Clif McKenzie uses passion to bolster extensive career in athletics

Clif McKenzie (right) speaks with several athletes. Mr. McKenzie will retire as executive director of athletics at Scottsdale Unified School District starting Saturday, July 1. (Submitted Photo)

Track and field has always played a prominent role in Clif McKenzie’s life.

From competing as a record-breaking sprinter at Arizona State to coaching and administrative roles at USA Track and Field to being married on the Desert Vista High School track — Mr. McKenzie has shown he has passion for the track.

“That passion is a burning passion,” Mr. McKenzie said in a June 27 phone interview. ” I love track and field and anyone can tell you that.”

It is that passion that has helped in his many responsibilities over the years, including his time as executive director of Athletics at the Scottsdale Unified School District.

Starting Saturday, July 1, Mr. McKenzie will no longer work as the executive director of Athletics for SUSD as he has retired from the post, making way for Nathan Slater to assume the position.

Mr. McKenzie has given more than 30 years of his life to SUSD in various capacities including a teacher, principal and an executive director over several areas.

His love for education came from his mother, who was also an educator and she instilled in him her passion for the profession, he contends.

“I saw, as a young person, how enthusiastic she was about it and I took that to heart,” Mr. McKenzie said. “There were a lot of other interests when you’re young but I chose that path.”

On top of his many years of education, Mr. McKenzie’s passion led him to be head coach of the club AZ Elite Track and Field alongside his wife Cassandra McKenzie.

He is also the president of USA Track and Field Arizona and will continue working in both capacities.

In working with her husband, Ms. McKenzie said the words “passionate, caring and giving” come to mind when she thinks about who Mr. McKenzie is as a coach and person.

These words stick out to Mrs. McKenzie because he established a philosophy of giving back in and out of track, he puts a lot of effort into making the best track experience for the athletes and he does all he can to help athletes make and keep goals on and off the track.

Track and field is a big part of Mr. McKenzie’s life and it is his passion for not only that sport, but all others, that allowed him to accomplish the many responsibilities he had.

“I just think that when it’s a part of yourself, you find a way,” he said.

Competitive days

Growing up, Mr. McKenzie played many sports but one drew his attention more than the rest: track and field.

Clif McKenzie races around the curve on the track. (Submitted Photo)

While he always had a sense for his abilities as a runner, it wasn’t until his freshman year in high school Mr. McKenzie fully understood it.

He started seeing his name in the newspaper more, helping him realize the extent of his talents.

At Arizona State, Mr. McKenzie was a part of the 1977 record-breaking 4X400-meter relay team with a time of 3:01.74, which now ranks fourth in the ASU record books according to Arizona State’s athletics website.

His accomplishments as a Sun Devil earned him All-American honors in both 1976 and 1977 as well as a spot in the ASU Hall of Fame.

“Track has opened my door and it has helped me get my degree,” Mr. McKenzie said. “I would’ve gone to college but my parents would have had to pay out of pocket had it not been that I was blessed to be a good runner as well as an elite runner.”

After ASU, he went on to compete for the 1980 Olympic Team, although the U.S. never participated in those games because it boycotted them in Moscow.

Still, Mr. McKenzie continued to compete for about two years in Italy but two factors started to play a role in his decision to move forward in his career.

The first was how the boycott altered the goals of many athletes at the time, including himself. The second was realizing he needed other means to support himself financially.

“If you’re in the top 10 now in track and field, you’re making some good money,” he said. “During my era, we were those trailblazers. You could make something but you weren’t making the same money as the Usain Bolts of the world are making.”

This is where Mr. McKenzie’s college education paid dividends as the decision was looming on whether to continue competing or to move forward.

“It was hard because you still have that burning desire to compete but you’ve got to find other ways and coaching is one of those ways,” he said.

Upon returning from Italy in the early 1980s, Mr. McKenzie decided it was time to get serious about teaching.

A jack-of-all-trades in education

Mr. McKenzie first starting teaching at Hopi Elementary School, kicking off his 30-plus year experience at Scottsdale Schools.

As the years wore on, he would make the jump from elementary to high school with stops in the middle school ranks. He also made the jump from teacher to principal.

Mr. McKenzie said while he loved teaching fourth grade, each school level was different.

He said this is exemplified by the growth of the students as middle school students are trying to find themselves and high school students develop into young adults.

“They all have a special part of me,” he said. “I can’t pick one over the other because all three (levels) are equally different from one another. You take away a smile from each level.”

As Mr. McKenzie moved to more administrative roles under former SUSD superintendent Dr. John Baracy, his skill-set expanded to include a plethora of responsibilities, including athletics.

Some of those responsibilities included transportation, food services, customer service, and both middle and high school principals.

Typically, his administrative roles included athletics with one other responsibility but as his career waned, he came to just focus on athletics for about five years.

Dr. Denise Birdwell.

In athletics, SUSD Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell said a student-athlete’s success is largely contingent on the support system behind them, something Mr. McKenzie understands well.

“Clif’s unique understanding of what it takes to compete, not only as a high school athlete but also as a student, is the backbone of our athletics department,” she said in a June 28 written response to emailed questions.

To better recognize that support system, Mr. McKenzie worked to develop the All-City Banquets, which highlight SUSD student-athlete’s efforts on and off the playing surface.

For the past 10 years, student-athletes attend these events three times a year, depending on their sport of choice, and some receive scholarships while parents are also recognized.

This idea came about when Mr. McKenzie saw the many athletes who went on to have success at the collegiate and professional levels in their respective sports and SUSD never had a chance to express gratitude.

“I didn’t want to see another student-athletes leave Scottsdale unless we could just say ‘hey, thank you,’ and that (banquet) was the district’s way of saying thank you,” he said.

Mr. McKenzie also hopes student-athletes will return in the future, if these banquets continue, and give back as keynote speakers or in other ways.

“That’s important as an athlete and a person, to give back to your community and to give back to your workplace sometimes as well,” he said.

As Mr. McKenzie retires from his post as executive director of athletics at SUSD, Dr. Birdwell said she will miss most his perspective shaped by his many years of experience in a variety of fields.

“Most recently, it is his background as an elite athlete and Olympian that has been especially beneficial to the district and to me,” she said.

“We are in the middle of a bond project this summer to replace the tracks and football fields at Saguaro, Coronado and Chaparral high schools. Clif’s insight into the world of track and field and his continued involvement with the Olympics has been invaluable.”

The district said in a June 28 email Mr. McKenzie will continue to work with SUSD in the speakers bureau, which will look to bring in motivational speakers for students.

Clif McKenzie speaks with a track athlete.(Photo Courtesy of John Trotto / John Trotto Photography)

The passion of track

Away from the district, Mr. McKenzie also channels his passion into coaching track and field alongside his wife at AZ Elite Track and Field at Desert Vista High School.

The two met through club track and as they worked together, they grew closer.

At the time of the proposal, the McKenzies joked about getting married on the track. That joke quickly turned into a reality.

“It was just something we said and then it just happened, we got married on the track,” Ms. McKenzie recalled.

Cassandra and Clif McKenzie were married in lane four of the Desert Vista High School track. (Submitted Photo)

In lane four of the track at Desert Vista High School, Clif and Cassandra McKenzie were married. Mr. McKenzie remembers it being a big wedding with people attending in the bleachers as well as sitting on the track.

Ms. McKenzie said her bouquet was a golden baton with flowers and instead of candles, there was sand mixtures from the long jump pit.

From that time on, the McKenzie’s coached together at AZ Elite as husband and wife. During that time, Ms. McKenzie said her coaching style was changed because of the way Mr. McKenzie coached.

“We’re both passionate about it and I would say that came from him,” she said. “I’ve always ran myself but being a coach and him teaching me how to be a coach and how to be the best coach I could be, that came from him.”

Ms. McKenzie said his style of coaching consists of educating instead of just standing around and caring for each individual athlete and their needs.

In more than 20 years in club track and field, Mr. McKenzie has worked with many athletes. As part of his responsibilities with USA Track and Field, he travels all over the world for competitions.

He is a level I and II certified coach by USATF and has worked on several track and field teams including the 2008 International Association of Athletics Federations World Junior Team that competed in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

He also was the head coach of the USA World Youth Championship Team which competed in Ostrava, Czech Republic in 2007.

Despite all these accomplishments, Mr. McKenzie said the most rewarding part of his job is seeing athletes he coached mature and grow in the sport.

“That’s always a smile on your face and a pat on your back knowing that they started with me, they may not have finished with me but at least they started with me,” he said.

“Some have finished with me. I’ve had some elite athletes as well that have come to me and ran on an elite level. I’ve had an opportunity to have it all from the babies to the elite level.”

Parting words

At the USATF Outdoor National Championships June 22-25 in Sacramento, Calif. Mr. McKenzie had the opportunity to run into one of his former athletes.

He said when he saw this athlete from a distance, he got a smile on his face. The athlete reciprocated that smile and the two hugged.

Mr. McKenzie said it was a special moment and feeling to have.

“I may not see him for whatever amount of time, but that love is there,” he said. “He knows I was a part of why he was there — that’s always great.”

Mr. McKenzie’s passion for track and field have taken him all over the world and he has interacted with many athletes over his time, both in track and field and at SUSD.

Seeing those athlete’s success is rewarding to Mr. McKenzie and he will look back fondly on his time at SUSD.

“That is a really good district and I really have enjoyed my time in that district,” he said. “It’s just one that will always be in my heart and I won’t forget.”

Clif McKenzie fist bumps a student-athlete during a track meet. (Photo Courtesy of John Trotto / John Trotto Photography)

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at or at 623-445-2738

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