Debbie Corum: Growing SUU Through Athletics

Debbie Corum cares about women, her family and, more than anything else, student athletes.

Her journey to Southern Utah began one year before she took a job for the university when her family was on the way to the Grand Canyon after visiting her daughter in Park City. They stopped in Cedar City for lunch.

“I loved it,” Corum said. “We were sitting outside eating, and I’m looking at the red rocks and everything. I said, ‘Gosh, maybe this might be a place I’d love to live.’”

She was working as the associate athletic director at the University of Connecticut. The following March, there was an opening for a senior woman administrator position at SUU. Before Corum applied, she spoke with the UConn Athletic Director David Benedict.

Benedict played football at SUU, and encouraged Corum to apply for the job.

“It was just meant to be,” Corum said.

Corum grew up in South Carolina before moving to Nashville when she was 12. Her father coached high school football and Corum fell in love with athletics.

“When I was growing up, there were no women in college athletics,” Corum said. “The best you could do, if you were athletic minded, was to coach high school. My whole dream growing up was to become a teacher and a high school coach.”

Corum achieved far beyond her dreams. When she was hired as SUU’s Athletic Director in November 2017, she was the first ever female athletic director hired in Utah.

“I think it added a little responsibility to me,” Corum said. “‘Cause I thought, ‘You know, you can’t mess this up. If you mess it up, you’re messing it up for women that come behind you. If you do a good job, it will open doors up for more women to follow.’ I felt a real sense of responsibility.”

Corum has dedicated her life to women’s athletics. Corum told me stories of advocating for women’s athletic teams when she was in college at Vanderbilt, and has carried that passion throughout her life.

She served on the NCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball committee, National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators Board of Directors and monitored UConn’s compliance to Title IX in athletics.

“It’s a challenge when, growing up, you didn’t see role models that looked like you. So you have to convince yourself you can do it. The first challenge really is within yourself. The second is that you run into people every once in a while that don’t believe you can do it as a female.”

Her focus as an athletic director has always been on the student-athlete experience. Among her first actions as AD were to hire a nutritionist and a sports-psychologist to provide more resources for student athletes.

Southern Utah has a limited budget for athletics, but Corum has used it to create an environment comparable to that of other Division 1 programs.

“When we do something we try really hard to think, ‘How will this impact the lives of student athletes?’” Corum said.

That has been Corum’s goal since she took over. From facilities to coaches, everything is student athlete focused.

Since Corum took over last November, SUU has hired new coaches in volleyball, soccer, women’s basketball and softball, and renewed the contracts of the men’s basketball and football coaches.

“Bottom line is, (coaches) are going to be evaluated based on the student athlete’s experience. If student athletes are not having positive experiences, it’s my responsibility to make a change… You can’t really ever just look at win/loss records. You have to look at why it’s happening.”

Corum said that she’s not afraid to fire a coach that’s winning if he’s not creating a positive environment. If student athletes are not growing and improving, then Corum takes it upon herself to create the proper environment.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever fired a coach simply because of a win/loss record,” Corum said.

Above all, Corum knows that athletics have a monumental impact on the perception and prestige of a university.

“Even those that don’t do athletics… when (your school) has a successful athletic program, all of a sudden the diploma means a whole lot more to the student who maybe doesn’t even appreciate athletics. I’m not saying that we’re more important, but our society pays more attention to what’s going on with athletics.”

Corum is not insinuating that athletics are more important than any other program at SUU, but rather wants to communicate that schools receive more attention for their athletic achievements than from any other program. That attention leads to prestige, and prestige leads to small schools becoming national talking points.

Think of Boise State University and Gonzaga University. They are small schools in unimpressive towns, but are nationally relevant institutions because of their football and basketball programs respectively.

“Whether you appreciate coming to our games our not, we need your support. Because as (the athletic department elevate(s), so does your diploma. You will be able to go anywhere and mention Southern Utah University and people are gonna recognize it.”

Debbie Corum wants the best for student athletes, the student body, SUU and Cedar City. Supporting athletics will do more for SUU than any other program can, and she wants students to embrace that.

Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Easton Bowring