This story was originally published by NOISE.
New Creighton University athletic director Marcus Blossom might never have made history if he didn’t follow his heart. His arrival on the Hill Top marks a major change for the downtown Jesuit school, where Bruce Rasmussen oversaw the athletic department for decades. Not only is Blossom, 42, much younger than the retired Rasmussen, 70, he’s the first Black AD at the school and the only Black AD at any higher ed institution in the state of Nebraska.
Creighton’s faculty, staff and student ranks are predominantly white despite the fact the inner city neighborhoods surrounding the school are among Omaha’s most diverse. “I’m not oblivious to that fact,” said Blossom, who was hired by CU in late August. His previous sports management roles came at east coast Catholic schools with similar demographics as Creighton and Omaha, starting with Providence, then Boston College and, most recently, Holy Cross.
“These situations, you either do a good job or you don’t. I’m just so focused on trying to do the best job possible in elevating us because that’s what I’ll be judged on. Hopefully, that’s what I’ll be judged on. I don’t even mind if I’m judged harsher than the next person. I’m confident if given the right opportunities we’ll be successful. Now a lot of external factors may contribute to the overall outcome, but I think if I do the right things on a day-to-day basis that it will result in some things we can be really proud of over time.”
DIVERSITY ELUSIVE IN INTERCOLLEGIATE COACHING AND ADMINISTRATIVE RANKS
Historically, Creighton has demonstrated more diversity in its coaching and administrative hires than fellow in-state Division I schools the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. CU has had Black head coaches in basketball (Willis Reed) and baseball (Dave Baker and Jerry Bartee). Its current men’s soccer coach, Johnny Torres, is Latino. Former Associate Athletic Director Adrian Dowell is Black. Until Carrie Banks was hired as head women’s basketball coach last year, UNO had gone a half-century since its last head coach of color. The school just made history by hiring Dowell from Creighton as its new AD, making him the first Black to lead Omaha Maverick athletics.
UNL is still without a head coach of color and its athletic administrators are conspicuously white, with the exception of Lawrence Chatters, who is the executive associate AD for diversity, equity and inclusion. But the school’s new AD, Trev Alberts, who came from UNO where he hired Banks, promises more diversity is on the way.
In terms of honoring athletes of color, all three schools have given props to former standouts. CU recently hosted a celebration of life ceremony for all-time Bluejay great Bob Gibson, who starred in baseball and basketball there before embarking on a legendary major league pitching career with the St. Louis Cardinals that earned him a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The event, one of the grandest showcases for an African American native son or daughter in Omaha history, drew national broadcaster Bob Costas and former Cardinal greats Tim McCarver, Joe Torre and Ozzie Smith. For UNO’s 2016 tribute to Marlin Briscoe, a who’s-who of Omaha athletic greats convened with civic leaders. Big Red has feted Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, Maurice Ivy and many other Husker stars.
Until recently, minorities rarely filled AD positions at mainstream institutions. That’s changing in this woke climate. Blossom’s glad to be part of this representation wave. His interest is not in being the first, rather in excelling in the role of steward in order to smooth the way for future candidates. “There’s never enough progress, but there is progress. The way I view my responsibility is that I want to do a great job so that if this opportunity were to ever open again for the next person they could look back at Marcus Blossom’s leadership as a Black AD and say, ‘You know what? That worked out pretty good.’ That’s my main focus.”
BEING HIS OWN MAN
Blossom ignored “conventional wisdom” in choosing to succeed long-serving Rasmussen, who cultivated a loyal alumni base to fund a dramatic transformation of the school’s athletic facilities. Rasmussen shepherded CU’s move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big East Conference. He hired the two coaches – Dana Altman, followed by Greg McDermott – who’ve taken the men’s basketball program to historic heights and made CU hoops one of the best attended programs in the NCAA. Also under Rasmussen’s watch the athletic department got caught breaking NCAA rules, resulting in sanctions, and McDermott made an offensive “plantation” remark in addressing his team that elicited sharp criticism locally and nationally.
In the fluid arena of NCAA athletics, Rasmussen was an old-school executive in a new age of student-athletes profiting from NIL (name, image, likeness) deals and athletic departments implementing DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) mandates. CU president Rev. Daniel Hendrickson has said that specifically hiring a Black AD was not a priority. Blossom confirmed that diversity did not come up in his conversations with Hendrickson or the CU hiring committee.
“That was never communicated to me. I think they were clearly looking for a change, so to speak, in whatever way that it is. I think at the same time some of my background, or what Father (Hendrickson) saw of me as a person, he gathered there were similarities with how Bruce and I do things around caring for people and having Jesuit values at the foreground. So I think it was a change in some ways but not so much of a change in a lot of other ways.”
Blossom hails from a background not dissimilar from many purpose-driven leaders. He’s the youngest of eight siblings in a Chicago area family strong on faith and industriousness. Growing up, his mother pastored a church and his father worked construction. He followed his older brothers into sports.
Despite excelling on his high school hoops team, no major college athletic scholarship offers came. His stellar academic record got him a full-ride scholastic opportunity from the University of Illinois. But with his heart set on playing college ball, he declined, opting instead to walk-on at Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.), which gave him a full academic scholarship. He not only made the Division I team’s roster as a guard but became a two-time team MVP, finishing as one of the school’s all-time leading scorers.
It wouldn’t be the last time Blossom walked away from a sure thing in order to pursue his passion and to demonstrate his ability. The experience of having seven siblings ahead of him means he’s well-practiced at both fighting for what he wants and being a team player.
“When you’re the last you’ve just got to scrape. It was scratching and crawling all the way. I wasn’t always the leader in the house. That experience gave me the ability to lead but also follow in certain instances. I find that you have to be able to play different roles in life and in work settings.”
Seeing his parents put in long days impressed upon him the value of hard work. His mother, Pamela Blossom, is still active as senior pastor of World Outreach Conference Center in Chicago and Milwaukee. For the Blossom children, church was a mandatory part of their maturation. “We grew up in church. I mean, we were in church three days a week, hours upon hours,” he said. Expectations for “doing things the right way,” he added, came along with hearing scriptural messages preached by his mother and other evangelists. Like one who leads a congregation, he sets the vision for where an athletic department’s programs are going and how they’re getting there, all while reaching out to faithful followers for financial support.
ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE
Accepting the CU post meant leaving a sweet situation at Holy Cross, where he was AD since 2019. He oversaw a revitalization of its programs and facilities. He was that school’s first Black AD as well. But the opportunity to lead an athletic department whose teams compete in the prestigious Big East Conference, meant yet another chance to prove himself on a larger stage.
He feels “the foundation” is in place for CU to continue being competitive in several men’s and women’s sports. “I think some of the experiences I bring could help us move the needle in a variety of areas.” Having been at smaller institutions before, he’s well-versed in wearing several hats. “I think I’ve held most of the roles or at least overseen most of the roles coming up through the business. Therefore, I appreciate the perspective of staff and have a good understanding of some of the challenges and of things we could do differently or keep doing to help us be successful. Because of that I think I can ask the right questions and maybe get some good answers.”
After starring on the basketball court and in the classroom at Northeastern, where he graduated with a finance degree, he earned an MBA from the University of Rhode Island. He accepted a lucrative accounting job with Abbott Laboratories in Chicago. Having grown up in the Windy City suburb of Matteson, it seemed an ideal career kickstarter. But the mundane work didn’t offer the risk, reward or rush of Wall Street, which is where he’d set his sights working before 9/11 derailed those plans. In the public fear and market volatility that followed the terrorist attacks, financial firms imposed hiring freezes. Abbott paid him a good salary but nearly three years into his tenure as a beancounter with that Fortune 50 company, he craved more action. “My job didn’t really move me. I was making great money, but I didn’t necessarily have a passion for it. I was just good at it.”
The competitor in him looked to return to his roots. From his days as a college athlete, Blossom recalled that then-Northeastern athletic administrator Kevin Porter enjoyed his job. So Blossom called him to ask, point-blank, “How do you get into this?” Porter pointed him to his own gateway into the industry, the West Virginia University sport management program.
“Fourteen days later I was driving to West Virginia for graduate school again. I gave two-week notice, packed up, and I was out.”
Abandoning a corporate job to start over from scratch left many close to Blossom questioning his decision. He understood their concern, and even wondered himself when he graduated from the program only to become a 26-year-old intern. But he would not be deterred. “I was the oldest intern. I said to myself, shoot, I’ve gotta make up some ground, so I was moving. All those (career) moves I made were intentional.”
He worked various athletic administrative jobs at Central Michigan, Brown, Providence and Boston College, where he was Boston College’s chief financial officer. Along the way, he picked up valuable experience serving as the NCAA’s assistant director of championships. His fast track in the industry was influenced in part by advice tendered by then-Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo.
He similarly followed the advice of former NCAA president Myles Brand, from whom he took the practice of looking at life in five-year chunks. Ever since then, Blossom’s set goals for where he wants to be in five-year windows. He initially set a goal of making AD between the ages of 30 and 35 and when that didn’t happen he revised the plan to 35-40. True to form, Blossom got the Holy Cross job at 39. “I was like, I did it, man, I made it.”
It’s been a full court press to reach that ambition but he said, “Even through all the changes and people saying this is crazy, I’ve never wavered.” Well before Creighton’s national search process fixed on him and he interviewed with Rev. Hendrickson, CU was on Blossom’s radar.
“It’s always been a place I thought would be a pretty good destination for its attributes. A great fan base for one. I think that’s probably what Creighton’s known for from afar. Then, too, it’s an institution of great values. I think most people outside Nebraska don’t know that Omaha is a really good town. I think we should do a better job of communicating what Omaha is all about.”
MAKING HIS MARK
In comments he made at the press conference introducing him to the CU and greater Omaha community, Blossom noted how well aligned the school and he are in terms of values. “I think Creighton is very similar to some of the other institutions that I’ve worked for with respect to having the big picture in mind in terms of the academic, personal and spiritual development of student-athletes. That was important to me.”
Blossom said he’s not discussed with men’s hoops coach Greg McDermott the plantation remarks made last year that resulted in a public rebuke by the university, a one-game suspension and behind the scenes disciplinary-educational measures. “I looked at last year as last year. He apologized to the university. They accepted that apology. He seemed contrite in his apology. Each person is judged on what they do from this point forward, as I am. That’s how I view last year. I wasn’t here, I don’t know the context. I’ve read about it, just like anyone else, but from my standpoint we all live and learn from that and we move on.”
Though the Creighton campus is within walking distance of Omaha’s historic African American hub at 24th and Lake, the major east-west thoroughfare the school borders, Cuming Street, has long been a barrier in the red-lined city. Cuming has geographically and figuratively marked a dividing line between white (south of Cuming) and Black (north of Cuming) Omaha. Blossom is determined to break down such lines.
Just as he’s boundless in his professional life, he’s the same in his personal life. He and his wife Karli are an interracial couple and parents to daughters Maya and Mora. The couple met in St Louis, where she was director of marketing for the St. Louis Sports Commission at the same time the city hosted the NCAA wrestling championships. He worked for the NCAA then and was in St. Louis overseeing the marketing component of the wrestling tourney. The pair’s shared love of sports helped cement a bond.
It’s too early to tell yet whether their young daughters have any future in athletics. “Hopefully they either love it or gain an appreciation for what it does,” he said, “whether it’s making friends or staying in shape. You don’t have to try to be a Division I athlete. There’s a lot of other values.”
The fact that the couple are raising bi-racial children in a society where being the first Black AD is newsworthy and anti-racist and DEI trainings are necessary, isn’t lost on Blossom. Rather than dwell on what he can’t control, he said simply, “It is what it is,” adding, “I’m laser-focused on doing the best job I can do in leading Creighton University athletics and in representing the communities we serve on and off campus.”
His next five-year goal is to create the right conditions for CU athletics to become even more competitive.
“My goal in the next five years is to help Creighton University athletics reach our full potential. We can be conference champions in some sports and compete for national prominence in others. It’s also important to make sure we are positioned for competitive excellence for the next 10-15 years. The landscape of college athletics is changing rapidly and how we respond to those changes will have a major impact on what we look like in the future.”
He knows first-hand how precious intercollegiate athletic participation can be and is motivated to maximize that experience for those in his charge. “It’s such a special time – you’ll never ever forget it. If we can be part of a team that provides those memories and that leads student-athletes in a lot of other ways off the court or the field, then I think it’s a really good purpose as a leader.”
WINNING UNDENIABLY SWEETENS THE DEAL FOR STUDENT-ATHLETES. HE HAS ONLY TO LOOK BACK AT HIS OWN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CAREER TO KNOW WHAT HE MISSED.
“What I try to do is think about what I would have wanted as a student-athlete. I wanted a department of coaches and administrators that wanted the best experience for us, that listened to us when we provided some feedback and that understood that the best experience in sports has a lot to do with whether you win championships or not. I understand that. I didn’t have the championship experiences I wanted as a student-athlete. That’s one of the reasons I got into this field because I want to be a part of creating an environment where that can happen for young people.”
As for any legacy he’d like to leave whenever his time at CU is done, he said, “I want to be viewed as a leader that made our organization better than when I arrived. And, one that put the student-athletes first and greatly enhanced their experience during their time at Creighton.”
NOISE is an Omaha based, Black-led news outlet focused on recapturing the narrative of Omaha’s historically Black communities and Black Nebraskans. Drawing from current events, history and direct feedback from our neighbors, we work to provide content relevant to people’s everyday lives that is just as nuanced as the people we represent.