In episode 20 — the fifth of season two of Knights Do That — we speak with Terry Mohajir, UCF Athletics Director. He shares how college athletics plays a role in higher education, from student experiences to the roles that faculty, staff, alumni and fans play in creating an engaged culture.
Terry Mohajir: What drives me every single day is watching young people. I love watching them score touchdowns and home runs and baskets and three-pointers, but the most important thing for me is watching them get a degree and walk across that stage and get a job. Those are the most important things because I know where some of our kids, our students — I call them kids — but some of our students, families didn’t have two nickels to rub together, dirt floors. Some of the poorest parts of this country, I’ve seen young people come out of because of their football scholarship. They’ve been able to change their family’s life
Alex Cumming: The future of UCF is going to be amazing. And after listening to my conversation with UCF Athletics Director Terry Mohajir, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The way Terry speaks about how UCF is the place to be, academically and in athletics, explains his passion for everything we all love about UCF. From its amazing students, faculty, staff, and alumni, to the athletes and athletic staff who push UCF toward excellence. In this episode, you’ll learn what drives Terry’s passion for UCF and athletics, his journey to becoming an athletics director and his hopes for the future of UCF. Without further ado, let’s hear from UCF Athletics Director Terry Mohajir.
Terry, it’s such a pleasure to get to speak with you today.
Terry Mohajir: How you doing?
Alex Cumming: I’m doing very well and glad to be here with you.
Terry Mohajir: You have a great voice, man. You definitely have future.
Alex Cumming: I appreciate it. Thank you. Well, I came, I’m a product to UCF, going to be, so of course I have a future.
Terry Mohajir: It’s amazing how many talented students we have on this campus. I mean, just, you know, one of the first things I did when I got here, about a week after I was hired, I went and got about a hundred Starbucks gift cards. These little $5 gift cards. And I went walking on campus a little check the temperature of the culture here. I walked around some on behalf of the athletic department introducing my new name, Terry Mohajir, new athletic director. Glad to be here. How do you like campus? And it was amazing how many students from all different walks of life, how they looked, the differences, of people’s backgrounds. And just everybody that I talked to was like, they all basically love it. It was a really, really, cool opportunity. So it’s good to meet more students. I get to meet and talk to our talented student-athletes, but students on campus, the outstanding talent we have here is just, it’s amazing.
Alex Cumming: I entirely agree. I love being here. I love the people here. I mean, the professors I get to work and interact with are people I love to be around and of course, in the social media offices and here in the athletics building, the people are just, as we say, it’s the people that make UCF.
Terry Mohajir: Absolutely.
Alex Cumming: It’s the people that make UCF. UCF is nothing without the amazing folks that have come, are here, and are going to be here. And that’s how you build the brand, it’s great people.
Terry Mohajir: That’s right.
Alex Cumming: Let me jump into this here. So I want to say congratulations. You just recently celebrated one year here working as the athletic director at the University of Central Florida. So congratulations.
Terry Mohajir: Thank you.
Alex Cumming: Reflecting back on your year, what have been some of the highlight moments that have stood out to you that you can think about?
Terry Mohajir: Well, you can imagine coming off of COVID, the transition of coming from another university here, trying to tie up some of the loose ends there, but literally it happened in about four or five days. And, this is not like a president search or a dean search, or, you know, maybe even another vice president you know, your CFO, they’re long searches. These happen very fast. So, the highlights have just been the people I’ve met. And again, I just explained, the students my first week, I’m not talking about student athletes I’m talking about, just the students and just getting a temperature of the culture has been amazing. The alumni, the excitement about the program, the university. I would say I didn’t realize how passionate they are about UCF and that the students. And again, it doesn’t matter where they’re from, what they look like, they’re equally as passionate about the school. And it’s been really neat to see the branding of Orlando. It’s been a while, I lived in South Florida for seven years, so I haven’t been back for a while. But just how much of a presence UCF has. Getting into the Big 12 was a huge highlight. And just some of the successes we’ve had with our student athletes. The competition to know how hard it is to win at a very high level and go through the COVID challenges and the testing, academics and competing, going on the road and it’s still having a high level of success is not something that’s easy and shouldn’t be discounted at all.
Alex Cumming: Those are the moments that stick out to you though, when you get to see the vision that you have for UCF come to fruition in front of your very own eyes.
Terry Mohajir: Yeah, I think so. I mean, one of the first things I did, I had to hire a football coach when I first got here, usually AD’s don’t have to do that. You get a little time before you have to hire someone. Of course I took the job and knew I had to hire a football coach. And in a time when it’s not time to hire a football coach, it was February. Usually all the transition, the new hires are hired, staffs are in place. So you’re starting from behind. Of course, coach Malzahn was available and we had a really good candidate pool, but there’s no question he was the best on the board. Working with him on his vision for football, we’re talking about football, but then also after we hired the football coach, really trying to hone in on where do we want to be as a university? Where do we want to be in four to five years. We started looking at conceptual designs of what the football campus, what the Athletics Village, what did we want it to be? And started creating that, it took about three or four months, the President Dr. Cartwright allowed us to present it to the Board of Trustees conceptual designs. You know, I think it really helped with the attraction of who we are, not to mention the large breadth we have as a university here regionally, and we continue to emerge nationally. But I think that created a lot of excitement of you know, trying to do something different. The fans, and then our student-athletes, our staff have really bought into the idea of creating something that’s very unique, but very indigenous to the state of Florida. We don’t have to build a hundred-million-dollar facilities like they do in some of these traditional small towns. Cause we have a very vibrant community and campus and we just have to make it nice.
Alex Cumming: I can’t agree enough of what you’re saying. You’d spoken about the excitement that you build in a fan base, and in students, and in athletes, and in people who want to be here. When you have the announcement of moving to the Big 12 with these older universities and the excitement of building a new athletics village, it gets the fire going and in a fan base and in the town, like Orlando. Where Orlando is UCF, UCF is Orlando.
Terry Mohajir: That’s right. Now I look at students, our student body, as you’re basically every year you become the founders of this university. You come in you come out in four or five years, six years, seven years. You’re very proud and you’re judged by your alumni. OK, and Harvard’s Harvard because of their alumni, not because of the students that are there now. They’re not doing anything except that they got into school there. It’s what they do after college that makes them special. So if we treat all of our alums and our current students, like truly key stakeholders, which I believe (they are), they’ll develop that passion.
It’s really exciting to hear what you’re saying, because the alumni make UCF, we don’t make UCF. Just like paraphrasing what you said, it’s true. So we have to keep our students top of mind. And even our student-athletes, I tell them, listen, the student body comes and watches you play. You represent our students everyday. When you wear UCF, you wear the Knights, you go and travel across the country and you play, you’re representing every one of those alums and you know what? We need to make sure that that’s sacred for us. And when Joe or Suzie Smith are watching the Knights play at night, whether it be basketball, women’s basketball or football, they have to have some level of pride. Whether you win or lose the game, that they feel good about the product that they see nationally televised. Because the chemistry department’s not being televised nationally. Even though you may be a science major, your sense of pride comes from the brand how they view you. So that’s how I look at it.
Alex Cumming: I agree when you speak about chemistry, there’s also, you can see the amazing people that come out of the chemistry, not just chemistry, but you see the amazing work that they do in the field of science that they go into and of course they come back and they represent you. The amazing people that we’ve had the opportunity to speak with on this show shows years of excellence. Commitment to excellence.
Terry Mohajir: The inventor [of} Moderna’s vaccine. He’s prideful is his athletics. Is the most important thing? Absolutely not. [But] like I said, you’re judged by alumni and they can help co-brand the university, those special alumni.
Alex Cumming: You’ve done all this amazing stuff in your year here and I want to ask what drives you? What’s your passion? Is it what you spoke about and seeing the alumni building this love for the brand?
Terry Mohajir: So it’s very simple for me. My passion is very student oriented and specifically student-athletes. I wasn’t a great student coming out of high school. I’m a son of an immigrant, my mom didn’t go to college. My dad put himself through college and got an engineering degree when he came here, so I had some inspiration there. But I wasn’t really a good student. [If it wasn’t] for my football scholarship I don’t know if I would have gone to college. Maybe join the military. As a matter of fact, my dad was at times saying, “You know, son, maybe you should look at joining the military.” So I was even looking at it at one time if I didn’t get a football scholarship. And I see the G.I. Bill and you know what the G.I. Bill is, right? It’s the scholarship program of the military basically that they pay for your school if you become an enlisted. Besides the G.I. Bill, there’s never been a scholarship program for the youth of America, better than intercollegiate athletics. It has helped more young people get an education and get a degree and change their family circumstances for life more than any other program, except the G.I. Bill.
So what drives me is when I was playing football, my senior year, graduating in May, and the head coach pats me on my back and says, “Good luck in life, kid. Go get them.” And I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t play sports, but I wasn’t also prepared. I was not prepared to go. So at that time I was like, this is a little funny. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t play sports, but I’m really not prepared to do anything, except I could tackle people, and maybe my coaches didn’t think I could do that very well. But anyway, so at that time I was like, we need to strengthen this as an intercollegiate athletics industry to do more for our student athletes.
So what drives me every single day is watching young people. I love watching them score touchdowns and home runs and baskets and three-pointers, but the most important thing for me is watching them get a degree and walk across that stage and get a job and buying their first house. Sending me a picture of their office chair. Those are the most important things that I, because I know where some of our kids, our students, I call them kids, but some of our students, their families didn’t have two nickels to rub together, dirt floors. Some of the poorest parts of this country, I’ve seen young people come out, because of their football scholarship. They’ve been able to change their family’s circumstances, life. Because remember at the end of the day, locker rooms are the greatest rooms to be a part of because you have kids from the country, you have kids from urban areas. You’ve got kids that are very wealthy. You’ve got kids that are dirt poor. But at the end of the day, the only discrimination that goes on in a locker room is what? The ones that can’t perform. Doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. Can you help me get better? So everybody’s on equal playing field. We’re the only athletic department in the country that will guarantee you a job once you graduate or grad school placement. So I’m very proud we’ve had 100% job placement or grad school placement for almost a decade. And we’re the only athletic department in America that, that will promise that these are really good career opportunities. So that’s what drives me every day.
Alex Cumming: Yeah, I love to sound of that. The comradery and the team building you get. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.
Terry Mohajir: I wish Congress and Washington could be in a locker room because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, doesn’t matter. It’s, can you help somebody get better? There’s so much, so many vernaculars to life with college athletics or athletics in general.
Alex Cumming: Remembering the human element that goes into all of this. That there are numbers on the board, but there’s also people under the —
Terry Mohajir: That’s right
Alex Cumming: Jerseys and helmets.
Terry Mohajir: That’s right. Absolutely. And they have feelings.
Alex Cumming: And lives that are going to happen after they finished the game.
Terry Mohajir: They have feelings and you’ve got social media. And some of the tweets that our student-athletes get is not really good. Yeah. I think you have more mental health issues than ever before because people have easier access to talk to people. You know, when I was growing up, you’d have to know someone to have a conversation with somebody. You don’t have to have that now you don’t have to know anything. You can just go lay into somebody out of the blue, lay into somebody, “Hey, you dropped a pass.” Terrible. What an idiot shouldn’t have a scholarship, those type of stuff. So, you know, that’s another service that we provide in our athletic department that is really important. And that’s the mental health side.
Alex Cumming: Something that’s not spoken about enough and even in athletes and students overall, just making sure [they have access]. And UCF has done a great job of giving students access to mental health counseling with the CAPS programs. And when people need help, it’s here for them at UCF, which is something I so appreciate.
Terry Mohajir: Yeah, we actually hired a person that runs our mental health department from CAPS, so it’s good.
Alex Cumming: UCF Day of Giving is a celebration of Knight Nation. It’s our chance to bounce, stomp, splash, and cheer for all things, black and gold on April 7. Rally together and show your support by making a gift at dayofgiving.ucf.edu.
Where do you see UCF going throughout your career? The future of UCF, both as a university and in athletics?
Terry Mohajir: I want to grow. We want to be an exceptional university. I want to be an exceptional athletics department. We want to strive to be an AAU. I want to win conference championships and national championships. I want to be looked at as a strong scholar-athlete institution, constantly placing student-athletes in academic awards, along with athletic awards. And I truly believe that we can do that. Now we have some work to do with facilities and operating capital. But again, like I said earlier, we don’t have to build a hundred-million-dollar facility to have a lot of success. But we have to have nice and unique facilities that are indigenous to this area. And I think that’ll attract a lot of outstanding young people. We really do attract our school because academic wise, our school is very good. And I didn’t realize how hard, I don’t think I could have taken the ACT twice and got in here. We should tell our story from an alumni standpoint of all the wonderful and talented alumni we have, not just athletics, but just student, like we talked about earlier. And I don’t think you can tell that enough, because when people look at certain individuals in a community or in an area or a region, and they say, “I want to be like that person,” well, where’d they go to school? UCF. When you’re standing on stage winning your first Academy Award, they’re going to say, “Where did he go to school?” You say, “UCF.” That’s pretty cool.
Alex Cumming: Oh yeah.
Terry Mohajir: And I want to help carry that message and athletics can be that vehicle to help carry the academic message of how great of a school this is.
Alex Cumming: When you think about your vision for it, who are the key players to make this dream come true?
Terry Mohajir: So under the leadership of Dr. Cartwright, which I think he’s done an amazing job, he’s a huge key, I do believe we’re aligned. I think to have a very vibrant and strong athletic department, you have to be aligned from your Board of Trustees, your president, your ADs, and your coaches. I’ve had a lot of success with that in the past and in other vice presidents as well, your provost or CFO’s, your foundation, your student affairs. And I think, being strong externally by being strong internally. You can’t be strong externally unless you’re strong internally. And I think we have the right players. I think Dr. Cartwright has assembled very talented people. I’m a little biased because I was one of the guys that he hired. And [he] continues to bring new people into the cabinet, which I serve on. It’s amazing, you’ve got a lot of wonderful people that I think can truly move this university to a new level. I feel really good about it.
Alex Cumming: Moving the university to a new level. I love the sound of that. How do you see Knight Nation, the fan base, the alumni playing into that as well?
Terry Mohajir: Continue to be unbelievable ambassadors, and I think as the alumni go on and they’re in very successful positions and they are perceived as successful people, they become our greatest ambassadors. And same with everybody that we’re graduating. Very positively about UCF talking about the experience they have, the high school people that I’ve met since I’ve been here, it’s clear that they want to go to school here because of all the conversations they’ve had people that went to school here. So thinking that you can’t help by being a graduate is not good thinking because you are a great ambassador. But just saying, very positive. It’s a great place, great institution, great faculty. I got a great education and I have a great job. That’s that simple, and I owe a lot of my career [to my education]. I went down to South Florida this past week and fundraised and it was amazing how many people live down there say, “I owe a lot to UCF. If it wasn’t for UCF. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.”
Alex Cumming: Right. The position that we’re in today, I mean, my mom, she got her undergrad and doctorate here at UCF in education.
Terry Mohajir: Well, she should be a fantastic ambassador then.
Alex Cumming: She is. She never pushed me to go to UCF. I came here on my own accord because I knew how great the acting program was and I was so thankful to get accepted into it. And I agree, I think she’s a great ambassador for UCF and I strive to be as well.
Terry Mohajir: And I don’t think faculty realize what kind of influence they have affluence and influence they have in the community. You know, You’re an adjunct professor or you’re a full professor or your chair or whatever. Just the conversation you have when you’re going to the end of your, driveway to get your paper. You know, If someone asks me about a program on campus, whether it be our optics program or med school, nursing, whatever it is, I’m always like the cheerleader. Like I hear [about] fantastic programs you should look into more and I think that’s the way we need to move forward. And I think the more we do that, the better it is for everybody.
Alex Cumming: It is the better it gets for everybody. A rising tide raises all ships.
Terry Mohajir: That’s right, yeah.
Alex Cumming: With your vision here for Knight Nation, which I love and I’m so excited [for], what would you tell Knight Nation if you could just express to them one thing?
Terry Mohajir: I think be patient. I think going into the Big 12, the next two years is going to be a little challenging, you know. Like I said earlier, we’re striving in the next two years to try to be in the top half of the Big 12, and we’d like to be in the top third. And there’s always some outliers, in basketball, Kansas is up there, they’re a little bit of an outlier because their budget’s so much higher, and, because they’ve got a hundred years of basketball, and I worked there before, so I know a little bit about that. So I think the facilities we’re trying to pull it all together. We’re going to be probably launching our initiative called Mission 12. In the next month and to show people kind of a little bit where we are and where we want to strive to be to give our fans and our Knight Nation a little bit more of a barometer to how far we have to go still. You know, just to compete in the top half of the Big 12, we’re probably going to have to generate another $18 million a year, in revenue. And so how do you do that? So we’re trying to figure all that. Plus, you got to build some facilities and, you have new expenses operating capital. So, we basically going down three parallel tracks. We’ve got to generate more operating capital. We’re got to generate maintenance funds to help maintain the facilities that we have and obviously capital projects. Well, you only have so many donors, so you’re constantly mining new opportunities to generate revenue. Plus maintaining and developing relationships with your current donors to sell the vision of where we can go and the university does as much as they possibly can. And they’re a great partner. And under the leadership of Dr. Cartwright, he loves athletics and is going to do everything possible.
Alex Cumming: What advice would you give somebody who wants to be an athletics director in your position?
Terry Mohajir: Well, a lot of people say that, and there’s a lot of people that want to be ADs. You know, they just think it’s easy. They think, you can go be an AD anytime you want. But most people aren’t willing to do what I did, to do what I do. So, in order to do what I do, you have to do what I did. I moved my family around the country a couple of times Took jobs, that were new jobs and little uncertain to get better at my craft. So getting an AD job and learning how to be an AD are two different things. Because sometimes you can get an AD job just out of osmosis cause you’re in the right place at the right time. But when you become an AD, I tell our folks here, you want to be a good AD, [and you] got to learn a lot. What your athletic department does, you got to understand the student-athlete side of things, you got [to] understand the coaches side of things, and you got understand how to generate revenue and [the] compliance side. And I think, my background’s a little different than a lot. I was [in] a former student-athlete division, one football coach and now AD. So I do have a little better perspective, I think, I would say better than a lot of ADs. And I think it’s served me well. Do I make mistakes? Yeah. But our core principles remain relevant and we’re constantly challenging those core principles so they do remain relevant
Alex Cumming: You spent so many years working in athletics and from what you’re telling me, it sounds like you have the knowledge and the memories of being in the thick of it. Going back to the story you told earlier about when you were a senior going out into the real world, do you think you would have this initiative that you have now of, I want to guarantee job placement or grad school acceptance without that experience going back all those years?
Terry Mohajir: No, there’s nobody in the country that’s doing it, that’s promising them this. It’s because I saw my teammates that would finish four years of eligibility and they would go home, they wouldn’t graduate. They would go home and get whatever job was there. And I hate to say it, some were trashman, some were working in a factory, whatever it was, is that something they really wanted to do? No, but they felt stuck. But no one was pushing it. So day one, when our student athletes come to this campus, we start talking about the end result. And what’s the end result? Education and degree. So you can get a what? A job, right? Even if you make the NFL, which is very slim to none, it’s still a job, right? You got to be prepared. I believe most of our NFL players that are on current active rosters have graduated. That’s it, man. That’s the most important thing you got to continue to strive hard and we’re never going to change or compromise.
The other one we have is we have a study abroad component. We’re going to give all of our student-athletes an opportunity to have global education to study abroad. They can put that on their resume. We’re working [with] the university on that right now. And by next year we should have a global education component to add to their 100% job placement program.
Alex Cumming: Global education I’m excited to see that come to fruition. And with all this, I want to ask you, what’s one thing that you are still hoping to do on a personal level and on a professional level?
Terry Mohajir: It’s interesting. You say that, maybe go on a vacation? Something like that. Maybe, do that with my family. That would be fun. I’ve got two daughters in college and I got a son that’s in the eighth grade. And so finding time to do that would be neat. Professional? I want to win a national championship in football or basketball, every sport would be great, but football is, my background and I’ve always been a guy with a chip on my shoulder a little bit, and a guy that’s always taken the road less traveled. And I truly believe that winning a championship among all the blue bloods in the business — I think that’s what was so special about the Gasparilla Bowl was, the win was good. Don’t get me wrong and I’m not discounting that at all, but it was really cool about that game more than anything I think it was our coming out party that we’re no longer little brother or little sister, whatever you want to say. We had as many people, if not more than they did.
Alex Cumming: I think we had more.
Terry Mohajir: Yeah, I think we had more. We had more there. And you know what you’re going to hear, well, they didn’t have as good, you know what they were bowl eligible and we were bowl eligible. It’s not like we didn’t have injuries this year, too. They had their starting quarterback. And they had all their players. So that’s something that I definitely would love to do and I want to hire people that also want to do it. I don’t have a lot of hobbies to be very candid. I don’t. I play golf when I have to. I love coming here every day and seeing young people achieve. And I love to see people, what they do after they graduate. It’s going to be really cool to follow you.
Alex Cumming: Thank you.
Terry Mohajir: You know, what are you going to do? It’s watching people coming of age is very gratifying.
Alex Cumming: I just want to say thank you so much for letting us come here and to chat with you. It’s been such a pleasure to get to talk and of course, with whatever happens in my career, you’ll always be left in the loop
Terry Mohajir: It’ll be awesome.
Alex Cumming: And I’ll always be representing UCF, so thank you. And I’m so excited to be a part of the legacy of UCF and to follow it. I’ll always be back to come to games. So thank you for sitting down with me, I so appreciate your time.
I feel blessed. Thank you, I’m kind of like you. The fact that I’m here and I was chosen to come here has been quite a blessing and I definitely don’t take it for granted.
Hearing Terry’s vision for the future of UCF gets me so stoked for the next generation of Knights to be a part of. I love what he says about alumni and students being the best ambassadors for the university. It’s exciting to be a part of the foundation. Join us on the next episode of Knights Do That where I’ll be chatting with Dr. Mindy Shoss, as she describes the relationship between job satisfaction, burnout and the importance of workplace communication, along with what the best companies do to have the happiest employees. I’ll see you then.
Mindy Shoss: There are a lot of misconceptions about burnout and satisfaction and wellbeing and I think the biggest misconception is that it’s an individual issue. So you see a lot of recommendations, “Oh, you’re just burned out. Why don’t you do yoga or mindfulness or something like that?” And I love yoga. I love mindfulness. There is some good research supporting them, but a colleague of mine actually said this to me yesterday that those kinds of things are like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm. Band-Aids are good. They solve lots of problems, but they don’t fix deep rooted type things, like a break[down]. And I think that if you want to fix burnout and issues of job satisfaction, then you got to address the work environment.
Alex Cumming: If you’re doing something cool, whether that’s at UCF or somewhere you took UCF that we should know about, send us an email at [email protected], and maybe we’ll see you on an episode in the future. Go Knights and Charge On.