When someone has been working in a particular industry for over two decades, they are considered veterans. For Temple University
's Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director/Senior Women's Administrator Mary McElroy
, the term veteran truly applies.
McElroy, who has served on the athletics staffs of five different NCAA Division I schools, had a unique path to becoming one of the most respected female administrators in college athletics. One that included service to her country.
"I was the first person in my family to go to college," said McElroy. "My parents did not have the money to send me to college. So I saw a story in the paper about the service academies and it talked about getting a good education as well as a good foundation to build a life on.
"What was also attractive was the fact that you received a car and had a job upon graduation. At the time I graduated high school (1982) there were many people graduating with degrees and unable to find employment."
McElroy, one of eight children, grew up 65 miles south of Annapolis. So when looking into service academies it was only natural that the United States Naval Academy was at the top of her list.
"I was fortunate enough to be an attractive enough candidate that they offered me an opportunity to go to their prep school," she said. "So I went there and was guaranteed to go to the academy after one year."
The fact that McElroy was a three-sport athlete at Great Mills High as well as her excelling in the classroom, made her an ideal candidate for the academy.
"I got in on my academic record, but the fact that I was an athlete in high school did help as the academies do look for well-rounded students," she explained.
One of only seven African American women in her class with only three graduating, McElroy had to be even tougher than the average midshipman.
"It was challenging, but not impossible," she said. "I always like to push myself with my goal to be near the head of the pack or leading it."
Her adjustment to military life was also easier due to her upbringing. The physicality was not as hard as she was used to helping around the house, "moving furniture" for her mom as she jokes, and by being a "tomboy." She also noted that being one of eight children she was used to discipline in her household.
McElroy used her athletic prowess to make the women's basketball and softball teams as a walk-on. She played two seasons of basketball and was the team's sixth man her final season. She decided to walk away from her athletic career for a very good reason – love.
"I went into the military on happenstance and went into the Marines because I was fortunate enough to meet my husband at the academy," she stated. "He was a year ahead of me and selected Marine Corps so he could fly. I always joke that I selected Marine Corps so I could live with him."
McElroy and her husband, Terry, married three days after her graduation. "He was in fight training and he had one day off," she recalled. "He even missed our wedding rehearsal as he had to fly that day. We married on Saturday and he was back at Pensacola on Monday – no honeymoon."
She took her 30 days of "basket leave" given to graduates and spent them with Terry before taking her first assignment, a month-long study abroad in France. Then it was on to Quantico for six months of officer training.
At Quantico, McElroy selected Marine Corps Supply as her specialty and then was sent to supply school in Camp Lejeune, N.C. As is the military life norm, she would move around a lot being stationed in Cherry Point, N.C. and later Jacksonville, N.C. Although she was never deployed overseas due to her position, she helped train the marines fighting in Desert Storm.
He husband was deployed as a pilot for six months with the couples' first son, Darrin, who is now a First Lieutenant in the Marines, being born just three hours before he departed.
When McElroy's five years of active duty ended in June of 1992, she contacted her old women's basketball coach at the Academy, Dave Smalley, about a position at the school.
"Dave oversaw NCAA compliance at Navy and they had just created an assistant position there so he encouraged me to apply," she said. "I was hired and then I worked my way up to Assistant AD and eventually SWA there."
McElroy left athletics briefly to go over to the Alumni Association at the Naval Academy, serving as its Director of Alumni Services. The family then moved to Atlanta where she would pursue her MBA at Georgia Tech. It was there that the college athletics bug hit her again.
"After my first year of grad school at Georgia Tech I had a group project and worked on a strategic plan for the athletic department," she explains. "Then the Athletic Director came after me and told me he had an opening in compliance and wanted me to run his compliance operation. I was halfway through my MBA so he paid for my second year while I was working full time. It was a great experience which, after six years, led to my securing the Athletic Director's position at Georgia State."
McElroy would later make stops at American Athletic Conference rival SMU as the Mustangs' SWA, the NCAA as its Associate Director of the Division I Women's Basketball Championship and at the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) as Director of Partner Services prior to her arrival at Temple in 2015.
All throughout her career, it was her time at the Naval Academy that helped build her foundation for success.
"Teamwork and the ability to work with anyone is what has helped the most," she states. "The willingness to subjugate my needs to the mission of the organization. Obviously I was trained well in leadership, but also in the ability to follow orders. After being an AD I am often asked do I feel the need to be one again. At times I do, but I am here to help Pat Kraft run this department and so I have no problems following his leadership and helping to advise him on making the best decisions for Temple Athletics.
"I have also learned how to empower people and equip them for the jobs we want them to do and then give them the feedback they need to develop as individuals."
As Americans around the country pause to remember our military this Veterans Day, it is more meaningful to those who served, like McElroy.
"It is very touching as I have lost classmates in various conflicts," she said. "I have a son who is on active duty right now and it makes me nervous at times. It takes a special person to commit to serve in the military. My hat is always off to the people who choose to do so knowing that they may be called upon for the ultimate sacrifice and that they are willing to do so."