Susan Blackwood: An Extraordinary Leader Lands in SA Sports Hall of Fame

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Susan Blackwood and Nu Star Energy CEO Bill Greehey at her retirement party in 2013.

Courtesy / San Antonio Sports

Susan Blackwood and Nustar Energy Chairman Bill Greehey at her retirement party in 2013.

A tear slid from her eye. A second tear followed, then another, and soon, Susan Blackwood could not stop the flow.

She stood on the floor of the Alamodome just before tipoff in the women’s national championship game, saluting the burned flag that once flew over the Twin Towers in Manhattan, the moment overwhelming her and many others in the building.

Less than seven months since Sept. 11, 2001, memories of the attack remained fresh, so fresh that some near the scorched flag said they could still smell smoke.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the dome,” Blackwood said. “I’m going to start crying again just talking about it.”

For Blackwood, who will be inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 4, the emotion of the flag ceremony lingers. She remembers the atmosphere weighted with grief, the building paralyzed with silence.

She also remembers this: The game and crowd were a crowning achievement. Six years into her reign as director of San Antonio Sports, her staff helped bring the first NCAA women’s Final Four to San Antonio. It was held on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2002, causing Blackwood to worry – what if the holiday keeps people away?

The game made history, drawing a sellout crowd of 29,619, a record for a women’s Final Four that still stands. The University of Connecticut made history, defeating Oklahoma, 82-70, to finish 39-0 and become the first women’s team to complete two undefeated seasons.

“I couldn’t have been more proud,” Blackwood said. “We took the women’s Final Four to a whole new level. There wasn’t an empty seat. It was amazing.”

In 17 years as director of San Antonio Sports, Blackwood’s leadership elevated the city to national prominence in amateur sports. The city played host to five NCAA men’s and women’s Final Fours, two NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championships and the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Marathon, among other events.

Longtime San Antonio Sports Director Susan Blackwood speaks at the 2010 Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio Marathon press conference.

Courtesy / San Antonio Sports

Longtime San Antonio Sports Director Susan Blackwood speaks at the 2010 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Marathon press conference.

Under Blackwood, events such as the men’s and women’s Final Fours helped produce more than $425 million in direct visitor spending in the Alamo City. Under Blackwood, the annual budget for San Antonio Sports, a nonprofit, grew from $125,000 to $3.4 million.

Mary Ullman Japhet knows Blackwood well. Japhet was serving on the San Antonio Sports board when it voted to hire her in 1996. Soon after, Blackwood asked Japhet to assume the position she now holds, senior vice president for communications and community engagement.

“Susan elevated the profile not only of our organization, but of our city as a true sports destination,” Japhet said. “She is passionate, smart, dedicated, a stickler for detail when managing events. She’s one of a kind. She’s had a profound influence not only on the organization, but also on the city of San Antonio and so many individuals.”

Blackwood arrived in San Antonio with a wealth of experience. She had served as an associate athletic director at the University of Texas, as vice president for women with USA Basketball, and as assistant athletics director for the University Interscholastic League.

Her connections are legion. Japhet recalls Blackwood taking a phone call before a men’s Final Four. Someone wanted tickets.

Japhet: “Who was that?”

Blackwood: “David Stern.”

When the NBA Commissioner needed Final Four tickets, he called Blackwood and got them. Her reputation for getting things done reaches across the U.S. and beyond.

In August 1991, Blackwood accompanied Team USA to the Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba. According to Sports Illustrated, USA forward Bridgette Gordon forgot two diamond earrings in the locker room of Havana’s Sports City Coliseum. Blackwood and Gordon returned to the locker room after midnight to search for the jewelry, which had been wrapped in training tape. Unable to find the earrings, Blackwood and Gordon persuaded maintenance workers to empty two dumpsters outside.

“There, a crowd of Cubans helped them pick through the garbage,” the 1991 article states. “Remarkably, after about an hour of looking with a broom and a flashlight, they found the wad of tape with the diamonds safe inside.”

Blackwood possesses an uncanny, almost magical way, of persuading people to do things they would otherwise resist. Consider Jenny Carnes. Blackwood recognized great potential when  Carnes arrived at San Antonio Sports as a shy intern in 1999 and applied a little arm-twisting.

“She forced me to go to Toastmasters,” said Carnes, now the associate executive director of San Antonio Sports. “It was a little painful at first. But I went once a week for a whole year to hone my public speaking skills. And it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I owe that to Susan.”

Blackwood exudes kind, authentic energy. She possesses a warm, winsome aura that attracts a beeline of admirers in crowded rooms.

“She has a great way, a wonderful personality,” said Jim Callaway, former chairman of San Antonio Sports. “When you’re around Susan, you just want to work hard for her and do the right thing.”

For many years, she made the congratulatory phone calls, informing athletes and coaches of their selection to the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame. A few months ago, Callaway made that call to Blackwood. “She was very much in shock,” Callaway said.

Blackwood chuckles at the memory. “It was very humbling,” she said. “I told him I thought they had miscounted the votes. But I told him I would accept.”

She will join the Hall of Fame alongside former U.S. National Swimming Team star Annie Chandler Grevers, retired Spur Robert Horry, Edgewood Independent School District interim Superintendent Sylvester Perez, and Leo Rose, former owner of the San Antonio Racquets and an original investor in the San Antonio Spurs.

It is difficult for Blackwood to identify a career highlight. There have been so many. But she’s never been more moved than that Easter night in 2002. Members of the San Antonio Fire Department held the flag. Members of the Port Authority Police Department in New York saluted. Their officers had been the first to respond to the terrorist attack, rushing into the burning towers. Thirty-seven of them lost their lives.

Carnes watched the ceremony unfold, eyes welling. “I was sitting behind one of the baskets,” she said. “I’ve been to countless Final Fours. But I don’t ever remember an atmosphere like that. Susan had tears streaming down her face. We all realized it was so much more than basketball that night. It’s one of my greatest memories.”

When the game ended, Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma congratulated Blackwood. The weekend event, he told her, had risen to the level of the men’s Final Four. Energetic crowd. Packed arena. Unforgettable flag ceremony.

It was one of many nights to savor. Year after year, one event at a time, Blackwood worked behind the scenes to put the city in the brightest possible light.

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