Moving the Chains with … Holden Boyle, Illinois State director of operations
today at 10:23 am
Holden Boyle retired from his athletic career when he got to high school.
Yet the 25-year-old, who was born in Elk Grove Village and grew up in Arizona, has been an integral part of two of Illinois’ four FCS football programs as the director of operations.
Boyle began his career in “ops” at Western Illinois in Macomb, where he spent three years. In June, he took over as Illinois State’s director of operations.
He began working in sports during college at Arizona State by answering phones and doing “grunt work.”
Boyle, who finished his college career with a 4.0 grade-point average, said he has embraced the detail-focused work and connections with players and coaches that his job entails.
“I don’t have a wife,” he said. “I don’t have kids. So, my job is my baby. It’s what wakes me up in the morning, and it’s what I go to bed thinking about.”
As part of Prairie State Pigskin’s regular Moving the Chains feature, Boyle discussed his upbringing in Arizona, how much he enjoys Halloween, the meal he misses most in Macomb and his changing musical tastes.
What sports or activities were you involved in growing up?
I went to Boulder Creek High School (in Anthem, Ariz., north of Phoenix) and I did not play any sports there. I had played sports up until eighth grade and realized I’m just an average player and not good enough to get a scholarship anywhere, so I’m just going to hang it up and focus on academics. I was involved in National Honor Society and was part of the school newspaper, the Boulder Creek Chronicle. Throughout high school, I wanted to be a reporter for ESPN. I figured getting involved in journalism was a good start.
What did you study at Arizona State?
I double majored in sport management and business management. In my junior year, I decided that just in case this whole sports route doesn’t work out, a general business degree would be beneficial.
How did you become involved with ASU athletics?
After my freshman year, I got a job as a student worker. I was basically the first person you saw when you walked into the Sun Devil athletic building. Anytime you called the general athletic number, I was the person you talked to. We got a lot of nasty phone calls. At that time, the head football coach was Todd Graham. There were people calling for his head. I did that job for about a year and a half. After that I was doing an internship with the Phoenix Suns, selling tickets. There were 45 of us from the sports business major program from ASU that they picked. They basically said that whoever sells the most tickets gets an internship over the summer. I actually won the competition. I sold 268 season tickets. I interviewed for the internship on a Thursday. They called me back on Monday and let me know I did not get the internship. I spent six months selling tickets and it didn’t pan out.
After selling NBA tickets, how did you get involved in ASU’s football program?
After not getting the internship, I went to my boss, who was the HR director for ASU athletics. I said, ‘I want to help with a sport. I don’t care what sport it is. I just want to help with a team.’ I told her that football would be awesome. I got hooked up with our operations coordinator at ASU and started volunteering. I would work from 8 a.m. to noon for HR, go to class for a couple hours and from 3-7 p.m., I’d work with ASU football.
What kind of jobs did you have with the football program?
I was helping with operations and recruiting, helping with recruit letters. I was attached at the hip to the ops guys, so I did any day-to-day task and a lot of grunt work. I was stocking the coaches’ locker room fridge every morning. I washed Coach Graham’s golf cart every other day. I was answering phones.
What drew you into the operations side of football?
Before working with ASU football, I had no idea what operations was. It’s a broad and vague term. I loved it right off the bat. I like to think of myself as a very organized and detail-oriented person. Seeing the work of the ASU (operations team) helped guide me and gave me the path that I’m on right now.
How did you end up in Macomb at WIU?
I graduated from ASU in the spring of 2017. I applied for a handful of jobs. One of our former directors of operation at ASU, John Wrenn, told me about Western Illinois looking for an ops guy. I applied and within 30 minutes, I had an interview the next week. It went pretty quickly. When I got the job, they told me there were 90-plus other people that applied. And John Wrenn, who got me hooked up with Western, is a former player at Western and is in WIU’s athletic hall of fame. I graduated with a 4.0 from ASU, and the head coach at the time, Charlie Fisher, liked the academic side. My first week there, he said, ‘Holden, I hired you because I like hiring guys who are smarter than me.’
Do you still have family in Illinois?
I kind of came full circle, from being born in Illinois to spending 20 years in Arizona then coming back to Illinois. Most of my family is actually still here. It was just me, my mom and my little sister out in Arizona. My dad, stepmom and two half-sisters live in Arlington Heights. Nearly all of my aunts and uncles and cousins all live in Naperville.
What are some things that people may not know about your job?
Even my own family doesn’t know what I do, to be honest with you. They understand that ‘he helps with hotels and buses and travel,’ but they don’t know about the day to day. The easiest way I like to explain it to people who aren’t familiar is that my job is everything that is not X’s and O’s. If it’s anything related to housing or meals or a parking pass, I’m the person you come to. It’s a lot of the minutiae. I’d say at least 75% of what I do from day to day is just communication. I’m attached to my phone. It’s glued to my hip. I get tons of emails, phone calls and texts every day. We just changed something in our practice plan for tomorrow, so who’s in charge of communicating the plan to all the coaches? That’s me. I’m making sure everybody’s on the same page. Little things come up and somebody’s got to fix them. The head coach is too busy. The defensive coordinator is not going to help you get a parking pass or find out who your roommate is.
So someone in your role has to enjoy detail work?
I really do. I love the nitty-gritty details. I love operations because I get to see everything from a different perspective. It’s rewarding. I take a lot of pride in my job. Right now, I’m making a spreadsheet all the hotel options in the (Missouri Valley Football Conference) for when we go to away games. That might sound tedious and boring, but I love that. I love looking at hotel layouts and seeing what’s going to work, where our meals are going to be.
What makes working for two FCS programs that are geographically close a unique experience?
The biggest advantage I’ve found is the familiarity with the conference. All the hotels we stayed at with Western, I’m familiar with. I’m familiar with each stadium. It’d be different if I went to a school in the Big Sky (Conference). It would be a whole new ballgame. I was able to get my feet wet at Western and see how the Valley worked and take all my experiences and translate them here to ISU. But every place is different. At Western, it’s very blue collar. We were the underdogs. Here at ISU, you have some more resources and tools at your disposal. One of the interesting things I’ve found here is that a lot of the staff are all people who graduated from ISU. So people who work at ISU stay at ISU and want to be here for the long term.
What’s one restaurant you would sneak off to get a meal the next time ISU plays in Macomb?
If I had time, I’d be going over to Chick’s on the Square and ordering probably two or three Lip Fries (waffle fries covered with buffalo chicken, cheddar jack cheese and ranch dressing). I’ve been craving Chick’s ever since I left.
Having lived in two states, what are your favorite sports teams or athletes?
My favorites are Arizona teams and Illinois teams – Bears and Cardinals for football, Bulls and Suns for basketball, Cubs and Diamondbacks for baseball. Growing up, I was a huge Walter Payton fan. And you can’t live in Illinois without being a Michael Jordan fan. I’ve got a little man cave that’s completely filled with Walter Payton and Michael Jordan memorabilia.
What’s the best thing on TV that you’ve enjoyed during the COVID-19 quarantine?
With sports coming back, anytime I can catch an MLB game or a playoff basketball game (is great). I love all sports. Anytime I’m not in the office, I’ve got a game on.
As Halloween approaches, what are your best memories from growing up?
Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. Growing up, my mom and stepdad went all out. Our whole house was decorated. We would give out the full-sized candy bars. Out in Arizona, there was a Hostess factory outlet store, so we would go and buy a bunch of Twinkies and Ding-Dongs and Sno-Balls (for trick or treaters). If I have a favorite candy, it’s always going to be Reese’s. Lately I’ve been on a gummy bear kick. And who doesn’t love a good Snickers?
When you’re walking around campus at ISU, what is playing in your headphones?
I listen to everything. My music range is pretty broad. If you would have asked me what I listened to before I got to Macomb, I would’ve told you anything but country. But being in Macomb, I really enjoy country music now. I’m a big fan of Chris Stapleton.
You have a unique first name. Is there a story behind your parents naming you Holden?
I’ve asked my mom about that. Growing up, I hated my name. People would mispronounce it. They would say Colton or Colden. A lot of people think it came from the book “The Catcher in the Rye” and (the lead character) Holden Caulfield. My mom told me she had to read that book in high school, and she hated the name and hated the book. She thought it was an ugly name. Fast forward to when she was seven or eight months pregnant, and she heard the name on the radio. It just stuck. She loved it. My dad fought her a little bit on it. But my mom ended up winning.