CEDAR FALLS — Things don’t happen as quickly at the University of Northern Iowa when compared it to its two Division I in-state counterparts.
More students means more potential donors, which ultimately equals more money at the disposal of Iowa’s Gary Barta and Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard.
UNI’s Director of Athletics David Harris — now 21 months into the job — has grasped the many nuances that come with the position at the state’s third-largest public institution. Multimillion dollar facility builds, exorbitant contracts for coaches and many of the other familiar items associated with Power-5 programs are not the nature of the beast at UNI.
But when Harris was evaluating his potential future employer in early 2016 there were characteristics that set UNI apart.
“Some places can be good at one or two things, but you sort of look across the board at the coaches and the sports and the performance over time and the athletics department had distinguished itself at being good in a number of areas, which was significant for me,” Harris said.
Combine Northern Iowa’s level of success across all its athletic programs with story after story of how special the people were that worked there and Harris came to a strong feeling that UNI was not only the right fit for him professionally, but the correct fit for his wife, Felicia, and their two children, Kaitlyn and Wesley.
While there are obvious differences between his former employer Iowa State and his current one, Harris had to make some big decisions shortly after he began on March 28 last year.
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He replaced two longtime senior administrators in Jean Berger and Steve Gearhart with Christina Roybal and Justin Schemmel. He also implemented something that was out of his former boss’ playbook. Downsizing the amount of administrators with sport oversight responsibilities. Roybal and Schemmel serve as the two administrators with those responsibilities now, and the lines of communication between the department and its coaches has been streamlined and built to keep everyone on the same page.
Elsewhere in the athletics department, Harris’ impact has been felt largely on “controlling what you can control.”
For example, an enhanced focus on customer service at games. Evidenced by a kids zone for parents to make use of during three- to four-hour football games and a lactation room for mothers to feed their infants in appropriate privacy.
Further examples of Harris and his staff honing in on those things they can control would be the inexpensiveness to attend games. Currently the department is offering a nine-game ticket package for men’s basketball conference games for only $50.
But, perhaps most indicative of Harris’ “control what you can control” approach was the addressing of a particular complaint he said he probably heard the most after coming to UNI. The cleanliness, or lack thereof, of the UNI-Dome for football’s last home game that comes mere hours after the conclusion of the Iowa high school state football playoffs.
“This year we (had) several staff members who decided that’s not an acceptable thing and so our facilities and event staff rented a power washer and literally didn’t go to bed,” Harris said. “They spent all night until 6 o’clock in the morning power washing the Dome. So when you hear people talk about the special people that work at UNI athletics that’s an example of the kind of work that we get from a Trent Ames, Travis Kramer, a Brooke Croshier-Sidebotham. We can’t create more women’s restrooms overnight. But overnight we can transform our mind-set that says certain things are no longer acceptable for our fans who are coming to the arena to enjoy the games.”
The big-ticket items that get the news coverage and reverberate throughout a fan base have and will continue to come, but not at a Power-5 institution’s pace. New football turf debuted this year in the UNI-Dome. The outdoor track and field surface is scheduled to be refurbished to host the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference Championships, and they’re in the middle of fundraising for a team meeting room for football.
“Everybody looks at facilities to see what they can do to make things better,” Harris said. “For us, we certainly recognize that we’re not going to be an exception to that. I will also say, though, that it requires some balance. You have to know who you are and what you can do. And what’s the best combination of resources, facilities, coaches and support that you can possibly put together.”
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Above all, growing financial support for UNI athletics is Harris’ mission. It has and always will come back to dollars. No matter how big or small the project. No matter if it’s something that will catch the media’s attention or not, Harris is dogged in his pursuit for more UNI supporters.
“We love our fans, but at the end of the day we don’t need more fans. We need more supporters,” Harris said. “We need more people who have skin in the game. We need more people who when they’re watching the game they have a certain pride about the result because they know that they’re financially backing the program. That helps us do what we need to do.
“It’s a great payment when you can see your investment pay off. Just like any other investment. It’s not because they’re going to win every game, but we win more than our fair share in a lot of our different sports.”