As Christine Susemihl heads out the door, retiring after 45 remarkable years in Colorado State University’s department of athletics, her family is still mystified by one thing: How?
She was part of an athletic family growing up in Grand Junction but she openly admits she had no talent – and no interest – in sports.
“It’s always been the family joke: ‘How did you end up in athletics?’” she said with a laugh. “While my brothers and sisters were playing sports, I was on the debate team. And when we played family baseball games, I would get sent to play second base – and would immediately plop down in the grass and start reading a book.”
Even her starting position at CSU was a bit of a joke. While working at a Fort Collins bank in 1973, she went for a walk on the CSU campus during her lunch hour and decided she wanted to work at the university. She put in an application and got an offer to work for Perry Moore, the first of 11 athletic directors she has served.
“It was for a little bit more money and better benefits than at my bank job,” she said. “Honestly, it had to be the lowest job on campus. If there’s something below clerk typist, that’s what it was.”
Influential campus leader
From that lowly position Susemihl rose to become one of the most important and influential leaders on campus. The woman who hated sports growing up has attended thousands of Rams events during her tenure. With no formal training in athletic administration – she has a degree in business from Regis University – she was such a trusted, knowledgeable leader that twice she was chosen as interim athletic director while CSU searched for a permanent replacement.
“I know when I came on board (in 2015) I felt very fortunate to discover the talent that Christine brought to the department,” said Joe Parker, CSU’s current AD – and No. 11 for Susemihl. “Her history with the department, the knowledge she has acquired, the relationships she has built – she’s been a tremendous asset for athletics and the university.”
Some of Susemihl’s favorite memories came from working alongside CSU legend Thurman “Fum” McGraw for 10 years. McGraw, for whom the McGraw Athletic Center is named, worked with her to establish Ram Club, the Ram Good Time Auction, and Ag Day – CSU’s great annual celebration of its agricultural roots.
“Fum was so smart, and he was such a visionary,” she said. “He was the one who really gave me the chance to spread my wings.”
Making her mark
McGraw’s replacement, Oval Jaynes, elevated Susemihl to assistant AD in 1987 – making her among the first women in the country to earn that title. Jaynes put Susemihl in charge of NCAA compliance – the dizzying task of keeping up-to-date on the complex rules regarding every aspect of college athletics. The job was incredibly difficult – and more gratifying that Susemihl ever imagined.
“I think I’m most proud of starting our compliance program and that we had no major violations in my 25 years in that role,” she said.
Susemihl also made sure women’s sports at CSU got a fair chance to compete. She watched some of the greatest athletes in school history – basketball legend Becky Hammon, six-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Amy Van Dyken, and a parade of volleyball All-Americans, to name just a few – make their marks at CSU.
“Christine has been a real leader and role model for all female student-athletes,” said Leslie Taylor, CSU’s vice president for enrollment and access. “For athletics in general, and in particular our women’s programs, she’s been a source of stability and resolve. She’s often been the only female voice in a male-dominated culture and she’s navigated that situation with grace and strength.”
“I grew up with three brothers,” she said, chuckling. “I wasn’t intimidated by men.”
Despite her knowledge, experience and love for CSU, Susemihl never was tempted to pursue the top job in the department. Even when she was serving as interim AD, she knew it wasn’t the job for her.
“Honestly, I’m an introvert, and an AD has to be able to work a room,” she said. “I know I could have done it, but I hate the public nature of the job. And I would rather re-tar the roof of Moby Arena than ask people for money.”
She has no specific plans for retirement but promises to remain a regular at CSU sporting events. She has season tickets for football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball.
Hall of Famer to be honored at Arkansas game
Susemihl was inducted into the Hall of Honor by the CSU Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 and remains one of just two female administrators to earn that honor. Not bad for someone who cared little for sports and started her career in the lowest possible position in the athletic department.
She will be honored Saturday, Sept. 8, when CSU hosts Arkansas at Canvas Stadium. A farewell reception will be held Monday, Sept. 10, 4-6 p.m. in the Canvas Stadium Club. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-491-7217.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine anything better than working in athletics,” she said. “I’ve been so blessed and fortunate, and the people I’ve gotten to work with are just amazing. It’s a grinding profession, and you’re always going to sporting events and booster functions, but working with student-athletes and watching them turn into successful adults is so rewarding. I definitely would do it all over again.”