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NMU AD finalist Johnson on winning, rec sports, technology, the WCHA, more
April 20, 2012 - Matt Wellens
The third and final candidate for Northern Michigan University’s open athletic director position — University of North Dakota Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Operations Sean Johnson — paid a visit to campus Thursday, giving an hour-long presentation to Wildcat athletic supporters. Candidates were supposed to stick to 30 minutes, and while Johnson said he had a stop watch going, I’m guessing he forgot it existed.
I didn’t notice Johnson was over his allotted time until peeking at my iPhone to see he was at 45 minutes. I thought he had only gone 20 minutes at that point.
Good thing I cleaned out some apps ahead of time.
Johnson began his presentation with a simple, yet powerful message for the NMU athletic department: Plan for success, expect to win.
It was a complete 180 from Tuesday’s finalist, David Diles, the director of athletics and chair of the Department of Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He saved the idea of winning national championships for the end of his presentation.
“This may sound corny, and this may sound simplistic, but it’s absolutely what I believe in and that’s to plan for success, and expect to win here at Northern Michigan,” Johnson said. “People say that they expect to win, and people who are coaches and administrators and student athletes will think that, but a lot of times we don’t come out and say that. We’re here to win. We’re here to win championships. We’re here to graduate student athletes and we’re here to create leaders. It’s OK to say you expect to win because that’s the goal.”
Here’s what else Johnson touched on. Like University of Alaska Fairbanks athletic director Forrest Karr, Johnson did his homework and was not afraid to offer specifics, even if they may not work for Northern, he admitted.
Johnson said recreational sports was a major strength for NMU because it accomplished what many universities struggle with — including North Dakota — which is bridging the gap between students and the community.
NMU has broken down a wall that many campuses have been unable to, Johnson said.
“I’ll be honest with you, if I were fortunate enough to get the job, the best thing for me to do is stay out of the way,” Johnson said about the rec department. “You do an unbelievable job here and I mean that sincerely. I don’t mean stay out of the way, but embrace what you are doing.
“Your ability to bring people on campus, young people, people my age, to participate, talk classes, be involved, and not have to go to school so to speak, that’s incredibly important to the university on so many different levels.
“For athletics, its a great way to leverage things. You know what? If you are wondering where do we play hockey, well, its the building you were in that you took an ice skating class in or played in the men’s league or where we play basketball or volleyball. You were in there playing pick up basketball.
“Getting people on campus is vitally important.”
Johnson was also impressed with the level of participation by students in club sports. For a school the size of NMU that already has an NCAA hockey team, Johnson was surprised to see a club hockey team.
According to Johnson, Europe does a great job encouraging people to keep competing, not matter what the level. It’s something he’d like to see more in the U.S. and the Marquette community is a great example for the rest of the country.
Johnson found the Superior Edge program at NMU to be so unique and special, he forwarded a link for the program to one of his colleagues in student affairs.
For the athletic department, the Superior Edge is ideal for getting student athletes more involved in the community.
NMU first-year head football coach Chris Ostrowsky recent had his entire team enroll in the program.
“We do a ton of community service at UND, but we have to do it on our own,” Johnson said. “You have a program already in place here. That’s fabulous.”
I was happy to hear every candidate did some reading of The Mining Journal prior to their visit to Northern, specifically one article I wrote on Jan. 20 at the beginning of the search.
Johnson had the toughest response to Wong, who I quoted saying, “I don't say this tongue and cheek because I'm quite serious about it, but why aren't more middle school and high school kids wearing Northern shirts?”
“Be proud of where you are at,” Johnson said. “If Michigan and Michigan State were so great, you should have gone to school there.
“This is Northern Michigan’s pro team. Nothing against the Pistons, Lions or any of those guys. They are a long way away. This is your team, our town. Get behind it.”
Get out and meet your fans
This was something David Diles preached and like St. Bonaventure University did under Diler tenure, North Dakota has not been afraid to hit the road as well with Johnson driving five hours across the state to meet with affiliates and businesses in Dickinson and Williston.
“You can’t sit at your desk. I don’t like sitting at my desk,” Johnson said. “I like Grand Forks, but I like going to Beulah, North Dakota and Williston, North Dakota and Dickinson and Minot and Devils Lake because people appreciate that. It means I care about your community. That is critically important.”
The Sioux even go right into the heart of enemy territory in Fargo, home of North Dakota State.
“We have a lot of alums in Fargo,” Johnson said. “We bring our coaches down there, and they love it because they get NDSU bashed over their head every single day and when we can walk in their with our coaches and give them a little inside information of what’s going on, they’re thrilled.”
North Dakota going into Fargo is like NMU going into Houghton, Michigan State visiting Ann Arbor, or South Korea visiting North Korea. It’s hostile territory.
But it means a lot to the Sioux fans of Fargo.
Johnson suggested creating regional Wildcat clubs. Good cities off the top of my head would be Minneapolis, St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Green Bay, Appleton and Madison. You could also create some in Houghton, Iron Mountain, Escanaba, Sault Ste. Marie, St. Ignace and Menominee.
This was the subject Johnson spent a lot of time on, since it is his specialty.
As a media professional, it caught my attention the most, because I think many of Johnson’s principles, if not all, apply to television, radio and print.
“We communicate the way people want to be communicated with, not the way we want to do it,” Johnson said about North Dakota.
Johnson was big on targeting young people, from current students to potential students in the future — not just student athletes.
That’s why North Dakota is big on Facebook, Twitter and texting, something a 50-year like Johnson admitted may not appeal to him.
North Dakota has been able to embrace mobile technology — iPhones, iPads, iPods, Android devices — thanks to its partnership with NeuLion, which runs its website — www.undsports.com.
Johnson also sees a potential market in the future with the emergence of smart TVs, which are connected to the web.
All of these tools allow UND to control the message and tell the stories that TV and radio doesn’t have time for, or what print can’t fit in paper.
“Create original content and link it to all your other things — Facebook, Twitter,” Johnson said. “It all brings back to your website and you have great synergy.”
Websites also provide great data, which is valuable to advertisers who want to know exactly what demographic they are reaching.
“The days are long gone where you go into a business and say, ‘We know you love us. Will you advertise with us?’” Johnson said. “That’s not the way business is done anymore, especially once you get past the local and regional level. You have to prove that what you have is worth something and the way you do that is through research.”
Of course, Johnson isn’t looking to put local media out of business or to ignore them. It’s just the opposite. He wants to do what it takes to make their lives easier and to grant media greater access to UND content.
That’s why the university does more than just send out press releases. For example, the department will send out audio clips from coaches and players, delivering them right to the inbox of station managers and news directors. That way, a station five hours away in Dickinson doesn’t have to drive to Grand Forks to get a soundbite from head hockey coach Dave Hakstol for their morning news updates.
“We need to be a service bureau for you,” Johnson said. “We need to find out how you want us to serve you. It’s not about how we’re going to serve you. It’s about how do you want us to help you. You are a customer just like anyone else.”
Athletics is a social event
When the NMU AD search began, I was curious to see if the school could lure anyone away from minor league sports, or if there was any interest from that sector in the NMU AD position.
Johnson apparently has some experience in minor league baseball, so I found his take on in-game entertainment to be refreshing.
“I’m a big believer in fun,” Johnson said. “You ever go to minor league games? Minor league sports is really fascinating because for the most part, you don’t know who the players are because sometimes they change week-to-week. But you know what, they are all about fun. They have to survive. You talk about a survival business, they are not subsidized by anybody. They are going to survive by the seat of their pants. I got to work minor league baseball for a couple years and I think I could be a circus announcer after that experience. You know why? Because we had fun. That’s what we want to do, have fun.”
Johnson makes a strong point. It’s tough for fans to get emotionally vested in teams when they don’t know who the players are, so teams have to go out of their way to make the game fun — win or lose.
“If we got beat, we got beat, but if you had a good time, you’re going to come back,” Johnson said.
The best way to create energy in a game at the collegiate level is through the students and the bands, according to Johnson.
Collaborating with local businesses also helps people get connected with the teams. It’s something NMU learned to be valuable when it partnered with Marquette General for the Pink Experience against Notre Dame. The Berry Events Center sold out for hockey that weekend.
Johnson said the key to North Dakota’s packed houses has not necessarily been the program’s success. It’s that UND hockey is “the thing to do” in town. It’s the social event in Grand Forks, whether you are in love with hockey or not.
The last question I was able to sneak in during brief media availability was on Johnson’s thoughts on the WCHA and Bruce McLeod, since he is coming from a school that left the WCHA. Here’s his full response, right along the NCHC party line:
“It’s a great league, with great tradition and great history. Let’s be clear on one thing, the Big Ten is the one that started this domino, not the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. It was the Big Ten. North Dakota had to react to that and do what was in the best interest of North Dakota.
“I also think it has created a great opportunity for schools in the WCHA. Don’t take this the wrong way. It doesn’t mean you can’t compete with Michigan. It doesn’t mean you can’t compete with Minnesota. It’s got nothing to do with that. It’s got to do with, you have to compete with like institutions and have your best chance to win. Air Force is a great example of this. We wanted them in the WCHA. They are in Colorado Springs. We already have a school in Colorado Springs. They are right down the road from Denver. We have DU. They didn’t want to be in the WCHA. Why? Because they were in a league — I don’t want to say like institutions because they are a military academy — but they were in a league of schools that had the ability to make the same financial commitment that they do and they can compete in.
“They key is, getting in the tournament. if you get in the tournament, anything can happen. You win two games, you’re in the Frozen Four. That’s two weeks of incredible publicity because they take a week off. There’s nothing better for your school. Look what it did for Ferris State. Look what it did for Bemidji State a few years ago. It did unbelievable things for their program and the university.
“Do I think Northern Michigan can compete with Michigan and Michigan State, absolutely. I’m not going to back off of that for one minute. But for the opportunity to be in the new WCHA is a great opportunity and I think you have to look at this is the league that we feel we can win year in and year out and we are going to commit to that. Once you are in the tournament, anything can happen.”
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