Nielsen: ‘We’ve done some really great things here’

Now that the dust has cleared on a hectic week, Joel Nielsen had time to stop and reflect on the events that will take him to a new destination.

And not just a new location, but a step up the Division I ladder.

Nielsen, who has spent the last seven years as the athletic director at the University of South Dakota, was introduced Thursday, March 25, to the same position at Kent State University – a D-I school with a bowl-eligible football program.

"This was just a great opportunity for me and my family," Nielsen said Friday, March 26 from Vermillion, after flying back from Ohio in the morning. "Jobs like these are hard to get, so you have to jump at it."

Nominated for the KSU opening by his former boss Ron Wellman, the athletic director at Wake Forest, Nielsen spent the past few days in Kent, Ohio.

After bouncing around from interview to interview with various groups on Wednesday, Nielsen – one of three finalists from an initial pool of nearly 70 – was then named the school's new athletic director at a Thursday morning press conference.

Now, for the time being, he's back in Vermillion, a place he's called home since taking the USD job in December 2003.

"We've done some really great things here at USD, together, from the top level down to every staff member," said Nielsen, who assumes his duties at Kent State on May 15.

"Obviously, it's tough to leave a place where you have so many friends and so many great co-workers," he added. "I'll have millions of memories."

Among the milestones during Nielsen's seven-year tenure, the one that stands out, he said, was USD's transition to D-I athletics. An athletic review task force was announced in July 2006, and five months later, the ultimate decision had been made – USD would leave Division II.

It was a move, Nielsen said, that has and will continue to have far-reaching implications.

"Obviously, the D-I transition was the over-arching situation we dealt with," he said. "There were so many different elements to that move, and it's still evolving. That was a critical decision in this school's history; I can't thank the leadership enough for their support."

The milestones would continue for USD, as the football program joined the Great West Football Conference in 2007 and that league later became an all-sports conference the following year. Then in April 2009, USD accepted an invitation to join the Summit League, starting in 2011-12.

"That really shapes the future of USD for the next 40-50 years," Nielsen said of USD joining a league that already includes former rivals South Dakota State and North Dakota State.

Before tackling the D-I transition issue, Nielsen worked with the USD administration and external licensing company to develop a new athletics logo and trademark program.

He also secured a partnership with Daktronics Sports Marketing to bring a $2 million scoreboard enhancement to the DakotaDome.

Nielsen said he hopes to meet with the entire USD coaching staff to discuss his departure and to help aid in the search for a new athletic director.

Nothing has officially been released as far as a timetable for a search.

Nielsen said the process with Kent State first got started late last year, but only picked up steam recently.

"I kept President (Jim) Abbott informed of what was going on. Like with lot of searches, there was so much confidentiality," Nielsen said. "It's unfortunate that so many of those people you work with every day are often times just as surprised. That was the case here too."

Kent State, with a total enrollment of nearly 38,000, boasts what Nielsen referred to "ultra-competitive" athletics in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) – a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) league.

In accepting the position at Kent State, Nielsen signed a five-year contract with an annual salary of $225,000, with other incentives still being negotiated.

Though his yearly salary is a significant increase from the $126,690 he was making at USD, Nielsen said his family – wife Sharon and three daughters, Kasey, Kelly and Kory – played a big role in his decision.

"Sharon and I felt that our girls are at the age where they have a huge role in our decisions," said Nielsen, who was joined at Thursday press conference at KSU by his family. "I take their counsel, just as much as anyone else. They needed to experience this, go out and see what it's like.

"And I hoped they liked it."

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