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Student athletes, employees, fans are valuable resources for NMU AD finalist Sean Johnson

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

MARQUETTE - North Dakota's Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Operations Sean Johnson once received some valuable advice from his 13-year-old son Ian, and while it was harsh, it's helped shaped his philosophy toward running a successful collegiate athletic department.

It was a critique many fathers have heard from their sons or daughters at one time and Johnson is no different.

"I'm not 18 years old anymore," Johnson said. "As my 13-year-old would tell me, 'You are not cool.' So I don't know what's cool, but 18-year-olds do, and I want to know what that is.

Article Photos

University of North Dakota Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Operations Sean Johnson addresses Northern Michigan University athletics supporters on Thursday in the Pioneer Rooms of the University Center. Johnson was the third of three finalists for the NMU athletic director position to visit campus and give public presentations on the future of Wildcat athletics the last two weeks. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)

"It doesn't matter what this 50-year-old guy thinks. It matters what that 18-year-old thinks."

Johnson, a finalist for the Northern Michigan University athletic director position, emphasized a winning mentality right from the start of his hour-long presentation on Thursday in the Pioneer Rooms of the University Center, but that's not the only thing that took center stage as he laid out his vision for Wildcat athletics to a room full of athletics supporters.

For Johnson, there is no greater resource than students, whether they be athletes, employees or fans in the stands.

"You have to listen to your students. They are your No. 1 fans," Johnson said. "The kids drive the atmosphere. They drive the experience. It's part of where I work great."

Johnson has found the student-athletes at the University of North Dakota to be some of the school's top recruiters as well as evaluators of coaches.

The school isn't sending its hockey, basketball or football players on the road to scout players and secure commitments, but it's up to them to seal the deal and convince a recruit that Grand Forks is where they want to be.

To do that, the athletic department must provide more than just great facilities, Johnson said, and the young people on campus are the ones to sell that.

"We play in a $104 million hockey arena at the University of North Dakota," Johnson said. "If our kids didn't like it, if our kids didn't like our coach, if the kids didn't believe in what we are doing, you can have the greatest facility in the world, but that doesn't matter.

"It's about team-building and making sure your kids believe in what they are doing because when you bring in other kids onto campus, they've got to see the results of that."

In his role at UND, Johnson oversees all marketing, broadcasting, ticket sales and corporate relationships for the department. He is also the lead administrator for baseball and secondary administrator for football, men's ice hockey and men's basketball.

One of the coaches supervised by Johnson kept receiving a similar complaint concerning communication from student-athletes during annual reviews and exit interviews conducted by the athletic department.

Johnson said after he was able to make the coach aware of the issue, the coach sought help from his colleagues and since then, the issue no longer comes up in evaluations. The coach is a better professional for it.

"Get feedback. Talk to your kids," Johnson said. "Most schools - I'm sure you do it here - do a yearly evaluation with your student-athletes. Pay attention to them. Don't just do it as an exercise. When your young people finish their eligibility, hopefully you do an exit interview. Are they a pain in the neck sometimes when you have other things to do, you bet, but these are your No. 1 customers.

"I'm not talking about, 'I didn't get enough playing time.' That's not what this is about. This is about, 'Did you feel valued here? Did we help you grow as a person? Did we make sure you understood getting your degree was important?' That's what I'm talking about."

Behind the scenes, Johnson has embraced the co-curricular experience a university provides and gotten students involved in every aspect of the department's media and marketing divisions.

UND is beginning a relationship with a third-party sales group - Front Row Marketing Services - but also has 14 marketing interns, of which only two are paid.

It's a popular win-win for the athletic department and the university, according to Johnson.

"We actually turn kids away," Johnson said. "Why? These are business majors with a marketing emphasis. They are going to graduate with a diploma and just as important, they're going to have experience and we teach them. We let them run their projects. It's great for us because we're not hiring full-time employees and it's great for the kids. That's the role we can play as an athletic department.

"We can teach kids things outside the classroom, where they take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to what their profession is going to be."

Johnson strongly believes in the power of North Dakota's website and embracing technology, from social networking to mobile applications.

He's also a fan of the school producing its own content for those products, and again, that kind of content comes from students.

"We have four students that we do not pay, that use their own equipment and their own time to produce this seven-minute show every week that is awesome," Johnson said about the online show "Behind Closed Doors."

"It's a behind-the-scenes look with our teams. They get to go to meetings, they get to go to practice. We supervise them. It's part of the co-curricular experience that you are engaging your students and letting them be involved. It's just fantastic."

Under Johnson, the athletic department brought its radio network in-house and will be doing the same for its television network, The Fighting Sioux Sports Network.

The school tried to do it three years ago, but didn't include students or the educational aspect in its plans. Johnson said that was a big mistake and the reason it didn't work out.

This time, the athletic department was able to secure a $40,000 budget over three years with students running the streaming of games online. The department is going to invest in three high-definition cameras in what Johnson called a unique and innovative way for a department to share costs.

"When you are going in to talk to the president, education is No. 1. We have a couple of deans that are very passionate about what they do and see the value in it. That's the way we come at it. It's not just about athletics. Is it going to help our department, of course it is. We want it to help the university. If it helps the university, it helps the athletic department. That's been our approach.

"We have a great university. We do great things, but North Dakota does not necessarily cross people's minds right off the bat. So we have to stand up and pound our chest and tell people how great we are and the great programs we have. You can do the same thing at Northern Michigan."

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



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