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Joe Battista: Coach, Leader, Fundraiser

on June 05, 2010 12:00 PM

For a man who has spent nearly his entire adult life at Penn State, Joe Battista came dangerously close to never becoming a Nittany Lion at all.

"Thank goodness my mom made me apply to Pitt and Penn State," Battista said. "I actually ended up here by accident."

As a high school senior in 1979, Battista thought he was "signed, sealed, and delivered to Notre Dame" as a recruit to play Division I ice hockey. All he had to do was get in.

But Battista, now 49, didn't get in and was instead forced to look elsewhere and chose Penn State. After graduating in 1983 and bouncing around various hockey organizations, Battista returned to Happy Valley to coach the Icers – a high-level club hockey team – in 1987 and attempt to take the team to NCAA varsity status.

"I figured I'd do it five years tops and then if I didn't get us to varsity status I'd move on either to a new school or a different career," he said.

Twenty-three years later, Battista still calls Happy Valley his home. Currently serving as the Director of Major Gifts for the Smeal College of Business, Battista represents the ultimate Penn State alumni. He's returned the hockey program to glory, helped raise millions of dollars for the athletic department, and now sets the table for major projects at the business school.

"It was working out pretty good," Battista said. "I was making a lot of money doing the camps. I ran my own clinics and camps outside of Penn State and I liked what I was doing.

"I loved what I was doing. I was teaching, I was coaching, I was lecturing. It felt like I was making a difference."

Little did he know at the time, he was also making a difference in his own life.

Having spent countless hours working with and molding young adults at the hockey rink, the long-time coach became even more prepared for the rigors of parenting, Battista's wife of 20 years, Heidi said.

Now with two children in their late teens and another set to turn 10 in June, Joe handles almost everything with ease.

"He's dealt with a lot through the years, so that's been much more valuable as our children have gotten older," Heidi said. "I'm the one who's not used to these things and he's seen it all. He knows how to motivate and communicate with kids, and that's certainly been a help with our own family."

When Battista made the decision in 2006 to leave the Icers for the Executive Director position with the Nittany Lion Club, he took the preparation and motivation strategies with him.

The job was the "perfect transition" for Battista because of his experience as a former Lion Ambassador, his work with Penn State athletics, and his passionate love for the university, he said.

Besides the work experience, Battista said his personality, charisma and passion to be the best – all characteristics that helped him become the most successful hockey coach in Penn State history – made him the ideal fit for the job.

But when he took the job, Battista never imagined the difficulties he would encounter with the Penn State alumni he was tasked with leading.

"It was probably the most exhilarating, exciting, but equally frustrating three years of my life," he said.

Prior to starting, Battista said he was told to take a second-rate operation that had chronically underachieved and fix it and he tried to bring his team-first mentality and apply it to the job.

The problem, however, is that his co-workers didn't share the same desire to improve.

"Let's just say that I wish, if we could do it all over again, my one boss would've given the same mandate to the whole staff as he gave to me," Battista said. "Because in their minds, things were all honky-dory. Most things didn't need changed or the things that they thought needed changed were, in my mind, details or insignificant."

The fact that the other staff members didn't share Battista's drive for success really frustrated him, Heidi said.

As a coach, Battista was the highest-ranking official and he had final say on all decisions relating to his team. But that wasn't the case at the Nittany Lion Club and as a result he had to adjust, Heidi said.

Despite all his efforts, Battista simply never gained the following of the Nittany Lion Club and made the decision to move on.

According to Scott Balboni, a former Battista assistant and current Icers head coach, it's impossible to replace a man like Battista either behind the bench or leading a major organization.

"Plain and simple, Joe Battista is by far the hardest working person I have ever been around," Balboni said. "When I worked with him, I would often get emails at 3 or 4 in the morning, or messages on my phone from the office at that time. He did whatever it took in every situation to make the program as successful as possible."

And everywhere Battista went, success followed.

In his 19 years as head coach of the Icers, Battista's teams captured six American Collegiate Hockey Association national championships and were the national runner-up six times as well.

In three years as Executive Director of the Nittany Lion Club, Battista oversaw an increase in members by nearly 7,000 and an increase in donations by more than $6 million.

In his current role with the business school, Battista works to raise money for various projects, something he likened to recruiting season for ice hockey.

"What I'm doing is no different than when I was trying to sell a kid on coming to play hockey for me," he said. "This is trying to tell somebody that your gift to this college is going to be a difference maker."

At the end of the day, that's really all Battista cares about.

"How many people can say that when they were at a place this big, something they did made a lasting mark?" he asked. "I get jazzed up about that. It's not an ego thing, but it's because I want to be able to look back and say, 'That project that I worked on, look at how many kids benefited.'"

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