Accept the Challenge

Alumnus Wes McCurtis’14 learned to embrace life’s lessons — including failures, because you never know where they might take you

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Photo: Cypress College Athletics

Sports have been my passion for as long as I can remember. Basketball, football, track, hockey, soccer, golf, BMX, you name it.

I remember being a student at Hillview Middle School in Palmdale, California. I’d change into my basketball attire for a two-hour practice as soon as school let out. Then I’d go straight home after basketball, throw on my helmet and pads, and go to a three-hour football practice. After a long day of school and multiple practices I would finish my homework, go to bed, wake up and do it all again.

My mom is a genius; she knew sports and competition were my motivation for everything. If my grades slipped or I got into trouble, she’d still make me go to practice, but I had to sit on the sidelines and watch after explaining to the whole team why I had to sit out that day. It drove me crazy, but it taught me early on to be accountable.

The key life lessons I’ve learned, friends I’ve made and many of the noteworthy accomplishments and failures in my life are all tied to sports. The competition, camaraderie and excitement are what drive me — and always have.

I never truly believed I could have a career in sports until the experience I had as a student at Cal Lutheran. I chose to attend Cal Lutheran partly because it gave me an opportunity to continue playing basketball. After having a successful high school career, I had high expectations for myself, and I fell short of those expectations as a student-athlete.

I played two seasons on the JV men’s basketball team, waiting for the opportunity to make the varsity roster. I was attending 6 a.m. practices, playing games in mostly empty gyms and being called up to practice with the varsity team on occasion. As a first-generation college student, it was difficult for me to navigate my athletic aspirations while also balancing college classes and two jobs to help support myself. Looking back on it, I was crazy to try to fully commit myself to all of those things at once. Even though I was able to handle that type of schedule before, adding the burden of “adulthood” made it nearly impossible. It was a hard pill to swallow. Athletics, specifically basketball, was part of my identity, but something had to give. Following my sophomore season, I had to face the same harsh reality that all athletes eventually do, and decided it was time to hang it up. This gave me the opportunity to focus on school and get as much work experience as I could to prepare for what I assumed would be a life after sports.

As a business major, I was able to land jobs and internships in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. I learned a lot from those experiences, but my main takeaway was that I needed a career in sports to truly be passionate about what I was doing. I began to research different career paths in athletics and started to reflect on my experiences as a student-athlete. I thought about the community surrounding athletics at Cal Lutheran, the special events, student-athlete support programs, marketing, compliance, athletic training, fundraising and the list goes on.

That moment of reflection helped me decide to become an athletic director. I had found my purpose — the opportunity to take what I had learned through sports and my educational journey and apply that knowledge to lift student-athlete voices, be a mentor, create support programs and build destination programs for prospective student-athletes, coaches and staff.

Upon graduating in 2014, I was accepted into the graduate program in sports management at California State University, Long Beach. I went into grad school with high expectations, wanting to land that job or internship with the big-name NCAA Division I athletics department. Again, things didn’t go the way I planned; I was used to that. The only internship I landed was in the athletics department at Cypress College, a two-year community college, where I worked with the sports information and marketing director. I didn’t think it would amount to much, but that opportunity changed my life.

Shortly after I began the internship, the director left for another job in the middle of the fall athletics season. I was called upon to take her place for the remainder of the season. I quickly realized two-year-college athletics was the perfect fit for me. I was working with underdogs, student-athletes who had been overlooked in high school or who had gone to four-year universities with the same expectations I had but it didn’t work out. I was able to relate to student-athletes and their struggles and was eventually hired full time as the director.

I officially had a seat at the table. I was able to attend conference and state meetings with other sports information and athletic directors. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of representation. Although everyone I came across was well-intentioned, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little uncomfortable. I thought, here are the decision-makers for what is probably the most diverse student group on campus facing unique challenges at colleges across the country, and I am one of the few people of color at the table. I wanted to prove I belonged, so I committed myself to becoming the best sports information director in the state.

In my second year on the job, the Orange Empire Conference selected me as the sports information director representative for the conference. In year three, I was voted by my peers to take over as president-elect of the California Community College Sports Information Association. The culmination of effort came in year five when I was presented with the Brass Top Award, given to the top sports information professional in California Community College athletics. In August 2019, I was promoted to athletic director at Cypress College and have enjoyed every minute of it since, despite having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not been easy. I’ve heard every reason why I shouldn’t be here. “He’s never coached.” “Doesn’t have enough experience.” “Don’t think he’s ready to lead.”

I am not perfect. I have failed on more than one occasion, but sports taught me to never back down from a challenge, to be resilient, to overcome and create my own opportunities.

Prior to 2019, I had never been a coach, athletic director, administrator or manager. But I am ready. I will work tirelessly to give student-athletes an opportunity to reach their goals. I will continue to empower them as the established norms in college athletics are being challenged. I will go out of my way to provide opportunities for the underrepresented, specifically women and people of color. I am committed to advocating for student-athletes everywhere. That is the challenge I’ve accepted and what I believe to be my purpose.

I would not be here today without the support of my family, the environment that Cal Lutheran provided for me in my four years as a student, and the challenges I faced along the way.

To my Cal Lutheran alumni family: Embrace your failures, whatever they may be. It might lead to something great.

Wes McCurtis is the athletic director at California’s Cypress College , where he oversees all aspects of the 14 intercollegiate athletic programs and provides support for nearly 300 student-athletes. He serves as the Orange Empire Conference athletic director representative for men’s basketball and serves on the Cypress College Sustainability Committee, Black Lives Matter Task Force and Diversity Equity Inclusion Committee. He is an adviser for both the Cypress College Student Athlete Advisory Committee and Spirit Squad, while serving as a mentor for the Legacy Program, which provides instructional resources and support to students in underrepresented groups. He recently was elected to the Cal Lutheran Alumni Board of Directors. He also works to mentor future sports industry professionals as an internship site supervisor through the graduate program in sports management at California State University, Long Beach.