The end of an era in Northwestern State athletics happened quietly and among the Demon family – just as Doug Ireland wanted it.
Ireland, who served his alma mater as its sports information director for 30-plus years, stood in front of the majority of the NSU athletic department staff Tuesday afternoon and announced his retirement, effective in mid-to-late May.
“I have had the privilege to watch people like (head football coach) Brad (Laird), (head track and field coach) Mike (Heimerman) and (assistant softball coach) Brooke (Boening) compete,” said Ireland, standing in front of the Stroud Room, fighting back tears. “That was fun. Working with you has been better. I am proud to be on this team with each and every one of you, but it’s just time.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to be here helping as much as I can.”
A 1986 broadcast journalism graduate from Northwestern State, Ireland returned to his alma mater in January 1989 and began a three-decade career promoting NSU’s 14 intercollegiate teams.
Armed with nearly a decade’s worth of experience in newspapers and as an assistant sports information director at UL Lafayette, Ireland quickly put his stamp on NSU athletics. His 1992 football media guide earned “Best in the Nation” honors in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) ranks from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors of America.
That was one of numerous awards Ireland took home as the spokesperson for Northwestern State athletics.
In addition to the 15 Louisiana Sports Writers Association awards he won during his tenure at the Alexandria Town Talk, Ireland’s name quickly became a fixture in the LSWA’s sports information contest.
Since 2000, he earned 33 LSWA awards, including the 2017 LSWA Story of the Year. The majority of those honors came from telling the stories of Northwestern State athletes, coaches and support staff members.
“I remember how thrilled I was in January 1989 to have this opportunity, and as it played out, I only had a fraction of an understanding of what a joy and privilege it would be,” Ireland said. “I’m incredibly thankful to Jerry Pierce, Tynes Hildebrand and Greg Burke for their support over these incredible three decades. I’m tremendously grateful to the people who have worked in our office and made each day a fun step forward in our mission to best promote and publicize the student-athletes, coach and teams who compete for Northwestern.”
Ireland’s 30-plus-year tenure puts him alongside Hildebrand, the athletic director who hired him, and coaches H. Lee Prather and Leon Johnson as the longest-serving members of Northwestern State’s athletic department.
“Doug has earned a reputation as an icon in sports media in Louisiana and far beyond,” said Pierce, Northwestern State’s vice president of external affairs who helped Hildebrand bring Ireland back to Natchitoches in 1989. “His talents, institutional knowledge and relationships in sports circles have been invaluable to Northwestern for decades. He has been a cherished friend and colleague to many of us and a powerful and effective advocate for the university. His passion and support for Northwestern will certainly not be diminished by his retirement.”
Most of Ireland’s tenure saw him serving side-by-side with Director of Athletics Greg Burke, who is nearing the completion of his 23rd year atop the NSU athletic department.
“It’s been my privilege and a true blessing to have had a 30-plus year professional relationship and more importantly, a personal friendship, with Doug. To call him a good friend would very much be an understatement. He loves his alma mater to the point that his passion for NSU is rivaled by very few. Perhaps most treasured by Doug are the countless connections he has made with students, student-athletes, coaches, staff, faculty and supporters through the years as a result of his tenure at NSU. I am certain that every one of those individuals wishes him all the best as he transitions to the next phase of his life,” said Burke, who first met Ireland in 1985 while serving a yearlong internship under Hildebrand at NSU while Ireland was covering the Demons for the Alexandria Town Talk.
“Doug has been the consummate ‘media relations’ professional. He worked tirelessly to develop relationships with sportswriters and broadcasters, who, in turn, knew that they could always count on Doug to be responsive and straightforward to inquiries and their need for information. Those media connections, and his due diligence, resulted in publicity and exposure for NSU Athletics, the value of which is immeasurable. He undeniably leaves big shoes to fill,” added Burke, who through the years has enjoyed good-natured Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers banter with Ireland.
Throughout his three decades of service to Northwestern State, Ireland promoted countless athletes for all-conference, All-Louisiana and All-American honors. In 1993, Ireland’s efforts helped senior offensive lineman Marcus Spears earn inclusion on the Football Writers Association of America All-America Team, which made Spears a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s top collegiate lineman.
Spears and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice are the only two FCS players ever to earn a spot on the major college FWAA All-America Team.
In March, Ireland helped promote senior forward Ishmael Lane for Southland Conference Men’s Basketball Defensive Player of the Year, bookending a year that saw him also promote three-time All-American wide receiver Jazz Ferguson, who also earned Southland Conference and All-Louisiana Offensive Player of the Year acclaim.
“I once was told what we do in the sports information/media relations field was a ‘young person’s job,’ but I believe it just requires great passion for the people and the institution you’re serving. I’m blessed that I’ve never lost that. I’m so proud of the people I’ve worked with and the university I’ve served and those feelings, I’m sure, are only going to magnify as I move on. There is such great momentum at NSU and for NSU Athletics, and I’m going to try to contribute to that in every way I can, just from a slightly different perspective.”
Ireland’s tenure saw him honored by more than just professional media organizations.
In 2008, the Northwest Louisiana’s McNaughton Chapter of the National Football Federation named him the recipient of its “Distinguished American” award. Four years later, he was named the Town Talk’s CENLA Sportsman of the Year.
In 2016, the Southland Conference tabbed him as the winner of the Louis Bonnette Sports Media Award, named for the former McNeese sports information director. Bonnette’s son, Matthew, the current McNeese SID, is one of a large number of former Ireland assistant and associate sports information directors who have ascended to positions atop sports information offices across the country.
“Doug Ireland is a well-deserving recipient of the Louis Bonnette Sports Media Award and has always proven to be a great promoter of Northwestern State and the Southland Conference,” Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett said in announcing Ireland’s selection. “We’re very pleased to rightfully honor Doug for his contributions in the area of sports journalism and recognize his limitless efforts to promote the accomplishments of NSU athletics and its student-athletes.”
While serving at Northwestern State, Ireland held a dual role as chairman of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, housed in Natchitoches. His volunteer efforts helped lead to the development and construction of the $23 million Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum, which opened to international architectural acclaim in June 2013.
He will remain in the same position with the Hall of Fame.
“This is the right time for me to shift gears,” Ireland said. “Technically, this is a retirement, but it’s really a realignment into whatever opportunity is within my reach. But for now, I realize how blessed I’ve been to have taken this journey and have been surrounded by so many incredible people every step of the way.”