“A Wheaton representative paced the length of the third-base concourse like an expectant father during the latter portion of the winner’s bracket final. Vigorously working a cell phone with his thumbs as he paced, he said, “I can’t take this.” His jubilant “Yes! Yes! Yes!” while pumping his right arm as he floated down the steps to the field after the final out makes you appreciate the investment and passion the players have on their side.”
—Ricky Nelson, D3baseball.com contributor
When Ricky Nelson wrote this observation in his piece about his spectator’s view from the stands at the 2012 Division III Baseball National Championship in which Wheaton men’s baseball team was a finalist, he didn’t name anyone. He didn’t need to; John Sutyak ’00 would recognize himself anywhere.
“I’m a fan,” says Sutyak, flashing his characteristic big smile. “I distinctly remember the NEWMAC women’s basketball championship at WPI in 2009. WPI has the big stands and I was all the way at the top of the arena going back and forth. And when Lynn Miller won her first tennis championship in 2009 at MIT, I can remember my buddy from Wellesley saying, ‘Dude, it’s just a game.’
“I put Wheaton on a pedestal. I get so excited when we do well. I get down when we lose. Seeing the work that these coaches and student-athletes put in ratchets it up for me. I know how hard they all work. So when there’s an opportunity to do something special—this past year, it was baseball—as a fan and an alum, I want it to happen.”
Now the former varsity baseball player has even more of his heart—as well as talent—invested in the long-term success of Wheaton’s teams and its athletics programs. This spring, he was hired as the permanent director of athletics and recreation. Sutyak had been serving as interim director of athletics since June 2011 following the retirement of Chad Yowell. Prior to that he had been the assistant and then associate director of athletics since 2006.
“I’m really, really excited,” says Sutyak, who majored in American history at Wheaton and has a master of education degree in athletic administration from Springfield College. “After I decided to get into college athletics, when someone would ask me where I saw myself long term, I would say I’d love to be the athletic director at my alma mater. I never imagined that it would happen as soon as it did. But all the chips fell into place. And I’m very proud to be here and so humbled by the notes of support I received from alumnae/i and colleagues.”
Chosen for the position after a national search, he oversees a department that is charged with recruiting and retaining students who are at the top of their games academically as well as athletically, and with supporting their success both in and out of the classroom. His department includes 21 men’s and women’s intercollegiate programs, 14 club sports, intramurals, and general student, staff and faculty recreation.
“His extensive knowledge of Wheaton and his obvious commitment to both the academic and athletic experience of students will serve his alma mater well,” notes Lee Burdette Williams, dean of students.
Sitting in his office in Haas Athletic Center recently, surrounded by NCAA trophies and various balls signed by players, Sutyak exudes the same kind of passion for Wheaton he had the first year he arrived as a student. Back then, he had the opportunity to play on Wheaton’s first-ever baseball team. Now he’s working with his former coach, Eric Podbelski, and admiring how far Podbelski has taken the program.
This most recent success, Sutyak notes, is just one testament to the college’s ability to recruit top-notch student-athletes, and to the dedication of coaches and staff here, as well as an inspiration to work even harder to continue the success in the future.
“We want the best students out there who are going to be academically engaged and successful, but also who are great athletes. That combination is hard to find because every school wants those students,” says Sutyak, who stresses that one of his main goals once students are here is to make sure they have a well-rounded Wheaton experience.
“That means making sure we have a department that works really hard with all the areas of student affairs and the college to have a complete experience for our students—and that’s not just the varsity side; that’s club sports, intramurals and recreation.
“More than half of the students who come to Wheaton have participated in some kind of sport. So, there is an interest there. Varsity sports are very competitive and they require a time commitment. Not everyone wants that, but students may still like to play something. There is an opportunity to do that with our intramurals and club sports programs to get them out of their residence halls and interacting with others in a recreational or competitive environment.”
Sutyak, who grew up on baseball as the son of a minor league player and the grandson of a scout, learned the value of an active life early on. He’s been playing a variety of sports since age 8, which he says taught him discipline, leadership, relationship building, and how to gracefully win, as well as lose.
At Wheaton, he played all four years on the varsity baseball team. Initially, he had planned to become a high school history teacher and coach—until he substituted at a high school one semester and realized that it was not the right fit for him. After an internship with Chad Yowell his senior year, Sutyak set his sights on that job.
And here he is—in charge of the fun and games, as well as the hard work.
“There is a little bit of pressure. I don’t want to let anybody down,” he says. “That’s what motivates me. I want Wheaton to be great in everything—science, math, art, athletics.
“Higher education in general has challenges across the board. For us at Wheaton the challenge is to continue to recruit and retain quality student-athletes in a very competitive environment. It’s exciting to be a part of it, especially as an alum—and as a fan.’’