GETTING HER BEARINGS – Baylor University Athletics

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
            With one foot in the office of Baylor Director of Athletics Mack Rhoades and “one foot within our executive team,” Jill Van Zee is running out of feet. 

            As Executive Senior Associate AD and Athletics Chief of Staff for a department with 267 full-time employees, Van Zee’s primary role is “serving Mack’s office from an administration capacity.”

            “Things coming in and things going out of Mack’s office, are they the things that Mack needs to be prioritizing or managing from his desk?” she said. “Are they the things that rise to his need, versus being able to accomplish within our executive team? 

            “I essentially spend one foot in his office and one foot within our executive team. A lot of troubleshooting, a lot of problem-solving, a lot of trying to make sure that the right people are in the right conversations at the right time. A lot of diagnosing. That is my day-to-day within Mack’s office, as well as in and out of the executive team offices – individuals, as well as the team as a whole.”

            That’s where Jill’s background in human resources comes in handy. Earning her undergrad degree in mathematics and master’s in industrial management, both from South Dakota State University, she has 20 years’ experience in the HR field. 

            “At the end of the day, I think it’s about leadership,” she said. “It’s about leading people, leading alongside others, leading up for – in this case, Mack, and even our executive team. Having that background brought a lot of transferable skills. 

            “It’s working through really nuanced topics and issues, and my prior work in HR working with deans and VPs and the Provost office lent to a depth of experience for this role. I learned through the HR space how to navigate complex situations, how to make sure you’re involving the right parties and looking at alignment to find solutions that minimized risk or impact to the bigger picture. You worked to find root issues, solve problems and find opportunities.”

            Rhoades says Van Zee has been a “tremendous asset to our department.”

            “She brings a valuable perspective and is a constant resource to me and our entire executive team. I’m grateful for everything Jill does to keep us aligned and pointed in the right direction.”

            Growing up in rural South Dakota in Lake Andes, Jill became an outdoor enthusiast, “whether it’s hunting, snow sledding, going to the river swimming or boating and skiing.”

            “That’s the one thing I noticed, especially raising kids in the South and growing up in the North, is we’re not confined to backyards,” she said. “Big, open spaces, so a lot of neighborhood kids running around, playing street ball, riding bikes and even flag football. The only organized sports we played were at school (no travel or select ball), so we often continued into the evenings or into the weekends playing with neighborhood friends. We were rarely indoors, even in the middle of snowstorms.”

            After meeting during their undergrad days, Jill and Brian were married in 1994 and uprooted two years later when Brian took a position with Texas Parks and Wildlife, starting out in Wichita Falls. 

            “Brian and I are both third-born children (not sure if that plays into it or not), so we’re probably a little bit more adventurous and more adaptable,” Jill said. “We were ready for something different and new. We weren’t hesitant at all to go out of state for that first job out of college. Everybody else – he has three other siblings, and two of my siblings – all stayed around home. So, it’s kind of different being out on your own and putting down roots far from family and home.”

            With her first job moving out of state, Jill found herself working as Brad Coors’ assistant with Coors Distributing. Then, she quickly followed her dad’s footsteps in switching to the banking industry when the family moved to Canyon and then San Angelo for Brian’s career moves within Texas Parks and Wildlife. 

            Jill pivoted again in 2003, when she was hired as an HR Employment and Safety Specialist for Baptist Memorials Center in San Angelo. She was responsible for recruitment and staff onboarding for a large retirement and nursing facility and also developed safety programs to promote OSHA compliance. 

            “My graduate program was in industrial management, but back then they didn’t really have a specific HR degree,” she said. “So, I made my way into the HR field and focused my career goals within the HR space. Most of my graduate degree courses focused on psychology courses with some HR and organizational design. I was able to tailor the program to my interests and ultimately human resource management.”

            With the move to Waco in 2005, Jill became the Regional HR Director for the Heart of Texas Region MHMR Center. Working with directors in an area that covers six counties, she was involved in strategic planning that included organizational development, coaching and facilitating, benefit and compensation management, risk management and employee relations. 

            Ten years later, she made the move to Baylor as Senior HR Consultant and became the Director of Consulting in 2019. It was during that time that Jill started working closely with then-Associate Vice President for Athletics Jeramiah Dickey. 

            With Dickey leaving to become the Director of Athletics at Boise State in January 2021, “Jeramiah and Mack had conversations about what’s next for Baylor Athletics and thinking through the things that his vacancy created and the gaps they wanted to fill,” Jill said. 

            That led to conversations between Jill and Rhoades “about (my) interest and thinking through how I could best serve Athletics, whether that was in my current HR capacity or serving in the Chief of Staff capacity,” she said. 

Jill Van Zee - Getting to Know You

            “The main reasons for making the move were, one, I’d be staying at Baylor; and two, the thought of getting a little closer to students and seeing first-hand the mission and purpose behind who Baylor is, what Baylor does,” Jill said. “A lot of different factors go into a decision to change careers, and I feel very blessed that I was even somebody that Mack thought could step into this role, especially not having any athletics-specific background. I don’t take that for granted at all.”

            When Jill was hired in April 2021 as Athletics Chief of Staff, Rhoades said she is “incredibly talented and adds a unique perspective and skillset to our team, which will help us achieve our departmental mission of Preparing Champions for Life.”

            The “why is not that much different,” Jill said.

            “You keep reminding yourself who we are working for in terms of our student-athletes and why we’re doing it,” she said. “We are role models and Christ-led servants providing the best experience and growth opportunities while they’re in our presence.”

            The Baylor Athletics executive team has gone through a makeover this year, with Jovan Overshown promoted to Deputy AD, Senior Associate AD Cori Bolts added to the team and Callie Schrank and Juliana Smith brought in at the Executive Senior Associate AD level for Sport Program Administration and Mission Impact & Enrichment, respectively. 

            “I think we give each other a lot of patience and grace, because we’re all trying to figure each other out and identify the right lanes and opportunities to work together while serving the greater good of the department,” Jill said. 

            While the executive team is still in a development period, Jill said there is obviously a ton of talent in the room. 

            “I know we have team members dedicated to the mission,” she said. “I know that we have individuals who love the Lord and know that we’re all put here for a purpose. So, we’ll develop together and get to a strong place. We will be a well-oiled machine if we continue to keep focused on the right things.”

Jill Van Zee - Getting to Know You            Jill and Brian have two daughters, Breeley (21), starting her second year at Texas Tech; and Raelynn (15), a sophomore at Robinson High School. Brian is now the regional director for Texas Parks and Wild Life Inland Fisheries. 

            “If you don’t find joy in the busy, I think it could get really daunting fast,” Jill said of working with athletics. “I still have to find balance, because I have two daughters, a husband, extended family and friends that are integral to our lives. Having a daughter who plays select softball year-round, that’s all I have (extra) time for. So, with that, our faith life, serving within the school district and serving within community groups are very fulfilling when balanced well.”

            About 2 ½ years into the job, Jill said she is “constantly learning” about the athletics industry and “learning about people and how to bring people into a common purpose.”

            “For me, constant learning is paramount to success in any role. Learning how to lead more effectively, how to work within high-functioning teams and how to set and achieve organization goals are all growth opportunities ahead. Collegiate athletics is an ever-changing environment with a lot of twists and turns. Ultimately, for me, it’s about serving others, being successful where God has planted me and then helping others to be successful around me.”

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