Business & Society

Aggie Women Lead: Diana Sabau, A Service Leader and Investor in Student-Athletes

By Isaiah Jones |

Editor’s Note: As part of a series, Utah State Today is publishing profiles of a variety of leaders. This interview with Diana Sabau is in observation of March as Women’s History Month.

Diana Sabau (Say-bo) was named Utah State University’s vice president and director of athletics on Aug. 7, 2023, by university president Elizabeth Cantwell. Sabau joined Utah State after spending two-plus years as the deputy commissioner and chief sports officer for the Big Ten Conference, where she oversaw the administration of all 28 sponsored sports, which included managing affiliate memberships, competition, scheduling, championships, sportsmanship, officiating and awards. The role, created in 2021, made Sabau the first Big Ten Conference chief sports officer in the 125-year history of the league.

Prior to joining the Big Ten, Sabau served as Senior Deputy Athletics Director for Ohio State University, which is one of the nation’s most successful and comprehensive athletics programs with 36 fully funded varsity sports and more than 1,000 student-athletes.

As department liaison with Ohio State’s office of the president, Sabau worked with its chief of staff and communications team to develop collaborative and wide-range messaging and crisis management plans. She provided student-athlete advocacy and insight to influence policy decisions made by the senior management council, a collective that included leaders from government affairs, the office of the general counsel, student life, communications and marketing, business and finance, talent and culture, administration and planning, as well as leaders from select academic departments.

She earned a master’s in sports administration from Ohio University, a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University and attended Oxford University, Somerville College. Sabau and her husband, Jamie, have two children.

The following is the transcript of an interview that Sabau conducted with Utah State Today.

Utah State Today: At what age did you know you wanted to enter your current field and leadership role? What sparked your initial interest in your field?

Diana Sabau: I'm the oldest of four children, and I didn't have a brother until I was 14. So, I grew up as my dad's son for a long time, as a partner in sports and in watching and learning. I played a sport a season and valued a team, the people around me, and the friendships that created. And so, as an undergrad at St. Bonaventure University, I thought I was going to be an attorney or a sports agent.

I worked at some law firms in the summer and loved working there, but I really only loved it because of the people. I really didn't love the law, and I didn't enjoy a lot of what we were doing. So, taking that in a different direction, I started looking at what it would be like to step into college athletics and started working within athletics as an undergrad.

I didn't know I wanted to be an athletics director for a long time, but I believe leaders emerge in life. I don't know if you're born a leader. Some people are, and they're very special, or they're unique in their leadership. I like to think I grew into it and took advantage of opportunities I was provided. I always asked for more, always wanted more, and just really benefited from the people around me who put me on their shoulders and helped me rise.

UST: Were there specific individuals or events that inspired and influenced your career choices?

DS: My mom was very invested in our community, our church, and many different opportunities, and through that, I think she ingrained service in me. And maybe I didn't realize it then, but I practice service leader because of her. And then, with my dad, he taught me schemes, offenses, anticipation, and different things with basketball, football, and hockey, especially. I grew up on the East Coast, so I watched a lot of hockey, and I grew that way through both of my parents.

I am really fortunate that I grew up under the leadership of Gene and Sheila Smith at Ohio State. And Gene is a very inclusive leader that brought me to the table a lot of times when I was like, why am I here? I don't understand why I'm at this meeting. But he would reach down and bring people up and really taught me the value of comprehensive global communication and inclusion.

And then going from Ohio State and being recruited to the Big Ten Conference by Kevin Warren. So, two African American men giving me my opportunity and my chance. They helped me see life through a very different filter and appreciate everybody for the value that they bring to the table—and wanted to make sure that, as I grew in my leadership style, I really listened to voices and listened to habits and behaviors to help us establish a successful path to move forward in servicing our student-athletes.

UST: What is some advice you have been given that helped you on your journey?

DS: I grew up in New York. I tend to be fast-paced, and early on, I was advised to slow down to be fast. Whether that's in your appreciation for people, in your talking speed, or your walking speed. But I was told to slow down to be fast and appreciate those around you.

Today, we had an all-staff meeting, and a big component of the meeting was some staff accolades, gratitude, appreciation, recognizing someone for their first baby, and just really making sure people know that you care. That is quintessential to the cornerstone of how I lead.

UST: What advice would you give to other young people who are aspiring to follow their passion?

DS: Be curious. Have a curious mind. Be a lifelong learner. Be open to others' philosophies and thoughts and backgrounds. Enrich yourself through others' experiences.

Sometimes, we're scared to try new things that we should trust and believe. Life is short. If we don't squeeze it every day and don't trust others around us, we may not benefit from the whole package. I would also tell people to listen more and talk less.

Everyone has potential in them. They just have to believe that they can do it. Nothing is impossible. If you are willing to put in the hard work and to grind and trust others, you can achieve greatness, and you will achieve greatness. It is a mental state.

UST: What is a major project or initiative you are currently working on in your current field and leadership role?

DS: We are working on making sure that Utah State University Athletics has a plan for Alston funding. We're one of the few schools in the Mountain West without a plan. When I came in, Alston was a federal law passed in 2021 that afforded student-athletes at a Division I level some additional compensation for their academic, athletic, and community service achievements. It started as an academic award. There was no plan when I first got here. We've been working on fundraising so that we can provide some Alston benefits to all of our student-athletes for 2024.

Growing our student-athlete experience is a major everyday initiative so that we keep our student-athletes here in Logan and they're graduating as Aggies. We want to keep everyone out of the transfer portal and minimize Utah State's impact on it so that we can develop talent here and keep them in Logan.

UST: What inspires you about your current field (or position) and leadership role?

DS: My family inspires me every day because I wouldn't be here without them. And I'm super fortunate for my husband and my kids, who are fantastic, who support me, and who really are my cheerleaders when sometimes it's not so fun.

But just the fact that we can develop and grow young people to be impactful for the future, to create change in a world that needs it, to develop individuals so that they are proud and confident in who and what they are, keeps me going every single day. I want us to be the best Utah State we can be. I want us to develop young student-athletes who will contribute to society, not just to sport. That's what makes me passionate. That's what makes me smile when I talk to our investors, our faculty and staff, and our Board of Trustees because we have amazing people, and we just need to make sure that we're giving them all we possibly can.

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