VERMILLION — Seven years later, Joel Nielsen is off to greener pastures.
And as a result, the University of South Dakota will now look to replace its athletic director in the mid-stages of a transition to Division I.
Nielsen, who came to USD in 2003, was introduced Thursday as the new athletic director at Kent State University, a Division I school that boasts a bowl-eligible football program.
Nielsen, who was unavailable for comment, leaves after guiding USD through the early years of the D-I transition, highlighted by gaining acceptance in the Great West Football Conference — later an all-sports league — and securing membership into the Summit League.
"This was a very attractive position due to the tremendous leadership of Laing Kennedy," Nielsen said at his introductory press conference in Kent, Ohio.
"Under Laing's direction, Kent State has gained a national reputation as a truly comprehensive program, both athletically and academically, and I look forward to building on that great tradition."
Put simply, it's another challenge for the 47-year-old Nielsen.
With an enrollment of 38,000 students, Kent State ranks as the third-largest university in Ohio. The Golden Flashes compete in the 12-member Mid-American Conference (MAC) — a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) league.
Long-time KSU athletic director Laing Kennedy is retiring on June 30 after 16 years. Nielsen, who begins his duties May 15, got a five-year contract worth $225,000 per year — a total package worth $1.125 million, plus incentives.
In comparison, Nielsen's annual salary at USD was $126,690, according to figures from the state's open government Web site.
"This is a tremendous step forward in his career, and I know that everyone at USD is happy for him," USD president Jim Abbott said in a release. "I wish Joel and his family (wife Sharon, and daughters Kasey, Kelly and Kory) the very best as he leaves behind a very successful tenure at USD."
Now, Nielsen will lead an athletic department on a higher rung on the D-I ladder.
And though other sports at KSU have seen consistent success, perhaps the one without any significant winning tradition is football. Kent State has posted just two winning records since 1987, also the last time the Golden Flashes won at least seven games in a season.
It will be a similar undertaking to the one Nielsen encountered at USD. Upon taking the reigns in Vermillion in November 2003, Nielsen jumped head-first into the search for a new football coach — a search that ended 19 days later.
That first coach hired by Nielsen was Ed Meierkort, who was tabbed to guide USD's football program — that had one winning season in the seven years prior to 2004. Over the next six seasons, the two men shared similar challenges, Meierkort said Thursday.
"We had to tackle an athletic department and a football program that was a bit defeated, but we came out of the gates blazing," said Meierkort, who has posted a 44-23 record at USD. "Joel was strong enough and savvy enough to give everyone around here guidance, but more than that, support."
That support came in the form of fully-funding the program — 63 scholarships — at the early stages of the D-I transition. USD was 6-5 in 2008, the first outside Division II, and 5-5 last season.
"I'm very proud of what we accomplished here," Meierkort said. "Joel gave the football program the freedom to do what we needed to do. He was always a positive influence. His glass was 100 percent half-full."
Dave Gottsleben, who has spent 26 years as the head men's track and field coach, pointed to Nielsen's ability to guide USD through the planning and implementation stages of the D-I move. Then, according to Gottsleben, getting the Coyotes into the Great West Conference was a "great move."
"It's obviously a great opportunity for him professionally and for his family," Gottsleben said. "I've checked out what Kent State is all about, and it's definitely a big upgrade in responsibility.
"But I can tell you, from working with Joel and knowing him, that he can handle that."
Since becoming a D-I track and field program, USD has won back-to-back men's and women's Great West indoor championships — both held in the DakotaDome — and finished second at the conference outdoor meet last spring.
"Having a conference has given our athletes and us as coaches something to shooting for in this transition," Gottsleben said. "Joel understood how important it was for our teams to have a league. It made things a lot easier for everyone."
Another one of the 11 different head coaches hired in Nielsen's seven-year tenure is Matt Houk, who leads the Coyote volleyball program. Houk, who has guided USD to a 36-21 record in two seasons, said Nielsen's trust in the rookie coach played a big role in the program's success.
"On the personal side, I'm a little saddened, because we had such a great relationship," Houk said. "For me, as a first-time head coach, Joel was such a delight to work with. He gave me the freedom to use my vision to build a D-I program."
Now, all that's left for USD is continue its progression in the D-I transition and continue toward Summit League membership for all sports expect football in the 2011-12 year.
At Kent State, Nielsen will lead an athletic department with an annual budget of $18.5 million, 18 varsity sports with 450 student-athletes and about 100 employees.
"I'm very happy for him and his family; this is a great move for them," Meierkort said. "It's a bigger operation, with more money, more exposure, you name it. And if anyone deserves it, it's Joel."