As a senior at Trumansburg High School, Justin Lutes knew three things about his future: He wanted to play college baseball, he wanted to have a career in sports, and he wanted to do both somewhere besides the Ithaca area. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.
After enjoying a successful baseball career at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, Lutes embarked on a professional career in college athletics as a sports information director. He described the position as a sports reporter for the school, with a lot of other duties thrown in, including generating attention for the program and its athletes, maintaining the athletic web site, creating game programs, producing videos, designing graphics and more.
Following stops in Cape Cod, central Pennsylvania, and Hoboken, New Jersey, Lutes came to Ithaca College as an assistant sports information director in 2014 before taking over as associate athletic director for athletic communications in 2016. And despite his earlier feelings about the area, he now has no plans to leave.
“When it came time for college, I wanted to go somewhere else to meet new people and do new things,” Lutes said.
Lutes was inducted into the Trumansburg High School Hall of Fame after earning eight letters in three sports (football, baseball and bowling).
“I never thought I would ever want to move back home,” he said. “I didn’t think this area had anything for me. But then I found sports information was something I could do, and there are a lot of colleges in this area to work at. Life has a funny way of working out.”
It’s a similar path to the one followed by Lutes’ father, John. A fellow member of the T-burg Hall of Fame, John left Tompkins County to play college sports at Marshall University. He lived in West Virginia for a while, which is where Justin was born, along with his older brother, Clint, and sister, Tonya. They moved back to Trumansburg when Justin was 5 to be closer to family.
All three kids graduated from Trumansburg, where John’s parents had taught. John was also a teacher. He taught for a while in Auburn before settling at Geneva High School, where he was a special education teacher for more than 20 years before retiring.
“His big thing now is gardening,” Justin said. “But we still talk sports a lot, and he is still umpiring baseball games after 47 years. Each year, he says it might be his last, but he keeps going back to it every spring.”
Both Lutes are also connected to sports tragedies that gained national attention. John went to Marshall in 1968 to play quarterback. But after being moved to wide receiver, he left the football team following his freshman season to focus on playing baseball.
Two years later, in November of 1970, a plane carrying the Marshall football team back from a game in North Carolina crashed, killing all on board. The crash and subsequent return of football to the school was chronicled in the 2006 move “We Are Marshall.”
Like many athletes, Justin remembers his last competitive action well. What’s unusual is that other people remember it, too. Lutes was on the mound for St. John Fisher in the ninth inning of an ECAC playoff game when Oswego State coach Frank Paino suffered a severe head injury when he was struck by a line drive while in the third base coach’s box.
Oswego had no assistant coach to take over the team and was faced with having to forfeit the game, which the Lakers were leading, 9-5. But St. John Fisher coach Dan Pepicelli (now the baseball coach at Cornell) and the team elected to forfeit the game instead. The gesture garnered national headlines and resulted in a Sportsmanship award from the NCAA.
Justin’s career in sports information began with an off-handed comment from a college roommate, who was working in the St. John Fisher sports information office.
“I always loved sports, and I always track the stats from my own games as a kid,” Lutes said. “Then one day, one of my roommates said he did that kind of stuff in his campus job and suggested I talk with his boss.”
After graduating from St. John Fisher in 2008, Lutes did a one-year internship with the Eastern College Athletic Conference, then worked as an assistant SID at Susquehanna University and Stevens Tech, learning the ropes and gaining experience.
“Susquehanna was my first real professional experience in sports information,” said Lutes, who set St. John Fisher records for saves and pitching appearances as senior. “We had 24 sports that my boss and I split. Then I was at Stevens for four years and learned some new sports and new responsibilities.”
In 2014, Anna Cooper, who Lutes had succeeded at Susquehanna, contacted him to say she was leaving IC. Lutes, whose then-girlfriend and now-fiancé Kate Schramm lived in Lansing and worked at Cornell at the time, had been applying for some jobs in the area with little success.
“I wanted to get back in the area and I even had an interview at Oswego,” said Lutes, who now lives in Locke. “Then Ithaca hired me, which has worked out better than I think anything else would have.”
Though he may not have followed in his father’s footsteps as an educator, Justin does teach, albeit informally. In addition to two full-time assistants, he has a staff of 20 or so student assistants, including volunteers, work-study students and interns. He also talks to classes in the journalism school, both about the field of sports information and the expectations of journalists.
“A lot of them are in the same situation that I was in college when they learn this is something they might be able to do as a profession,” Lutes said. “I’m always teaching them how to use new equipment and the things I’ve learned over the year. I’m not technically a coach or teacher, but I still do a lot of teaching and coaching.”
Lutes tells them to explore the profession as much as they can in college, which something he wishes he had done.
“I didn’t take advantage of all the opportunities I had in sports information when I was in school, partially because I was playing baseball,” he said. “So, I had to work some low-paying jobs at first to gain some of the experience that others get in college. I tell our students to do all they can in college and see if this is for them. If it is, then they’re that far ahead of the game when they enter the profession.”
Still, Lutes has no complaints about where he ended up.
“I plan to never leave Ithaca,” he said. “In Div. III, you really get to know the student-athletes. At schools like this, you see them all the time and some of them even work for me. It’s rewarding to see them come in as freshmen and watch them grow into adults and succeed academically and athletically.”
No matter the sport, Lutes said, he loves watching people compete.
“Of course, this is a job, and there are a lot of nights and weekends involved, and it can be hard sometimes to balance work with personal life,” he said. “But I’ll never complain because I knew what I was getting into and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I get paid to watch people play sports.”
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