All Keith Spataro does is win.
Where he finds the time to do it all? That’s part of the mystery of what makes Menlo College’s athletic director so good.
Wednesday, Spataro is being honored for being the best at what he does as recipient of the Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year for the NAIA. He is one of five recipients nationwide, with one for each level of collegiate athletics, including Divisions I, II, III and community college.
“You never expect accolades like this,” Spataro said. “There’s so many schools out there and so many A.D.’s out there. So, of course it was surprising. But the way our student-athletes prepare and the way our coaches prepare, it’s not surprising from that standpoint. This award is directly related to their effort. And I’ll take my staff over anybody in the country.”
Spataro has served as Menlo College’s athletic director since 2008. He was promoted to the post on an interim basis while he served his final year as head coach of the men’s wrestling team — a program he started upon his being hired prior to the 2001 season. In 2009, he stepped down as wrestling coach to take over as the fulltime athletic director. Menlo College currently has 12 teams — six men’s and six women’s — and with an enrollment of 750 is the smallest college with a football team in the nation.
“Despite our size we have a really good thing going,” Spataro said. “We have highly committed coaches and highly committed student athletes. Even though we’re a small college, our kids and our coaches give just as much as the school down the street at Stanford.”
With the Athletic Director of the Year honor being presented at a formal banquet Wednesday night in Orlando, Fla., the trip will serve as something of a homecoming for Spataro, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida.
“It’s going to be nice,” Spataro said. “All my family is still back there and quite a few of them are going to be in attendance. It’s going to be a good time.”
As a multisport athlete at Seminole High School, Spataro excelled in wrestling. It was there he met then-Skyline College head coach Lee Allen at a wrestling clinic. Also having a high school coach in Herb Weller who was an alumnus of Skyline, the wheels went into motion to see Spataro relocate to the Bay Area after graduating from Seminole in 1988. He has been a fixture of San Mateo County athletics ever since.
In his freshman season at Skyline, Spataro earned his first of four consecutive collegiate All-American honors. He earned two at Skyline and two more after transferring to San Francisco State.
“When Keith wrestled, [the Skyline wrestling team was] probably at the height of their success,” said Andreas Wolf, athletic director at College of San Mateo. “Keith himself was a phenomenal student-athlete … and was one of the better athletes at Skyline at the time he was wrestling.”
Wolf was the head coach of the Skyline men’s soccer team when Spataro took over for Allen as the school’s wrestling head coach in 1994. It was an intensely busy time in Spataro’s career, as he also coached at San Mateo High School from 1990-95. During that time he was waiting tables at a San Bruno hotspot. He also worked with developing youth for an AAU team. Towards the end of his tenure at Skyline, he coached at Burlingame High School from 1998-00.
“Whatever he’s touched has turned to gold,” Wolf said. “Whether he was on the mat wrestling, or whether he was coaching, or whether he was an administrator. All the things he’s been involved in have been highly successful. He’s been good wherever he’s been or wherever he’s gone.”
In his eight years at the helm of Trojans wrestling, Spataro coached a number of All-Americans, starting in his inaugural season with the recruitment of his younger brother, Nick, who has since gone into coaching as the head of the football and wrestling squads at Dixie Hollins High School in his hometown of St. Petersburg.
“I didn’t get to see him compete at all in high school because I was in California and in college,” Spataro said. “So, the opportunity to coach him was really a unique and a great situation.”
When Wolf took over as Skyline’s athletic director in 2000, one of his first orders of business was to replace Spataro, who departed for Menlo College for the opportunity to start the Oaks’ wrestling program from scratch.
“To start something from scratch and put your thumbprint on it and build it from the ground up was really enticing,” Spataro said. “It’s one thing to take a bad program and make it good … but taking something from zero and making it good was just something not a lot of people could do. There weren’t a lot of wrestling programs starting up across the country. So, from that perspective it was exciting.”
The foundation upon which Spataro built the Menlo College wrestling program was community-college recruitment. But he was able to fill an entire wrestling squad of 40-plus competitors in his first season of 2001.
“That was very intentional,” Spataro said. “We wanted to be competitive right away. We knew that was our opportunity. And then in time we would start to recruit more freshmen. And we did.”
And Spataro’s Oaks saw instant success. In 2001, they finished ranked eighth overall in the nation. In 2002, they ranked fourth. In 2003, they ranked second.
“It wasn’t easy,” Spataro said. “We had to work like crazy to get them. But we were able to put together a competitive team right away.”
At present there are just two wrestlers in the Menlo College Athletics Hall of Fame. The first inductee ever, Saul Lucatero, was enshrined in 2008. Current Menlo College men’s wrestling head coach Joey Martinez was inducted in 2012.
“There’s still a lot of people out there that need to be in the Hall of Fame,” Spataro said. “With wrestling only being around since 2001 … their time’s coming. Some of the wrestlers we’ve had have been the best athletes the school has ever seen in 85 years. But we’ll get to them.”
Three Hall of Fame inductees are being named this week, none of whom were wrestlers. So for now, Menlo College wrestling will have to settle for its former coach being honored as the best NAIA athletic director in the nation. But rest assured, Spataro has plenty left in the tank to ensure the legacy of program he built from scratch.