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One-on-one with Bruce Ross

by Laura Hanlon | July 18, 2017
One-on-one with Bruce Ross

Would you do it all again? “Undoubtedly.” Bruce Ross has retired after 26 years as President of Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness.  

After more than a quarter of a century of SUSF service, Bruce Ross’ legacy can be seen all around us in the achievements and activities of so many. Yet with so much work to be thanked for, Bruce never fails to express his gratitude at being permitted to work with so many extraordinary people along the way. Here’s a small insight into the passion that has driven excellence in University of Sydney sport over such a long period of time.  

Can you tell us about your love of sport and where it comes from?  

Growing up I was always very keen on sport but lacked ability and size. Through high school I was the second smallest boy in my year. 

Did you enjoy playing any particular sports as a younger man? 

In my late teens I started doing weight training in an era when few people did it. Over four years I put on 25 kg and then started playing rugby in Wollongong at the age of 23. In 1970 I was the foundation President of a rugby club, the Woonona Shamrocks, which is one of the oldest surviving clubs in the Illawarra. 

Starting at the beginning can you let us know when and how you first became involved with the University of Sydney?  

After studying at Wollongong University College, which was then part of UNSW, I came to the University of Sydney as a Lecturer in Economics. Intending to stay for 18 months while establishing a business in Wollongong, 44 years later I am still here.  

What was your initial involvement with sport at the University of Sydney?  

For the first 15 years of my employment at the University I commuted from Wollongong and was heavily involved in sport there. After I moved to Sydney I began following the Sydney University Football Club, and then began coaching the Club’s First Colts team in 1989. The following year I was appointed as a Senate Representative to the men’s Sports Union Management Committee, and in 1991 was elected as Sports Union President. 

What are your recollections of sport at this University all those years ago?  

In the early nineties virtually all of the sporting clubs at the University were chaotically run and uncompetitive. They boasted about their historic status and past glories but were regularly beaten each weekend.  

You have an extensive background in successful business management - did the skills you acquired in that arena help you succeed in sports administration? 

The common factor in my involvement in business and sport at the University is that I am entrepreneurial in temperament. I am driven to innovate and do things differently, hence my regular statement at Blues and Sports Awards Dinners, “Our story is only just beginning.” I truly believe that there are no limits to what can be achieved. This has created some tension over the years as I always want to forge ahead faster than what other people are comfortable with. But it has played some part in enabling us to create a truly unique sporting organisation here at the University. 

SUSF’s Executive Director Rob Smithies said at the Annual University Blues Awards last November that you will be remembered for many wonderful things but especially your relationships with people, particularly with athletes and coaches, many of whom you have mentored and guided over the years. Can you share any stories of any special connections with athletes or coaches? 

I firmly believe that organisational change, whether in sport or more generally, requires not just leaders but “drivers”; individuals who are focussed on striving to achieve almost to the point of obsession. Over the years I have had close involvement with three of our coaching staff who fit that description. In 2004 Todd Louden set up the Rugby Club’s Elite Development Squad (EDS) system which was a major factor in the Club’s rise to preeminence. Around the same time we took ownership of the Flames franchise in the Women’s National Basketball League. Karen Dalton has been the driving force throughout the ensuing years culminating in the Brydens Sydney Uni Flames winning the Premiership last season. Nine years ago John Curran became the first Director of our Soccer Club. His tireless work has seen our women’s teams achieve pre-eminent status in the WNPL1 competition in Sydney.  

You must have incredible dedication and passion to have led SUSF for so many years as President. Where does that drive to keep turning up come from? 

I have been extremely fortunate to have discovered my real purpose in life, and to have been given the opportunity to pursue it. You never tire of doing something you are genuinely passionate about. 

Do you see yourself as an enabler in the role of President, helping chart the course and ensuring everyone shares that vision? 

Interestingly, I can’t really recall a situation where everyone involved shared the vision. It is enough that sufficient people share the vision and the rest don’t actively oppose it. 

Is there any one achievement during your record term as President of SUSF that you are most proud of? 

I tend not to think in terms of a single achievement but rather the totality of being involved in developing a system which can make a significant difference to young people’s lives. 

The academic athlete is central to the culture of SUSF. Why do you think the combination of study and sport is so important? 

Historically in Australia gifted young people had to choose between sport and tertiary study, unlike in the US where the college system enables athletes to obtain a degree qualification as part of their athletic development. There is now general recognition of the problems many elite level athletes face when their sporting careers end. This is less so where, as with our system, athletes are assisted to reach their full sporting and academic potential. 

Over many years the University of Sydney has become the university of choice for aspiring elite athletes.  What do you see as the value of the SUSF Elite Athlete Program, a system which you proposed? 

The sporting scholarship system began in 1991. A few years later, the then Executive Director of the Sports Union, Greg Harris, and I visited major universities in the US to observe their sporting programs. We noted the very extensive support structures provided to their scholarship athletes and decided to implement some of these provisions. This was the start of what was later formalised as the Elite Athlete Program. Its importance is reflected in the fact that many of our alumni acknowledge the critical importance of the support they received in enabling them to successfully cope with both sport and study. 

You’ve been described as a quiet achiever. Is that part of your approach to leadership? 

Two things I learnt decades ago are that you don’t do anything expecting gratitude nor do you do anything expecting recognition. It’s very gratifying when either happens but you do things for your own personal satisfaction. Knowing you have helped to make a difference is reward enough. 

What will you miss most about not being SUSF’s President? 

One big change I have noticed already is when I see something and think, “We should get that fixed,” and then remember that it’s not really my problem now. 

What are you looking forward to spending your time on now? 

I’ll remain just as involved with sport at the University but in a different role. Over the past couple of years I’ve begun to focus heavily on women’s sport, in particular with the women’s soccer program and the Flames. But there are many other sports where our women are performing at an extremely high level. I want to help us achieve recognition as the preeminent non-government organisation in women’s sport in Australia. 

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