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Kristin Hughes Is in It To Win It


Smith’s athletics director takes the sports program to new heights


Published November 1, 2023

Smith’s home soccer game on Mountain Day has just gotten underway when Athletics Director Kristin Hughes, M.S. ’93, arrives at the pitch.

Dressed in business-casual black pants and a white knit top, she stands quietly on the sidelines near the opposing goal, following the play intently.

Ordinarily, Hughes would be watching from up near the stands, but on this particular day she has only a brief window before an online leadership class she’s teaching begins (she also teaches an on-campus class on sport philosophy and ethics). 

Still, she’s made time to be at the game—something she does for every home game for each of Smith’s sports teams.

Such dedication defines Hughes’ leadership as director of athletics and recreation, say coaches, players, and numerous other members of the campus community. Her commitment shows itself in small gestures—slipping birthday cards in staff mailboxes, making doughnut runs for teams on game days—as well as large ones, such as advocating for new ways to support student-athletes.

“Kristin is a real presence, for players and coaches,” says Kathryn Brawn, Smith’s head soccer coach. 

“You just feel so relaxed around her,” says chemistry professor Kate Queeney, the college’s faculty athletics representative. “She supports and values the people who work with her, and she understands the way athletics can build community for everyone.”

A former Division I college basketball coach and a graduate of Smith’s master of science degree program in exercise and sport studies, Hughes oversees 11 Smith teams in the NCAA’s Division III as well as club and intramural sports and a recreation program that serves the entire campus.

Since becoming athletics director in 2015, she has brought in nationally renowned speakers; created new programming on equity, inclusion, and wellness topics; and established the Friends of Athletics Endowment to increase support for student-athletes. 

Her leadership has shown itself in other ways: This year, for the first time in team history, the Smith basketball team earned a spot in the NCAA championship semifinal.

Hughes’ track record of success—in both team competitions and the academic accomplishments of Smith athletes—has been recognized by Women Leaders in Sports, which named her the 2023 Division III Nike Executive of the Year.

Campus community members describe Hughes as “an inspiration,” someone who believes in “winning with people,” as her email sign-off says.

“There’s just a gravitational pull with Kristin—she’s good to be around,” says Alexandra Keller, interim vice president for campus life and dean of the college. “You can choose to be competitive in different ways, and she has chosen to put people first.”

Sofia Trotta ’23, founder of the Smith rowing team’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, says Hughes has been “approachable and supportive” about student concerns.

“She is a big promoter of Smith being ‘one team,’” says Trotta, noting that players from various Smith teams now routinely attend each other’s games. “I am so grateful to her for her work to facilitate an exceptional student-athlete experience.”

Hughes sat down to discuss a range of topics a few weeks before traveling to New Orleans to accept the Nike Division III Executive of the Year Award in October.

About her career path:

“My father was a high school football coach. He taught me the enthusiasm and the passion for sports. If we lost a game, I was crushed for days. We spent a lot of time at games, and it’s definitely how we connected. He also started a sports program for girls in my town and fought hard for that.

“I never thought I’d be an administrator; I really had no desire to do that. But I’ve ended up liking it. I enjoy supporting coaches and teams. Coaching is an extremely difficult and demanding job, and most people don’t know what really goes into it. It’s not about the level or the school. It’s a people business—which is wonderful, but also really challenging.”

 About the student-athlete experience at Smith:

“A lot of students make the assumption that they don’t want to go to a women’s college. We can really help shift that perspective. We’re smaller and don’t have as many sports as other schools. What we do have is an opportunity to really prioritize this experience for our athletes. We’re not sharing facilities and resources [with men’s sports]. And we align with the focus on excellence across this campus. We talk about student-athletes—it doesn’t have to be either-or. There is space and time for all of it. My pitch is, if you want to be somewhere where you can focus on excellence as a person and an athlete—if that gets you excited—this is the place for you!”

On winning:

“In women’s sports, we tend to shy away from talking about winning to talking about the program. But our athletes want to compete, and it’s our job and our responsibility to support their competitive side. The confidence that comes from competing at that level—it’s the confidence you might need to speak up in class, leave a bad relationship, or ask your boss for a raise. Winning is an important piece for what it does for athletes—and for the whole campus community. We want it to be an expectation.”

 On equity and inclusion:

“Inclusion is definitely something our student-athletes are very engaged and thoughtful about. It’s in how we think about recruiting; it’s in our leadership program and how we bring in speakers; in how we talk about whether our building is welcoming. I won’t pretend we’re getting it all right. But that lens is there.”

Best and worst things about her role:

“Absolutely, the best thing is the people. Student-athletes and coaches are people I care deeply about and try to take care of. The one thing I don’t like is budgets. It would be easy to get caught up in the business side of things. I could sit at my desk all day—but I don’t. I like to get out and talk to the coaches and attend games. My [Get Fit Smith] spinning class is one of my outlets. I get to act like a coach there and yell and sweat.”

 On plans for Smith athletics:

“We need a pretty massive facility renovation. This building [Ainsworth Gym] has become dated. Another goal is the development piece: We want to build an athletics endowment so that our students don’t have to spend time selling T-shirts. Our coaches have worked hard to reach out to alums, parents, and friends. We’ll keep working on that.”

 On what it takes to be an effective athletics director:

“To me, the most important quality someone has to have is emotional intelligence—the ability to understand people. The conversations I have with coaches are 5% about the sport. The majority is about all of the things that come with dealing with a group of people.”

 On staying inspired about her work:

“That’s easy. The people here are fantastic. I know they are going to step up, and they have never let me down.”

 Barbara Solow is the assistant director for news and strategic communications at Smith.
Lead photograph by Shana Sureck