We Are Wes is a collection of stories about the people who make Wesleyan Athletics special. The third feature highlights Barbara-Jan Wilson and her commitment to building a winning program here at Wesleyan.
The morning of May 31, 1994 began like any other day. The townspeople of Middletown, Connecticut woke up, grabbed their coffee and headed off to work. But, for the folks of the tightly knit Wesleyan Athletics community, there was something different in the atmosphere. It wasn’t just any other day.
When members of the community woke up, there were feelings of excitement and anxiousness in the air. The baseball team would be competing in the final game of the NCAA Division III College World Series later that day, in hopes of bringing back the University’s first national title.
Nearly 800 miles away in Battle Creek, Michigan, the players and coaches went about their pre-game rituals, while in Middletown, Barbara-Jan Wilson ran to the store to buy snacks and soda for the game. Late in the afternoon, she and her husband Tim loaded their kids, six-year old Coury and ten-year old Sarah, into the station wagon. They drove from their house, through the streets of campus, and parked the station wagon on the edge of Andrus Field near the baseball diamond. They tuned the car radio to WESU, and rolled the windows down to take in the warm air as the sun started to set on the perfect 70-degree day.
Barbara-Jan wanted to feel like she was at the game and this was as close as she could get. As the kids ran around the fields, she listened intensely.
The team unfortunately did not come home with the national title, but they did ask Barbara-Jan to be the speaker at their private graduation ceremony when they returned. This ended up being one of the very special memories from her 36-plus years at Wesleyan University.
She came to Wesleyan from Little Three rival Williams in the summer of 1982. Upon arriving on campus, she immediately felt that Wesleyan did not have the familiar pride in its athletic department that her former employer did, and this was something she was set on changing.
Throughout her years at Wesleyan, Barbara-Jan was dedicated to building the athletic department into something that the University could be proud of – she wanted to create a culture of winning. When she was the dean of admissions, there was a lot of autonomy early on in recruiting practices for NESCAC schools. The less formalized structure allowed Barbara-Jan, the coaches, and then-Athletic Director John Biddiscombe to shift the trajectory of Wesleyan Athletics.
Much of what Barbara-Jan did initially relied on blind faith. She had to trust coaches that a student-athlete would work out. Men’s lacrosse head coach John Raba remembers, “There were a few athletes we took early on that completely changed our program. When John Landay ’01 came in, we went from being at the bottom of the NESCAC, to 17-3 his senior year. If it wasn’t for Barbara-Jan having that faith, and trusting me, we would have never been able to start turning the program around.”
Women’s basketball head coach Kate Mullen recalls, “She knew the ins and outs of each program, so bluffing her on why ‘you had to have this recruit’ wouldn’t fly. You had better done your homework on the prospective athlete because Barbara-Jan would follow the progress of that student-athlete and she would remember the track record of how your recruits did once they were at Wesleyan, for better or for worse.”
Many people think of Barbara-Jan as the “Champion of Wesleyan Athletics,” not only because of what she has done to change the culture, but because of her deep passion for the programs here. She truly is a Cardinal through and through. There is no better example of this than a recent interview when all of a sudden, from a coat pocket in the corner of her office, you could hear her Wesleyan Fight Song ringtone start playing. She laughed and I said, “Now that is a die-hard Wesleyan Athletics fan.”
We both laughed and she followed up with, “I guess everyone knows how big of a fan I am because if I am at a Board of Trustees meeting and there is a Wesleyan game, President Roth will turn to me and say, ‘Okay Barbara-Jan, give us the score.’”
Barbara-Jan has been a part of some major highlights in transforming Wesleyan Athletics into what it is today. Beyond her role in admissions, she helped to start important programs such as the Athletic Advisory Council (AAC). In 2008, she assisted in starting the Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame. Though there are many athletic highlights that standout through her time here, there are a few, in addition to the baseball team’s trip to the National Championship, that she holds close to her heart. In 2013, Barbara-Jan saw the football team win the Little Three Championship, ending a drought that had lasted for over 40 years. A photo still hangs in her office of the time she asked Phil Rizzuto to announce a baseball game in 2000. And last year, knowing it could be the first time she saw a National Championship game, she forewent Commencement to see the men’s lacrosse team win Wesleyan’s first-ever National Championship.
One relationship she has cherished over the years is with Jed Hoyer ’96. Hoyer, currently the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs, was a member of the 1994 baseball team that made it to the National Championship game. Their relationship began when Hoyer was looking for summer work so that he could play baseball in a summer league in Connecticut. Barbara-Jan was happy to hire the baseball star in the Office of Admissions and, as the old saying goes, ‘the rest was history.’
When reflecting on his career path thus far, Hoyer explains, “My career dovetails with her taking an interest in me as a student and as an athlete.” Not only did Barbara-Jan employ Hoyer in his first student job, but after graduation she hired him again. Hoyer recalls, “She gave me way more responsibility than I thought I deserved at that point in my career and that was very impactful. She was the first boss that really pushed me. Her confidence in me is something I will never forget.”
Hoyer reflects, “There is no way to think about Wesleyan Athletics in the last 25 years, without thinking of Barbara-Jan Wilson. Her belief that athletics was an important piece of the fabric of a student’s experience at Wesleyan, is exactly what propelled these significant and important changes.”