Jeff Altier is a Stetson Hatter. Always has been, always will be.
In his more than 30 years of association with Stetson University, Altier has filled almost every possible role in the Athletics Department. He started as a student-athlete, playing for legendary coach Pete Dunn as a part of the Hatter baseball program.
Altier was a star football and baseball player at Sarasota Riverview High School, where both his parents were teachers. His father, Larry Altier, coached Riverview baseball teams that twice won state championships. At Stetson, Altier served as captain for the Hatter team that, in 1982, was nationally ranked and advanced to the NCAA Tournament as an independent. It was the first of Dunn’s 16 NCAA Tournament teams as head coach. The Hatters finished with a record of 40-18 including NCAA Tournament victories over both Florida and South Florida in the Atlantic Regional at Miami.
Following graduation, he was recruited to be a player-coach in Australia, where he eventually served as an assistant coach to the Australian national baseball team.
“I had always had a dream, once I got to college, that I wanted to be a Division One head baseball coach,” Altier said. “That was my goal and objective. I thought I’d get a chance to play pro ball, and had a lot of interest, but a stress fracture in my lower back ruled that out.”
The Perth, Australia semi-pro baseball team Altier eventually signed with played far fewer games than he would have had to play in the American minor league system, which would allow his back injury to heal. Altier and his fiancée, Sarah, decided it would be a perfect way for him to continue to play and for them to see the world. They honeymooned in California, Tahiti and Sydney on the way to Perth, where Altier not only played and coached, but helped develop youth programs for baseball, which was a new sport down under in the 1980s.
In the off-season he taught accounting and physical education at a private school.
“I created my own physical education program, which I implemented at LaSalle College,” Altier said. “They kept the curriculum, even after I left, because, to them, it was an innovative approach to physical education. To do that in a different country, and a different society, I was very proud of that.”
The success Altier had teaching and coaching while in Australia only fueled his desire to coach once he returned to the United States. The experience down under also ignited what has become another life-long passion, but more on that later.
After two years in Australia, Dunn offered Altier a graduate assistant coaching position allowing he and Sarah returned to Stetson. It was a dream come true for the former catcher, who always pictured himself following Dunn’s footsteps into the college baseball coaching profession.
“I volunteered for that first year and received absolutely nothing while I worked on my masters degree,” Altier said. “By that time we had a couple of kids. I taught math at DeLand High School for three periods in the morning before going to the office then to baseball practice. After practice was over, I went to class from 6-9. By the end, I created my own job.
“I approached Pete and told him that I would raise enough money to pay my salary if he would hire me as a coach. So we negotiated and came to terms and Pete gave me a tremendous opportunity. In the end, the hours I worked during that time, and the money I was paid, was inconsequential because I was doing what I really loved to do. I had to do all the sales stuff, and all of the fundraising, in order to allow me to coach. I had a great time.”
It was also during that time that Altier picked up a nickname that stuck with him for years. Part of his duties as an assistant coach was overseeing the Hatters’ conditioning program. The players referred to the program at a “boot camp” and Altier, as the leader, was given the moniker “Boots” – at least that’s one of the stories that explains his nickname.
It was after Altier became a full-time assistant coach, using the experience he gained in raising money for his salary, that he began to dabble in other areas. He worked to improve promotions at events and to raise money. He also worked to grow the Hatter Dugout Club, which tripled in membership under his direction.
Following six years with the Hatters baseball program, then Director of Athletics Bob Jacoby offered Altier a chance to move to the administrative side of the department on a full-time basis.
“Bob asked me what it was that I got the greatest reward from in what I was doing,” Altier said. “I told him that it was getting to know and work closely with the young men in the baseball program. At that time we were carrying about 45 players and I said ‘I really get to know them and make a difference in their lives.’
“I felt like I made a huge impact on who they were going to become by teaching them discipline; not just about how to play the sport, which was important and we were very successful, it was the discipline, the commitment, the loyalty to each other that I thought I could instill and project to them. I think I had an impact, and I was really happy because that is what I enjoyed.”
Jacoby responded by asking if Altier would like to have that kind of impact on 245 students, not just the 45 on the baseball team.
“That made an impression on me and so I agreed to take the job and he gave me a nice raise,” Altier said. “It was very difficult to step away from coaching, but I knew I was going to have an impact on a larger population.”
Jacoby also planted a seed with Altier, who was just 31-years-old at the time, with the promotion. It was a seed that bore fruit just a five short years later when he was given the chance to replace the retiring Director of Athletics.
“I really didn’t realize what that meant, at 31, that I could become an A.D at a division one school,” Altier said. “At that time there were 240 of them and if I was successful and did what Bob asked me to do, I was going to be in the prime position to succeed him. Bob was a man of his word and he kept his promise. I didn’t realize the significance of it and what an opportunity it was.”
In the five years between assistant baseball coach and being named director of athletics by former University President Dr. Doug Lee, Altier oversaw the ticket office, marketing, promotions, concessions and team travel. It was also during that time that he twice served as Tournament Manager for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship at the old Orlando Arena.
Since becoming AD, Altier has served as Tournament Director for that event three times (1999, 2004 and 2014) and will do so again in 2017 when the event returns to the Amway Center in Orlando.
It was during those first few years as A.D. that the athletics department underwent its first period of substantial growth, especially with regard to facilities. First came the Mandy Stoll Tennis Center, then the Wilson Athletic Center was built. It was not long before his focus returned to his first love – baseball.
“The truth is, we had tried this back in 1988 when I was assistant baseball coach and we still needed a baseball facility nine years later,” Altier said. “We formed a group which was with Bob Apgar along with the city manager, Wayne Sanborn, and other members of the Breakfast Rotary Club. We formed a group called the Deland Sports Redevelopment Association and I told them I’d throw the full weight of the University behind them. I was not even sure what that meant, but I told them that we had to address the baseball stadium as the first project.”
To help with the cost of the project, Altier started recruiting.
“I developed a group called the Athletic Development Task Force, which later evolved into the Trustee Athletic Committee. This group included some major movers such as alumni Patricia Wilson, Ken Kirchman and Art Sullivan. It also included the President of Walt Disney World Al Weiss, and Dennis Higginbotham, a car dealer in New Smyrna Beach area,” Altier said. “Dennis took us around in his plane to a lot of facilities and we got to see what real success looks like. So our first really big project was the baseball stadium.”
Built in conjunction with the City of DeLand, Melching Field opened in 1999 and is still regarded as one of the nation's premiere college baseball facilities. In just 17 seasons in the facility, Stetson has hosted the Atlantic Sun Conference championship tournament 11 times. That event will return to DeLand again in 2017.
The building did not stop with the construction of the new baseball facility. In 2002 Stetson broke ground on a new on-campus softball field, which was ready for competition in February of 2003. Since opening, Patricia Wilson Field has been named Collegiate Softball Field of the Year four times.
By the time Dr. Wendy Libby arrived at Stetson University as President in the summer of 2009, Altier had the building bug again. For years he had wanted to rekindle the Hatters long-dormant football program and, in Dr. Libby, he found a willing partner to make that happen.
“Bob was still the A.D. the first time I brought up football, but the University wasn’t ready at that time,” Altier said. “After Dr. Libby was hired, but before she came on board, she asked me what athletics could do to help the university grow enrollment, improve the vibrancy of campus, and that the alumni would be proud of.”
The first move was starting club sports and, in just a few short years, that program has grown to include 20 teams competing in everything from skydiving, basketball, soccer and lacrosse, to bass fishing, surfing and shooting.
“Starting club sports was huge because it helped change the culture of the institution,” Altier said. “Bringing football back was something I had advocated for a long time and we found the right forum to move that project forward. We found the financial support to make it happen, and did all of it in a way that provided financial stability for the institution at a time when we might have been struggling with enrollment.”
In addition to bringing football back, Altier also added the sports of women’s lacrosse and the emerging sport of sand (now beach) volleyball, bringing the Hatters growing athletics program to 18 sports. To house those programs, and to give the men’s and women’s soccer programs the facilities they needed, the Stetson Athletics Expansion Initiative was launched.
Fundraising efforts again proved fruitful, with more than six million in funds brought in to build the new Athletics Training Center on campus, in addition the City of DeLand spent more than $4 million to expand and make the improvements necessary at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium to house a new Division I football program. In addition, a facility for the beach volleyball program has been added and, in the coming years, a new Aquatic Center at Lake Beresford will be home for the Stetson crew teams as well as a water research facility and botanical garden. The Sandra Stetson Aquatic Center is scheduled to open in 2018.
“That can have a transformational impact upon this program,” Altier said. “I feel like I’ve been a critical part of the development of that program but this has a chance to involve in something more and, to me, that is exciting. Being part of the leadership team that helped change this university is probably the thing I take my most pride in. I love all the facilities.
“My favorite spot on campus is on top of the ATC where I can look out and see everything. Knowing that I was a significant part of fundraising, designing and development of the athletic facilities built here is really rewarding, because I know it changed the look of the campus.”
With the growth of existing programs, and the addition of others, the 245 student-athletes Altier was tasked with leading has grown to more than 400. The job of an athletic director has also become increasingly complex in the age of social media, but Altier’s focus has remained squarely on providing Stetson University students, especially those student-athletes, the best possible experience during their time on campus.
“My daily efforts are there,” Altier said. “Now I get to push the initiative of a mentoring program and a leadership academy. I get to help facilitate and push a video streaming project and I’m able to hire wonderful people to make these projects go forward. In some ways, my satisfaction now comes from surrounding myself with all these people who get great satisfaction and reward out of making our athletic department better every day.”
Altier will be the first to admit that he doesn’t spend much time looking back at what he has accomplished because he is so focused on looking ahead to the next project, but his list of accomplishments is impressive. In addition to his duties on campus, which includes a seat on the President’s Cabinet, Altier has taken on Atlantic Sun Conference and Pioneer Football League leadership roles, chairing many committees and serving as A-Sun vice-president.
Additionally, he has served on the National Association of College Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Division IAAA board of directors, the NCAA Academics Eligibility Compliance Cabinet and as a member of the prestigious NCAA Leadership Council. Locally he has served as president of the DeLand Rotary Club, vice-president of the DeLand Sports Redevelopment Association, and is a graduate of Leadership DeLand and Leadership Orlando.
He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Central Florida Sports Commission. Altier was honored as the West Volusia Sportsperson of the Year for 2004 and, in 2011, he was recognized by his peers in NACDA as the Under Armour Southeast Region Division I Athletic Director of the Year.
“I was extremely engaged with the NCAA on a national basis for about 15 years, but during the years we were planning to reinstitute football I had to prioritize my activities,” Altier said. “I stepped away for the last few years, but I am ready to reengage again and get back as part of that.”
One of the ways he has reengaged with the NCAA is by aggressively seeking to serve as the host institution for championship events. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a part of that, but Stetson has also bid to host the Beach Volleyball championship and he wants to see both the baseball and women’s basketball programs have a chance to host on the national stage.
“Athletic success is one of the greatest ways you can get attention to the University and success on a national basis means you’re competing in a NCAA tournament,” Altier said. “You are a part of that event which associates you with NCAA elite. The same way in which our video production operations are branded with ESPN because we are associated strongly with that. Also our merchandise agreement has us branded with Nike. We want to be branded with the best, the most significant, with everything we do.”
To continue moving the athletics program forward, Altier is looking ahead toward a major renovation effort at the Edmunds Center. Fundraising for that project is already underway, and the plan is to completely change to look and feel of that building, inside and out. When completed, the building will give the programs that use the facility a competitive advantage in recruiting, the fans who follow those teams a positive environment in which to enjoy the games, and the entire university a multi-use facility that will be conducive to continued growth.
“I’ve never been one that reminisces very much,” Altier said. “I’ve always been more concerned about today and tomorrow than yesterday. I do, on occasion, stop and take a breath and look back. I think the annual exercise we do with evaluations is something that gives you a moment to reflect on what you’ve done in the past year to add significance to it. You have to allow yourself a chance to appreciate what you have accomplished.
“This is a completely different place from where I started. I’ve been a strong advocate for women’s athletics and I believe Title IX is wonderful. Staffing, scholarships and facilities have seen significant growth in women’s sports.”
Away from athletics, Altier still has an adventurous soul. That first experience in Australia fueled a fire that has led him, and his family – wife Sarah, who is also a dual degree holder from Stetson, along with children Heath (Stetson MBA, 2009), Garrett and Brianne – to travel to the far corners of the earth.
His two favorite places to visit so far have been the Taj Mahal in India and Machu Picchu, which is in Peru, but the list of countries stamped onto his passport is long and varied.
“There are a lot of countries on it,” Altier said. “I love Africa. I’m an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan and I’ve read every book he ever wrote about Tarzan, and there are 26 of them. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa and I enjoy all that. I also enjoy Northern Africa and spent time in Egypt. The Middle East is fascinating. It has been a while since I went there, so it was a little calmer.”
Those stops in the Middle East have included Syria, Jordan, Israel, Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“We took a bus from Nepal across Asia, through the Middle East to northern Africa and stopped all kinds of places,” Altier said. “Turkey was a phenomenal country with great deal of diversity and history.”
Coming from Italian heritage, Altier said he has visited Italy several times and has seen most of that country.
One of his favorite stories from his travel was an experience he had in Mongolia.
“Mongolia was a true adventure,” Altier said. “We had an opportunity to be a part of naadam - the great horse race they have. The community comes together with 200 horses in the starting gate. They ride the horses 20 miles and all of the riders are between six and 16-year-old kids – boys riding bare back. We were a part of the starting gate, on the top of a Jeep amongst all of the horses. Kids were giving me high fives on top of their horses before the race started.”
Altier said there are many more stories from the family’s travels; enough to fill a book with their experiences. But writing a memoir is not something he has any interest in undertaking.
“Sarah more inclined to write the travel memoir,” Altier said. “I more inclined to talk about the experience of all the different foods I’ve eaten; all kinds of beasts – animals and insects. We have some wonderful photographs.”
With all that he has experienced in his life, Altier understands just how fortunate he has been.
“I’ve been lucky and, to me, a lot of the luck started when I looked at going to Australia,” Altier said. “I look at my job here and it has been a lot of luck. I look at the folks I’ve met along the way, and some of the people I’ve gotten to work with along the way, and so much of that is chance and luck. I know I do good work, so I’m not being self-deprecating at all, but I know a lot of it is fortune and I’ve been fortunate to be in this position. I’ve been fortunate to associate with good people who have helped me achieve my goals. My parents, Coach Eddie Howell, who sent me to Australia, Stetson Presidents Doug Lee and Wendy Libby, great coaches and student-athletes, and wonderfully supportive Hatter fans have all been part of the formula.”
What Altier is not ready for yet is a ride off into the sunset.
“I’ve worked really hard for a really long time and, to me I don’t see myself working any less hard. I work hard, I play hard and I enjoy life. I have to try to figure out how to spend more time with my kids now that they aren’t at home.”
Eldest son, Heath, married in October and lives in Jacksonville where he is an investment banker. Daughter Brianne is the Coordinator of International Education at the University of South Alabama and recently got engaged. Youngest son Garrett has followed in his father’s footsteps and is the Athletic Marketing Coordinator at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.
In addition to finding time to see his children, Altier said he is looking forward to being a grandfather.
“I’m really looking forward to grandkids, but I’m also looking forward to more adventures and I’m looking forward to helping people reach their goals. I think that has become more important to me than it was when I first started. I think that’s what the future is.
“When I look at Stetson, I think there is an evolution of our athletic success that we have yet to take. I’ve seen the community grow and I’ve seen the University grow and we are starting to reach a point where we’ve got to take that next leap. That next leap is an Edmunds Center that is renovated and modern and crowds that are large and enthusiastic.”
That push for growth has defined Altier during his first 20 years as Director of Athletics, and it will continue to be his focus for the foreseeable future.
“If it was just me, I would want to continue to grow,” Altier said. “I say that emotionally because I think that when you grow you are thriving, you are showing strength and you are improving.”
And those are the things any lifelong Hatter should want for Stetson University. It is certainly all that Altier has ever wanted for the Stetson Athletics program.