One of only a few female members of a college men’s basketball staff, Penn’s Sarah Parks W’19 jumps into a new gig.
Early in Sarah Parks W’19’s freshman year, she sent an email to Brad Fadem, then the director of operations for Penn men’s basketball. Looking for something to fill the time she had spent playing sports in high school, she posed a simple question.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I played basketball and I like basketball—can I be a manager?’” Parks recalls.
A little more than three years later, as her run as one of the team’s student managers was drawing to a close, she sent another well-timed note to Fadem. “So if I want to be in your position,” she texted him, “what do I need to do?”
It was mostly a hypothetical question. She wasn’t sold on a career in finance, so maybe a job in athletics would suit her better.
Little did she know that Fadem was about to transition into an administrative role with the University, vacating his position on the men’s basketball staff. Or that she would get hired for the job—a rarity for a woman and for someone so young—about two weeks after graduating from Wharton.
“This is certainly a job with a lot of responsibility,” says Fadem, now an assistant athletic director for admissions and financial aid. “I think that just speaks to what we saw in Sarah over her time as a student manager—who she is as a person, her maturity, and how intelligent and sharp she is.”
Although they don’t draw up defensive schemes or hit the recruiting trail, the director of operations is “a part of the coaching staff,” Fadem notes. “You’re in the mix, you’re in the team huddles, you’re involved in everything.” And there aren’t many women in that role in Division I men’s basketball—fewer than 10 out of more than 350 programs, according to a recent NCAA poll.
But being a young woman on a men’s basketball bench “doesn’t seem like a big deal to me,” Parks says. Nor does her age, since the 22-year-old has “been around the program for four years anyway.” That’s a big reason why Penn hired her, rather than finding an outsider with more experience.
“She’s so even-tempered,” Fadem says. “I think back to some of our craziest games—wins or losses—and she keeps the same attitude. Very little fazes her.”
That’s not to say there won’t be nerves—especially with the Quakers opening the 2019–20 season with road trips to the University of Alabama and Rice. As the director of ops, one of her main jobs is coordinating team-related travel. And that part can certainly be stressful, as Fadem knows after dealing with nightmarish plane delays for a tournament last season in the US Virgin Islands.
“I wasn’t there,” says Parks, who was studying abroad in Madrid at the time, “but I was really stressed out for Brad.”
Parks, a Chicago native, did not expect to be in this position after college—or even to have gone to college at Penn. Recruited by some Division III schools for basketball, she only applied to Wharton at the last minute because her sister, Anna Parks ENG’13, paid for her application fee.
Soon after arriving on campus, Parks joined the women’s club basketball team, where she also served as a coach and travel coordinator. “It was kind of like a mini-version of this job now,” she says. But it wasn’t until connecting with the men’s varsity team—and seeing the Palestra for the first time—that she felt the emotional pull of basketball again.
As a sophomore, she cheered from behind the bench as Jackson Donahue C’19 hit a three-pointer against Harvard to send Penn to the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. The next season was even better as Penn captured the Ivy tourney title at the Palestra to book its first ticket to the NCAA Tournament in a decade.
“When we won, I think I was kind of in shock because my first instinct was to clean up the bench,” she says. “And then I realized everyone was running out there and I was like, ‘Oh, we should go out there too!’”
By the time her senior year rolled around, she’d figured out that she wanted to stay in sports in some capacity, declining a finance job offer in Chicago. She initially thought she might want to be a sports agent, or maybe a financial advisor for athletes. But being a part of one team, through all of its ups and downs, held the most excitement. Down the road, she might even want to pursue a similar job at the NBA level.
For now, though, she’s ready to jump into a new season and a new job with her old friends.
“I want to basically maintain how the team is operating,” she says. “Everyone is like, ‘You don’t have to be perfect. We know you’re new and we’d understand if you miss something.’ But I don’t want to miss anything.” —DZ