Written by Joe Duball, New Hampshire Union Leader
For the first time in 40 years, Franklin Pierce University athletics is under new management.
Rachel Burleson was brought on as Franklin Pierce's athletics director in July following the retirement of longtime Ravens AD and 45-year athletic pillar Bruce Kirsh. Burleson joined the Ravens with 10 years of athletics administrative experience at three NCAA Division II programs, which includes spending the last five years as associate athletics director at Missouri Southern State University.
Originally from Azale, Texas, Burleson lived and worked exclusively in the Midwest prior to her appointment in Rindge. A change of scenery was among the reasons that pushed Burleson to uproot, but the ability to further her career was what really drew her to Rindge.
"I've been a part of four different conferences and not one of them has had a female athletic director," Burleson said. "The opportunities just weren't there for me in the Midwest at this point. I knew I was going to have to branch out where there were and the Northeast-10 had two female athletic directors prior to my hire. One has retired since, but the two of us here now are still two more than I've ever been a part of."
The transition into her post has been surprisingly seamless for Burleson. It'd be an understatement to deem Kirsh's legacy a tough act to follow, and Burleson has been mindful of that during the opening months of her tenure.
"It's a unique situation because there are very few times where you're going to replace someone who has been around as long as Bruce was," Burleson said. "He did tremendous things here and the university wouldn't be where it is without his efforts. Everybody is excited for him to move on and really enjoy what he has reaped over the last 40 years."
Burleson added that she has kept an open line of communication with Kirsh, whom she has met with twice since arriving. While Burleson plans to work off the base Kirsh has built, she has not shied away from beginning to put her own stamp on Franklin Pierce athletics. For Burleson, that imprint begins with a greater presence in the community.
"My biggest focus in coming here and spending time here during the interview process was really pushing athletics and student-athletes into the community," Burleson said. "I think there's been perhaps some lag in that push, which leaves us room to show we have a product here. Our Ravens are something we can really push and provide to the community that we've missed out in the past."
Franklin Pierce has 504 athletes among its programs and Burleson has mandated that each of them do five hours of community service a year.
Burleson's "give to take" approach has shown in a variety of ways thus far. The Ravens' sprint football team recently did renovations at a local nursing home while the athletics department as whole will set out on its "Trick-or-Treat For Kids to Eat" canned-food drive starting this week.
"Our student-athletes are tremendous ambassadors for the institution," Burleson said. "We're aiming to get them out into the community and letting everyone see that they are good athletes, but they are so much more. The kids are polite, good people and have great GPAs. We want the community to buy into these players as people, which will then hopefully get them to come out to games to support the kids helping them."
Working in conjunction with Franklin Pierce coaching staffs is just as important to Burleson as managing students. Like many athletics directors, Burleson herself was a coach before entering athletic the administration realm. She held a dual role at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, acting as both the assistant athletics director and head softball coach. Burleson was also an assistant softball coach at Northwest Missouri State University and Kenyon College (Ohio) in the years leading up to her gig at Oklahoma Panhandle State.
"When I was an undergraduate, I just thought I was going to be a high school coach and teaching," Burleson said. "I made my mind up in graduate school that I wanted to be an athletic director, however, I absolutely knew that I wanted to coach first. Taking that route was important so I could talk to coaches and see where they have been and are at. . I thought I'd coach longer than I did, but I got an opportunity to get into 100 percent administration and I wanted to start a family, which you can't do with the travel involved with coaching and recruiting."
While Burleson isn't aiming to neglect teams, she said she does see this as a time time to "reel things in and focus" in regards to growing or re-establishing some Ravens programs. Softball is among those that could use a boost after a 1-34 campaign last spring. Burleson has great respect for Ravens softball coach Hannah Griffin and the job she's done, but Burleson's softball background is hard to ignore.
"Hannah has a good head on her shoulders, knows what she wants and I think can be successful," Burleson said. "It's about giving her the support to do it. . Ultimately student-athletes want to be part of success and something big. As long as we can get a facelift and start putting resources in, and that goes for all programs, I think you'll see us improve as an institution."
Burleson is still getting a feel for how athletics fit into New England's collegiate scene, but she foresees a greater emphasis on expanding recruiting lines while continuing to push for her programs to keep the best in-state talent on their home turf.
ABOUT THE NE10
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