By MIKE DRAGO/Reading Eagle
HARRISBURG – Bob Lombardi wants the PIAA to present a kinder, gentler face to Pennsylvania scholastic sports.
When he takes over as the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association executive director in July the 56-year-old Lombardi will become that face.
He’s been the PIAA’s No. 2 guy to Hanover native Brad Cashman for much of the past two decades after joining the organization in 1988. He is considered much more personable and approachable than Cashman, who was considered efficient but somewhat distant.
Lombardi’s goal is to make the organization – one that’s long suffered in the PR arena – more human.
“What we’d like to do is to tell the (PIAA) story a little better,” said Lombardi, who was officially approved by the Board of Control in late March. “Sometimes organizations like PIAA get bashed because we’re nebulous. There’s no face with it.
“But the face of PIAA is all those students in the local communities and their coaches and athletic directors. We have 300,000 kids playing athletics in the state: Let’s tell the story. That’s one of our initiatives. We want to do a little better job, through our website and publications, of telling the story of all these great kids that are doing great things.”
Lombardi takes over an organization faced with many challenges, such as bringing a conclusion to the long-simmering feud about the length of the football season and the never-ending arguments about recruiting and transfers that surround the public vs. private debate.
He’s hoping to cool the tensions in those arenas while working behind the scenes to find palatable solutions.
“There’s three things every year that we’re in the soup about: Who’s playing on teams (transfers and recruiting), where they’re playing (site selections) and who’s refereeing,” Lombardi said. “Those three issues are always going to be there.”
Lombardi realizes that one reason the PIAA is considered a four-letter word by some is because it doesn’t publicly address these challenging problems enough. He’s hoping a more open dialogue will ease the rhetoric and pave the way for more unity.
“If we can get the information out (to the public, explaining decisions), they might not agree, but at least they’ll know why (we’ve made these decisions),” Lombardi said. “We want to (do a better job to) get that word out.”
Lombardi’s prime tasks in recent years have been working closely with PIAA game officials and acting as tournament director of championship events, including football, baseball, basketball and wrestling.
He has an easy, affable manner and has been a popular choice for the job.
Longtime sportswriter Rod Frisco, who has closely monitored PIAA activities for years, called it a “superb” choice.
“(He) has been a highly competent and gregarious executive,” Frisco wrote on his website, rodfrisco.com. “It is Bob, as much as anyone, who worked to repair the PIAA’s reputation from a secretive, back-room organization to a much more open, public-friendly organization.”
Lombardi was a four-sport athlete at Western Wayne. He taught health and physical education at Honesdale and Pocono Mountain high schools after graduating from East Stroudsburg.
He left teaching to attain a master’s degree in sports administration at the University of New Mexico as a prelude to joining the PIAA.
He knows he has many challenges ahead, chief among them helping his membership deal with difficult financial times. He fears struggling school districts will be too quick to slash sports programs because they don’t appreciate their impact.
“You hate to take opportunities away from young people,” he said. “Many times your athletic budget is 1 to 2 percent of the general operating budget, so it’s really not a big percentage. But it’s the best public relations program a school has.
“If you can keep it there, and get that good, positive public relations, get kids involved, that has such a great impact on their academics as well as their future endeavors, and helps make them better citizens.
“I’m not sure if that’s the right place to look (to cut budgets) right away. It’s always the first, because it’s high profile.”