More answers from Kent State athletics chief

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Editor's note: This is the second of two parts of a question and answer interview with Kent State University Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen.

by ALLEN MOFF

RECORD-COURIER REPORTER

You recently launched a $60 million Building Champions Initiative fundraising project, the largest fundraising initiative in athletic department history, with $25 million to be invested in scholarships and $35 million going toward various facilities enhancement projects. Can you give us a progress report?

That's going quite well. We're talking with some people about big gifts to keep adding to that total. When we announced the initiative, we were also putting lights up and putting a hitting facility down at [Schoonover Stadium]. We're putting a locker room project up at the fieldhouse [locker facilities for field hockey, men's and women's track & field, cross country, softball and women's soccer teams].

That tells the other coaches I can get something for my program, too, because they're building right now, and we haven't even hardly scratched the surface on the fundraising program. I think that's brought a little bit of spirit and energy into our program. We're building things at the same time we're fundraising, and I think that encourages those that aren't having something built now that it may get done.

The Building Champions Initiative includes several separate facilities projects. Will these projects be built as the funds are collected, or all at once when the $60 million is ultimately collected? And is there a pecking order as far as the facilities projects are concerned?

"We won't build anything unless we have the money to support it. That means pledges, too. If a project is a $5 million project, we don't have to have $5 million dollars today to hand to the contractor. Our pledge rate is running at 95 percent right now, so that gives administration a comfort level.

So when I walk in with $5 million in pledges and part of that money up front, chances are the university will support us to go ahead and start that project. That doesn't happen at every school.

The project we're working on as front-and-center as any project right now is this whole arena/practice area project [improvements to the M.A.C. Center, including the addition of a dedicated practice facility for basketball and volleyball, a 7,500-square-foot wrestling practice facility, an additional 3,000 square feet of practice facility for the gymnastics team and various upgrades in seating, restrooms and concessions areas].

It's all based on improving the experience in the M.A.C. Center for the student-athletes, the fans, for everybody in there. We always have a lot of interest in football. We've had interest in football for a lot of years, even without the winning, but obviously the winning has sparked a lot more interest in football.

There's a number of things we need to do in football where we're behind the curve a little bit in facilities. When you look at our peers in the MAC, they have really invested in football over the last 10 years or so and we haven't [invested] a whole lot from a facilities standpoint.

Those things are definitely part of our planning process. But the M.A.C. Center -- and KSU President [Lester A.] Lefton has even been on record talking about it -- it's time for it to get another upgrade. I think [1992] was the last one, so it's time.

To have only one basketball floor to do all of our practices and competitions and graduations and concerts, we're past those days. We've gotta relieve some pressure on that facility. It's hard to schedule all of that stuff. The [basketball] practice floor will help considerably.

It's an expensive project. To do it right, I think it would be close to $10 million from some of our projections. But you don't have many opportunities to do things like this, and as we've seen here, they're around for a long time. So when you get your chance, you'd better do it right, even if you have to go out and raise more money or if you have to give up something else. Our administration gets that.

Men's basketball especially has some facility needs that haven't been addressed, even though they've enjoyed tremendous success over the past 15 years.

Our men's basketball program has been our lead dog for a number of years. We've had great student-athletes and great coaching. We've done things along the way to support that program, but not in a way that some other places have supported their lead-dog sport. We've been able to continue to win, and winning begets winning even without some of the flashy things and shiny things.

When it comes down to it, you still win with people. We've been riding that cycle for a lot of years, but you can't sit here and put your head in the sand and think it's always going to work. You still have to have plans and dreams and ambitions to get things better for them.

I think if we're winning 20-plus games the way we have 14 of the last 15 years now, why not put that number at 25-plus if we can help them along the way with facilities and recruiting budgets and other things.

You've really had only two sports that have struggled of late for any length of time: Women's basketball and volleyball. Do you see improvements coming in those two sports?

Women's basketball has always been a strong program here, and that's a program we're committed to seeing get back up to where we think it's rightful place is in the league. [Second-year coach Danielle] O'Banion is so excited. She's a fabulous person, and I think a great coach. It won't take us long in that sport.

Volleyball's been the one that we haven't been very successful in for a lot of years. When you talk to [second-year coach Don Gromala], there's really no rhyme or reason -- we have as much resources as most in our league, we're in a great recruiting area. It's almost like football, where you really couldn't figure it out.

But I'm confident [Gromala] will figure it out. I'm looking for great things out of volleyball too over the next few years."

You recently lost another highly successful coach when Scott Stricklin left Kent State after accepting the baseball job at Georgia, just months after Purdue hired away your football coach, Darrell Hazell. Many fans are wondering why Kent State can't retain its most successful coaches?

It's a fair question, one I have no problem with. The way that we've lost the majority of our coaches has been due to their success and other people with more resources wanting them and having the opportunity to hire them away from us. That's part of the business, part of college athletics, part of life. It's understandable.

Do we like it? No, but I get that. I understood when I took the job that it's part of what I do. We do it to other people also. In whatever business you're in, good people that do great things will be recognized and other people will want to hire them. That's just the way it works.

Have we done things to try to prevent it from happening? Absolutely. Look at the university's commitment last year to Scott Stricklin [a six-year contract extension worth $300,000 annually]. That was off the charts in a sport that we know we can be successful in.

I give President Lefton and the administration a lot of credit for that, because that was stepping up with the big boys as they say and saying we're gonna play in their arena, we're gonna play their game. That said a lot to me, too, working here, that if we had somebody as special as Scott, the university would step up.

Now in certain sports, that's possible, but some sports --- as much as we like coach Hazell, and obviously he did an unprecedented job here -- but economics don't work in certain sports and that's one of them.

I think people have to understand that economics and the market are factors in this too, that if we did something as we did for Scott Stricklin, it doesn't mean we can do it across the board. We can do it in a lot of sports, but football and basketball are two different animals when it comes to the economics.

Retaining successful coaches can be challenging, no question. But we also know what kind of program we have and we know what kind of university we have, and we know it's not going to be difficult to attract good replacements. Is it challenging? Yeah. I spend a lot of time on it. I spend a lot of time not only hiring people, but also identifying people.

When we lose a coach based on success, it's not a surprise. It's something I have to prepare for every day, especially when you know you're not going to be able to keep top people based on economics. I spend a lot of my time looking for candidates for that next head coach in all of my sports, and all of my positions.

I have to always be a step or two ahead. It's a big part of our job at this level, that identification of that next person, and being able to spin it around quickly. Like in baseball this year, there were some great jobs open at the same time we were open.

Now, fortunately in baseball, we're at a level nationally that there were very few of those jobs open at the same time ours was that would be considered better than ours. It's a part of my job that I understand, I accept, but I don't necessarily like it because it takes up a lot of time.

"Our challenge is to find that next person that can keep it going. When [previous director of athletics] Laing Kennedy was here, he did a great job [choosing new coaches] in men's basketball, and we've had success in keeping that going. But it's hard.

What did you spend your time on last month before the football players and others athletes reported for camp on Aug. 1?

We typically look at June and July to take some time off, more for us in July as administrators. There's no such thing as down time, there's time that's a little less and that's now. We're never away. I do less when I'm on vacation, but I'm still working.

I have really good people here -- [deputy athletic director] Tom Kleinlein before and Devin Crosby now, [senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator] Cathy O'Donnell before and Janet Kittell now. My coaches are really good also.

We have our brush fires like everyone else, but we don't go through a lot of house-on-fire situations here. These people are really good at managing their departments, and our coaches are so competent that they very rarely need us. I love the people I work with. I love what I do. I couldn't have a better job right now.

Email: amoff@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4193

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