Greene, who graduated from O’Dea High and Notre Dame, spent many nights staring at his ceiling dreaming of becoming a major-leaguer. He didn’t realize that dream but became the first black athletic director at Auburn.
When Allen Greene was a sophomore at O’Dea High School in Seattle, he wrote down his goals. Twice.
The first set he posted on the ceiling in his bedroom, so they were the last thing he saw at night. The second set he posted on the mirror in his bathroom, so they were the last thing he saw before he left for school.
Mark Zender, the Irish’s baseball coach back then, first heard that story from Greene himself in the coaches’ office at O’Dea in the early 1990s. Twenty-five years later, Zender still relates the tale annually to his marketing students at Kentwood High School as an example of how to use motivation in a positive way.
There’s always been something unique about Greene. Those who knew him back then sensed he was stamped for greatness, whether it be in baseball, his athletic specialty, or business, or politics, or another field – Greene was going to make his mark.
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“Charisma is the word you’d use to describe him,’’ Zender said. “He lit up the room from the time he was a ninth-grader. He’s at the very, very top of the most memorable kids I’ve had the opportunity to coach, and it wasn’t his baseball ability. It was his character.”
“He had the ‘it’ factor,’’ added Tom McCabe, Greene’s summer coach with the U.S. Bank team. “Even at 16, you could tell he was special.’’
Baseball fizzled for Greene after three years in the minor leagues in the Yankees system. But last month, at the tender age of 40, Greene was named athletic director at Auburn University, one of the most prestigious – and challenging – jobs in college sports. He is the first African-American AD ever at Auburn, and just the third in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
The goals Greene posted at home as a youngster in Seattle weren’t audacious enough to include athletic director at Auburn. He wanted to be a major-leaguer. But it was his upbringing here that set the 1995 O’Dea graduate down a path of achievement that included a meteoric rise in the athletic departments at Notre Dame (his alma mater), the University of Mississippi and the University of Buffalo.
I talked to Greene last week just two days into his new job, which throws him smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning college-basketball scandal, with Auburn among the programs under fire. It was Greene’s first official interview, which he felt was appropriate – “I’ve got to give love to Seattle,’’ he said. “It has a special place in my heart.”
His parents, Claude and Lynda Greene – who divorced when Allen was 2 but remain the best of friends – attended his Auburn news conference in January, bursting with pride. Looking back at his Seattle roots, Greene feels nothing but fondness. Growing up in Bellevue’s Newport Hills, he vividly remembers riding bikes on the sidewalks, trails and backwoods with his buddy Adam Rittenhouse.
“There’s not a piece of cement or dirt in Newport he and I haven’t been through on our bikes,’’ Greene said with a laugh.
Lynda Greene marvels that she never had to punish Allen, and never had to worry about him getting his homework done, even if it took until midnight. She still laughs at the time that 9-year-old Allen sprained his wrist, but was determined to complete his newspaper route. He fashioned a homemade sling and tried to figure out a way to bundle the papers so he could still deliver them on his skateboard.
“I refer to him as an old soul in a child’s body,’’ said Lynda, who is executive director of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center. “He was that way from the moment he was born. I still laugh – even as a 5-year-old it was like having a conversation with an adult.”
A basketball player as well as baseball at O’Dea, Greene said that Zender and Irish hoops coach Phil Lumpkin (who died in 2009) were formative influences in his athletic career. But he singles out McCabe as “the igniter in this crazy life of mine.”
It was McCabe, as Greene’s summer baseball coach, who taught him self-confidence on the diamond – “to walk with my chest out and shoulders back at all times,’’ he said. “That’s held with me, this makes a couple of decades.”
Just as importantly, McCabe told an old friend, Brian O’Connor, then an assistant coach at Notre Dame, that he had a prospect in Seattle he needed to check out.
“I thought Allen was a perfect fit for what Notre Dame was doing,’’ said McCabe.
O’Connor flew out to watch Greene play, but the game he was supposed to see was rained out. Instead, they went to a coin-operated batting cage in Mountlake Terrace so O’Connor – now the head coach at Virginia — could at least see him take some swings – “and that’s where Allen Greene earned a scholarship to Notre Dame,’’ laughed McCabe.
After a successful three-year career at Notre Dame, the switch-hitting Greene, an outfielder, was drafted in the ninth round by the Yankees; Notre Dame teammate Brad Lidge was a first-rounder in the same 1998 draft. Greene’s pro career was not quite as successful; he had a .240 career average and was released in 2000.
“I was fired,’’ he said. “I joke about it with people, but sincerely, it was the first time I was ever told I was not good enough in baseball. It was a reality check. It helped me grow, and really made me realize how much of a business pro sports is – which is not a knock.”
After a brief stint in independent ball in 2001, Greene figured he’d put his Notre Dame finance degree to work. His first post-baseball job was as an assistant property manager for Common Ground Reality in Philadelphia. Then Greene went back to South Bend to work for Shamrock Net Design, first as a strategic and project manager, then as director of finance and internal operations.
But the athletic life still beckoned to Greene, and he landed a job in the compliance department at Notre Dame in 2003. After seven years in administration at Notre Dame, he moved to Ole Miss as an assistant AD from 2009-12, and then to become the deputy AD at Buffalo, before taking over as the school’s top man in November 2015.
Along the way, Greene – now married (to a fellow Notre Dame grad) with three young children — worked under the leading athletic directors in the country, including Bernard Muir, Kevin White, Danny White, Sandy Barbour and Pete Boone. He earned a reputation as a rising star in the profession. When former Auburn AD Jay Jacobs stepped down in November amid a series of scandals at the school, university president Steven Leath said that he kept hearing Greene’s name from people he respected.
“They kept saying things like, ‘He’s a superstar. He’s truly an elite leader. If you don’t hire him, Steve, you’ll regret this,’ ’’ Leath told AL.com.
At Auburn, of course, football is king – and the Tigers open the 2018 season against Washington, fittingly enough. Greene will be judged on the success of that program, as well as navigating the basketball crisis and the myriad other issues that face athletic directors, particularly at Power-5 schools. Greene is fully aware of the challenge ahead – but he savors it, as well as the opportunity he took last week to watch the Tigers baseball team take batting practice, a quiet moment of pleasure.
“I love being around the guys,’’ he said. “There’s no better feeling than being around teammates and the people you like.”
Greene said he didn’t even think about being the first black AD at Auburn until the night before his introductory news conference, when he knew the question would come up.
“On the one hand,’’ he said, “it never crossed my mind. I’m just another ambitious young person in this industry that has an outstanding job. On the other hand, it’s pretty incredible that a 40-year-old out of Seattle, Washington is athletic director at Auburn.
“Considering the state of affairs in our country and world, having a person of color in a leadership position speaks volumes to the present, and my acceptance by the Auburn family, here in the deep South, speaks volumes about how far we’ve come.’’
And how far Allen Greene has come from the days he’d lay in bed staring at his ceiling, and dreaming about what he was going to accomplish.