By Greg Burke, Director of Athletics, Northwestern State/Opinion
Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen, who managed the Demon baseball program from 1998-2001, says if not for the professional opportunities in the Southeastern Conference which presented themselves, he and his family could have lived in Natchitoches the rest of their lives.
As I am concluding my 20th year as Director of Athletics at Northwestern State, I reflect on quality people like John and the fact that I would have been fine, as well, with him staying here. At the same time, if everybody stayed, how many others would I never have had the chance to hire, then develop what often turned into lifetime relationships on both a personal and professional level?
College athletics is a transitional and mobile enterprise. It is a blessing that successful coaches like Mike McConathy (basketball), Mike Heimerman (track), and Donald Pickett (softball), who have logged almost a combined 50 years at NSU, have chosen to stay.
At the same time, others move on to what are better opportunities for them on a personal or professional basis. Yet, it is nice to know that the experience they gained at NSU has played a role in their success after moving on. From NSU’s outstanding baseball coaching legacy to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, “the NSU way” emanates in intercollegiate athletic circles across the country.
In fact, over 100 former NSU student-athletes, coaches and support staff members are working in college athletics at some level. Former Demons are head coaches in the SEC, Big XII, ACC, Mountain West Conference, SWAC, and Southland Conference. Five others hold Associate AD positions in the SEC, PAC 12, and American East Conference.
What attracts such a high number of quality individuals here and in some cases, keeps them here? Simply put, there is a longstanding culture and work environment that makes it a place where people feel comfortable, so they want to work hard to achieve department goals and meet high expectations of performance. Perhaps Associate Head Basketball Coach Jeff Moore, whose tenure at NSU now spans a decade, put it best a couple of years ago when he said NSU is a “good place to have a bad day.”
Add to that the fact that Natchitoches is not your run-of-the-mill small town and the attraction is magnified. The town was voted the “Best Small Town in the South” by USA Today readers for many reasons. While the university certainly contributes to the vibrancy of Natchitoches, the many festivals and community events, and the beauty and warmth of our historic community, combine to make it a very special place to live. Whether Webster one day decides to adopt my word is beside the point, but I have often referred to Natchitoches as the “happeningest” town around.
The quality of the coaches and support staff which continue to be attracted to NSU ensures that quality student-athletes, and their families, will likewise see Natchitoches as a destination for their educational and athletic pursuits. In fact, the parents of those young people want their son or daughter to be at a place where the President of the University knows their name and interacts with them on social media…..where a new administrative position labeled “The Student Experience” was created based on the importance of making every day on our campus meaningful…..where the often overused but under-utilized phrase “student-athlete experience” truly has meaning.
Just like teams with good chemistry are more inclined to be successful, a department with quality coaches and support staff creates a potential-rich environment for student-athletes. The results at NSU are unequivocal proof of that. From the recent run of championships to the fact that NSU teams have claimed at least one win over four of the five Power 5 conferences in the past year or so speaks to a consistent level of competitive success. NSU’s nearly 400 student-athletes compiled a cumulative grade point average above 3.0 both semesters this past year while performing over 4,000 hours of community service, almost enough to retain its inaugural “Southland Strong” Community Service Award from a year ago.
Pure and simple, the success of the NSU athletic program comes down to the people, past and present. Each of them has made an impression on my life but more importantly, their influence has impacted the lives of countless student-athletes. And that’s what counts the most.