Q&A with Robert Entzion

Athletic Director, North Dakota State University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 12.3, April/May 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1203/qaentzion.htm

Now in his 12th year as Director of Athletics at North Dakota State University, Robert Entzion heads one of the most respected programs in NCAA Division II. NDSU teams have garnered nine national titles under his direction while also earning 67 North Central Conference championships across seven sports. Despite these particular successes, Entzion is most proud of the consistently high quality of all the sports within the NDSU program.
In this interview, Entzion shares his thoughts on NDSU’s plans to add men’s and women’s ice hockey programs, the importance of building community relationships, and recruiting today’s student-athletes.

AM: So many of your teams are consistently strong. What is your overall philosophy that enables this success?
Entzion: I think we try to have a balanced program for our student-athletes. That means we provide them with the athletic means to be successful—the equipment, the travel—but we also make the same commitments in other areas. We provide them with the resources to succeed academically, and we work on personal development—helping them to be better people when they leave. We believe student-athletes have special talents, and we want them to know that.
Ten years ago, we could recruit student-athletes based mainly on the athletic program because the primary interest was athletic success. Now the primary interest is the quality of your university and the education—what type of degree they’re going to get, and, eventually what type of jobs they are going to get. So academics is the number-one sell—and that’s as it should be.
What are some of your strategies and philosophies in managing an athletic department staff?
When I first came to NDSU, I thought I knew a whole lot, but I didn’t know much at all. I now know the key is being able to communicate a vision. So I think of management like tending sheep: You have a big group that tends to wander—whether it’s your student-athletes, coaches, or administrators—and you just need to pull them in, keep them focused, and keep communicating with them. You might have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you don’t get the team reacting to them or being a part of them, they’re not going to happen.
What one thing do you feel an AD can do to support and motivate his or her coaches?
The most important thing is to make them feel that they are a critical part of a team and that you believe in them. That’s why you have them there. You also need to let them know your faith in them has a lot to do with whether they achieve your expectations.
You’ve stated that you may begin men’s and women’s ice hockey programs. Can you explain the process the department has gone through in researching this addition?
In this region, hockey is one of the fastest growing girls’ sports in the high schools. So that’s why we’re looking at women’s hockey.
With men’s hockey, it’s strictly financial. The fiscal responsibilities are tremendous now, even at the Division II level, so you’re scrambling to look for more ways to generate income, and men’s hockey can provide that.
In our North Central Conference, there are three teams that play Division I hockey in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). Last summer, we asked the Commissioner of the WCHA, Bruce McLeod, to help us explore starting Division I men’s and women’s hockey, and we surveyed WCHA schools.
At the same time, some leaders in our city put together a steering committee to look at the facility question. This committee then persuaded entities within the city to hire a consulting firm to do a feasibility study. Right now in Fargo we have a big facility (the Fargodome) and a small civic center; and what the feasibility study found is that, yes, there is a niche in this community for a medium-sized facility for the concerts and shows. But it needs an anchor, and NDSU would like the anchor to be Division I men’s and women’s hockey. The plan is to build a $40 to $42 million facility whose main arena will seat about 8,500, and second arena/rink, connected to it, will seat about 2,500.
The interest is there in the community. We’ve been having a preseason ticket sale in which those people who want season tickets put deposits down. We’ve got quite a number so far, and out of those, 47 percent currently aren’t involved with Bison Athletics—as far as our booster organization or season tickets. And that’s exciting, because it means there’s another group out there that we can get involved.
How do the school and city plan to finance this new facility?
NDSU is going to use the facility about 20 percent of the time for our practices and games, so we’ll be raising about 20 percent of the money. Because of our background in fund-raising and corporate sponsorships, we’re looking at getting the naming rights sold, for $8-$10 million, as our financial commitment to this facility. In our conference, Mankato State built a hockey arena/civic center, and they sold the naming rights for $6.7 million to a cellular phone company. So we think it’s very realistic.
The other 80 percent, the city plans to raise through taxes. Residents will vote this month on extending a 1/2-cent sales tax that is currently in place to finance the Fargodome.
Why, do you think, the community is so keen to support this endeavor?
We have a great relationship with our community and a great reputation for getting things done—especially when it comes to facilities. The Fargodome was a partnership between the city and NDSU in which NDSU gave the land and did some things with utilities, and it has brought many events to the community.
We’ve also worked with the community on other facility projects. Instead of building a track for NDSU, we built a $2.3 million outdoor track and soccer complex with the city and with the schools. And we just finished a baseball stadium. We use it for our team, the city uses it for the youth, and a minor league team uses it also. So we’ve added about $60 million worth of facilities that are used extensively by the university and the community through a partnership. It’s unique when you get such a trusting relationship with the city. I think we’ve worked hard on that.
NDSU has also demonstrated leadership in the community by getting involved. Part of that includes our student-athletes’ community work. Our student-athlete council organizes the biggest blood drive in this region. They also put on a special Halloween party every year which attracts 500 to 700 kids, and they work with the Special Olympics and the local hospitals. In addition, each team has individual projects such as reading in schools.
It’s also been reported that you are looking at moving your entire program to Division I-AA. What has been the thinking behind this and what is the planning for it?
There’s concern about what is going to happen at Division II. I think it’s been stable, but, it seems every year, there’s talk of reducing scholarships. That doesn’t fit our philosophy.
I think the last thing we should be doing is reducing opportunities for our student-athletes. There are many other ways that we could take moneys out of our budgets besides taking opportunities away.
I was listening to a vice president of a major corporation say, “If we don’t make changes today, in 10 years we won’t be here.” It’s the same with athletics. You have to continually look at ways of making changes. So we’re preparing ourselves at NDSU for any possible changes in the future of Division II or the direction we want to go as an athletic department.
We want to be proactive. We know there are things we need to do with our facilities and with our endowments. We want those in place so, if we do decide to move to Division I, we will be able to be competitive right away. We want to be able to provide the means for our coaches and student-athletes to be successful on whatever level we might choose. And even if that’s three or four years down the road, we want to prepare now.
But, the downside of that move is it means bringing all NDSU sports to the Division I level, and there are some real big tradeoffs with that. In March, our women finished second in the nation in Division II indoor track, and our men were seventh. That was the highest finish we’ve ever had with our women. We also won the national championship in Division II wrestling and made it to the Elite Eight in Division II women’s basketball.
So there’s definitely the question: Is it better being a big fish in a small pond, or being a small fish in a big pond? How competitive would our basketball teams be at the Division I level? Where do our other sports fit in? They’d be competing with all the big schools in Division I.
You recently revamped your athletic department Web site. Why and how did you do this?
The sad part of athletics today is that you’re running a business because of the fiscal responsibility. You hire the marketing and promotions people. You hire the fund-raising people. But we found we needed to do even more. We hired an advertising agency and basically charged them with helping us bridge the gap between athletics and the community—finding the buttons to push to get more people involved with our program.
We’ve come up with a five-year plan to increase ticket sales and to get involved with corporate sales. And as part of this, the ad agency helped us redo the Web page. The Web is wonderful, this technology is wonderful, but the downside is now you’re putting more stress on the athletic department because you’re going to have to find people that can keep it up.
In Women’s Basketball Coach Amy Ruley, you have a longtime outstanding coach (over 500 wins) who has not jumped to Division I. Do you do anything special to keep your coaches from looking for jobs elsewhere?
I think the basic reason she has stayed is because we’re fair to her financially. But I think we’ve also satisfied her needs in her job by providing the means for her to be successful. She has the fan support, and I think the quality of our facilities and the attention she gets from the media are all part of why she has turned down other opportunities and stayed at NDSU.
Your student-athletes do well in the classroom, boasting a 2.9 grade point average. What does the department do to make sure the athletes think of their academics first?
It’s how you communicate the importance of academics, and in our philosophy it’s stressed a lot. You have to make a commitment to your student-athletes and provide the means.
We have an academic enhancement center that all freshmen have to be involved in. And if others don’t have a certain grade-point average, they also have to be in there. As part of the center, we provide tutoring for any classes they need help with. We also have another person who works with higher-risk student-athletes.
We also publicize “Student-Athletes of the Week” based on academic accomplishments. They are introduced to boosters at a weekly coaches-booster meeting. It’s nice for those community people to realize that these athletes are quality people who can communicate with others.
The leadership of our coaches is also crucial. Our coaches make their student-athletes responsible for going to their classes and doing well in school, and if they don’t, then there are consequences. They also tell their student-athletes, “We know you’re going to work hard in practice, and you’re going to work hard in games. But if you don’t do the same thing in your academics, you’re not going to reach your capabilities. And that’s our goal—for you to reach your athletic capabilities and your academic capabilities while you’re here.”