Verdugo reflects about his path on and off the field

Sitting comfortably behind his desk tucked away at the end corner of the Blugold Athletic Department’s offices in Brewer Hall, Jason Verdugo is the epitome of a man who is right where he was destined to be.

Of course, there were twists and turns along the way as life throws curve balls at the best of us. You know what is said about the best laid plans ...they often go awry and Verdugo is no exception.

For the most part, though, the Blugold director of athletics has known what he wanted to pursue professionally from an early age and he has accomplished most of what he dreamed of achieving. Never looking back along the way, Verdugo is truly proof positive that dreams can and do come true.

At an early age “I told my dad I was going to go to ASU (Arizona State University) and he said ‘I hope your dream comes true.’”

It did and then some. Before looking at where Verdugo has been as a player, coach and administrator, let’s look at how he got there.

Growing up in the small mining town of Hayden, Arizona, which is north of Tucson and east of Phoenix, sports played a pivotal role in the now Blugold Athletic Director’s development and eventual professional career.

“Athletics were very big,” he said, as the town didn’t necessarily have other things to occupy either a young boy’s mind or time. With a father, David,Sr., who was both a high school teacher and football, track and basketball coach at one point during his formative years and a brother, David, Jr., who he described as a “very good high school athlete,” it was only natural that Jason would gravitate toward sports, too.

Both his father and brother attended Western New Mexico University, where David, Sr. played both football and track and David, Jr. was a four-year starter on the basketball team. Jason, though, still had his eyes on attending ASU and played every sport he could to ensure that his dream would one day come true.

“I guess you could say that it was in my DNA. Whatever sport was in season, you played,” Jason said.

The younger Verdugo was good at many sports and that didn’t go unnoticed by either of his parents.

When Jason was around nine or 10, the family moved to Tucson and his father sacrificed and made the commute 120 miles roundtrip per day to continue to work in Hayden, thus allowing his youngest son’s natural athletic talents to grow and eventually prosper in a larger, more sports-centric community.

That move would eventually pay off for Jason — and in a big way.

“By the time I was 12 or 13, I started to blossom, I started to be a little less uncoordinated,” Verdugo said.

The move, coupled with Verdugo’s growing achievements in several sports, was definitely worth it and it all led to where he is today.

Long story short, Verdugo eventually realized his childhood dream and became a multisport Division I athlete at the school he had always wanted to attend, Arizona State University. In baseball, he was a pitcher on the 1994 team that played in the College World Series. After being drafted in 1997, he played professionally in the San Francisco Giants minor league system for four years. In football at ASU, Verdugo was the backup quarterback to future NFL player Jake Plummer and a teammate of Pat Tillman, an Arizona Cardinal star who quit football after Sept. 11 to enlist in the military, where he was killed in Afghanistan.

While Verdugo readily admits that it was difficult to be a backup quarterback at Arizona State, he wouldn’t trade the friendship he and Plummer developed for anything in the world.

“It was hard to be a backup because I wanted to play competitively, but what made it easier was that he was the ultimate teammate,” Verdugo said of Plummer, who he remains friends with to this day.

While his resume shows his football and baseball accomplishments, Verdugo rather surprisingly admits that of the high school sports he participated in, it was actually basketball that was his favorite.

“Ultimately my talents in football and baseball were obviously better,” Verdugo candidly admits.

So was his keen awareness that to continue a trajectory in sports would mean that he better focus on his studies. While surprisingly Verdugo majored in history in college, there was actually a method to his madness.

Pattering his eventual career after his father’s professional path, Verdugo believed that a history major would be the perfect way to accomplish his ultimate goals. He later would receive a master of education in Educational Leadership and Administration from Northcentral University in 2013.

“I thought I was going to be a teacher, as I thought it was something I would enjoy,” he said, adding that the plan was to eventually teach and coach, just like his father, who would ironically enough work his way up to high school athletic director, too, one day.

And while Verdugo would teach in a classroom setting at Hamline University at one point during his career, it was the athletic field where he excelled as a coach, just as he did as a player.

Verdugo coached the baseball team at Hamline, located in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 2001-2012. He is the winningest coach in Hamline history, compiling more than 200 victories. That led to an 11-year stint with Hamline that ultimately ended up serving as the precipice for his current role at UWEC, which he assumed in June of last year.

He joined UW-Eau Claire after serving as the Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics at Hamline University from 2012-2023. He was the recipient of the 2019 NACDA Division III Athletics Director of the Year award. He has served on numerous NCAA committees during his career as an administrator and is in his first year as the NCAA Division III Management Council’s Vice Chair.

While Verdugo admits that moving to the Midwest almost a quarter of a century ago was “quite the adjustment,” he also realized that continuing to play in the minor leagues wasn’t going to pay the bills, as “there’s not a lot of money in the minor leagues and I knew I wanted to coach.”

The Blugold AD eventually grew to love this area and never looked back, remaining in this part of the country ever since.

Part of the reason he remained here, though, had to do with life happening, too. It was a life-changing event that would change Verdugo’s own life forever, but it would also teach him what’s really important along the way.

While at Hamline, Verdugo’s son, Justis, was born. It was obviously a proud moment in the AD’s life and he readily admits that he had the same hopes and dreams other fathers have of not only being a good dad, but also sharing the bonding moments and love of sports that David Sr., shared with him.

With hopes and dreams that he could be the same type of father as was David, Sr. and instill Justis with the same love of sports that his dad did with him, Jason would soon have to come to the realization that his role as a father would be completely different from how he had planned it.

Justis would be diagnosed as severely autistic and “the depth of that kept us here,” Verdugo said, explaining that the facilities in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area are second to none and provided his son with the type of care he would need. Now 23, Justis lives by himself — with the help of health care professionals — in an assisted-living facility.

Justis’ autism diagnosis might have halted Verdugo’s career path slightly, as perhaps the AD would have looked at positions all across the country at some point as opposed to staying in this region. What it didn’t put a stop to, though, was Verdugo’s eventual ascent up the career ladder that ultimately landed him in Eau Claire.

Verdugo feels that not being able to share his love of sports with Justis has in the long run actually helped him be a more effective coach and athletic director, as he now realizes that he can share those things with athletes and help inspire them just as his father positively influenced his life.

“I think what has made me a good AD,” he said. “There was an emptiness and void I had for a long time in that relationship and I think that (his job) has helped with that without a doubt for me.”

Jason Verdugo

Jason Verdugo spends as much time as possible at both UWEC athletic practices and games.

It probably has, as Verdugo can be spotted not only at as many Blugold sporting events as he can possibly attend, but also at many practices, too. Both allow him to be surrounded by athletes who can certainly benefit from the AD’s experience both as a coach and a sports administrator.

While the transition from coach to administrator took some getting used to for Verdugo, he now looks in the rearview mirror with no regrets about where his career path has taken him.

When asked if he ever missed coaching, Verdugo admits that “the first couple of years I did, just the day-to-day things and such,” but over time he found that “While I enjoy the games and the competition, I much rather watch student-athletes practice.”

As for his own coaching style — or mantra that he adheres to — that he believes serves him well in his administrative roles, Verdugo believes that both coaches and administrative leaders need to be — among other things — consistent, honest, personal and aggressive.

“Nobody has success being tentative,” Verdugo said, adding that an effective leader must also not come across as demeaning and unsupportive and has to be able to provide energy to the team whenever entering a room.

Possessing all those traits made this position at UW-Eau Claire attainable for Verdugo. It’s been a mere 10 months since he started the job, but he has enjoyed his time here immensely. There’s no question in his mind that he is exactly where he belongs.

Describing his short time here glowingly, Verdugo says the experience has been “far greater” than he ever could have expected it to be.

Zach Malvik, Jason Verdugo and James Schmidt

(l to r) UWEC director of athletics Jason Verdugo, new head men’s basketball coach Zach Malvik and Chancellor James Schmidt

“When you go into a position, you hope to get in with great people,” Verudgo said, adding that he is truly blessed to have administrators, fundraisers, coaches and players who make this job enjoyable and who push him to be his best every day.

As for his administrative team, Verdugo pointed specifically to associate director of athletics Robin Baker as someone who has especially made his job easier. “I couldn’t be more proud to have someone in the associate AD role.”

While being surrounded by such top-notch people certainly makes Verdugo’s job easier, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the position isn’t still both all-consuming and demanding.

So while that means that Verdugo who describes himself as “very passionate about golf” has no time to take to the course, he’s not complaining at all, as he sees it as no sacrifice whatsoever as he gladly immerses himself in his still relatively new position.

And it’s something he wouldn’t have any other way, as he knew the demands of the job when he accepted it and looks forward to continuing to lead the athletic department to even greater heights in the future.

“I’m grateful to be here,” Verdugo said. “I love this job and want to devote my full attention to it.”

Let’s face it, while many of us are doing just what we set out to do professionally, in all honesty, just as many — and probably more — people never actually get to have that dream job, or pursue what we set out to accomplish in our younger days and don’t get to actually live out our dreams.

Not Jason Verdugo, though.

With a job he loves in a career field he’s wanted to pursue since he was that young boy in Arizona, Verdugo proves that dreams can become reality.

And despite the challenging demands a position like his brings, Verdugo wouldn’t want it any other way.

“To be a kid from a small town and to have the career I had in high school and college, my dream came true,” Verdugo said.

To parlay that playing success into an eventual career as both a coach and now an administrator in his chosen field proves another thing: Verdugo had a plan, he executed it and is now reaping the dividends of the goals he set along the way. He’s one of the fortunate ones whose dreams actually came to fruition and he knows it.

“I’ve lived out my dream,” he said.