NMU athletic department receives friendly visit from NCAA Division II representatives

MARQUETTE – The Northern Michigan University athletic department hosted two representatives from the NCAA Division II national offices in Indianapolis this week as part of the national governing body’s campus retreat program.

NCAA Associate Director of Division II Josh Looney and Jill Willson, an independent contractor and consultant for Division II, toured the Wildcats’ athletics facilities, met with administrators, coaches, student-athletes and corporate sponsors, and took in a number of events such as a dinner at the Beacon House and Northern’s Tuesday night volleyball victory over Michigan Tech.

NMU Athletic Director Forrest Karr said the visit, which was free for the university, was an opportunity for student-athletes and coaches to learn there is more to the NCAA than just postseason events and rules enforcement.

“For many people, the term NCAA has negative connotations because they only hear about the NCAA when a school is involved in the enforcement process,” Karr said. “In reality, the national office is full of great people trying to make a positive difference.

“Interacting with Jill and Josh provided our coaches and administrative staff with an opportunity to give input and help improve college sports. It also gave our student-athletes a chance to see some of the work that is being done to encourage and promote their success.”

Looney is a former Division II student-athlete who spent seven years working for the Kansas City Chiefs as a broadcaster and online media personality.

Now with the NCAA since September of 2012, he works with the Division II President’s Council and Management Council and is the primary liaison to the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

Willson is a former women’s basketball coach and athletics director at Division II Texas A&M-Kingsville, where she worked for 14 years. She was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2012.

One of Willson’s roles now with the NCAA is being a part of the campus retreats, which began last year as a way to build relationships with schools, learn about the challenges and issues Division II institutions face and pass along the positive ideas they learn along the way.

“We really focus here on community engagement and what schools can do to tie to their community and bring people in to their events and showing off their institutions, as not just athletically,” Looney said.

“We’re here to serve the membership instead of having us in Indianapolis and known as the big blue disk.”

Willson said her and Looney routinely get to work with administrators, but campus retreats give them a chance to interact one-on-one with coaches and student-athletes like they did Tuesday with NMU’s SAAC program at the Beacon House.

Organized by swimming and diving coach Heidi Voigt, a Wildcats team or organization serves a weekly meal for residents at the Beacon House in Marquette.

While Northern’s facilities – specifically the equally nice locker rooms for men’s and women’s sports – stood out to Willson and Looney was impressed with NMU’s diverse athletic council, it was the Beacon House dinner that both said they planned to pass on to other schools as an ideal way of engaging the community.

“After the meals were cooked and the residents were there, the student athletes went and weren’t just sitting by themselves,” Looney said. “They were sitting at tables and having conversations, talking athletics, talking TV shows or whatever people wanted to talk about. That was pretty special to see that in action.”

Willson was also touched by the collaborative effort by NMU and Michigan Tech athletes to raise $3,000 per school for a 6-year-old Madison from Hancock and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Madison has been diagnosed with a rare genetic muscular disorder Nemaline Rod Myopathy and her wish is to be a Disney princess at Disney World.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with what Northern is doing with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and trying to grant this individual wish,” Willson said. “For Northern to partner with Michigan Tech, who is their rival and to raise enough money to grant a single wish, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in Division II.”

Willson and Looney also shared what they learned from other university visits with Northern. One initiative after Pittsburgh State football games in particular stood out to Karr, in part because the Superior Dome is an ideal venue for postgame activities.

After every home game, Pittsburg State coaches remain on the field to socialize with fans and a select group of players is chosen before the game to stay after as well and toss a football around with kids.

“Kids know after the game there will be student athletes staying after to throw them touchdown passes,” Karr said. “What happens is the little kids look forward to that each week and of course bring their family members and other friends to the game.

“You always talk about community engagement, bringing people on campus and wanting them to have a good experience. That’s a good way to accomplish that. It also teaches the athletes about good sportsmanship and how to react the right way win or lose.”