Alan Haller paused and gathered himself.
He was in the middle of his introductory press conference as director of athletics for Michigan State University and he was choking up a bit.
He had already thanked his former teammates, former coaches (including his little league coaches, his high school coaches and his collegiate coaches), his former MSU football coach George Perles, MSU’s current deputy athletic director Jennifer Smith, his family, his sons and daughter, and his dad.
And now he was talking about his late mother.
“My mom is not with us anymore,” Haller said.
The nine seconds of silence which followed felt more like 90.
“I used to get really, really nervous before my football games and track meets,” he continued. “I would come out into the stadium, on the track, and I’d look up and I’d find my mom. And she’d be looking at me. And that would calm me down. So, mom, I know you’re here today, I feel your presence. I’m calm. I’m ready to go. Thank you, mom, for everything you’ve done for me.”
With those words, on the biggest stage he has earned the right to be on in his life to date, Haller thanked the woman who raised him and attended — alongside his dad — every one of his athletic events as he was growing up in the city next door.
Haller grew up seven miles from Michigan State’s campus; just take Harrison Road south a mile and then Mt. Hope Avenue west into Lansing, and after you crossed Logan Street (now Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.), you’d arrive at his house on Cooley Drive. Growing up, Haller tossed the local newspaper on to the porches of his neighbors and he bagged groceries at Schmidt’s in the nearby Colonial Plaza. He hung out at Marc’s Arc (a local arcade) and he’d head over to campus often, attending art camp and football camp.
Forty years later, here he was, surrounded by MSU royalty, all eyes on him. He had received a standing ovation as he walked in with his kids, past the MSU cheerleaders, past the entirety of the men’s basketball team, and past the pep band playing the university’s fight song. He was ready; ready to take on the challenge that his entire life had prepared him for to this date — to give back to the university that had already given so much to him.
Alan Haller is in the building. pic.twitter.com/cea3Ajy7y6— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 7, 2021
This isn’t a job, he said. It’s a responsibility. A dream responsibility at that.
And it all started just down the road.
Haller is a product of Lansing Public Schools — a graduate of Lansing J.W. Sexton High School, as he proudly proclaims. At Michigan State, he was a dual-sport student-athlete, playing football and running track. After his collegiate career, Haller played four years in the NFL and was cut eight times.
“That’s probably, if you think about it, not even possible,” he said with a laugh. “But I learned the skill of being resilient and persevering through tough times.”
Q: Tom, what makes a good athletic director?— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 7, 2021
In the crowd this day at the Tom Izzo Hall of History inside the Breslin Center sat many people important to Haller, including his kids, his teammates, his mentors, his old principal and his former coaches. But none were more important than the man sitting in the third row, third in from the right.
You see, Dr. Clarence Underwood was an assistant athletic director when Haller was a student-athlete at MSU. Underwood took the time to take Haller under his wing and made him feel special; he always gave him advice and guided him through his time at MSU.
It was a pivotal time in his life, so Haller made certain to point that out.
“I learned during that time how to treat people, how to conduct yourself, and how to look for the future,” Haller said.
Dr. Underwood went on to become MSU’s 16th athletic director.
“I said (to myself at the time), you know what, I’m going to go through this life and I’m going to try to have an impact on young people the way Dr. Underwood had an impact on me,” Haller said. “And here I stand in front of you as the 20th athletic director, in large part because of your leadership and your guidance in my life, so thank you, Dr. Underwood. You taught me well.”
Haller also addressed the department staff and coaches gathered in the room, promising to listen, learn, and to be engaged, with a focus on togetherness.
“Together, we will create a culture of excellence with a foundation of integrity, honesty, transparency, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Haller said. “Together, we will celebrate our successes. Together, we will support each other through challenging times. We are going to do some incredible things, together, and we’re going to have a little fun while doing it.”
Haller committed to walking through the tailgates during each of the six home football Saturdays this fall. He wants to learn from the community and listen to the fans, supporters and community members. He has set up a fan engagement committee and has made that one of his priorities.
We asked new MSU Athletic Director Alan Haller what fans can expect to see under his leadership. pic.twitter.com/6no7AKxuHS— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 7, 2021
“(I want) to make sure that our fans come to our events, go home and say, you know what, I can’t wait until I get back to Michigan State events,” Haller said. “I’m a huge Disney fan; we’re going to do some exciting things and make sure that our fans really enjoy the experience outside of the contest that’s either on the field, track or court. It’s going to be one of the things I’m going to focus on.”
Although the day’s event was presented as a press conference, only one question was even asked by a member of the media. It was more of a celebration; a pep rally, really — and the man of the hour was the guy standing in front in the sharp grey suit with the green tie and the Spartan logo pin on his lapel. A man who had crisscrossed this campus for decades — first as a child, then as a teenager and finally as a student-athlete. He spent 13 years in the MSU Police Department before becoming a leader in developing athlete administrators within MSU Athletics for more than a decade.
And here he was, having been introduced by a Michigan State legend (Tom Izzo), a Michigan State newcomer (Mel Tucker), current executive leadership (President Samuel Stanley and Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum), current Michigan State coaches (Jacquie Joseph and Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll) and finally — per his request — by a student-athlete (senior Brooke Bogan, MSU Track & Field).
“Is this really real?” Haller asked himself and the hundreds of Spartans in attendance. Then he answered himself. “Yes, it is. I’m your athletic director. And I’m excited.”
Haller asked the student-athletes in the room to stand. There were representatives from each of the MSU teams and he addressed them directly:
“I’m not THE athletic director,” Haller said. “I’m YOUR athletic director. I work for you. There won’t be any barriers or layers in between us. You will have direct access to me at all times. My student-athlete experience was transformational; it provided just about everything that happened in my life. I want all of you to have that same experience. (Everyone in the athletic department) will do everything possible to make sure each of you have the resources and support to maximize your potential and go after your dreams.”
He spoke to the current and former MSU student-athletes in attendance and watching around the country on the Big Ten Network, promising to work extremely hard to make sure that they are proud of their athletic department. As he put the finishing touches on his 17-minute speech, Haller made it clear that it had to be done together.
“I can’t do it alone,” he said. “I need all of the student-athletes, all of the staff, all of the coaches, university leaders, the community, donors, letter-winners, everyone, we have to do this together. I love this great university; we are going to do great things, together. Thank you.”
Haller finished with a resounding “Go Green!” and the crowd responded with a spirited “Go White!” — and as he stepped down off that stage, it was official: the AD Alan Haller Era at Michigan State University had begun.