Kent State Success Leads To $60M Fundraising Drive

January 21, 2013 / Hockey
Crain’s Cleveland Business, Timothy Magaw

Kent State University’s trip last summer to the College World Series and its first football bowl berth in 40 years did more over the last year than boost morale of the Golden Flashes faithful.

It also infused the athletic department’s coffers with a hefty chunk of change — something upon which the university intends to build with the launch this spring of a $60 million fundraising campaign to support scholarships and the athletic program’s capital needs.

“We have a lot of alums,” said Joel Nielsen, the university’s director of athletics. “We have the prospect base, and we’ve coupled that with success on the field and in classroom and now have a heck of a product to go out and sell to people when we ask them to help us.”

Mr. Nielsen’s fundraising prowess was one reason he was tapped for the head athletics official role in March 2010 after serving seven years at the University of South Dakota, where he helped steer fundraising efforts to finance its transition to a Division I school. In the two fiscal years that encompass the bulk of Mr. Nielsen’s tenure at Kent State, the athletic program has brought in $14.5 million in cash and pledges from donors.

Matt Geis, Kent State’s executive director of athletic advancement, said those are good numbers considering athletics in total brought in about $25 million in cash and pledges over the last six fiscal years. Also, since the baseball team’s first appearance last June in the College World Series, the baseball program brought in about $1 million in cash and pledges.

“That’s a good indication of the impact of the success we’re having on fundraising numbers,” said Mr. Geis, also the university’s associate athletic director.

Building a winner

Kent State president Lester Lefton charged Mr. Nielsen early in his tenure with turning around the floundering football program, which until Darrell Hazell took the reins as coach in 2011 had gone 28-53 over the previous seven seasons under former coach Doug Martin.

Despite a solid basketball program, which claims five Mid-American Conference titles and even made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 2002, Kent State longed for a winning football program. A solid football program can help drive a university’s overall enrollment, bring donors to the door and pull in revenue from concessions and ticket sales.

To get the football program up to snuff, Mr. Nielsen and his team raised $3 million over the last two-and-a-half years. The effort led to the hiring of better personnel such as Mr. Hazell, a former assistant coach at Ohio State University. In the previous 10 years, Mr. Geis said the program had brought in less than $1.5 million total.

“It was a hard sell to get that $3 million and get donors to trust in what we’re saying and for them to believe in the model we put together for football to be successful,” Mr. Geis said. “Now our pitch to alums is to help us keep it there. Don’t help us get there but help us stay there now.”

After a rookie season record of 5-7, Mr. Hazell led the Golden Flashes over the last year to an overall 11-2 record, a MAC East championship and an appearance — a loss — in the Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Mr. Hazell announced in December he would leave Kent State for the head coaching job at Purdue University, and Kent State subsequently tapped Paul Haynes — a graduate of the university and former defensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas — for the top job.

“That was a huge factor in the success we’ve seen in two years,” Mr. Nielsen said about Mr. Hazell’s hire. “You win with people. That’s my bottom-line assessment. We understand we need facilities and other components to run a successful program, but you’ve got to get the right people in place first.”

Riding the momentum

While the Golden Flashes will try to keep the momentum of the football program headed in the right direction under Mr. Haynes’ watch, the development staff for the athletics department hopes the fundraising dollars will continue to pour in. While football is only a piece of athletics as a whole at Kent State, its success has translated to other areas, particularly in the fundraising arena.

“It becomes an easier pitch all around,” Mr. Geis said. “When I’m talking to a field hockey or women’s soccer alum, I don’t have that hurdle to get over. They all want to see football win. They want to see football be successful.”

Mr. Geis said about $36 million of the $60 million campaign slated to launch May 3 will be earmarked for construction and renovation projects, with the rest going toward scholarships. Among the construction work the university is planning is a $4.5 million addition to its field house near Dix Stadium, which will house new locker rooms for the field hockey, women’s soccer, track and field and softball programs.

Kent State also is plotting a $10 million construction and renovation effort for its Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center. The project would include new space for the gymnastics program, new suites in the heart of the arena, a new mezzanine level and a complete overhaul of the lower bowl area.

“We’re competitive, and we like to keep those expectation levels high,” Mr. Nielsen said. “In our business of being in sports, we’re all kind of wired that way. We don’t run away from expectations.”

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