The MIT football team practicing under the hot August sun was in a rebuilding mode this year, after losing of a slew of talented seniors. Last year, the Engineers won a conference championship and advanced to the Division III national tournament for the second time in school history.
But it’s not just the football team that’s had recent success. Over the last 12 years, various teams at MIT have won 110 New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference championships — more than twice the number the Engineers had ever won before that period. On top of that, MIT athletes in the last dozen years have captured 15 individual NCAA championships and 993 were named All-Americans.
The recent success in athletics at school known mostly for its science and engineering prowess has been shaped in large part by one woman, Julie Soriero, the director of athletics since 2007, who is retiring at the end of this semester. Across the country, only 21 percent of college athletics directors are women.
What has been behind her success guiding MIT's little-known sports programs? Soriero has excelled as a fundraiser for facilities and coaching endowments, brought recruiting of athletes to a new level in cooperation with the admissions office and applied her coaching experience to working with MIT's coaches.
Before her arrival, Soriero coached women's basketball teams for 21 years at other academics-oriented schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Colorado College, where she was serving as athletics director when MIT came calling.
When MIT approached Soriero about their search for a director of athletics, she said, “I asked the question that everybody asked: Does MIT have athletics?"
But even then, the possibility of what MIT could be was mentioned in hushed tones.
“I called a friend after I had this conversation and I said, ‘Tell me about the word on the street with MIT,’" she said. "And this was a friend in the conference that MIT’s in. And she said to me ... ‘Julie, I think MIT’s a sleeping giant.”
That conference includes Emerson, Babson, Wellesley and Smith.
Since Soriero took the job, athletics at MIT haven’t been the same. Ranging from the men’s basketball team going to the Final Four in 2012, to swimmer Margaret Guo winning the NCAA Woman of the Year Award in 2016, program-changing events have almost become commonplace.
For track coach Halston Taylor, who has been at MIT for nearly four decades, it’s a world away from the program he started with.
“You know, recruiting wasn’t done very much," he said. "There was almost zero alumni fundraising. So a lot of things just weren’t in place.”
That started to change over the years, but even when Soriero started the job, there were still problems. Taylor says the outdoor track was in such bad condition that it was unsafe to run on.
“I interrupted her one day and said, ‘Let’s take a walk, you’ve got to see this,’" he said, adding that he had talked to several people about the track but nothing had been done about it. "So Julie went out there with me, and we were out there 10 minutes and she said, ‘I got it. I understand.’”
A little under two months later, Soriero and the program obtained money for the track from team alumni.
It’s a prime example of part of what’s made Soriero so successful. If fundraising were a sport, Soriero would be an All-American. She’s raised tens of millions during her tenure to improve MIT’s facilities.
And while it has to be pointed out that MIT has a much richer base of donors than most other Division III schools, it took someone like Soriero to reach out to them.
It’s the sort of drive that would be expected from someone who played basketball, field hockey and lacrosse at Penn State before coaching women’s college basketball. MIT women’s basketball coach Sonia Raman, whose team is coming off back-to-back conference championships, saw that competitive spirit on full display when they went together to watch a Boston College women’s basketball game.
“She was on the edge of her chair," Raman said. "She had no horse in the race with either team. She was getting frustrated with the officiating. It was like she was right there on the sideline. So of course, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s probably how she is for my games too.’”
Soriero has been through everything the coaches have gone through and knows what it’s like. And football coach Brian Bubna sees the traces of her past life in the way she leads the department.
"I know she’s the AD, but she’s still coaching," he said.
But any coach is only as good as the athletes on their team. Although there are no athletic scholarships in Division III, two of Soriero’s main goals were to work more closely with admissions and give coaches the push and resources to recruit student-athletes.
The result has been teams filled with athletes with Division I talent.
Lily Bailey, a senior outside back on the women’s soccer team, the reigning conference champ, says she’s seen the talent in her program rise during her time in Cambridge.
“It becomes like, ‘Well, why would I go to an Ivy [League school] and maybe not play as much and have my entire life dictated and not be as successful and maybe not have as much fun playing?’" she said. "I think that has sort of has continued to drive people here, because it really is just a good experience.”
At the semester's end, Soriero will leave MIT in better shape than she found it. For the past few years, the university has consistently been in the hunt for the Learfield IMG College Directors' Cup, which is awarded to the school with the best overall athletics program in the country each year. In 2018, MIT came in second place in Division III, its highest finish in cup history.
Soriero has also earned hardware of her own. In 2018, she won the NCAA President’s Pat Summitt Award, which recognizes individuals who are devoted to the development of student athletes; she was the first Division III administrator to receive the award. Pat Summitt, the award's namesake, won more basketball games than any college coach while guiding the University of Tennessee's women's team for nearly three decades.
But Soriero's biggest contribution may be making the school’s athletic mission an extension of its academic one. It’s best summed up in a phrase that’s become something of a mantra for her: “We will not apologize for winning.”