MARQUETTE - University of North Dakota Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Sean Johnson has logged his fair share of miles through rural America.
Johnson, a finalist for the Northern Michigan University athletic director's position, is a big believer in radio, so to accomplish his goal planting the Fighting Sioux's flag in every town, he's criss-crossed the 70,700 square miles within the state's borders to meet with affiliates, fans and business.
It was a strategy he picked up while serving as the assistant and later associate athletic director at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, sitting in a car with the Aggies' new head football coach, Hal Mumme.
"When he got hired, he and I got in a car and we drove," Johnson said. "We took two different trips and it was like two- or three-day trips both times and we literally drove the entire state. We went to many, many towns where there were radio stations and developed relationships. People were stunned we showed up in their home town with our head football coach, but that's what we should do."
Johnson will be making his first-ever trek to Michigan's Upper Peninsula on Thursday as the third and final athletic director candidate to visit the NMU campus as part of the interview process. He'll make a public presentation at 4:15 p.m. in the Pioneer Rooms of the University Center.
Case Western Reserve University Athletic Director David Diles visits campus today while University of Alaska Fairbanks Athletic Director Forrest Karr was on campus one week ago today.
Johnson is the only candidate who does not have prior athletic director experience, however, he has served as an assistant or associate athletic director at four universities - North Dakota, Texas A&M-Kingsville, New Mexico State and North Texas - since 1997.
His area of expertise in college athletics has been media relations dating back to his days as the sports information director at Lincoln University from 1984-85.
"I'm not interested in any athletic director job," Johnson said. "I'm interested in being an athletic director obviously, but I want to be in a place where you can be successful.
"I have a great job. I'm at a great school. They've been very good to me. I owe a lot to the university of North Dakota."
Johnson said he has found radio as the perfect gateway into communities. It brings games to a broader audience and gets people talking about an athletic program. It allows the department to meet local businesses that support the program on the air.
Radio opened doors for Johnson at North Dakota and New Mexico State that otherwise may have remained closed.
"If you are involved with their local radio station, not only are their games on, but they are talking about you and that's just as important," said Johnson, who brought the Fighting Sioux Radio Network in house and expanded its affiliates from seven to 13 stations across North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota.
"You build up those personal relationships. You go out and you meet those people. When I go to Dickinson or Williston or Beulah or Valley City and talk to people, talk to our radio affiliates, I make sure I just don't talk to them. I make sure I'm visiting the newspaper, the TV people if they're there, setting up events. It's so critical to get up from behind your desk and meet people in person. That's the best lesson I learned in New Mexico State."
Of course, radio can only reach so many people, no matter how many affiliates a program racks up.
That's why Johnson has dedicated a significant amount of focus to the Fighting Sioux website while also serving a committee that developed a new website for the university with both focusing on original video content.
Now in addition to TV programing on local TV stations and Fox College Sports, UND is broadcasting games online in high definition through its website, undsports.com.
Social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter have also become a key components to the website because its not just about reaching current students and alumni, but connecting with perspective students and student-athletes.
When it comes to a first impression, nothing is more powerful than a strong website, Johnson said.
"You've got to be able to connect with your supporters and your alumni base no matter where they live," Johnson said. "You can't always go to them in person, certainly on a daily basis you can't do that. But with your website, and with Twitter and Facebook, you can connect to people on a daily basis.
"You have a daily newspaper, TV station, radio station at your disposal and its called your website. You also take that and link it in with Facebook, with Twitter and all those things that are important because there are a whole lot of things you have to do with your website."
While most of Johnson's nearly 28 years of experience in college athletics comes on the media side, the 1983 Missouri graduate has experience in marketing, corporate sales, ticket sales and capital campaigns.
He's served on the committee that oversaw UND's transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, he's still a part of the committee overseeing the retirement of the Fighting Sioux name and logo while also being the lead or secondary administrator for baseball, football men's ice hockey and men's basketball.
In 2009, he and the senior management council hired head volleyball coach Ashley Hardee, who has guided the Sioux to three consecutive conference titles and a 73-16 record.
"All these things I've talked about, they may not all necessarily apply or work at Northern Michigan," Johnson said. "It just depends on what the situation is. The one thing I will say is I think there can be that same feeling in Marquette.
"I remember reading an article in your paper that the president made a comment that there is concern fans were wearing (Michigan) and (Michigan State) gear and not Northern Michigan gear. That can be turned around, there's no doubt. You just have to get people to buy in to what the university means to the community. What does Northern Michigan mean to Marquette and what does Marquette mean to Northern Michigan? That bond has got to be solidified."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.