TODD AARON GOLDEN: SMWC, Prettyman mutually benefit by association

Tribune-Star/Todd GoldenBack in town: Ron Prettyman — seated to the right of St. Mary-of-the-Woods president Dottie King (middle) and SWMC vice president for enrollment management and institutional technology Brennan Randolph (far right) — acknowledges a remark from an attendee at Monday's press conference where SMWC announced it would introduce sprint football as its 16th sport. 

When I arrived in Terre Haute in 2004, athletics were in a nascent stage at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Deanna Bradley had established the basketball program by that point — women's basketball, of course, since men were not yet admitted to the school — though the Pomeroys were still playing in Clinton and would continue to do so for another decade. Softball had established itself in the United States College Association tournament and has remained a power ever since. The equestrian program was also well-established and fit nicely in the pastoral surroundings on the Woods' beautiful campus.

But that was about it. Gradually, more sports would be added, but it seemed the Pomeroys were perfectly content to exist in a small-college universe, far from the adoring eyes of the public at-large.

That has changed under the presidency of Dottie King, who took over at the Woods in 2011. In the last decade, athletics has exploded at the school.

On Monday, SMWC introduced its 16th sport — the unique sprint football. There are eight men's and women's athletic offerings at the Woods, men began to be admitted to the school in 2015. That's more programs than Indiana State has (of course the difference between Division I and NAIA is vast) and four fewer than Rose-Hulman.

There is method to SMWC's athletic growth spurt. Schools with the profile of SMWC — small, private, rural, faith-based — have sometimes struggled in the current academic environment. Costs have gone up in higher education generally — meaning some high school graduates seek a more targeted and economically feasible path that often takes them to different options that the traditional four-year college experience.

Meanwhile, the cost of doing business has gone up too. Non-state-funded universities — who often have higher tuition — have struggled with the financial environment. Look no further than Renssaelaer, where St. Joseph University closed in 2017. Colleges like them have struggled — and the pandemic has only served to exacerbate those challenges.

The advantage SMWC had was that it could grow athletics. In a sense, the Pomeroys are an expansion team of sorts in the sports they offer. They could present themselves as a viable option for local high school graduates to continue their competitive careers. Athletics have become an important part of the Woods' strategy to maintain growth and stay vital in today's college environment.

How important have athletics become? I was told that student-athletes currently comprise 27% of the student body at the Woods. That's a transformative number and it's obviously clear that athletics are important to the growth of the school.

So if athletics are that important, it's obviously vital to put someone in charge of SMWC's athletic fortunes once Bradley — the founding force behind Pomeroys athletics — retired.

It just so happened that former Indiana State Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman was looking for his next opportunity in the athletics field. Since he left ISU in 2015 and the NCAA in 2018, Prettyman has been doing consulting work. He just finished a year as interim athletic director at California Baptist — a school transitioning to the Division I level.

"When I heard Deanna was retiring and I knew my time was coming to an end at California Baptist, I wrote and asked if I could help in a mentoring or consulting process," Prettyman said.

For Prettyman, this was business, but also personal. He has lived in West Terre Haute from the time he became ISU's athletic director in 2005. His family never left. Prettyman never completely relocated from the west side even when his job duties took him elsewhere. Much of his family, who were young adults when he came to Terre Haute, settled in-town and have remained here.

So the Woods made perfect sense for Prettyman. And as it turned out? The feeling was mutual.

"When I got back to town, [King] called asked if I would be interested in serving in the interim role. I was thrilled. I'm literally three-quarters of a mile away. My kids are here and I called this town home for the last 16 years," Prettyman said.

It's a win-win for both parties. Prettyman gets to come home and to lead the Woods in what is perhaps its most important athletic year yet. Men's basketball comes online in the next academic year and Prettyman will be in-charge of getting sprint football — which the school is counting on to become a high-profile sport — pointed in the right direction.

"Right now, as we're transitioning into NAIA, I was a NAIA athletics director for 13 years and I graduated and played for a NAIA school. I know the landscape and I know everyone at the NAIA offices. I think I can help with that transition of the first year of NAIA transition," Prettyman said.

Make no mistake, though, that the Woods is getting something significant out of Prettyman. After all, his decade-long stint is thought of fondly in the local community. ISU athletics was certainly in a better place when Prettyman left than it was when he took over. And don't forget, when Prettyman took over, ISU was arguably at its athletics nadir. So he had a lot of work to do.

Sure, it helped that Prettyman got better administrative support as he went along, but it wasn't easy. There were byzantine fights over which departments at ISU should be in charge of what in terms of which body determined the fate of athletics, a three-way tussle between athletics, the administration of the time, and the Foundation at one point. 

However, Prettyman was a driving force in fighting for athletics at a time few wanted to be and he earned the respect of those who could help, such the final president Prettyman worked for — Daniel Bradley. ISU's fortunes peaked in 2014 when it finished third in the All-MVC standings, a placing it didn't match again until the most recently-completed season in 2021. 

So there is some local cachet attached to Prettyman and the Woods gets the benefit of it. Prettyman hopes that those who supported him at ISU will support him at the Woods and he also makes it clear there's plenty of room for local fans to support both programs.

"I think as I looked around the room today I had friends who knew I was involved. It's exciting. I never want to deter from the quality of Indiana State. It's a place I had a good experience at and I loved working there. It was one of the highlights of my career, but I do think there's a place for people to love both," Prettyman said. 

"When we add sprint football, something different for this community, it creates the alternative to be a part of and support, it's very gratifying for me to see friends here support me and St. Mary-of-the-Woods athletics," he added.

More visibility? An established figure that local fans trust? That's a win for the Woods and just adds to the profile of their athletic programs. Which goes straight to the point of using athletics to grow enrollment in the first place.

Prettyman, 66, will be interim athletic director at SMWC for a year. Is there a possibility he could stick around longer?

"This is our home. As long as my family is here, I'm going to be here. As far as my future with St. Mary-of-the-Woods, that's still to be determined. This is a feel-out time for the administration and for me," Prettyman said.

The future will be determined, but right now? The Woods is good for Prettyman and Prettyman is good for the Woods.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.

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Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.