and that finally happened.’’
He learned Northeastern’s fate just two hours before it was announced to the nation Sunday night on CBS. It was hard to keep quiet, knowing that coach Bill Coen and many other folks back in Boston were hungry for the news.
“I’m thrilled with where we wound up,’’ said Roby. “I thought it was a deserved 14 seed. I was hopeful we might be able to stay in the East so some of our fans would be able to go and watch us.
“Plus, there’s significance to Northeastern being in Pittsburgh. Starting with Keith Motley [now chancellor of UMass-Boston], we’ve had a run of great players from Pittsburgh.’’
There’s not a lot of history of 14 seeds beating 3 seeds. And Notre Dame just won the ACC tournament. This is a classic David-Goliath game, a Kevin Mackey-Bobby Knight matchup (14th-seeded Cleveland State beat No. 3 Indiana in 1986).
“The goal first and foremost is to make sure the guys enjoy the whole experience,’’ said Roby. “When it’s been over 20 years, everyone has to make sure they appreciate how special this is. Now they’re part of the history of March Madness, and no one can ever say they didn’t participate in it.
“You don’t want them to be in awe of the situation and then not play well, but we don’t want the kids to be so uptight and nervous that they can’t go out and enjoy it.
“We’re going to go for it. I know Bill’s going to have his team ready to play.’’