MIAA Executive Director Lee Dove, on the doorstep of retirement, discusses his career and the major challenges he’s faced as the leader of one of the nation’s premiere private school athletic conferences
by Gary Adornato
Lee Dove, who recently announced his upcoming retirement as the Executive Director of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), grew up in the central Pennsylvania college town of Bloomsburg where he was a three-sport high school athlete, playing football and basketball, and jumping for the track & field team.
It was the launching point for his journey, as a coach, teacher and administrator, that will have spanned more than four decades when he leaves his current post in July.
Having guided the MIAA, one of the nation’s premiere private school high school athletic associations, for the last 10 years, the “time is right” for Dove, 67, to step away and enjoy the next phase of life with Chris, his wife of 38 years, to travel and spend more time with his grandchildren. Dove also spent 34 years on the faculty of Archbishop Spalding High School, where he began as a PE teacher and JV basketball coach, and served 17 years as the school’s athletic director.
The opportunity to continue his athletic playing career on the college level did not present itself, which left Dove with little desire to go to college after high school. His family had other ideas.
“I really had no idea what I wanted to do,” said Dove. “I wanted to wait until I figured out what I wanted to study. My family didn’t like that idea.”
Begrudgingly, Dove enrolled at Bloomsburg University (then known as Bloomsburg State University) as a Biology major and entertained the idea of pursuing a career in the medical field. After two years, he knew it was not for him and decided to withdraw. Once again his family was not happy, but Dove promised he would eventually complete his education once he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
For the next few years, he held a number of odd jobs, including working for a trucking company and, after making a move to New York City, a moving company. At that point, it started to dawn on him that he might want to work in the one field, he always loved — athletics. This motivated him to return to school and he enrolled at Ithaca College in New York where he earned a B.S. degree in physical education.
His first visit to Maryland came in 1981, during his junior year at Ithaca, when his best friend and roommate from Bloomsburg who was living in Baltimore, invited him for a visit to see the area’s bright new attraction, the Inner Harbor, and hang out for a weekend. Not only did he have a great time in Baltimore with his friend, a blind date arranged by the same friend, turned out to be his future wife.
They did the long distance thing for a few years as he completed a student teaching position in New York, but ultimately Dove decided to move to Maryland to be with her. After some searching, he landed a job as a JV basketball coach at Park School, while splitting part-time between teaching jobs at St. Ursula School in Parkville and Our Lady Queen of Peace School in Middle River.
Still looking for a full-time teaching position, he responded to an ad for a P.E. teacher at Spalding, in 1986, and was hired. Soon, he became the school’s JV basketball coach and later led the varsity basketball program for two years in the early nineties. In 1994, long-time Spalding athletic director Dominic Pachence announced he was stepping down and Dove jumped at the chance to put his hat in the ring for the job.
“I told (then Spalding principal) Barbara (Schwitzer), ‘you can interview all the candidates you want, but you are not going to find anyone who knows this school and these programs better than I do right now.’” said Dove. “I think that’s what, maybe, got me the job.”
He assumed that role prior to the 1995-1996 school year, coincidentally the same year the MIAA formally began operating.
“I held that position for 17 years. We really built the program over that time. We added teams and became very competitive. Spalding’s claim to fame for the longest time was in girls sports, in basketball and softball. Once we began to get competitive in other areas, people started to notice and enrollment began to grow because of sports.”
Dove was also intricately involved in the planning for Spalding’s new basketball gym and later the school’s state-of-the-art stadium which had the area’s first video scoreboard as well as an eight-lane track.
One of Dove’s biggest contributions to the growth of Spalding, as a school and a top-notch athletic program, was the discovery of late football coach Mike Whittles, the namesake for the school’s stadium field.
Whittles had no high school experience when he applied for the Spalding job in 1999. He had success coaching Anne Arundel athletic programs and, according to Dove, “He had plans,” for a program that was downtrodden.
Dove decided to give him an opportunity and the gamble paid off in a big way.
The team improved rapidly under Whittles and won its first MIAA B Conference championship in 2005. They won the B Conference three more times by 2010 and reached a major goal, set by both Dove and Whittles, when they moved to the A Conference for the 2011 season.
Before the team took its first snap in the A Conference, Whittles was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in February of 2011. He continued to coach while battling the disease and his inspirational attitude not only uplifted the Spalding school community, it spread throughout the entire Baltimore area high school sports community. In 2011, despite weakened by his cancer treatment, Whittles led the Cavaliers to a 7-4 record in the area’s premier league, finished No. 10 in the local rankings and reached the league playoffs. Eight months later he succumbed to his illness.
“The success he brought to the football program was a major building block for the success Archbishop Spalding enjoys as a school today,” said Dove. “We didn’t always agree, but he did tremendous things for Spalding.
“Another contribution I was most proud of during my tenure as AD was my involvement in the creation of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, a proud representation of Spalding’s best athletes, coaches and other contributors to Spalding’s success. I was honored to be inducted myself in 2005.”
Many opportunities presented themselves to Dove at Spalding. He twice served as the school’s Dean of Students, both times on an interim basis, and he fulfilled a dream by becoming a varsity basketball coach. In 2012, he left the athletic office and returned to the classroom on a full time basis and remained there until retiring from the school’s faculty in 2020.
“More thankful I cannot be for that opportunity,” said Dove of his time at Spalding. “To be honest, to not be the A.D. was a loss in my heart, but I loved going back into the classroom.”
Of course, as they say, when one door closes, another opens.
No longer serving as the Spalding A.D. made Dove eligible to apply for the position of Executive Director of the MIAA when the only man who had held that position, up to that point, Rick Diggs, announced he was retiring. Dove, who had invested in his own personal development and spent many years serving in the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association (MSADA), believed he was the perfect fit for this “part-time” job. He could apply his experience in athletic administration and his institutional knowledge of the MIAA, while continuing to teach at Spalding.
To impress the search committee, he called on a line that had served him well in the past.
“I told the committee, like I told Barbara all those years ago, ‘I know you are going to get a lot of interest in this position, but you’re not going to find anyone who knows this league better than I do.’”
It worked again.
Dove quickly learned that this part-time job came with “full-time responsibilities,” but he embraced the challenge, building stronger relationships with the leaders of the Maryland Public Schools Secondary Athletic Association (MPSSAA), as well as several of the Baltimore area county athletic administrators, with whom he feels a kinship.
Leaders of all organizations must expect the unexpected and then find creative ways to navigate any given circumstance.
Dove has certainly faced the unexpected during his tenure with the MIAA, on more than one occasion.
In the summer of 2018 a major controversy emerged when officials at Mount St. Joseph High School announced they would not play football against St. Frances Academy. Calvert Hall College and McDonogh School quickly followed with similar pronouncements, igniting a full blown controversy that became the subject of much scrutiny on social media and talk radio, as well as in local newspapers.
St. Frances, then a member of the MIAA A Conference football league, along with Calvert Hall, McDonogh and St. Joe, as well as Spalding and Gilman, had just begun to emerge as a national power in football, a status it has maintained to this day. In 2017, the Panthers posted a 13-0 record, rolled through A Conference competition and finished No. 4 in the USA Today Super 25. They also went undefeated in the MIAA in 2016, winning the title both years.
In light of the developments, Spalding and St. Frances mutually agreed not to play each other, and Gilman and St. Frances also removed each other from their schedules.
The Panthers’ league rivals sited safety concerns, a lack of a “shared vision” and a departure from the “spirit of the league Constitution” with regard to recruiting and transfers. St. Frances countered with charges of racism and stated that it had violated no rules and was operating the same way the other schools operated, only at a higher level.
The spotlight quickly turned to the MIAA and specifically to Dove, the public face of the organization.
“It was a highly stressful time,” said Dove. “It was unfortunate. I wished it had never happened and could not see why it couldn’t have been more judiciously defused. It was a riddle that there was no answer for. It was never, ever, in my opinion, a racial thing, although it was made out to be. It was simply a period of time where St. Frances was taking advantage of opportunities to build their program, far and above what other schools in our league felt comfortable with doing.
“The MIAA is a local organization here in central Maryland. It covers eight counties and Baltimore City. Everybody in the league was comfortable, with the exception of some foreign athletes (brought in by some basketball programs), with the recruiting in our area. St. Frances, and I don’t begrudge them the opportunity, expanded that search to focus on out of state talent and they were good at it. Also, most of our schools do not take senior transfers, but St. Frances was taking them without concern. The competitive disparity had become huge and I don’t think anybody would dispute that. Even today, nobody would dispute this.”
Eventually, the MIAA acknowledged that due to the recruiting efforts of St Frances and the competitive disparity created, the league could also not force the other schools to play the Panthers. Thus, the 2018 MIAA A Conference football league season was declared null and void and the Panthers were awarded the league championship. The other schools were allowed to play their schedules and no one was charged with a forfeit, but there were no official league games and no playoffs, while St. Frances played an independent schedule.
Prior to the 2019 season, St. Frances agreed to play outside of the A Conference, for football, and continue to play an independent schedule, largely exempt from all rules governing other MIAA programs. This arrangement continues to this day, but the school has publicly stated that it wishes to return to the A Conference, while the other football programs continue to resist this possibility.
“They would like to be in the league again,” added Dove. “To be honest with you, if the competitive balance were within the same parameters, the league would be benefited by having them back. It’s another A Conference game. They are a member school in all other sports. I think it would have value, if and when we can circumvent things and potentially get back together.”
It appears obvious that this is an issue that Dove’s successor will have to deal with in the future. Hopefully, the next MIAA Executive Director will not have to face something similar to the other major crisis — COVID-19 — which plagued the final years of Dove’s tenure.
The pandemic arrived and earnestly took root shortly after the MIAA had concluded its 2019-2020 winter sports season. As short pauses to “curve the spread” rapidly shifted to lockdowns and school closures, the spring sports season, including the MIAA’s crown jewel — lacrosse — was threatened and ultimately cancelled all together.
The pandemic lingered throughout the entire 2020-2021 school year, canceling “official” fall and winter seasons, and requiring numerous adjustments and pauses to complete the spring season. Every school adopted its own policies, in conjunction with league created guidance, regarding in-person vs. remote learning, mask and vaccine mandates, and requirements for athletic participation.
Dove, along with the MIAA’s Executive Committee, was charged with the task of sorting through all of the different approaches and making decisions to give the league’s student-athletes opportunities to compete while protecting their safety.
“The pandemic took everybody by surprise,” he said. “Hindsight being 2020, we learned something about ourselves, as school officials, teachers, educators, churches and administrators, and that is how resilient we can be when the pressure is on. Nobody could fathom what we were up against, how we were going to handle it. I think that is an important part for every individual who was involved, understanding that your flexibility, your ability to adapt, to rationalize, says a lot about who we are.
“Depending on who you talk to, you can argue the point, was closing things down, closing the country down, the right decision? Many will say yes, many will say no, but nobody knew and they still don’t. What made it more perplexing to us and our schools, when we were trying to follow the medical advice of the state health organizations and the CDC, they kept changing the rules on us. We were all struggling to get back to a taste of normalcy.”
The emotion attached to the issues surrounding COVID-19 and this MIAA’s reaction to it, once again put Dove in the cross-hairs of criticism.
“I know how difficult it was on the parents. I was a parent too. When the parents started to complain about our inactions, as they would call it, there were no inactions. We just were justly uncertain as to what to do. I have broad shoulders (for the criticism). If this is the way you feel about our decisions, that’s fine, but this how we are going to get back to some sense of normalcy one day and it’s going to take time.”
He also expressed his empathy over the impact the pandemic had on students everywhere.
“The kids, and the impact it’s had on them, my heart aches for them,” Dove said. “These kids lost a slice of life and it’s a slice of life they are never going to get back. Not being in the classroom, learning educationally, taking events away like the prom, band trips and all the things schools do on the secondary level, it’s very tragic for the kids to lose those opportunities. For the athletes, when you take sports away, you take one of their primary motivations for doing well in the classroom.
“This was an experience none of us will ever forget. You were afraid to leave your house, because you didn’t know what was lurking out there, and you didn’t want to get whatever it was.”
As he departs, Dove also wants to point out perhaps the most important cog in the MIAA’s machine, his longtime Executive Assistant Sandi Chisholm.
Chisholm actually outdates Dove in the league office, having served in the same role under Diggs, and handling many of the day to day activities essential to keeping the conference running smoothly. “I personally refer to Sandi as the shining star of the organization. She is the central cog that keeps the wheels turning day after day.”
So, why is now the right time to step aside?
Dove stated that he originally targeted the age of 65 for his retirement from education. Unfortunately that came at the onslaught of COVID, pausing the goals he and his wife had of traveling and enjoying the freedom of the next steps of life. With the world seemingly now trending back to normal, and the realization that life does not last forever, he feels the timing is finally right.
“My wife has been retired for several years and we have been watching our grandchildren several day per week. In the last year I have read about, and even in my own life witnessed people, very young, who have been taken away from the earth. It got me thinking about my own mortality. We have all these things we want to do and we’ve worked so hard to get here. So, maybe now is the time for us to pursue some of these things, and make way for some new blood, a new face and new energy to come into this organization and take us to the next level.
“The future is bright for the MIAA. As the aspirations for the league continue to evolve, with the professionalism exuded by the athletic directors, the commitment and focus of the new Executive Director and the support of the school heads, this league will continue to shine and provide exceptional athletic opportunities for the athletes and coaches well into the future.”
Pictured above: Lee Dove confers with Sandi Chisholm, the MIAA’s Executive Assistant, at the league office in Severna Park.