MARQUETTE - North Dakota's Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Operations Sean Johnson admitted Thursday that it was initially hard to grasp what the U.S. Olympic Education Center was and how it operates.
One thing became very clear early on, however, for him - the USOEC is something special and it would be wise for NMU not to let it go.
Johnson was speaking to a group of Northern Michigan University athletics supporters in the Pioneer Rooms of the University Center as the third and final NMU athletic director candidate to visit campus in the last two weeks.
"When you come into this, it's hard to grasp what the program is about and how it operates," Johnson said. "The one thing I do know is that it is incredibly unique and anything that is on any college campus that is incredibly unique or distinctive to your college campus, is something you should invest in."
After planning for success and expecting to win, the USOEC was the first topic touched on by Johnson before he went into his vision for recreational sports and varsity athletics. Like the latter two divisions of the athletic department, Johnson understood where the USOEC stood in the big picture of promoting the university.
For Johnson, what makes the USOEC so special is its ability to bring in students from all over the country. He was especially impressed to see Jordan Malone on the speedskating roster, and not because he won a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Malone is from Denton, Texas, which was Johnson's home from 1997-2001 when he was the assistant athletics director at the University of North Texas.
"I lived in Denton, Texas, for five years. We don't even know what ice is," Johnson joked.
"Anytime you can bring students onto your campus from other parts of the country and they can experience what you are about, they take that story home and they tell their friends and maybe their friends end up coming to Northern Michigan, going to school here.
"You can't buy that kind of publicity. You can't buy that kind of recruiting. That's something that is very unique on your campus to take advantage of."
Since losing the B.J. Stupak Scholarship over a year ago and having the U.S. Olympic Committee turn over control of financing to the national governing bodies of each sport, the future of the USOEC in Marquette has been uncertain.
The boxing program is no longer in operation and the women's freestyle wrestling program will be shifting to Colorado Springs, Colo., over the summer, leaving only Greco-Roman wrestling, weightlifting and short-track speedskating.
Johnson said NMU needs to get the USOC to buy in more to the education center and a start would be getting the top dogs in Colorado Springs to visit Marquette.
Johnson reached out to the commissioner of North Dakota's new hockey league, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, Jim Scherr, who was once CEO of the USOC.
Scherr told Johnson the USOEC is a great program, but he never made the trip to see it in person.
"We had a pretty great conversation about it," Johnson said. "He said, 'Yeah, it's a great program, and they tried to get me to Marquette, but I never came.' That's not good, folks.
"Whoever is overseeing this program in Colorado Springs, if we've got to buy him a plane ticket, let's buy him a plane ticket and he can bring some of his other folks and show them what we have here. You have great things here, but seeing and hearing about it from Colorado Springs and being here are two different things."
Like the first AD finalist to visit NMU, University of Alaska Fairbanks athletic director Forrest Karr, Johnson suggested expanding the program's offerings.
With an already successful NCAA Nordic skiing program that has produced Olympians such as Lindsay Williams - who was inducted into the NMU Sports Hall of Fame this weekend - Johnson suggested that could be an option for NMU.
Johnson also said women's hockey would be a good fit - not necessarily at the NCAA level, but as a partner with the national program.
Johnson said Marquette and the USOEC would be an ideal site to host the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championships, which was recently held in Burlington, Vt., a city similar in size to Marquette.
Like Burlington, Marquette has a great facility in the Berry Events Center, which has a history of hosting international events. Marquette is close to a large hockey fan base in Canada that loves to travel. Also, the IIHF is a fan of small towns, according to Johnson, because they embrace events like the women's championships much more than a large city.
"How can you leverage more events to come to Marquette?" Johnson asked. "You have great facilities here. I've been through all of them. How can we marry your facilities and what you have with that program and bring more events to Marquette to fill hotel rooms, have people in the restaurants? That's good for the city. That's good for the university.
"They hosted the World Championships in Burlington, Vt. Why not Marquette?"
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.