NAU Athletics in search of excellence

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Arriving in March 2012 from the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Lisa Campos was charged by university President John Haeger with bringing excellence to NAU Athletics.

In an April interview with The Lumberjack, Haeger laid out the importance of the program and something of the vision he wished Campos to pursue.


(Photo by Lisa Campos)

“We also wanted to up the profile of NAU Athletics . . . We wanted to do that for a couple reasons. Like it or not, this culture is all about athletics and we were pretty mediocre in some cases,” Haeger said. “I told Lisa . . . make it better. What she is doing from those looking in from the outside; she’s building her team. She’s bringing in people she believes will take us to the next level.”

Since that time, there have been considerable changes in staffing.  Gone are Steve Shaff, assistant athletic director for media relations after 14 years with the university; George Fox after twelve years; Walkup Skydome Events Coordinator Richard Grijalva, who pled no contest to sexual assault in April; Craig Choate, who chose to retire following the alleged complaints of his players, among others.

It is not uncommon for there to be a shake-up in any organization when new management arrives.  This is especially true in the world of athletics, whether professional and collegiate.  There is no tenure for coaches, their assistants or those in athletic administrations.

“I’ve had an opportunity to evaluate the department and restructure it to the way I think it is best going to serve our student athletes. Obviously, that’s the number one reason we’re here, to serve our student athletes,” Campos said.

While Campos would not directly discuss why those who had been with the program before her arrival were let go, she indicated her vision and theirs may not have been the same.

“Perhaps the direction I’m taking the department is not in line with where they want the department to go,” Campos said.

One example is the new direction of the media relations department, now called Athletic Communications.  Rather than the old sports media model of numbers and stats, Campos emphasizes a more holistic approach to sports information.

“In terms of the old sports information department . . . that’s just changing with the times. You’ll see that across the board at a lot of universities athletic departments because until now, sports information was literally giving numbers and anybody with the media stats.  . . Now it’s more about the social media, it’s a broader communication plan,” Campos said. “Now it’s engaging our community, ensuring that people learn who Zack Bauman is, not just as a football player.  It’s a lot more information that people want.”

Denise Thompson, the new assistant athletic director for communications, expanded on this theme.

“Well, our industry actually changes every year.  If you look at this business about ten years ago it was a lot about stats and things like that.  But especially with the growth of social media things are changing.  So now there is a lot of virtual aspects that go with sports information,” Thompson said.

Having worked for the old media relations as a graduate assistant and now hired full-time as an assistant to Thompson, Stayson Isobe has the benefit of seeing both past and new administrations.

“The previous administration had a lot of experience at NAU with decades of combined service . . . That being said, I am excited to be a part of the new administration as it is an exciting time to be a part of the new direction of NAU athletics,” Isobe said.

“My vision, again I think some of the people are onboard with that vision and maybe there are some who aren’t, and I think when you look at some of the transition that’s happened here again it was either through evaluation: I felt that those areas needed to have new leadership or they[those who have left voluntarily] just had an opportunity to make more money or be at a bigger school,” Campos said.

While there has been considerable personnel change in the athletic department since Campos’ arrival and not a few question these changes and are uncomfortable with them, it is too early to judge how effective they will be.  It is true NAU received the Big Sky Conference President’s Award this year, but how much Campos’ new direction had to do with that and how much the past administration played a part is uncertain.

This is still sports, however, and as laudable Haeger and Campos efforts are to create a proper environment for student athletes, if NAU teams cannot compete on the field, no amount of vision can trump the desire to win.



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