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Wong seeks business, marketing mind as next athletic director at NMU

January 20, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - As Northern Michigan University President Les Wong searches for a new athletic director to replace the departed Ken Godfrey, he can't help but think of the middle school and high school students of Marquette and the Upper Peninsula.

The kids are decked in maize and blue Michigan hats. Others sport green and white Spartan sweatshirts.

When it comes to green and gold, chances are the jersey is of someone playing 180 miles to the south in another state, not at a facility on Presque Isle Avenue.

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It's one of many issues he plans to present to the next head of Wildcat athletics.

"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?" Wong said. "I see more Michigan shirts. The whole paraphernalia world is in our hands.

"Could we do better at media? This is not a condemnation of (radio station) 100.3 (FM The Point) because they are doing a great job, but 'Wildcats Across the Nation' for the hockey games is huge. Could we be doing that for every game?

"So it's just big questions like that which we ought to be daring enough to ask ourselves about a bigger vision."

Media, apparel and other issues surrounding the marketing of Wildcat athletics will take center stage as NMU launches a national search to replace Godfrey, who after 8 1/2 years stepped down as athletic director on Thursday as he continues to battle acute myeloid leukemia.

Godfrey has been on medical leave since being diagnosed on Oct. 18, 2010. He first came to NMU in 1979 and since becoming athletic director in June 2003, has hired in a handful of notable coaches, including women's basketball coach Troy Mattson, volleyball coach Dominic Yoder and women's soccer coach Matt Granstrand, who all have taken teams to the NCAA tournament since taking over their respective sports.

Now Wong and the university are looking for someone to take the department to the next level, from occasional visitors to NCAA postseason play to regulars, even national championship contenders.

"We're looking for an athletic director that can develop a vision to take that big jump, and obviously not to Division I, but in the quality and success of programs," Wong said.

"I think the community has been very clear with me. We've been on the cusp of NCAA tournaments. We're not there. We're going to get there soon. I think the new AD has to see that."

Quality athletes and coaches are needed for a winning program, but in order to retain those coaches and provide an appealing program for student athletes in the competitive arena of collegiate recruiting, proper financing is key.

NMU will need to do more than just hit the pocketbooks of prominent alumni and boosters to secure its financial future in an era of dwindling state funds. Northern needs a strong business model and marketing strategy to strengthen the Wildcat brand, Wong said.

"The new AD is also going to have the support of a board that says, 'Why aren't we filling the dome?' 'Why are ticket sales so low?' 'Are we marketing appropriately?' 'How are we managing the brand?'" Wong said. "I think someone who has a lot of professional experience on the business side will be sought after. That will be very desirable from my vantage point.

"There's just so much opportunity before us that I think a business/marketing mind would be just incredibly powerful for us."

Northern would like to have a new athletic director in place by May 1 so that person can be in the driver's seat for the upcoming season.

NMU plans to announce its search committee sometime next week, consisting of athletics staff members and community representatives that are connected to Wildcat athletics.

Northern plans to have faculty athletic representative Julie Rochester on the committee at the advice of the NCAA, as well as interim director Steve Reed, who said he is not pursuing the permanent title of athletic director.

Rick Popp, who quarterbacked the Wildcat football team to the 1987 NCAA Division II semifinals, will serve as the honorary committee chairman with a co-chair to be named at a later date.

Popp now serves on the NMU Board of Trustees and is the director of employee benefits at Ford Motor Company.

"I think we will have a strong pool of candidates," said Reed, who has been serving as interim AD since the diagnosis of Godfrey while continuing his duties as associate athletic director in charge of operations.

"With everything we have to offer, we're expecting a wide range of backgrounds and current athletic directors from other schools."

The committee will vet all outside and internal candidates before bringing the finalists to Marquette. Wong and Reed said NMU will hold community forums, allowing fans to meet the prospective candidates.

"I treat this as a senior administrator where there is a lot of community investment," Wong said.

"I want someone who understands clearly that athletics is the front door to the university. It represents extremely strong alumni and community ties.

"We're probably unique in having so much success as a Division II program getting student athletes into the pros. Division I hockey is very successful at that."

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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