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UND ATHLETICS: Former ADs speak about experiences

Terry Wanless said that sometimes it felt like he was sent in to kill an alligator. And when he did it, people wondered what he was doing. The longest-tenured athletic director at UND since 1985, Wanless reflected this week on the challenges that...

Terry Wanless said that sometimes it felt like he was sent in to kill an alligator. And when he did it, people wondered what he was doing.

The longest-tenured athletic director at UND since 1985, Wanless reflected this week on the challenges that faced his administration and looked ahead to what it's going to take for the next athletic director at the school to be successful.

For the third time since 1999, UND is searching for a new leader of the athletic department. Tom Buning resigned last week after a short tenure that lasted just more than two years. He left amid criticism that was made clear on an athletic department internal survey.

Wanless, who held the position from 1990 to 1999, wasn't immune to critics, either, and he said it's going to take a special person to lead the school through the transition to Division I.

"This person has to have a couple of special skills, in my opinion," said Wanless, now the athletic director at Division I Sacramento State. "The person not only has to understand how to manage and build the athletic department, the person also has to have the patience required during the transition period to keep everyone going forward."


The outsider

Like Buning, Wanless was an outsider. Neither grew up in North Dakota. Neither attended school at UND.

Despite being born and raised in South Dakota and having relatives in Minnesota, Wanless said he was still an outsider and it led to some of the early struggles.

"When you come into UND, you need to understand how much the community and state love the university," he said. "I think in my own case, I underestimated the passion people have for the campus and athletic program. As I reflect back, I misread that in the beginning. I made some decisions that were contradictory to that passion. It probably took me four or five years to truly understand what Grand Forks and the university was all about.

"The school can't afford to make a mistake and bring in the wrong person, one who doesn't understand North Dakota culture and the people of North Dakota and how they think, react and respond to Sioux athletics."

Wanless said he didn't think he was treated unfairly because he wasn't a North Dakotan, however. As he began to get more familiar with the university, city, state and culture, Wanless said he felt like it was reflected in the department's performance and accomplishments.

Wanless said that he imagines Buning's challenge of coming to Grand Forks as an outsider may have been even more difficult than his own, because he came from even farther away (West Point, N.Y.).

The new hire


Wanless said he's cautious in trying to tell people what to do. But he did offer his opinion on a few pressing issues facing the new hire.

First off, Wanless said he felt it was "absolutely critical" that UND not hire an athletic director until a new president is in place. UND President Charles Kupchella will step down next summer and the university has begun the search process for a new president. The school has said it hopes to name one in February.

"It has been my experience that the athletic director and president have to work in harmonious agreement," Wanless said. "It would be a serious mistake to move too quickly. There really has to be a partnership between the AD and the president."

Wanless said he believes it would be highly beneficial if the university can land an athletic director with Division I experience.

Another quality that Wanless stressed is patience. UND is bound to have a lot of ups and downs during the transition years, he said. Wanless believes the Sioux football team will succeed immediately, but he points to North Dakota State women's basketball and South Dakota State men's basketball as teams that were perennial powers in Division II and have struggled at Division I.

"The person cannot react quickly to setbacks that will naturally occur," he said.

Roger Thomas, who held the position from 1999 through 2005, said being able to raise money will be key for the next athletic director.

"Certainly, funding will be one of the main challenges," said Thomas, now the North Central Conference commissioner. "Going to Division I, you're going to have a higher number of scholarships, higher numbers in many of the sports, increased travel costs, coaches salaries and more staffing internally.


"Also, the Division I decision doesn't just impact athletics. It impacts the whole school. So to have a strong person in that position is going to be critical. The best athletic directors of today need to have a pretty strong business sense and they need to have terrific public relations skills."

Looking back

Wanless said one of the strong points of his tenure was the staff. There wasn't much turnover and there were a lot of people who were connected to North Dakota, which helped them understand the university's role in the state.

"Stability is a critical part of the athletic department's success," he said.

Thomas also stressed the importance of staff, especially coaches and athletes.

"You need people with great integrity in those spots, because they are the ones making the headlines," said Thomas, who pointed to Sioux football coach Dale Lennon and men's hockey coach Dave Hakstol. "That's really important in this day and age."

Both Wanless and Thomas acknowledged their dissenters, but said that it's just part of the territory.

"You literally just can't keep everyone happy," Thomas said. "A lot of people have ideas about the way things should go. It goes with the turf. It's the same with the president of any organization. You just have to take the things you are confronted with, get information, do the very best thing for the organization and be thick-skinned enough to weather the storm that follows."


Reach Schlossman at 780-1129, (800) 477-6572 ext. 129 or bschlossman@gfherald.com .

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