If you ask Joanna Pryor, she doesn’t feel like she’s overcoming the odds with what she has accomplished.
Pryor started her first week as director of athletics at Newman University Monday, becoming the only woman athletic director in the 14-school Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association. According to Higher Education Publications, just 14% of NCAA Division II athletic departments were led by females for the 2018-19 academic year.
Being the only female is nothing new to Pryor, who grew up in Attica as the only daughter with three brothers in the family.
While the numbers say Pryor is a rarity, she feels right at home breaking through in a male-dominated field.
“I’ve never felt like being a female has ever held me back from doing anything,” Pryor said. “I think growing up around all guys and all of their guy friends helped. Typically it’s a man’s world, but I operate well in that. I’ve always felt like you get what you work for. I’ve had a few people congratulate me and say, ‘Yay, go women!’ and that’s awesome and I’m glad people are excited and I’m proud to represent that.”
Pryor (formerly Howell) was a three-sport star at Attica High, but volleyball was her first love. She continued her playing career at Cowley Community College as an outside hitter and returned as the team’s head coach two years later while she was still in school finishing up her Bachelor of Science degree in sport administration at Wichita State. In eight years from 2001-09, Pryor compiled a 218-93 record and guided the Tigers to four NJCAA national tournament appearances.
Her life was rapidly evolving — she met her future husband, Nathan, and they had their first child during that span — but Pryor, who is now 40 and a mother of three, has always thrived with a busy lifestyle.
She laughs recalling the memory of having her first child on July 26, then being there on the first day of volleyball practice at Cowley on August 1.
“I think when you’re in the moment, you don’t really realize what exactly you’re accomplishing,” Pryor said, laughing when thinking of how she balanced being a mother and a coach at the same time. “I look back on some things now and I think, ‘Now how on Earth did I do that?’ I’m sure I’ll have more of those when I look back in 10, 15 years.
“But for me, this is normal. I grew up around athletics, I played, I coached, this is all I know. I mean, what else am I going to do with my life? This is the only way I know how.”
When the volleyball coaching position opened at Newman, Pryor jumped at the opportunity and was hired. She was named the Heartland Conference Coach of the Year in 2010, but she gave up her coaching duties the next year to join Newman’s athletic department and work as the school’s compliance coordinator.
“I’ve kind of always gotten what I’ve wanted,” Pryor joked. “I think it’s an only-girl thing.”
The transition had its challenges to Pryor, who missed the competition of coaching and now was in charge of 300-plus student-athletes in the athletic department rather than the 16 on the volleyball team.
But running an athletic department had been a goal for Pryor since her college days, so she brought the same motivation and determination that made her a successful volleyball coach to her new position.
“It was a strange feeling because I’ve always had wins and losses to judge myself on and I no longer had that, unless you wanted to call an NCAA waiver a win if it got approved,” Pryor said. “So I had to find a new way to motivate myself in administration. I think the way I did that was by looking at what I wanted to make better.”
Even though Pryor’s title was in compliance, being at a small, private university allowed her to gain experience doing a little of everything in an athletic department the past eight years at Newman under the leadership of former athletic director Vic Trilli.
When Trilli announced last August he was planning on retire following the 2018-19 school year, he knew Pryor was an excellent candidate to replace him. When she was officially hired back in March, Trilli released a statement showing his admiration of Pryor’s work the past eight years.
“She has earned this chance,” Trilli said. “Over the past eight years, she has been an essential part of our administration team and has helped me tremendously and I look forward to the great places she will lead Jets athletics.”
Mo Rohleder, who has been an associate athletic director the last 14 years, recruited Pryor to Newman back in 2009. Even then, Rohleder realized the leadership potential in Pryor with her background as an athlete, coach and now administrator.
“Jo is a huge role model for women in both administration and athletics because she’s shown with her work that she can do whatever a man can in this profession,” Rohleder said. “She’s just a tremendous people person and has this great sense of humor. She’s a rational thinker and she really puts a lot of thought into decision-making. She’s strongly opinionated and she doesn’t sugar coat anything, but the way she delivers her message isn’t offensive.”
That’s not to say Pryor has every answer.
She is tasked with the challenge of leading Newman into the MIAA, which the Jets officially joined this week as the 14-member conference’s lone private university. But Pryor has spent the last four months picking the brain of Trilli.
As with any busy person, organization is key. For Pryor, that means keeping scrupulous notes in a notebook.
“I have a page for every topic that I want to focus on,” Pryor said. “My dad always used to joke with me and ask if I had a list for all of my lists. You could say I’m a pretty big list-maker.”
Among the things on her bigger-picture to-do list is bolstering Newman’s booster club, engaging alumni starting with an alumni weekend coming in October and improving the overall student-athlete experience.
No longer is Pryor dealing with wins and losses, but she says she knows she’s in the right place because she still has those same butterflies in her stomach when she starts thinking about what she wants to do long-term at Newman.
“I always thought that if you don’t have a little bit of that nervousness, then you’ll lose your edge,” Pryor said. “I just want Newman student-athletes to have the best possible experience here and give them and all of our alumni a reason to come back and stay connected to the university.
“There’s so many things I want to do here at Newman, so I don’t think I’ll ever be done or satisfied. I’ve never been one to be complacent. I’m always going to go looking for something I can make better.”