Leading a new era of UChicago athletics

Athletic Director Angie Torain talks about connecting with students, tackling a job often held by men

From her three-sport days in high school to balancing track and field with basketball at DePauw University, Angie Torain understands what it means to be both student and athlete. 

Now, almost two years into her tenure as the director of the Department of Athletics & Recreation at the University of Chicago, helping students master that same balance is her full-time job.

“Sports have always been a part of my life, however, I was raised in a home where I could only play if my grades were acceptable to my mother,” she said. “Here at UChicago, student athletes have the city, academics and a really competitive program. I love that we embrace the holistic approach to athletics and attending college at UChicago.”

UChicago appointed Torain to lead its athletic department in May 2021. She had most recently served as the senior associate athletics director of culture, diversity and engagement at Notre Dame. Since coming to UChicago, she oversees 20 varsity teams, and more than 75 intramural and club sports programs.

Torain has ushered in a new era for UChicago athletics. The Maroons have brought home four conference championships and two national titles since she was named athletic director.

Taking time away from her busy workload as the leader of her department, liaison for community interactions, and advocate for students, coaches and staff, Torain sat down to discuss what it means to be an athletic director at UChicago. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to you to be the athletic director of UChicago?

It’s probably the greatest job on Earth! 

I have the opportunity to connect with athletes, coaches, University staff and our recreational patrons who use our facilities to ensure that we are providing everyone who uses the athletics facilities with the best experience possible.

What does a normal day look like for you?

There’s no normal day. However, most of the time, I’m here in my office working on budgets, NCAA matters, facility issues, or connecting with a campus partner, a staff member or coach. I also spend my days at athletic competitions cheering on our wonderful athletes. If our athletes are competing on campus, I try to be there to support them. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love to watch our athletes compete and meet the goals they set, either as a team or as individuals. It’s also great to see the pride that our athletes take in being athletes and students at the University of Chicago—the relationship building that I get to do with them is probably my favorite part.

How does someone find themselves working toward a career as an athletic director? Did you always know you wanted to do it?

No, I did not. I went to college thinking I would pursue a degree in education and become a middle school teacher, but once I graduated, I decided to go to law school thinking I might become a sports agent or work at a sports and entertainment law firm.

I ended up falling into collegiate athletics through NCAA compliance. If you think about compliance, it’s writing, interpreting and applying rules, which definitely correlates with my legal background.

My first job was at a Division I conference office, doing compliance for the members, and from there, I started exploring championships. From a compliance standpoint, you interact with the athletes, but it’s not at the fun level – it’s about eligibility and completing forms. I wanted to be more connected with the management of sports, and so I moved over to event management, conducting championships, first at the conference level and then at the NCAA level. Since my first job in collegiate athletics, I never looked back.

What makes the Division III experience different from what you saw at your last position, not just as a student athlete, but as an administrator?

From an administration standpoint, Division III rules are not as stringent as Division I. Division III focuses on the student-athlete experience being the same as their peers. The Division III philosophy is that the student-athlete experience will be integrated into the academic or campus experience. 

For example, our seasons end earlier than Division I and Division II. Division III athletes have more opportunities to do internships and study abroad because of the shortened seasons.

Resources are different, too, depending on where you are. At Notre Dame, we had about 300 staff members, which is not the case here. Our roles are a little different here. Everyone pitches in and helps in different areas of the department. 

In Division III, it’s known across the division that aside from coaching, you might have an additional duty such as being the compliance coordinator, event manager and/or a faculty member. Staffing is different, rules are different, but I don’t think the athletes are different. They all want to do well academically and compete at a high level.

UChicago’s athletic programs consistently perform at a very high level. Why do you think that an institution like UChicago attracts these high performing athletes in the first place, especially when many of them had the chance to play their sport at the D-I level?

I think it’s definitely the reputation of the university and the competitiveness of our programs. Our student-athletes have the opportunity to get a world-class education, participate in internships, study abroad and participate in a program that traditionally competes in the NCAA tournament.  

We’ve talked about why athletes might choose a Division III institution over a Division I school, but why did you decide to come here as an athletic director?

Pretty much my whole career was spent in Division I, but I knew that if I was going to be an athletic director, I wanted to be at an institution where the athletes were there for the academics, with sports as an added bonus – basically, a place where the athletes didn’t feel like they had to choose between the two. I also believe that the University of Chicago sees athletics and recreation as a valuable part to the campus and student experience.

Between you and Coach Julianne Sitch on the 2022 national champion men’s soccer team, the UChicago athletic department has two women in positions typically reserved for men. How does it feel to be not just a female leader, but a Black female leader, in a very public industry?

It is a great opportunity, for both myself and Coach Sitch. Hopefully we are two examples that show other women that it is possible for them to lead in places where women are not normally seen, which reminds me of Nelson Mandela’s quote: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

However, at the end of the day, I want to effectively lead and impact the lives of the athletes and staff that work with me. I feel blessed to be in this role, but more than anything, I hope that it opens doors, so that in the future, other women can step into these roles without questions. I hope it encourages women to stay in athletics, especially on the coaching side. Young girls and boys need to see more women and women of color as coaches and administrators. 

—This story originally appeared on the University of Chicago College website.