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DWU has lowest average coaching tenure in GPAC

When the 2010-11 school year starts in a few months, there will be two new faces in the crowd in the Dakota Wesleyan University athletic department.

New faces are something DWU is familiar with.

The university, whose longest-tenured coaches will enter their sixth years with the school this fall, has an average tenure of 3.7 years among its 13 head coaching positions. That average is the lowest among the 13 schools in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, of which the university is a part. The GPAC school with the longest average tenure among its coaches is Midland Lutheran, in Fremont, Neb., at 12.2 years.

Dakota Wesleyan's average coaching tenure was dragged down recently by the departure of two coaches. Women's basketball coach Aaron Kahl announced his resignation May 11, and men's basketball coach John Hemenway -- one of the three-longest tenured coaches at the university -- followed suit two weeks later.

Their replacements will join a coaching staff that includes two second-year head coaches, two third-year head coaches, two fourth-year head coaches, a fifth-year head coach and two sixth-year head coaches.

'It's where a coach goes to'

While the average coaching tenure is lower than DWU President Bob Duffett would like, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"We'd like to keep head coaches as long as we can," he said. "The real story is not the tenure. The real story is how we're able to attract coaches that so many other good places want."

Hemenway, who was with the Tigers for five seasons and created a perennially strong basketball program, left to coach at Berea College, an NAIA school in Kentucky. Berea has an endowment worth more than $800 million. Dakota Wesleyan's, on the other hand, is worth around $22 million.

Duffett also mentioned Rod Olson, a football coach from 2000 to 2001 who accepted a position with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Colorado. Chris Gomez, women's golf coach from 2001 to 2004, is the head coach at Wichita State, and former track coach Leslie Hardesty is an assistant at Truman State.

"We'd like to keep (coaches) longer, but it's not a matter of when a coach goes, it's where a coach goes to," Duffett said. "The reality of college athletics is where don't you see transition?"

Turnover in the GPAC

In the GPAC, transition is something Dakota Wesleyan sees more often than the other 12 institutions in the league.

DWU's 3.7-year average tenure is the lowest in the conference, though it isn't far behind several other universities. Dordt College's average tenure is 4.67 years, Mount Marty's and Dana College's average coaching tenure is 4.8 years and the University of Sioux Falls has an average tenure of five years.

Midland Lutheran has the longest average tenure at 12.2 years. It is the only school in the GPAC with an average tenure in double digits, although Nebraska Wesleyan is not far behind at 9.86 years.

Mount Marty Athletic Director Chuck Iverson said coaching tenure is a concern not only for Mount Marty, but for all GPAC -- and to some degree most NAIA -- schools.

"It is (a concern), because my feeling is every time we lose a coach, you take a little step backwards because of recruiting and continuity of the program," he said. "It's not something we like, but we realize it's something that happens. We're small colleges.

"We try to find people that fit the philosophy and personality of the college, but we're kind of low people on the totem pole."

Iverson listed pay and prestige as two reasons coaches might not stick with schools like DWU or Mount Marty, or want to move on after only a few years of working there.

He also said turnover is just a part of athletics.

"I think (turnover) is the nature of coaching, quite honestly," he said. "In a lot of ways, it's the nature of all jobs. It doesn't matter where you're at; people look for that next job, that next step up the ladder."

Greener pastures

According to two former employees of the DWU athletic department, there are reasons that rate is accelerated at Dakota Wesleyan.

Scott Gines, who served as the athletic director from 2000 to 2005, said in an e-mail that Dakota Wesleyan is "an ideal place to begin one's career as an assistant, a head coach or athletic administrator."

Gines, who is currently the vice president for institutional advancement at Texas A&M University at Kingsville, went on to say that while he does not know what DWU's situation is like now, when he was with the school, it was the university's limitations that affected coaching tenure.

"Most institutions have athletic success limitations -- typically you find these in facilities, scholarships, support staff and financial support," he said in an e-mail. "I suspect facility limitations remain a significant impediment at DWU, and geography can often compound missed opportunities for player development."

Adam Neisius, the head of the baseball team from 1999 to 2008, said he thinks some things are "pretty difficult" for some athletic programs at Dakota Wesleyan.

Neisius, who left DWU as the winningest baseball coach in school history, is currently an assistant coach for the Nebraska-Kearney baseball program.

After being at an NCAA Division II program for the past two years, he said he thinks facilities play a large part in the coaching turnover.

"I think facilities are an issue (at DWU)," he said. "Not all -- obviously the baseball program is lucky and basketball is lucky -- but I don't think overall they stack up real well to some other facilities in the GPAC, and I think that makes it difficult.

"I think with potential student athletes, that plays a big role in the deciding factor."

Neisius also mentioned resources such as scholarships and funding for the athletic programs that makes it difficult for DWU coaches.

"If you win at Dakota Wesleyan, you start thinking, 'Should I go for something bigger and better?' " he said. "If you can work around potential scholarship, resource and facility issues, other things start popping up."

That, according to Duffett, is precisely what happened with Hemenway. After turning the men's basketball program into a perennial powerhouse, he got offered a position at one of the wealthiest schools in the country.

Hiring 'lifers'

While DWU's coaching tenure is at least comparable to several GPAC schools, there is one thing the college is still missing.

DWU and USF are the only two schools in the conference that don't have at least one coach that has been at the school for more than 10 years. Seven of the 13 schools have coaches who have been there at least 20 years.

Dakota Wesleyan has had several long-tenured coaches in its recent past.

Doug Martin, who coached the men's basketball team prior to Hemenway, was with the school 17 years (1988-2005). Former football coach Joe Kramer stayed 15 years (1984-1998) and legendary men's basketball coach Gordie Fosness led the Tigers for 22 years (1961-1983). Now, however, coaches are at least four years away from hitting double-digit coaching tenure.

Jim Thorson, the Mount Marty head men's basketball coach, will enter his 15th year at the school in the 2010-11 school year. According to Iverson, it's about more than the pay and facilities for longer-tenured coaches.

"The ones we've had here for a while have been other places, and they fit well in our system, so it isn't all about the pay," he said. "Jim Thorson has been in our system for many years. He's been at SDSU and a lot of places. You try to find that fit.

"He wasn't looking at that step up the ladder at that point. He'd been there, and hopefully he likes what he has here. You find those coaches sometimes."

Gines said that some coaches have a career ceiling, and schools like DWU are more of a training ground.

"Successful athletics at DWU require the teamwork of the whole village. It's a great training ground," he said. "Coaches do not have tenure, and we need to be aware that some of our best hires will have a career ceiling that possibly exceeds our capacity to retain them beyond four to six years."