Jim McGrath wanted to be a pharmacist.
Butler University’s sports information director of 31 years never intended to become involved in the sports information field.
A 1971 graduate of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., McGrath considered attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, among others, to study pharmacy.
“When I got to Augustana, I found out they didn’t have a pharmacy school,” McGrath said. “To get into a pharmacy school, the stuff that I was taking at Augustana was not going to help me.
“So I said, ‘OK, we’ve got to do an about- face, change where we’re going.’”
McGrath decided to move in the direction of a law career. His interest in political science and history prompted him to sculpt his time at Augustana with law school in mind.
It was not until his later years as an undergraduate that his first opportunity in sports information presented itself.
“I was looking for a job at the school, and I noticed they had an opening for a student sports information director,” McGrath said. “I had no idea what that was, but the word ‘sports’ intrigued me.”
Even during his two years in the position, McGrath still anticipated attending law school. It was not until just after his graduation that Augustana’s athletic director approached him with an offer to be the school’s first full-time SID.
“I took the job thinking, ‘I could still go on to law school a year or two down the road if I don’t like this,’” McGrath said. “That was 41 years ago, so law school is still on the back burner.”
McGrath spent his first 10 years in the profession at Augustana. While there, he served as the host SID for five NCAA Division III national basketball championships and acted as the director of communications for the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin for five years.
“It turned out to be just a blessing,” McGrath said. “I’ve loved every minute of the job. I could’ve seen myself staying at Augustana forever, but there was a desire to move on and get into a Division I atmosphere.”
After he made the decision to look elsewhere, McGrath wrote to 50 NCAA Division I schools. Among the schools McGrath sent letters to were UCLA, Pepperdine, Florida State and Arizona.
He also included many schools in the Midwest. Butler was among them.
“I really didn’t know a whole lot about Butler at the time,” he said.
Of the 50 schools he contacted, 48 responded to McGrath’s letter. All 48 thanked him for his time but expressed no interest in bringing him aboard. He never heard from the other two universities.
“I thought, ‘Well, it was worth the exercise, and I’ll consider other options,’” he said.
About two weeks later, McGrath received a phone call from former Butler athletic director and football coach Bill Sylvester. Sylvester asked McGrath to become the school’s first full time SID in 1981.
“When I first got to Butler, I thought this would be a good place to springboard my career in Division I,” he said. “I thought I could see myself working here three to five years, then maybe moving on to the Big 10.”
Five years into his career at Butler, McGrath got a call from a friend living in Chicago. There was an opening in the Chicago White Sox public relations department, and McGrath’s friend encouraged him to take a look at it.
McGrath and his wife, Judy, are both Chicago natives.
“I’m a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan,” McGrath said. “I went home that night and asked my wife what she thought about going back to Chicago.”
She did not have the reaction McGrath anticipated.
“My wife said she really liked it here,” he said. “And I said, ‘You’re right, I like it here too.’”
McGrath never applied for the position and has never pursued any other job than the one with the White Sox, a testament to his love for Butler athletics.
“I’ve been a Butler person through and through since then,” he said. “As she’s been throughout our marriage, my wife was right.”
Under McGrath’s watchful eyes, the Butler athletics department has grown to heights never before anticipated.
The greatest amount of growth has come in the last five years, during which the men’s basketball team has experienced success.
“He’s responsible for covering everything that we do, and he’s seen a lot of growth,” Athletic Director Barry Collier said. “Jim knows Butler and knows his role better than just about anybody. He provides leadership.”
During McGrath’s time at Butler, he has served as the host SID for four NCAA Division I men’s basketball Final Fours and one women’s Final Four.
Butler has also hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament nine times. Since Butler hosted these games, McGrath was responsible for behind-the-scenes operations during each event.
McGrath also was recently inducted into the Butler sports Hall of Fame.
Many of Butler’s coaches have expressed appreciation for all that McGrath does.
“In the 12 years that I’ve been here, Jim’s been that one steady figure,” volleyball coach Sharon Clark said. “He’s so knowledgeable. He’s seen so much of the evolution of where the athletic department is now.”
Football coach Jeff Voris has worked with McGrath during the entirety of his Butler career and says he would not have it any other way.
“He is class, professionalism, everything rolled into one,” Voris said. “There’s not a job that we request that he doesn’t complete with enthusiasm, and he’s provided everything we’ve needed.”
One of the things Butler coaches like best about McGrath is his ability to stay involved in virtually every program while giving each one so much attention.
“He cares as much about our program as he does about the rest of the programs,” Voris said. “He’s hands-on with every program. He truly is Butler athletics.”
While so much of his time has been spent on advancing the Augustana and Butler athletics departments, McGrath has also found ways to get his name known on an international level.
During his 41-year career, he has served in press operations for United States amateur national championships in boxing, swimming and track and field.
He also held a press officer position at the 1986 Olympic Festival and at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. At those games, McGrath sent a young and tattoo-less Mike Tyson to fetch him popcorn at a boxing event. The now infamous boxer was a team alternate at the Los Angeles games.
McGrath also worked for the 1987 Pan American Games when Indianapolis hosted them.
McGrath and his wife have three sons—Chad, Scott and Christopher.
While McGrath has said nothing of retiring, he will eventually leave a void not easily replaced, Voris said.
“He doesn’t have an offseason,” he said. “The pride he puts into Butler and our programs, I can’t say enough about him.”
By his own admission, McGrath doesn’t have any favorite moments or athletes, just years of good memories and positive experiences.
“My favorite moments,” he said, “pretty much always come back to the athletes.”