A residual of all the success that Kent State’s athletic teams have enjoyed this year has been a lot of added work for one man in particular — Golden Flashes Athletic Director Joel Nielsen.
While knee-deep in preparations for the football team’s first bowl game in 40 years, Nielsen has also spent the past week and a half interviewing candidates for the Flashes’ vacant coaching position. KSU coach Darrell Hazell accepted the same position at Purdue University last week.
In addition, Nielsen has had to handle it all without the aid of an assistant athletic director. Tom Kleinlein recently left that position to accept the AD position at Georgia Southern.
Still, Nielsen took the time on Thursday for a question and answer session with the Beacon Journal.
Q: With so much on your plate right now with preparations for the Jan. 6 GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala., against Arkansas State, interviewing candidates for the football coaching vacancy and doing so without [Tom Kleinlein] — whose forte was bowl prep — how are you managing to handle it all?
A: It’s obviously a lot, but it’s welcome work because it means we’ve been successful. For the bowl prep, we’re lucky to have people on staff who’ve been to bowls and have started that work. But I’ve also asked for and received help from a colleague of mine who has significant experience in Division I football and with the Big East who’s actually serving as our bowl manager. So, he’s been on site most of this week and is doing a great job along with Tommy Cook, our director of football operations, who’s preparing the travel.
Q: The added help with bowl prep sounds like it’s allowing to put a large amount of focus on hiring a new football coach. Where are you with that process?
A: We’re out there actively talking to good people, working our lists and references. We’re in the middle of that narrowing-down process, looking forward to second and third conversations. We’re very optimistic right now with where we stand and think the process is moving along nicely. I’m not going to set a deadline to hire someone by, but I’m quite confident that we’ll see continued movement on the process and we’ll hire the right person when we have that availability.
Q: Do you have the help of an individual or search firm with the football coaching vacancy?
A: We have, and it goes along with the bowl situation. These two projects are so large in scope and having lost T.K. to Georgia Southern — he was like a search firm when I went out looking for coaches and was also our bowl manager, having been to seven or eight bowls. So I talked to President [Lester] Lefton about the need to have some extra horsepower, so to speak. He was very supportive of bringing on a bowl manager and also hiring Todd Turner, who’s affiliated with Collegiate Sports Associates firm. With Todd on board and being a former AD of four Division I institutions, he and his contacts have proven to be a great asset and someone I talk to between four and five times a day.
Q: What are the ideal characteristics you’re looking for in a new football coach who has to replace the dynamic leadership that Hazell employed? To turn around the program as quickly as Hazell did — with a team consisting of just half of the players he brought in with only two recruiting classes — it was his strong leadership that made the ultimate difference.
A: I think you hit right on it. The longer I’m in this business, I see that the characteristic of leadership comes first and foremost in all of my coaching searches. Especially with football and especially with where this program is currently. Darrell took a leap of faith with us a couple years ago and it obviously worked out — and I think it did primarily because of his leadership. That is a big characteristic in my conversations with the potential candidates out there now. The ability to bring both sides of the ball — the offense and the defense — together and understand that for three hours on a Saturday, they need to be one team and confident. The belief [Hazell] instilled in the players was extraordinary. So, I’m looking for a lot of the same characteristics as I did with Darrell. But I’m also looking for somebody who can build upon and continue that belief system as well as have Ohio ties and Northeast Ohio recruiting ties.
Q: Hazell and his staff agreed last week to stay on for an extra month in order to coach through the bowl game. Will that agreement remain in place even if the new coach is hired well before the bowl?
A: I’m still very confident we’ll have somebody in place before the bowl. However, even if I hire somebody tomorrow, Coach Hazell and his staff will continue through the bowl season. The new coach may be here before Jan. 6, but won’t be fully in charge until after the bowl.
Q: The main reason for getting a new football coach in place as soon as possible is to handle the height of recruiting season. Isn’t it crucial for recruits to know who their head coach and position coaches are going to be?
A: That’s probably the biggest challenge that we face right now is the recruiting question. Right now, the current staff is still recruiting, reaching out and talking with the guys that we have on the board. Whether they’re verbal commitments or they’ve been offered, we’re continuing those conversations right now. However, in any situation as crucial as choosing your college future, unknown is not a good thing. So, I think we’ll see the majority of the recruits we’re interested in wait until January to take their official visits. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped recruiting. We continue to have our coaches out on the road and continue to make the necessary contacts. As you can imagine, the student athletes and their families are concerned with the uncertainty right now and that’s never a positive. But we do have a lot of positives coming off the success we had on the field as well as the assurance of the success we had with hiring the last coach.
Q: How much of a hindrance is it to hire a coach in the Mid-American Conference, where salaries can’t come close to what schools like Purdue are willing to pay? Hazell’s salary jumped from $300,000 annually in the MAC to $2 million in the Big Ten — how can you even compete with such a divide?
A: It’s a challenge, obviously. When we reached out to some of the candidates we were interested in, that’s a topic that comes up. I would say that a great percentage of the ones we reached out to, pay hasn’t been something that deterred them from talking to us further. Obviously, there’s been a few that have said they would rather pass on this opportunity — whether for pay or not. But the vast majority of the individuals we’ve spoken to have continued the conversation because they understand there’s only 120 of these positions out there. And this one at Kent State University as it stands today, is in great shape coming off an 11-2 season and having a lot of the weapons we have in place. So, overall, we haven’t seen that hesitancy to continue talks or interview with us based on the pay.
Q: To switch gears a little bit, where does ticketing currently stand with the bowl game? How many were you given, how many have been sold and how many are you expecting to sell?
A: That’s probably the best question you could ask. It’s hard to tell when you haven’t been to a bowl in 40 years and I can’t use the history of a Tangerine Bowl in the 1970s as a gauge. But we’ve been encouraged by what we’ve sold thus far. I don’t even know the numbers, but we’ve been selling a lot of the travel packages we’ve included online and I think a coupe of the travel packages are sold out. Those are numbers that are probably in the hundreds but we’re still seeing a very good response. We’ve also opened up a student ticket option now. So, we’re seeing a nice steady flow of tickets. I know we have 7,500 tickets available to us. Out of that allotment, unlike the Orange Bowl and some of the other bowls, we’re not ‘on the hook’ to a minimum purchase of tickets. The tickets we do sell go back to Kent State University. So it’s a nice motivation for us to sell as many as we can because it helps offset the cost of the trip.
Q: What will it cost Kent State to go to the GoDaddy.com Bowl? Over the years, there’s been talk in the MAC that some of the bowls aren’t even worth playing if teams can’t even break even financially after participating.
A: The MAC now provides a travel allotment to each bowl, a predetermined amount that was just voted on by the presidents in the fall. I know that every bowl allotment is different, but the GoDaddy.com Bowl is at $475,000 right now. That’s an allotment that we receive from the conference to help offset the costs that are associated with the bowl. Now, with the GoDaddy.com Bowl being later, it’s the most expensive bowl from a travel and preparation standpoint because we need to keep our student athletes housed and fed longer than say, the bowl in Boise this weekend, which is more economical from this standpoint. The great thing with the MAC is we share financials and I have examples from other institutions — for example from Northern Illinois last year — so I have a good idea what it costs to travel down there.
Q: What do you expect the overall financial impact on the school to be following the bowl appearance? Is it something that can boost the school’s visibility and maybe even enrollment?
A: That’s a great question because I don’t know if anyone can answer it immediately. I think we probably have to wait a little out into the future to determine what the success of our football program in its entirety meant this year, including going to the MAC Championship Game in Detroit and the bowl game. It’s similar to the baseball team’s success. We still don’t know exactly what impact going to the College World Series will have, but we’ve already seen some of its reciprocation off recruiting, scheduling and things like that that have an immediate impact. I don’t know if we’ll see the same thing in football. We probably won’t know more for another six or 12 months.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.