In the mid-1970s, Suzanne Coffey was among the first women in the United States to receive an athletic scholarship to attend college. The Title IX legislation, which requires schools to give female athletes equal opportunity to compete, had only recently been passed. Coffey, a painter, had considered going to art school. But when the University of New Hampshire offered her a full scholarship to play field hockey and lacrosse, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

Coffey majored in studio art and minored in philosophy at UNH. “I was living in three worlds,” she recalls. “The athletes and the artists and the philosophers didn’t know each other.” Ever since then, she has been trying to strengthen connections between athletics and academics.

In August, Coffey arrived as the first female athletic director at Amherst. She was previously director of athletics for 15 years at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she was also an associate professor of physical education. A national leader in college athletics, she held the top Division III post as chair of the Management Council in 2004-05. She also helped lead an effort within Division III to make academics the overriding priority for student-athletes. Coffey began her career as a lacrosse and field-hockey coach at UNH.

Coffey’s goal at Amherst is ambitious but, she argues, “absolutely doable”: to see each of the 27 varsity teams at the top of the New England Small College Athletic Conference. She’ll build upon the successes of the past academic year, when both women’s tennis and men’s basketball won conference championships.

Off the field, Coffey hopes to increase communication between coaches and the academic faculty—something she says both constituencies want. “This is a place,” she believes, “that is hungry for that opportunity.” In fact, Coffey contends that the job of a coach is not so different from that of an English professor: both teach discipline and analytical thinking. “Students,” she says, “bring to athletics a real focus that coaches can help them transfer into the rest of their lives.”

Coffey replaces Peter Gooding, who stepped down as athletic director in 2005 and who this year is serving as coach of men’s soccer. During more than three decades on campus, Gooding became synonymous with Amherst athletics. He arrived as men’s soccer coach in 1968 and went on to also coach men’s lacrosse and women’s squash. He led the athletics program through the college’s transition to coeducation. He also guided men’s soccer to the NCAA Regional Finals in both 1998 and 2002. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America awarded Gooding its highest distinction, the Honor Award, in 2001.

Coffey’s older son, Bradford ’04, played soccer under the legendary Gooding. (Her younger son, Mark, graduated in May from the University of Maine.)

Coffey is a doctoral candidate at the Edmund Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. Her dissertation is on the ability of small nonprofits to survive in a global economy. She took a recent leave from Bates to serve as interim vice president of a small nonprofit, the Institute for International Sport in Kingston, R.I. There she studied the group’s international reach and compared it to similar organizations that use sport and art to bring together students of various backgrounds.