As Vanderbilt’s Assistant Athletic Director for Fan Engagement and Hospitality, Robynn Candish says it is her goal to make every Commodore supporter feel welcome and appreciated. The role comes naturally to Robynn, who grew up around Vanderbilt Athletics and found peace here during a difficult time in her childhood.
I grew up on a horse farm in Joelton about a mile from the Robertson County line. We had 10 acres where we raised and showed horses. I did both English and Western-style competitions. I remember winning a trophy that was probably four feet tall. It was huge. I was much shorter than the trophy.
I learned so much from being on a farm and having responsibilities. Both my parents worked for Metro. My mom was a special ed teacher and then transitioned to school psychologist and guidance counselor. My dad worked in the juvenile court system. We came to town every day for school and work. Everyone had a job on the farm. My dad did a lot of the heavy lifting and my mom and I would help him by mucking out stalls, feeding the horses or getting them ready for competition. If it was cold and freezing, I would be out breaking the ice in the troughs. It was hard work, but it’s one of those things if I had the opportunity I would go back and do it in a heartbeat.
My dad was diagnosed with AML, a form of Leukemia, and he ended up passing away right before I went to high school. We had to sell the farm. That was a real difficult time. Losing a parent is never easy. Being an only child made it harder.
As a kid, I went to all the Vanderbilt basketball camps and we had season tickets to women’s games. In the 90s while Jim Foster was head coach a group of about 15 people along with the Senior Women’s Athletic Director at the time, June Stewart, began the Commodore Crew. Essentially it was a group of fans who supported the women’s basketball team. They decorated the locker room when the team went to away games, traveled to road games, and helped sponsor international trips for the team. Many years later this group was folded into the National Commodore Club. It’s fun to think about my parents helping to start that program.
A year after they’d been involved starting the Commodore Crew was when my dad got sick. I got to know Ms. June really well. He went into the hospital at the beginning of February and passed away at the end of the month. Obviously, there’s a lot of basketball going on in February. June and her husband Bill became family to me and helped keep my mind off things. She got me involved with the team and I became a ball girl for a bit. That was so much fun! I still remember sitting on the bench next to the players and thinking I was so cool. A while later, Ms. June introduced me to [sports information director] Tammy Boclair, and I would be Tammy’s assistant on game day. Again, another great opportunity to be around sports, take my mind off losing my dad and get to do some fun things and meet people.
At Father Ryan, I worked with our basketball and volleyball teams as a manager.
I dabbled in athletic training for a little bit in high school. I came to Vanderbilt for a week for a summer immersion program. We lived in the dorms and went to class every day. I’ll never forget one person came in and talked about their first outdoor track meet. They were really nervous but really excited for their first meet. On the first throw, somebody throws their javelin and it goes into somebody’s skull. I was sitting there listening, absolutely horrified. They’re going into detail about what they had to do. At that point, I knocked out athletic training, EMT, doctor from my list.
I ended up going to MTSU for a couple of years then took some time off. That time off was so important for me to figure out who the heck I was. I worked at a couple of nonprofit-type places. Then I went back to MTSU and got a degree in business administration and marketing.
When I graduated, I came and saw Candice Lee, who was a compliance officer at the time, and said, “I don’t know what I want to do.” She said I could come and hang with her staff for a while. I sat with her in compliance and learned their world. One of the things I remember is at the end of the day sometimes David Williams would come in and talk about some TV show or movie he’d just seen. To get the two of them going, it was just hysterical. You’re doubled over in pain laughing.
I helped a little bit in the business office. Eventually Candice said they were looking for an administrative assistant for the director of communication and director of marketing. I was able to take on different things over seven years in that role, getting to know more people in the department, learning how different groups work and what goes into game days. The job morphed into more and more and more.
With Fan Engagement and Hospitality being a new department, there’s no blueprint. I oversee our day-to-day interaction with our guest services staff and work hand-in-hand with our concession company, keeping them informed on what people are saying. I handle all of the surveys we send out after games. I’ll take that information and try to keep problems from happening again. Our goal is to address it right away.
When I’m not working, I love really good trash TV. Anything that is completely opposite of the day-to-day: Bravo. Food Network. Hallmark Channel. TLC.
I got to work closely with our cross country and track teams for a while. The student-athletes here are amazing. I enjoyed hearing the stories on where they came from, traveling with them. For some it’s the first time they’ve been to New York City, the first time they’ve ridden the subway. Those are some of the things I’ll take with me. I went to California for the first time with the team. My role was to help drive the vans, buy snacks, but more importantly it was to be a cheerleader for the students and give encouragement when it was needed. These are amazing students and as much as society wants to put them on a larger scale, they’re still kids and they need someone who is going to give them a hug and tell them it’s OK. For example, if a student-athlete had a bad race or poor performance or just needed some encouragement, the coaches would usually tell them go find Mama Robynn for a hug. Conversations about their performance could always be had but the coaches understood that in those moments sometimes the athlete just needed someone to give them a hug, some encouragement and let them be themselves for that moment. Those are some memories that will last a lifetime.
Interviewed by Andrew Maraniss.