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NMU athletic director decision now on President Les Wong’s shoulders

April 21, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - For nearly three months, Northern Michigan University's NCAA faculty athletics representative Julie Rochester co-chaired the Wildcats' search committee tasked with finding a new athletic director.

Rochester and 15 members, including co-chair Dr. Jon Webb of Downtown Eye Care in Marquette, whittled down a field of 100 applicants down to three finalists and for the last two weeks, introduced the candidates to the university and Marquette community.

Now, the process is in the hands of NMU President Les Wong, and Rochester has no problem with that.

"I'll put it this way, he has a big decision to make," Rochester said. "These three candidates are very, very good.

"They all bring something different to the table. I think all of them are highly intelligent and will be able to pick up and learn probably pretty easily what they would need do to be successful here at Northern.

"It's on his shoulders."

Wong said he will meet one last time next week, either on Tuesday or Wednesday, with Rochester and Webb to discuss the finalists - University of Alaska Fairbanks Director of Athletics Forrest Karr, University of North Dakota Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Sean Johnson and David Diles, the director of athletics and chair of the Department of Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

From there, Wong said he will take the info provided to him from the committee, including feedback from coaches and the online forms filled out by the community, and retreat to his preverbal cabin to make a decision.

Wong said he will present his recommendation for a hire to the NMU Board of Trustees during its meetings May 3-4, and once a candidate is approved, he will extend an offer.

The hope is to have the new athletic director in place by Memorial Day weekend, Wong said.

"The committee did an exceptional job because they each come with really different strengths," Wong said.

"It's much like a high school senior. It's about fit. After you check off the strength of program, the people, all of the things that really count, what it gets down to is that something I want to do? Does it fit right with the people with what I want to achieve?"

Wong said he was intrigued by Karr's history of working off the beaten path in the Fairbanks, which is similar to Northern, though to a greater extreme.

In his meeting with Karr on April 10, Wong said the two discussed a pair of sports the Nanooks do not sponsor - football and track and field - as well as a sport NMU doesn't have, rifle.

The Nanooks hosted the 2007 NCAA Rifle Championships in Fairbanks, setting an attendance record for the event.

It was an accomplishment that caught the NMU president's attention.

"There's a lot of experience in doing something like that," Wong said. "I thought that was an example of being very innovative, being very creative with an idea."

Diles experience at the NCAA Division I level, as well as his long history of fundraising and sports management, sets him apart from the other candidates, Wong said.

Some of Diles' more notable fundraising efforts have come at Case Western Reserve, a rigorous, highly selective admissions school that features a notable list of alumni among its doctors and lawyers.

Wong said NMU isn't too far off with its 200 alumni that have come out of the premed program to become doctors, including 14-15 across the street at Marquette General Hospital.

Despite the difference between the two universities, Wong doesn't anticipate Diles having any problems continuing his fundraising success in Marquette.

"Clearly a different challenge, but the fundamentals of fundraising stay the same, whether you're at Northern or Case Western," Wong said.

Johnson brings incredible experience with marketing and brand management, according to Wong, who has plenty of familiarity with the Fighting Sioux brand having worked two hours southwest of Grand Forks as vice president for academic affairs at Valley City State University in Valley City, N.D. from 1999-2004 before coming to NMU.

But Johnson is more than just a marketer, according to Wong. Despite having never served as an athletic director, Johnson has served as a lead administrator for athletes teams, specifically ones transferring from NCAA Division II to Division I at UND.

"He also has great skills in sports management," Wong said. "They way (the Sioux) are set up, each of them have liaisons to the sports. The experience of being with a program as they go from DII to DI is very special too."

When it comes to concerns about either candidate, Wong is more worried about NMU not providing each person with the tools to succeed. All three have experience in athletic departments where resources are scarce or nonexistent, yet have succeeded.

It will be up to Northern to put each candidate in a position to grow the athletic department, Wong said.

"The worry is something my administrative team will tackle. Let's make sure we're smart," Wong said. "Obviously they're not going to get everything they want in Year 1, but how do you lay it out to give them a chance over X years to really have an impact, to really push the program. You don't want to get any of those three guys here and say, 'Sorry, we have no tools to give you.'"

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is



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