The Second Act of Dr. Michael Vienna

Back in the day, a young, 22-year-old Michael Vienna, still working on a master’s degree in sports management at Kent State University, was asked about his career goals. His response was near clairvoyant: “I want to be the director of athletics at a large, Division III university.”

Over three decades later, Vienna, now a grizzled veteran of the Division III ranks, has fulfilled his dream. Vienna was named Emory’s Director of Athletics on May 19 and began duties in August, succeeding the remarkably successful Tim Downes.

This is not a small pair of shoes to fill.

Under Downes, the Eagles finished in the top 10 of the Division III Director’s Cup standings, which measures across-the-board athletic success, in seven of eight years. In the 2014-15 season alone, Emory earned a national championship in women’s swimming and diving and runner-up honors in volleyball and women’s tennis.

Vienna spoke reverentially of the work Downes has done, but he’s no stranger to athletic success himself.

He joins Emory after an impressively long term as athletic director at Division III Salisbury University, where he assumed head duties in 1993 and oversaw a whopping 17 national championships. He recalls his tenure there with nothing but fondness.

“I think I shocked some people who knew me very well,” he chuckled. “Salisbury was a great place. I love Salisbury University. It was an incredible place for me and my family.”

That he left Salisbury, where the Sea Gulls experienced unprecedented success under his watch, is a testament to his confidence in both himself and the Emory program. He speaks of Emory warmly and with familiarity, rattling off statistics and figures about the Eagles’ athletic department with such ease that it’s difficult to believe he’s only been in office for a month.

“I haven’t even met everyone in here yet,” he tells me, gesturing outside the large, glass walls of his office.

His enthusiasm for the department he oversees and the campus is infectious — when Vienna claims that Emory is one of the premier universities in the nation, it’s hard not to believe him.

“Emory has shown that outstanding academics and athletics don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he said.

In this moment, he sounds eerily similar to his predecessor.

This is the main reason he was drawn to Atlanta, why he left a job that seemed tailor-made for him to take on a new set of challenges. Vienna has boundless respect for the Division III model of athletics, citing the fact that athletics can serve as a building block for young student-athletes rather than a stream of revenue.

“I had my experiences at Division I schools as a young man,” he said. “It was too much on the business side for my liking.”

Now, after his 22-year stint at Salisbury, he has the air of a rejuvenated man. Emory, in his mind, is the pinnacle of the Division III model that he adores. It’s a new hurdle, a guard against complacency and one of the most difficult jobs in the nation.

For all of Emory’s natural benefits — a large endowment and a recruit-friendly location, among others — few schools in any division of competition hold themselves to as stringent academic and athletic standards.

“I took this job because I wanted a challenge,” Vienna said. “The challenge is to maintain [Emory’s athletic success] but also to exceed it.”

He’s yet to decide on his first short-term projects, but he knows his finish line. Three decades after he swore to become the head of an athletic department like the one he runs now, Vienna mentions another goal.

“We want to be known as the single best athletics program in the country,” he tells me.

There’s no qualifier in his words, no “best in Division III,” no “best combination of academics and athletics” — simply the best.

As I exit his office, Vienna, a man with a habit of turning his goals into reality, immediately gets to work.