Brian Faison stood behind a podium in the new, $19.5 million High Performance Center on the grounds where an abandoned hockey rink sat when he arrived nine years earlier.
In the back of the room, six Division I trophies -- all earned in the last 18 months -- were displayed on a table. One said NCAA national champion. The other five said Big Sky Conference, a reminder of the distance UND traveled from a Division II North Central Conference program.
The banner behind him was covered with Fighting Hawk logos, the end result of a long, drawn-out, bitter Fighting Sioux nickname debate that often put Faison at center stage.
The edges of the room were filled with head coaches, assistant coaches and athletics administrators eager to hear, in his words, the big news of the day: Faison is retiring as athletic director on Dec. 31, ending a wild nine-year run where major changes became routine.
He will stay on as an adviser to athletics through June 30, 2018, at his regular rate of pay. Faison is scheduled to make $193,707 for fiscal year 2018. He’ll also receive an early retirement package that UND President Mark Kennedy said was “within the standards of what we have done for early retirements.”
The Herald sent an open-record request for the full details of the retirement package. UND said it would likely be available by Wednesday.
“It’s a real pleasure and an honor to serve as director of athletics at the University of North Dakota,” Faison said before introducing his wife, Donna, who was seated next to local attorney Dick Olson. “It’s been an interesting time. We’ve gone through some interesting things. I don’t think any one year has been the same, and that’s part of what’s fun about the job.
“I’ve had great support in whatever we’ve had to deal with. At the end of the day, we got done what we needed to. At times, it was hard. But at the end of the day, I feel the program is in a better place competitively, financially and we’re in conferences now that are going to make more sense moving forward.”
Kennedy said there will be a national search for Faison’s replacement and he anticipates that he’ll have the next athletic director selected by the time Faison’s term ends Dec. 31.
UND Provost Thomas DiLorenzo will head the search committee.
Although Kennedy said that Faison approached him about retiring, the announcement comes just weeks after Kennedy hired a consulting firm to review the top four officials in the athletic department.
The consulting firm of Murney & Associates met individually with UND head coaches in September in a conference room at Hyslop Sports Center to get feedback.
UND declined to release the findings of those reviews, saying they were all conducted orally. Kennedy said that was the routine procedure.
When asked whether Faison approached Kennedy about retiring before or after the consultants conducted their reviews, Kennedy said: “They were in tandem.”
Kennedy also rejected the term “reviews” and said it was “skill development.”
When asked why pay for skill development of someone who is retiring, Kennedy said: “There are other players on the team he wants to make sure are set up for the transition that will continue to rely on those skills.”
Kennedy also was asked about the futures of the three others who were recently reviewed: deputy director of athletics Daniella Irle, associate athletic director for external operations Kyle Doperalski and associate athletic director for compliance Kara Helmig.
“Clearly, when there’s a new leader in charge, they may define things differently, but I think we have excellent people up and down the department and I would recommend those to whoever comes on board,” Kennedy said. “But, ultimately, the new athletic director will have a say in how they organize the department, but I think we’re proud of the staff we have and appreciative of their service and hopefully they’re continuing to stay fully engaged.”
Faison’s predecessor, Tom Buning, was ousted soon after a similar review in 2007.
Since Faison’s arrival on campus in 2008, the UND athletic department has undergone drastic changes.
Under Faison, UND has moved from NCAA Division II to Division I, secured league membership in the Big Sky Conference, pulled its men’s hockey program out of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to join the startup National Collegiate Hockey Conference, dropped its nickname, adopted a new nickname, revealed a new logo, announced its intention to pull out of the Big Sky and join the Summit League and Missouri Valley Football Conference, dropped baseball, swimming and diving and women’s hockey programs and added men’s tennis.
Along the way, Faison built some big supporters in the athletic department as well as critics, who would quietly grumble behind the scenes that their sport didn’t receive enough support.
During the past two seasons, UND has had major successes at the Division I level.
The men’s hockey team won its eighth NCAA national championship in 2016, and four other revenue sports won regular-season Big Sky Conference championships the following season.
Faison was named the FCS Athletic Director of the Year in March by the National Association of College Athletic Directors.
He recently ended his term on the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee. Faison chaired that committee for one year.
Former UND President Robert Kelley and Faison came aboard at the same time -- Kelley was involved in Faison’s hiring though he hadn’t officially started at the school yet.
Before leaving office in early 2016, Kelley gave Faison a glowing review and extended his appointment through June 30, 2021.
UND spokesman Peter Johnson told to the Herald in 2016 that Faison, like many others at UND, doesn’t have a traditional contract and receives “an initial letter of appointment and then an annual notice of continuing appointment from the President’s Office saying that, subject to funding, we have a position for another year. (The Jan. 6 letter) is the closest thing that Brian has to a contract.”
Faison came to UND from New Mexico State, where he served as athletic director and special assistant to the president. He also previously served as athletic director at Indiana State and assistant athletic director at Louisville and Illinois State.
Faison said that none of those other stops contained the challenges that UND has had in the last nine years.
“I appreciate everyone’s support through some interesting times,” he said, scanning the onlookers at the press conference. “We’ve gotten through it, and I think we’re better for it.”