When Trace Wilgus was elected as 3rd Vice President of the National Association of Athletics Compliance last spring, it sent a message to the outside world that the associate athletics director of compliance at Vanderbilt University had arrived.
No one had to convince his peers that Wilgus, who served on the NAAC Board as the Chair of the DI Reasonable Standards Committee for the past four years, was ready for the opportunity. They already knew.
Wilgus’ career path has inspired that confidence. Prior to starting at Vanderbilt in October of 2018, Wilgus spent nine years in progressive compliance roles at the University of Texas at Austin, most recently as the assistant athletics director, athletics risk management & compliance services.
As for his academic background, Wilgus graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He then obtained a master’s degree from the University of Louisville from its prestigious sports management program.
All of the above would serve as a solid foundation for his significant achievement in less than a decade in collegiate athletics. What follows is an interview with Wilgus, chronicling his path to success.
Question: At what point did you know that working in the NCAA compliance area was something you wanted to do?
Answer: I don’t think anyone ever sets out to get into compliance in college athletics. You could ask twenty people this question and get fifteen to twenty different answers. I was a practice player with the women’s basketball program during my undergraduate years at Purdue, and after developing a good relationship with the staff at the time, it was kind of my first eye opener to potential career opportunities in college athletics. My dad is a high school basketball coach, so I had that background, but knew coaching wasn’t the exact path I wanted. It was a bit of trial and error for me while pursuing a graduate degree and various internship opportunities, but I eventually figured out that I enjoyed (the challenge of) working with coaches, and I’m not sure there is a department unit that works more closely with sport programs than compliance.
Q: Who have been your major mentors?
A: I don’t know that I would say I have a “mentor(s)” in the traditional sense of the word, but I’ve been fortunate to develop a lot of great professional relationships with various people that I have been able to take things from – compliance administrators, head coaches, etc. I spent almost nine years at Texas, so it would definitely start there – Amy Folan, Lori Hammond, Blake Barlow. Candice Lee currently at Vanderbilt. Again, I’ve been fortunate to work for and with great people, but I’ve tried to be intentional about that as well.
Q: You’ve lived in a lot of different areas during the past decade, how has that shaped you?
A: I grew up in Indiana – in a basketball family nonetheless – so that always was and still is a big part of my background. But having my first full-time career opportunity coming at Texas – basically the state of Indiana for football – and getting to spend nine years there was pretty fortunate. To be really good at what we do, you better understand those two worlds (basketball and football) intimately, so that background definitely helped minimize my learning curve. It also gave me some immediate credibility when developing relationships with coaches – being able to speak their language, develop trust, etc. – so I was probably able to take on some responsibilities in those sports a bit earlier on in my career than one would normally get exposed.
Q: What are the lessons learned as Chair of the DI Reasonable Standards Committee for the past four years?
A: Our committee’s charge is “…to establish “reasonable” norms to which all institutions should adhere when monitoring, providing education, and documenting an institution’s compliance with NCAA rules…” We were intentional about ensuring our committee was diverse in every sense of the word because – getting to the biggest lesson learned – what is “reasonable” depends on the risks of your institution. Even being at a place like Texas – where I was predominantly during my time as chair of the committee – where you would expect to have the highest levels of monitoring, education, documentation, etc., sometimes other non-autonomy institutions would talk on our calls about things they were doing in two- or three-person shops and it exceeded what we were doing at Texas. And at the end of the day, that’s fine – those issues just weren’t areas of risk for us.
Q: Vanderbilt is a Power Five school with an extraordinary emphasis on academics. What are the unique challenges in that?
A: The primary difference is it takes the talent pool of prospective student-athletes who could compete (athletically) at this level and squeezes it significantly. But our coaches and staff embrace the emphasis on academic excellence, don’t believe the two – elite academics and athletics – are mutually exclusive, and use it to differentiate ourselves relative to peers/competition.
Q: What advice would you give someone interested in a career in the NCAA compliance field?
A: The cynic in me would say “don’t” but I’m not there yet. Try different internships/opportunities to learn and expose yourself to as many areas as possible. And even if you take one and don’t like it, great, that’s progress – now you can cross it off the list. A lot of people also assume you need a J.D., but some of the best people I have worked with in this industry have varying educational backgrounds. And depending on what your end game is, I’m not sure there is a background that gives you a better foundation to become an AD than compliance – understanding how internal units operate, building relationships with coaches, communication skills, having difficult conversations, etc.