Cary Groth, '78, M.S.Ed. '99, A Leader of Integrity and Equality
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Former NIU Athletic Director (1994-2004), Cary Groth, ’78, M.S.Ed. ’99, recently returned to NIU to speak about her lessons as one of the first women Division I FBS athletic directors in the country.

Former NIU Athletic Director (1994-2004), Cary Groth, ’78, M.S.Ed. ’99, was one of the first female Division I FBS athletic directors in the country. She credits the opportunity and her success to the leadership and diversity at NIU. 

“There weren’t many women athletic directors back then; I think I was third,” she said when she recently returned to NIU to participate in a panel discussion celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day. “I happened to be at an institution that believed in opportunity and inclusion, which gave me an opportunity to lead. I think because I grew up in this environment at Northern, as a student, student-athlete, coach and an administrator, it’s how I went on to live my life and lead.”

Today, Groth leads a team of all-female consultants as founder and CEO of The PICTOR Group, an athletics consulting firm. Since opening in 2014, the company has served over 100 institutions and national organizations, finding solutions to better position themselves, and their athletic programs, for success. 

Before opening The PICTOR Group, Groth was the University of Nevada athletics director for nine years from 2004 to 2013. She also developed an executive graduate certificate program for young professionals in professional and intercollegiate sports management at the University of Nevada’s College of Business, where she now serves as the program’s director. Now in its third year, the program is taught by industry leaders, and Groth was recognized by the Sports Business Journal as a “game changer” because of it. 

Despite her success in Nevada, Groth said, “NIU was, and always will be, home.”

She first came to NIU as a student-athlete in 1974, playing on the women’s tennis team while pursuing her bachelor’s degree to become a teacher.

“Every experience I had at NIU as a student prepared me for my professional life,” she said. “Experiences with diverse populations, opinions and backgrounds was something NIU offered us as students. I had great professors who cared about me as a person and student.”

After working as a high school physical education/health teacher and coach after graduating, Groth took a job as the assistant dean of students at West Aurora High School in Aurora, Illinois. In 1981, she began her career at NIU as the assistant men’s and women’s tennis coach, and a year later, was hired as the head coach for the women’s team. Groth loved coaching but began to explore roles in administration to earn more money.

“I taught tennis during the summer to make extra money,” she said. “I also made and delivered pizzas and worked at the Village Commons Bookstore.” 

Groth had experience raising money to help support the tennis budget, so she was asked to help set up a booster club for women’s sports. Coaching and fundraising gave her the skills to move into more administrative responsibilities the following year.

“I loved learning about the management of sports programs, and in 1985, I became assistant athletics director and gave up coaching entirely in 1986,” she said.

Groth continued moving up the ranks to senior associate athletics director and, in 1994, became NIU’s athletics director.

Groth poses with Dr. Lynne Waldeland (left) and Dr. Anne Kaplan (right) who served as female mentors to her while at NIU.

“August 8, 1994, best day, by far, of my entire life,” she said of the day she became athletics director. “My time at NIU was so special. The people were incredible. From the team I worked with in athletics to alumni, athletes, university faculty and the community, they were all just great teammates!”

Groth continued, “It [NIU] is an institution that was built on the value of learning and experience—no matter where you are from or what educational background you come from. I never had a chance to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a woman, and I am never going to be able to succeed because this community, this institution, and the local community really allowed me to lead.”

Groth’s advice: find an environment that will embrace you.

Without a doubt, Groth’s favorite NIU memory is when the football team beat Alabama 19-16 in 2003. She says while the final score was reason to celebrate, and it put NIU on the map, the true win was the result of NIU athletics program’s progressive journey. 

“It was teamwork, believing in one another, and doing things the right way,” she said. “Former NIU head football coach Joe Novak taught us valuable lessons about authentic leadership during his early years. He said, ‘Plan the Work, Work the Plan.’”

Groth says she has worked with many exceptional people throughout her career but highlighted NIU President John LaTourette who hired her, when women were not considered worthy of being athletics directors, and Dr. Anne Kaplan, who was the vice president for administration and taught her daily lessons about authentic leadership.

Having a strong support system from an early age, Groth hopes to be a role model, mentor and source of support for young athletes today.

“My parents always played a huge role in my life,” she said. “They were wonderful parents who always supported me and my five brothers and sisters. They made it a priority to attend all our sporting events and activities. Whether a boy or a girl, they encouraged us to pursue whatever we wanted to, even if there were gender barriers at times. My high school tennis coach, Jeanne Anne (Costello) Quinn, had a huge impact on my life as well. She was so encouraging, especially when I lacked confidence. She and I remain close today, 50 years later.”

Groth believes that just seeing women in leadership and athletic roles helps young people dream a bit bigger. Honored by the NIU Alumni Association with the 2016 Outstanding College of Education Alumni Award for her commitment to gender equality and diversity, Groth encourages youth to consider working in sports or to pursue sports—or any of their passions—regardless of existing or perceived gender barriers.

“I am trying to pay it back, if you will,” she said. “It is fun and rewarding to help institutions or national organizations through consulting, working with sports management students at the University of Nevada and staying connected with NIU.

"Working in sports can be so healthy, and the results are often much more visible than in other professions.”