It was soccer-team judgment day at White Plains High School and Craig Masback wanted badly to accomplish what few freshmen before him had — be selected to the varsity team. The players lined up in two lines — offense and defense — and the coach went along the line, tapping the shoulders of the newly anointed varsity team and sending them to a separate field.
Masback played forward and lined up on offense. But the coach passed him by without sending him to the varsity field. Masback cannot explain why he did not simply accept his jayvee assignment. Instead he went and took a place in line with the defenders. Sure enough, when the coach went down the defenders’ line Masback was tapped. “I had never played one minute of defense. I don’t know what made me go stand in that line,” he recounts.
Knowing Masback, it is clear that the soccer episode was merely an early indication of his “carpe diem” approach to life. His diverse accomplishments could only have been compiled by someone who is unafraid of taking risks to create opportunity.
Masback’s current position as CEO of USA Track & Field, a position he has held for nearly a decade, is his latest opportunity. After concluding his own running career Masback became involved with USATF, then known as The Athletics Congress or TAC. He advocated for change and when the organization decided to try new leadership Masback was tapped to become CEO.
Since then Masback has directed a complete turnaround at USATF. He has presided over substantial increases in Olympic medals, sponsorship dollars, partnerships, visibility and television ratings — all important gauges of the sport’s health.
Even more impressive is that he accomplished this despite dealing with the issue of doping. “There is no question that the doping issue has been a major negative that is dragging down many of the positive things we’ve accomplished” he admits. By any measure the struggling organization Masback inherited has begun to thrive.
His role as CEO of USATF is the latest iteration of his involvement in track & field. In high school, although he was a soccer standout (his team was one of the best in the state), he also became one of the nation’s best middle distance runners and de facto national champion.
He considered Cornell, Dartmouth and Penn but ultimately chose Princeton because it seemed to have the best combination of soccer, track and academic programs. For the aspiring political science major the Woodrow Wilson School was a big draw, as was head track coach Larry Ellis. Ellis was the first black head coach of any sport in the Ivy League, and Masback was drawn to his philosophy. “I appreciated his manner, his commitment to the team concept and his view of track as a larger part of life … part of an overall experience. If I had never run again after Princeton I would still would have felt that I had an idyllic experience on the team.”
Despite coming in as a highly recruited athlete in soccer and track, Masback gave up soccer after a couple of months, citing the unexpected physicality of the collegiate game. He met with his soccer coaches and Coach Ellis, and all agreed that his potential was considerably higher in track. The soccer coaches let their prized recruit concentrate on track. “I think that only could have happened in the Ivy League” says Masback.
During his track career he established himself as one of the top milers in the country, but what he values most is his participation in team victories. He was part of two NCAA Championship relay teams and says his fondest memory is the team’s improbable victory over Navy his sophomore year.
After graduating in 1977 he went to Oxford for a graduate degree in politics. Here he found another unique opportunity. In 1979 the Penn and Cornell track teams sent a contingent over for a dual meet against an Oxford-Cambridge team. Masback planned to run for Oxford. The meet was to be held at Oxford’s famed Iffley Road track, where Roger Bannister ran history’s first sub-4 minute mile in 1954. As the meet approached, word spread that Bannister himself planned on attending. Masback saw opportunity. The Penn-Cornell squad included a talented miler that Masback knew could push him to a good time, and he persuaded the organizers to change the 1500 meter to a mile event. With Bannister watching, he ran 3:58.1 that day for not only his first-ever sub-4 minute mile, but also the first run on the famed track since Bannister’s a quarter century earlier.
Emboldened by his performance Masback improved rapidly and became the second ranked American and a serious contender for the Olympic team the following year. But after the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, Masback found it difficult to focus on making the U.S. team. He attended the trials but, perhaps anticipating his future job, spent more time organizing a union of track athletes than on his race. He finished fifth, the closest he would come to making an Olympic team. He continued his successful running career that spanned five more years, 10 U.S. National teams, and took him around the world.
After concluding his running career Masback planned to attend law school, but weeks before beginning at Harvard Law School in 1986 he was offered a job with a television production company. He withdrew from Harvard and plunged into television production and sports marketing. A year later he was the proud co-owner of Inclyne Sports, a production company that produced and sold sports events for television. Masback did everything from staging the events to selling the sponsorships to providing the television commentary — all skills that would prove to be enormously useful when he arrived at USATF.
Inclyne was successful but unpredictable. He sold it and resumed his plan of becoming a lawyer. When he matriculated in 1989 it was at Yale, not Harvard, and he graduated in 1994 and accepted a position with the prestigious D.C. firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. He moved on from there to USATF in 1997.
Masback’s experiences prior to USATF include an impressive array of jobs from television to the International Olympic Committee to corporate law. His path has not been at all linear, yet he still finds himself at the pinnacle of professional success as the head of one of the most powerful sports organizations in the world. There is an identifiable rhyme and reason to Masback’s story. At every turn he has made decisions — at times impulsive, but ultimately right — based on being open to any opportunity and, when necessary, making his own opportunities.
His personal philosophy gives him the freedom to make unconventional choices and take risks. “I don’t believe in regrets,” he says. “You do what you do and keep going.”
This story was written by Meredith Rainey Valmon in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.