Nielsen’s raise sets record high salary in MAC

Joel Nielsen, Kent State’s Athletic director, sits outside the MAC Center. Nielsen got a contract extension and a raise after being at KSU for three years. Photo by Kristi R. Garabrandt.

Madeleine Winer

Kent State Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen is now the highest paid athletic director in the Mid-American Conference after a two-year contract extension and 18 percent pay raise.

“I enjoy it here,” Nielsen said. “I’m still extremely challenged every day. I love the people I work with. The place is in great shape because we have great coaches. We just need to bring everything up to speed to compare with what we’re recruiting against.”

His contract extension, approved by the Board of Trustees Sept. 18, raises Nielsen’s base salary this year to $308,000, a raise of nearly $80,000 from when he was hired in 2010.

With his contract extension, Nielsen’s raise will increase pay each year by $40,000 until 2017, when his annual salary will be $428,000 — about $11,000 more than Kent State President Lester Lefton’s current salary.

Nielsen said being in a market driven industry is the reason why his pay has increased.

“It’s the market value of the position and much like a professor, if you want to hire those considered the best people in that position, you have to pay the market value,” he said. “We know what it costs to hire someone in our marketplace and that’s the way they looked at me, too.”

With a high salary comes a demanding and rigorous schedule. Nielsen said he starts his day with exercise at 5:15 a.m., fielding questions from student athletes who come in to start their morning training. He said he doesn’t leave the office until 7 p.m. most nights permitting no sporting events are happening.

“It’s a pretty daunting task,” he said about the athletic department’s load. “We’re responsible for 450 student athletes, 135 employees, a $20-million dollar budget and well into the hundreds of millions (of dollars) in facilities.”

Nielsen credited his staff, which he said helps with oversight and the coaches. “Fortunately, I have a lot of great staff that helps with oversight, but it goes back to the coaches,” he said.

Kent State Athletic Department Projects

• Locker room projects at the field house that will provide new locker room facilities for softball, soccer, field hockey and men’s and women’s track and field teams — $4.5 million

• Lights in the baseball field last year — $1 million

• New baseball and softball practice facility — 1.2 million

• Renovation of gymnastics locker room — $100,000

• Football and volleyball practice facility and new gymnastics facility part of the Building Champions Initiative — $60 million with $20 million already raised

“They not only understand the student athletes we should be recruiting, but once they get here, they manage their own program, and so I’m here as more supportive and resource role.” Nielsen said when he came three and a half years ago, he focused on the three F’s: football, fundraising and facilities. While the football and fundraising programs have experienced great successes, he said, the facilities are what will attract a high caliber of student athletes.

He said he hopes with these accomplishments, he made the board’s decision easy.

“President Lefton provided us funding for a facilities master plan for athletics that we haven’t done before,” Nielsen said, referring to the $60 million basketball and volleyball practice facility the department is fundraising for through its Building Champions initiative.

Under Nielsen’s leadership, Kent State’s football team played in the Bowl last spring after 40 years without clinching a bowl spot. Last year, the baseball team made its first appearance in the College World Series.

In 2011, the women’s gymnastic team won its first ever NCAA championship appearance, and the wrestling team bred its first NCAA champion, Dustin Kilgore.

Jim Andrassy, Kent State’s head wrestling coach of nine seasons, said Nielsen has helped the wrestling program — and all Kent State athletics — prosper under his tenure.

“I think the way he runs it, it’s run very similar to a business, and I think we’ve been more profitable as an athletic department,” Andrassy said. “He continues to support what we do and continues to financially support us to be a top 20 program in last six to seven years. It looks like hes got a great package, and we’re happy for him.”

Rob Senderhoff, Kent State’s head basketball coach, called Nielsen a “phenomenal leader” who has helped the basketball team reach its potential.

“He’s done a good job providing support to programs that need it to remain competitive or become competitive,” Senderoff said. “With some sports that lag behind, he’s done a great deal to help them become competitive. He’s allowed us to stay competitive in a league where lots of schools comitt money to their basketball program. Had Joel not allowed us to keep up, it would have been difficult to maintain the success we’ve had.”

Brice Biggins, head gymnastics coach, said under Nielsen, fundraising efforts have increased, which has allowed the university to build facilities that attract student athletes.

“There’s been a huge push to really fundraise for some much needed facility upgrades,” Biggin said. “Our locker room was a bit small, and they did fundraising and we got an updated locker room. An expansion of other outdoor sports at the studium is in progress, and we have a big master plan for upgrading gymnastics facility, so right now I’d say it’s a great time, and he will get us to the level where everyone else is, if not above others in the conference.”

Last spring, student athletes’ grade point averages spiked to 3.11, the best semester in recorded history. Sixty-two percent of student-athletes reached a GPA of 3.0 or higher, including 24 individuals who posted a perfect 4.0.

The athletic department has captured an 20 conference titles, 12 NCAA team appearances and numerous individual NCAA qualifier during Nielsen’s time at the helm of the Flashes.

“It’s fun to have a lot of firsts, but it also raises the bar too,” Nielsen said. “We expect to do better the next time and the next. We had great experience in the last three and a half years, and I look forward to future.”

Contact Madeleine Winer at [email protected].