Paul Perrier is a 2008 graduate of University at Buffalo School of Law and currently the Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director for Administration at the University of Southern California.
Running Towards the Roar
As I learned about Paul’s career in college athletics, and as you read about the professional path he has taken, there is a common theme throughout. During our conversation, Paul told me about the concept of “running towards the roar.” This is a concept that was fully articulated to him by a golf coach at Rutgers, however, he realized that he had approached his entire career based off this mentality. The running towards the roar concept is best articulated in this light:
“When lions hunt, the majority of the lions hide in the tall grass while one lion approaches the prey and lets out a loud roar. What does the prey do? They naturally run away from the terrifying roar of the single lion right into the pride of lions waiting for them in the tall grass. Logically then, it follows that their best chance of survival is to actually run towards the roar. Put a different way, if it looks scary, if it looks tough, then that is the direction you want to head in.”
As I listened to Paul describe his professional path that has led him to where he is today, it was beyond a doubt that this is the approach he has taken. At every stop Paul went to, an athletic department was facing worrisome NCAA investigations and penalties. Further, he broke the mold of a typical NCAA compliance officer within an athletic department and became an athletic program administrator with a wide variety of responsibilities. Throughout his time in college athletics Paul has faced challenges head on and has led from the front, always looking to effectuate positive organizational change.
Path to Law School
Paul, who is originally from Toronto, Ontario, received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from SUNY Oswego. He jokingly refers to the chemistry undergraduate degree as being the obvious path towards law school. Apart from being a chemistry major, Paul was also a four-year member of Oswego’s Ice Hockey team where he had the opportunity to play in a Division III Frozen Four. While he originally wanted to be a doctor, after interning in the medical field he quickly realized it wasn’t for him. After taking some public justice courses, he realized he had an interest in pursuing law school. He then set his sights on preparing for the LSAT and getting some quality study time in on the long and not-so-glorious bus rides to away games that come with being a student athlete at Oswego (something that as a former lacrosse player at Oswego I can attest to; see- Plattsburgh road trips).
University at Buffalo School of Law
Paul realized early on just how transferable a law degree could be. He realized that pursuing a law degree could open up a variety of career paths to pursue. This was accentuated once he arrived at UB law school and started to truly understand the variety of fields that UB law alumni were working in. What really drew him to UB law was the strong public interest program, something he felt strongly about. Further, his sister was a UB graduate and a member of the women’s basketball team. Add all of this to the fact that UB law is near his hometown of Toronto, which he believed would provide him with a strong alumni network in the Greater Toronto area, and UB was seemingly the perfect fit.
Once at UB, he took one course which greatly influenced his career path. Paul enrolled in Professor Niland’s NCAA Regulations course, which is still offered today, and as a former NCAA athlete and current law student, felt like the perfect fit. He credits this course with really opening his eyes to all of the behind the scenes work that an athletic department has to do to make sure the student-athletes can compete. During his time as a student athlete, he didn’t have a grasp of all of the efforts put forth by the coaches, administrators, and staff to ensure the athlete can play come game day. Like a lot of student athletes, myself included, it is difficult to fully grasp and understand the work it takes to make sure you can show up and compete on game days.
Paul is quick to recognize Professor Niland for really being the first professor to see something in him before he even realized it was there. She was able to develop a passion in him for college athletics and push him to apply for a post-graduate internship with the NCAA. This was truly a turning point in Paul’s career as he had to decide between pursuing the post-grad internship with the NCAA or a great job offer at a firm in Buffalo that he really enjoyed working at. He went the route of the NCAA internship and never looked back.
Paul interviewed at the NCAA headquarters and was offered the internship position. He took the leap and moved to Indianapolis. This is where he truly discovered his passion for working in college athletics as he had found a job that simply didn’t even feel like ‘work.’ The 12-hour days felt like 2-hour days, and he knew he had found what he was meant to do.
His specific role within the NCAA during his internship year was with the eligibility center. This was at a time when the clearinghouse had just been absorbed by the NCAA and the NCAA eligibility center was in its infancy. Further, Paul was also able to help organize the newly renamed ‘Future Leaders Seminar’ which was a large event for those already working in college athletics as well as individuals interested in working in the field. This was a major steppingstone which provided the opportunity to network with people that would become mentors. Once he had completed the year-long internship it was time to apply to various schools and find the right university and athletic department that fit what Paul was looking for.
First Stint with USC
Due to his Canadian citizenship, Paul was focused on applying to schools that were equipped to take on the sponsorship/visa process on his behalf. This is what helped narrow his choice down to USC. In fact, his first visa was denied, and the administrators there still pushed forward and applied a second time which was approved. USC was going through some major NCAA violations at the time Paul was hired. He saw this as a welcomed challenge and tremendous opportunity to start his career at a college athletic department trying to navigate these troubled waters.
Both the administration’s support in his visa application process and the monumental challenges in starting a career at a university facing harsh NCAA violations would significantly impact Paul’s career in college athletics moving forward.
Paul accepted a position in the compliance department at USC. He saw this as a natural fit due to his law degree and the legislative nature of NCAA compliance and bylaws. Coming into the compliance department at USC during this tumultuous time helped develop Paul professionally and helped him build a personal brand as someone willing to take on difficult situations with an eye towards continuously looking to develop solutions. He credits this first position as how he was able to develop a reputation as a fixer. A reputation that would follow him throughout his career.
Within his six years at the USC compliance department, Paul climbed from his initial entry level position all the way up to Associate Vice President for Athletic Compliance, which meant he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the compliance department. He had direct oversight of hiring and managing the entire compliance team.
He specifically notes that hiring was the key to his department’s success. Those that he brought into the compliance department included two individuals who went on to be NCAA athletic directors, the current VP of compliance at USC, and directors of compliance at multiple DI programs.
What made USC’s approach to compliance unique was that they strayed away from the norm at the time which was to dedicate compliance personnel to specific areas of compliance, i.e., one person is responsible for recruiting, one for eligibility, etc. At USC, Paul and his staff forged a different path which meant that compliance personnel were responsible for all compliance matters related to specific teams. This gave them the advantage of coaches being able to have one conduit from which they could obtain compliance related information and advice, opposed to having to go through different compliance personnel depending on the type or category of issue they were facing. Paul, personally, spent most of his time as the compliance director for the football and basketball programs.
As Paul had not only climbed the ladder internally but had also helped navigate the university through the fallout and rebuild from the NCAA sanctions, it was time for a new challenge.
After 6 years at USC Paul took advantage of a new opportunity a Rutgers University. Much like his beginnings at USC, Rutgers was going through NCAA violations and compliance issues at the time Paul took the job. On top of all of that, Rutgers was still in the process of transitioning to a Power 5 school as the newest member of the Big Ten conference. Even further, within the first few weeks of Paul’s tenure at Rutgers the athletic director and head football coach here fired. Taking on this tumultuous environment head on further solidified the “Run to the Roar” ethos that Paul was building his career in college athletics on.
Paul also credits his time at Rutgers with really developing his professional ‘Grit.’ “You just had to do more with less, there’s always going to be a thousand reasons why you can’t or won’t succeed but you just needed to show that grit and persevere,” Paul recounts. This is what they looked for in hiring their leaders and developing programs that were not just successful on the field and the court, but also successful in developing the culture they were trying to build.
Paul’s goal was to build the right culture through bringing on the right people to the team, “You have to understand your school, understand its strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about making the flashy hire and winning the press conference. It’s about finding someone that fits your culture and can help build the culture you want to develop.”
Not only was the new job a change of location, but it was also an increase in responsibility and an added dynamic that he didn’t have in his former role. Because he was looking to increase his responsibilities within an athletic department, Paul made sure that his new role at Rutgers would be a combination of both athletic compliance as well as administration.
By the end of his Rutgers tenure roughly half of his responsibilities included overseeing the compliance department while the other half was spent as an administrator overseeing various sports as well as working in fundraising and having a hand in developing strategic initiatives for the athletic department. Once again, Paul credits the fact that he was able to build a great team, especially within the compliance department, as to how he was able to take on the various roles.
It is important to note that this kind of balancing of responsibilities is another change that Paul proactively worked to effectuate within an athletic department. He spearheaded the effort to add the team administrative duties into his role in such a way that ensured the metrics by which his job was evaluated included both prototypical compliance responsibilities as well as the responsibilities incumbent with being the lead admin for specific teams.
This unique hybrid role that Paul helped build allowed him to transition into a new role at a familiar institution.
Second Stint at USC
After four years at Rutgers Paul decided to come back to USC.
As a culmination of the theme throughout his career in college athletics, things weren’t easy for USC athletics at the time Paul decided to go back. There were a variety of internal issues including federal and NCAA investigations. However, he used those lessons he had learned and the skills he had developed to take the challenge head on. He understood the culture he was trying to build at USC, and he knew that he would have to approach the internal issues directly in order to overcome them. Further, he had always felt indebted to USC in a way as they took a chance on him and put in the effort of applying for two visas on his behalf, before his career had really ever begun.
His new role at USC is also a culmination of all of his past experiences working in college athletics as it is a high-level executive role with a variety of responsibilities.
Paul explains, “It’s not exactly like a GM of a professional sports team because I don’t like to make player personnel decisions, but it can be likened to an owner of a professional sports team because of the broad oversight of the programs and the fact that I am responsible for the resources and overall management of the teams, such as developing a budget, deciding how and where the resources are allocated, and hiring the leaders.” One of the biggest roles he has is ‘coaching the coaches’ and being a problem solver across all aspects of the athletic program.
He oversees every move his athletic teams make. He approves expenses, schedules, the operations of the program, helps coaches navigate student athlete concerns, and helps student athletes navigate the myriad of issues they might face. He even travels with the teams, as I am speaking to him from South Carolina as the USC men’s basketball team gears up to play in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Apart from the various teams, Paul also has oversight of things like the nutrition and strength and conditioning teams at USC.
Once again, during this second stint at USC, Paul was able to be a change leader and run towards the roar. He was able to lead the department through the various NCAA and legal issues while still overseeing blue chip Power 5 teams competing at the highest level nationally.
Paul Perrier’s career in college athletics has been fascinating to date. At every step of his career he willingly chose to run towards the roar and accept daunting challenges. He has successfully overcome these challenges by taking on a gritty mindset of perseverance and willingness to simply get the job done. Apart from his own mentality and attitude, he is quick to credit the teams and teammates that he has brought on around him within the athletic departments. Paul is certainly a name to watch in college athletics, and as we are both SUNY Oswego and UB law alumni, I will be enthusiastically rooting for him and hoping for the best throughout his career.
Former college lacrosse player, professional business development experience, current third-year law student, looking to create content that intersects both the legal and business aspects of the sports world.