Tripp turned things around at NMAA

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By Mike Cote

In his seven-plus years there, I have only spoken to New Mexico Activities Association executive director Gary Tripp just once. Very briefly.
I met him at the 2008 state wrestling tournament. He asked me how everything was going. I told him just fine and mentioned to him how smoothly that and other state events had been running. We shook hands and went about our business.
Tripp took over as head of the NMAA, which oversees most interscholastic sports in the state, in 2004. Within a few days of his taking over the NMAA, I left the Los Alamos Monitor to pursue other interests.
Those other interests didn’t turn out to be quite as interesting as I had envisioned, so I returned to the Monitor in 2007. I had only been back a few months when I ran into Tripp and in that time I had already noticed a difference.
Actually, many people have told me many things began to change within a few weeks of Tripp’s appointment, virtually all of them for the better.
“Gary’s done a great job,” said longtime KRSN announcer Gene Mortensen, who has dealt with the NMAA both as a news organization and as a public address announcer working for the association during state tournaments. “He’s whipped the place into shape and he’s a real down-to-earth guy…he’s a great people person.”
Tripp, who announced his retirement from the top job at the NMAA earlier this week, came into the job amid turmoil. Turmoil was hardly anything new there under previous executive director Dan Salzwedel, but things had apparently come to a head over (what else?) money problems.
With Salzwedel and the association still reeling after some controversial moves that were made with the state’s reclassification system, which introduced the five-class system that is still in place, a major budget shortfall announced during the 2003-04 year had many schools around the state livid. Schools were being asked to foot the bill for what many believed was simply a case of fiscal mismanagement.
Tripp, who I’d frankly never heard of until his name was being bounced around as a possible replacement for Salzwedel, immediately called for reevaluation of virtually everything the NMAA was doing.
In fairly short order, Tripp had realigned several districts around the state. Eldorado and Manzano, two schools in Albuquerque, had been realigned into districts with Las Cruces and Mayfield under the previous system. While I never particularly felt pity for them or any other schools that had to go to far-flung reaches of the state — for many years, Los Alamos competed in the same district with Gallup and Farmington and I don’t recall any of the Albuquerque-area schools sending the Hilltoppers a bunch of sympathy cards — the alignment as it existed presented quite a logistical challenge, so much so that Albuquerque Public Schools was threatening to leave the NMAA and build its own athletic organization.
After that huge crisis was averted, Tripp instituted new fiscal policies which have worked so well that the NMAA hasn’t had to up the membership dues to schools during his tenure.
Part of what may have made a difference is the fact that, with only the occasional hiccup, the state championship events, the NMAA’s crown jewels, are now well-oiled endeavors. Prior to that, it wasn’t unusual to have events run two, three or more hours behind schedule.
Mortensen, who has similar nightmare stories said things improved almost overnight under Tripp.
“I was amazed at the difference,” he said. “Gary and his staff made changes. For basketball, I went down to the Pit to do (public address), everything was organized and on track. Everything really went smoothly.”
Tripp’s missteps have been few and far between. I would personally like to see a few more venue changes for state events, which are now largely locked up in the Albuquerque and Rio Rancho area — Rio Rancho’s hosting of the 2011 state softball tournament this year was, at best, disappointing.
Speculation has already begun as to who Tripp’s successor might be. Robert Zayas and Sally Marquez, two of the NMAA’s current associate directors, have been mentioned as possible replacements.
More than anything, the hope would be for Tripp’s successor to keep the NMAA heading on the same straight and narrow path it has been traveling down.