Winning at FIT…and Looking Good Doing It

The FIT volleyball team in action. Photo: courtesy of FIT athletic department.

People expect the Fashion Institute of Technology to produce the next hot thing in fashion, but probably no one expects FIT to field a dominant sports team–except Kerri-Ann McTiernan, FIT’s director of athletics and recreation. She has something to say to those who doubt the caliber of the school’s surprisingly competitive 13 sports programs. “I feel bad for whomever we play because they should know once we take the field that we are going to beat you, so they can laugh all they want,” she said. “People hate to lose to FIT.  But that’s just too bad, because people are going to have to get used to it.”

McTiernan, 41, has invested 10 years of her life in building the sports program at a school better known for fashion trends than uniforms.  She was the first woman to coach a men’s college basketball team when she took over the Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College team in 1995.  At 25, she was already coaching the school’s women’s softball and basketball teams at Kingsborough – and when the basketball coach resigned suddenly, she applied for the job and got it a week later.  The players’ surprised reaction when she showed up at the first practice? “I could have been an alien for all they knew,” McTiernan said.

She is not a physically imposing woman.  With her length blond hair and athletic frame, which is a reminder of her past as a former high school and college basketball star, she runs FIT like a savvy point guard: smart enough to know when to defer to other people, but has the ability to take over the entire show when she needs to.  She’s a big presence at the FIT awards ceremony for the sports programs, which included a dance to kick off the beginning of the homecoming festivities.

McTiernan can’t walk down the halls of FIT without stopping to talk to everyone she passes.  Former athletes give her a hug, wanting to know the progress of those who have since transferred from FIT to another program where athletes could get more exposure.

She says the five years at Kingsborough coaching men prepared her for this job.

“You have to be tough to do a job like this, because it’s about wins and losses,” McTiernan says. “When I first took this job here, my friends were asking me if I was okay because they didn’t believe it. The job was a well-kept secret.”

McTiernan’s biggest hurdle is recruiting because of the creditability factor: Simply, most student athletes don’t consider FIT a destination. One reason is because under NCAA rules established nearly 40 years ago, only Division I and II schools can offer athletic scholarships.

FIT teams compete in Region XV of the National Junior College Athletic Association, which is made up of 17 junior and technological colleges in southern New York.

Also, the school enrollment ratio of women to men is nearly nine to one, so those who want to compete have to have a genuine interest in attending the school. “Most of these guys didn’t get offers from D-I schools but are obviously talented in other areas, so the balance has to be there,” she said.

“We have to manage our money very closely and do it the right way. The more successful we are, that’s just going to help our exposure,” McTiernan said.   Her coaches agree with the sentiment, and think that McTiernan may make all the difference in the program’s future.

“She brings a winning mentality and she supports us unconditionally. That’s why we are good at what we do,” says head women’s volleyball coach Maxim Auguste, who has been at the school since 2005. “Kerri is really competitive, even though she might not admit it. Without that support we couldn’t be successful at all.” Auguste’s team recently won the NJCAA Region XV volleyball championship, and finished eighth at nationals.

“She is very easy to work with and gives us room to do our jobs,” said Joe Plutz, first-year track and field head coach.  “The dedication, the full trust of the staff and administration is key. And her being competitive always helps.”

“I would agree with those statements,” McTiernan said with a laugh when asked about her competitiveness. “I try not to show it, but sometimes I can’t help it. I was an athlete who competed at a high level. I didn’t come here just to check the box. I came here to win.”

Her journey to FIT began when she starred on the St. Joseph’s Hill Academy high school team on Staten Island and went on to become an All-American at Johns Hopkins University.  While she has enjoyed some level of success everywhere she has been, she has always been serious about her academics as well – and she expects the same of her coaches and athletes, even if some of them are not familiar with the sports tradition.

“We don’t do things halfway here. When a person enrolls here, they must understand that you are a student first, and an athlete second. Period. I expect my coaches to help in that process as well.”

Her office is full of proof of her achievements. Academic degrees, pictures of her athletes and her teams at Kingsborough fill the walls.  Her desk is a mess, with her apologizing several times because of its look.  She calls it “controlled chaos” with the air of someone who is firmly in control of her surroundings and job.

Tennis player Alyssa Bernstein, a sophomore from Voorhees, N.J. majoring in Fashion Merchandising Management said most people don’t realize the sacrifices students go through to compete. “It’s tough, with school and practice early in the morning.  She’s our biggest fan, and I think she gets what the athletes have to do be successful.” Bernstein, who is the Women’s Region XV tennis player of the year and said she didn’t receive any scholarship offers from bigger programs, had six of her teammates garnered first-team all region honors.

McTiernan says she had to drop a cheerleading program because the costs were too high, but she bounced back by adding a women’s soccer program this year. “I really don’t want to have to do that to any sport, but that’s the reality.”

With the pressures of the job, McTiernan, who is single, doesn’t have much time for anything else, admitting she has had one day off since the school year began.  She enjoys playing guitar and watching football and professional basketball, and admitted, “I am sick to my stomach that I can’t watch the Knicks because of the lockout.”

While a decade at any school seems like a lifetime, McTiernan says she doesn’t plan on going anywhere, at least not in the near future.

“I can’t tell you the next step for me personally. But I am going to continue to strengthen the program with the continued support of the administration,” she said.  Her biggest thrill comes from seeing athletes who have left the school come back to tell her about their successes.

For those who want to know if the FIT athletes have a hand in making their own uniforms for competition: “Sadly, no.” McTiernan said. “But that never stopped us from looking good and kicking butt.”

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~ by Scooby Axson on November 23, 2011.

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