Apr 5, 2013, 11:30 AM EDT
Editor’s Note: In honor of March being Women’s History Month, CAA Football interviewed several women working across the league to gain their thoughts on women’s history as it relates to their lives, careers, sports and society at large. In our final installment in the series, we talk with New Hampshire’s Manager of Athletic Facilities and Housekeeping, “Mama Jean” Mitchell.
CAAFB: How long have you been at New Hampshire?
JM: I’ve been at UNH since 1976. I basically started here as a housekeeper and then became a supervisor a year-and a half later. I was in supervision until 1992 and was then promoted to Manager of Athletic Facilities in which I oversaw the indoor and outdoor athletic facilities until 2008. They then reorganized, so I still manage the indoor facilities of the athletic complexes while also managing housekeeping for half the buildings on campus.
CAAFB: What are your responsibilities?
JM: Right now I take care of the indoor athletic facilities. In addition to being in charge of the housekeeping portion, I also do a lot of scheduling and rentals of the facilities as well as handle student workers. Over the summer and during the school year, I give student-athletes an opportunity to work for me as student hourlies or work study employees. They help me do everything from painting to shoveling to cleaning bathrooms to washing walls and windows to refinishing floors.
Our group of student-athletes actually becomes like a little community here in the summer because we have athletes from essentially every sport working under me. This includes a lot of football players. It’s a great thing because the student-athletes all get to know each other and understand each sport’s role on campus. We have a family atmosphere here at UNH and this helps create that close sense of community.
CAAFB: Describe your relationship with the coaching staff.
JM: Well, first of all let me say how much I love Coach Mac (McDonnell). He says I’m like his mother, but I’ve told him I’m not old enough. So the joke has become that I’m his sister. But I’m close with the current coaches and many of the former coaches. Our former coaches often come back and bring their families in to see me. I keep in touch with them over email and they send me pictures of their children.
With our coaches, I always treat them with respect. When you respect people in their positions, they in turn respect you. There’s a mutual respect and love between us all.
CAAFB: Talk about your relationship with the student-athletes.
JM: You’re going to make me cry, but I love the football players like they’re my sons. I have to tell you that I’m actually old enough to retire, but I’m having a really hard time thinking about it because I can’t fathom the day that I won’t be around these boys. I really love them like they’re my own sons.
We’ve been through some tough times together – we lost one of our football players, Todd Walker, in a tragic murder. We’ve just been through so much. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried. I feel like my office is where they can come whenever they need anything.
I’m still up in the air about retirement, but I would truly miss these kids. They’re so respectful of me. They all call me “Mama Jean” and will do anything for me and likewise. They helped me move into my apartment like they would help a family member. It’s a special bond that we have.
CAAFB: Given that you’ve become a motherly figure to so many of the players, is that how you earned the name “Mama Jean”?
JM: This is what happened. I used to be “Mean Jean” to our former football players back in the 1980s. I used to see a lot of them when I was a supervisor of the dorms because they had to come see me when they got in trouble. They would have to do community service under my watch.
So I had this mean reputation starting back in the ‘80s. When they got in trouble, the hall director used to say, ‘You need to go see Miss Jean, and she’s really mean.’ So these big offensive linemen would come down to see me. I’d look at them and they’d look at me, and I’d tell them it’s time we talk. So they had to do community service. This went on for years.
Then I got promoted and was around the student-athletes all the time. A couple of the boys approached me and told me that they couldn’t call me “Mean Jean” because they didn’t think I was mean at all.
Apparently I’ve gotten soft over the years, though, so now it’s become “Mama Jean”. But let me tell you, Coach Mac will call me “Mean Jean” every once in a while.
CAAFB: You’ve touched on this already, but to what extent do you keep in touch with coaches and players after they move on?
JM: I absolutely keep in touch with the coaches and players. One of the coaches I have really kept in touch with is Coach Kelly, who’s now with the Eagles. We have always had the most unique relationship. When he was here, I used to go down and look at game tape with him. He would always let me sit down and watch film with him and explain things to me. He’s a funny guy and everything was always about football with him. He’s got a great offensive mind and I’m so happy for him and the success he’s had.
Another one who I’ve kept in touch with is Ricky Santos, who’s now returning as a coach here. I’ve seen Ricky on and off over the past few years after he graduated and am just so happy he’s now going to be back coaching under Coach Mac.
But yes, I really try to keep in touch with coaches and players after they move on. I’ve really appreciated staying so close with many of them.
CAAFB: How did you initially get into the athletics field?
JM: Well, I really was just promoted into the position. There was a big disconnect on campus between facilities and athletics. They didn’t have anyone to really unify that piece with housekeeping, maintenance, grounds, etc., so they asked me to step into the role. That was back in 1992 and I’ve been up here ever since.
CAAFB: Who were the women, famous or not, who influenced you as a child?
JM: I’d have to say my mom. I’m an only child and my mom raised me by herself. I really looked up to her even though I didn’t realize it at the time. She worked really hard her whole life and held one job for 44 years. She always gave me the best she could provide.
We lived in a small town where people would gossip and she used to say to me, ‘Never talk bad about anyone because it can always happen to you.’ Even as a young kid, I remember her saying this. If you don’t have anything good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. I’ve really embraced this and tried to live this way. I always try to focus on the positive with people.
We’ve had a number of women here in athletics that I would certainly look up to if I were a young person. There have been a number of premier athletes and just premier people that may not necessarily be my mentors, but I do look up to them. We have some really good people here, and I’m proud of that.
CAAFB: Have there been students and other young women who have come to you for advice about the field?
JM: I’ve had quite a few young ladies come to me. That’s the thing about my office, which is the first door you enter from the outside – it’s open all the time. I often have kids come in and tell me about their hopes and ambitions in life.
I’ve had many young women come through and ask my opinion about a lot of things, whether it’s professional or personal, happy or sad. I keep much of this confidential and just listen. I think the student-athletes have really come to trust me. They know that I’m here for them.
CAAFB: Who would you consider some of the more positive female role models for the younger generation nowadays?
JM: Our state has all females in government right now, including our governor and U.S. senators and representatives. I’m very proud of that here in New Hampshire.
But today’s young people and middle-aged women are very knowledgeable. Our young women have a lot to look forward to in the future. We’ve grown tremendously as a country when it comes to opportunities for women.
I think back to when female athletes weren’t given the same opportunities as men. But now look at athletics. Our athletic department treats male and female student-athletes the same. They have the same opportunities now. I love seeing this.
CAAFB: Can you think of an instance when being a woman played a factor in your professional life?
JM: When I became involved in facilities, I often had to go to meetings in Boston. They were always made up of men. It was like an old boys network. Another woman and I were the only women there. We would sit there in the late 1970s and early 1980s and talk about what was wrong with this picture – the fact that these old guys were sitting there smoking their cigars and thinking they knew everything. Well, they didn’t know everything.
Pretty soon the housekeeping and facilities industries changed and more and more women have gotten opportunities in the field. I know many women in facilities who are in director and manager positions. There are just so many more opportunities now.
After experiencing so many men in these industries, I was bound and determined that I was going to go somewhere. And now I have. Maybe people just listen to me because I’m old, but they do listen to me and respect me.
I’ve enjoyed serving as a role model and sticking up for women here. I’m not always going to be here though. There are going to be other women coming through here when I’m not around, so I’ve really tried to make an impact so that women continue to receive the respect we deserve.
CAAFB: There aren’t many women working in football. What does it mean to you to be a woman in this position?
JM: I think it’s made me grow as a person. Even at my age, this continues to be the case. I look at it in terms of diversity. I grew up in New Hampshire with very little diversity in the state. As I said to one of my boys the other day, ‘I don’t see black and white.’ I see players and other people as just that – people. I’ve grown so much in this respect because I didn’t grow up with the kind of diversity we have more of today.
Working in football has made me realize how valuable everyone is to the goals that we want to reach. Your color, nationality, etc. doesn’t matter. We’re all a team and working towards one goal. Even at my age, I’ve seen this growth and understanding in myself and in so many others.
CAAFB: You’ve been in athletics for some time now. What has it been like to see more and more women joining the field?
JM: It’s wonderful. I think it offers another perspective to athletics and how its run. Years ago it was all men, but now I think we’re better off because we’re able to add a woman’s touch as they say. I don’t want to stereotype men and especially many of the ones working here because they’re wonderful people and have had such positive effects on our young people, but there is a difference when it comes to women.
It helps to have women in athletics because we can give another perspective that you don’t always get with men. Young football men have a lot of respect for their moms. When it comes to all the boys I’ve met in my 36 years, they always, always love their mothers. I have yet to meet one who didn’t. When players come here, they might look around at the women here and see some of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters in us. And they respect us just the same. There’s a lot of love there.
We have a player who was raised by his grandma and I know he sees a lot of his gram in me. He has really grown to love me like a grandmother and I love him so much, too. I get lots of hugs from him, and everyone really. I probably get more hugs and kisses than most people around here.
It’s just wonderful to work here in athletics. This is all why it’s so hard to think about leaving one day. Being around our student-athletes and coaches, and football in particular, they make my life very full.
CAAFB: How do you see the role of women in athletics changing moving forward?
JM: I see more and more women taking on leadership positions. We’ll soon have even more female athletic directors and administrators. We already have a bunch of female coaches, and I think we’ll continue to see more. I’d love to see a woman coaching football one day, too. I may want to do that in my next job!
But in all seriousness, women have the opportunity to really shine in athletics today. Most of the women in this department are very knowledgeable, detail-oriented individuals, and that’s very important here and to any organization.
CAAFB: Women’s History Month is an important month for not only women, but for all Americans. Why should this month be celebrated by all people?
JM: It should be celebrated by everyone because without women and what we’ve done, our nation wouldn’t be what it is today. We’ve come so far. And whether you’re a woman or not, we have so much to give each other as people. We need more open communication, respect and love in this world. I’m a big believer that we need to celebrate one another regardless of our gender and race and factors like that.
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