Joel Zimba’s interest in being an athletic director goes back to his days playing high school sports as a senior at Madison West.
“I think that was really when I started to understand that there was someone that put together an athletic program,” he said. “I love coaching, and I love playing sports, but just the logistics that go behind games and events, has always been something that intrigues me.”
The Mozambique native, who turns 31 in August, will get his chance to put his own stamp on Verona Area High School after being hired as the district’s new athletic director earlier this month. He takes over for Mark Kryka, who is stepping down after 31 years.
The school will get an entirely new set of facilities in the fall of 2020, after voters approved a $182 million referendum in 2017. The district later added an $8 million package of enhancements that includes artificial turf on the football and soccer fields and a warm-water pool to complement its competition pool.
Zimba told the Press last Thursday, he never imagined landing a job in a district building a new high school and athletic facilities.
“I’ve always stayed motivated and thought, if I stayed true to myself an opportunity would come,” he said. “I’m just fortunate enough God pleased me with this opportunity when he did.
“Now it’s just about stepping in here and proving that they made the right decision.”
Zimba has a master’s degree in sports administration from Valparaiso (Ind.) University, where he later served as director of basketball operations.
He has spent the past two weeks shadowing Kryka and officially takes over the position on July 8.
“I think there is a lot you may not expect,” he said. “You may know the basic framework of what an athletic director does, but I think it’s a lot like the other roles I’ve had, you can put as much as you want on paper but every day is different.”
Ultimately, his position is about helping coaches and student-athletes being successful and not wins and losses.
“I want these coaches and students to feel like they have the resources and support they need to achieve their team and individual goals,” he said. “My coaches’ success is defined by their ability to lead their student-athletes to achieve their goals, graduate from VAHS, go on to graduate from college and/or have success in their future careers, and give back to their communities.”
Back to his roots
Zimba has lived in America most of his life, but he spent three years in his African homeland during high school.
Born in Maputo, Mozambique, his family left during a civil war when he was 2 and chose the Madison area for its health care and educational facilities.
His sister was born with spina bifida, a genetic neurological defect that can limit motor control, and his mother wanted to pursue a doctorate degree.
“I’m glad that we picked Madison, because it’s been a true home since,” he said.
During Zimba’s freshman year, his father asked him to return to Mozambique.
“My dad really wanted me to really dive into where I was from, a different culture and really be challenged,” he said. “I didn’t really want to go, but I thank my dad now. A lot of the person I am today when it comes to perseverance is because of him.”
Even though Zimba said he would complain, his father never let that change his mindset about the young man he wanted his son to become.
“He’d say, ‘I understand that this is tough but there will come a day you will look back on this and cherish the time you had,” Zimba recounted. “He’d let me pout but he’d tell me that isn’t going to change you being here, so you might as well make the best out of it.”
A soccer player growing up, Zimba decided to try to football when he returned and enrolled at Madison West High School.
“I had always wanted to come back and experience the American athletics that I grew up loving so much,” he said. “And reconnect with my friends.”
Zimba’s career path toward being an athletic director started in earnest in graduate school.
After earning an undergraduate degree in intergroup relations, part of UW-Madison’s Afro-American Studies program, he went to Valparaiso University to get his master’s degree. He interned with the men’s basketball team as a graduate manager for one year and was promoted to director of basketball operations.
He managed day-to-day operations for the team, including its budget, travel itineraries, camps, recruiting visits, gear and overseeing the managerial team and player academics.
The Crusaders won 69 games during his three years there, including a school-record 30 wins in 2015-16 and two regular season Horizon League championships.
But his job got much more difficult when the team moved to the Missouri Valley Conference during his final year.
“It was tough,” Zimba said. “I always say, it’s easy to win, but you learn the most about yourself and the people around when you hit struggles. It was a big challenge, but it really molded not only me, but also the team in the people we are today.”
Zimba then moved to the university’s administration to gain fund raising experience, serving as associate director for Annual Giving at Valparaiso University.
“A lot of the fundraising at the high school level is done by the boosters club; however, my role is to ensure that these booster clubs have my backing during their fundraising efforts,” Zimba said. “Initially, all fundraising initiatives are signed off by the AD.”
Zimba will have a year at VAHS before taking on a new set of challenges as athletic director of a new high school that’s almost twice as big as the existing one.
“A year from now, it’s almost going to be like starting over again,” he said.
But he is eager to have the flexibility it will bring in terms of scheduling for each team.
“It will be a learning curve,” he said. “But I think it will really simplify everyone’s jobs and obviously the students are going to love it, too, and that’s the most important part.”