By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sports writer
KENT: Kent State has found its new sports leader.
The university formally introduced new Athletic Director Joel Nielsen on Thursday. He is KSU's 10th athletic director and has been tabbed to replace longtime Athletic Director Laing Kennedy. Nielsen, 47, will begin his tenure May 15.
‘‘When I met Joel Nielsen a couple weeks ago in my office, I'd planned a 40-minute meeting,’’ Kent State president Lestor Lefton said. ‘‘But he was there for an hour and a half. As he walked out of my office, I said to myself, ‘This is the guy.’ . . . This guy was made for Kent State.’’
Nielsen has spent the past six-plus years in the same capacity at South Dakota and recently oversaw the school's transition to an NCAA Division I program.
Nielsen, a Latimer, Iowa, native, and his wife, Sharon, have three daughters - 13-year-old twins Kasey and Kelly and 11-year-old Kory.
Nielson agreed to a $225,000, five-year contract. Some details, such as incentives, are still pending.
‘‘One of the [things] that attracted me to Kent State was that Laing Kennedy has been here and built this program up,’’ Nielsen said. ‘‘When I talked to [several colleagues], they said to follow Laing Kennedy would be something special. And it is very special to follow in his footsteps knowing he's put this department in a solid position, a solid place. It's going to be exciting to build upon what he's done here.’’
The process to find Kennedy's successor was far-reaching. After Kennedy announced his plans last summer to retire June 30 after 16 seasons, the university's search committee received 70 applications.
The committee then interviewed ‘‘10 to 15 people’’ from that group considered ‘‘top-tier’’ candidates and recommended six individuals to Lefton.
‘‘Ultimately, I met with three candidates, all within the last few days,’’ Lefton said. ‘‘With all three I was told I can't go wrong, but that there was probably one guy I was going to like more than anybody else. . . . All three were terrific ADs. But let me tell you, we found the guy to be Kent State's athletic director.’’
That guy is Nielsen.
Nielsen played an active role in the organization and creation of the Great West Conference while spearheading the Coyotes football team joining the conference in 2007. In addition, he paved the way for all of the other university's sports teams to join the Summit League next year.
When Lefton called his presidential counterpart at South Dakota University, he quickly learned how much respect Nielsen garnered.
‘‘When I spoke to his president at South Dakota, he said, ‘I've been dreading this day for seven years. I know why you're calling.’ . . . And then he gave me the highest recommendation,’’ Lefton said.
Before going to USD, Nielsen served as the athletic director at Colorado College. He also previously had worked as an associate athletic director at Wake Forest University (1993-2001), an assistant athletic director at Illinois State (1991-92) and as an assistant in athletic development at Northern Illinois (1990-91).
A former football and baseball player at Minnesota State University, Nielsen earned his bachelor's degree in business finance in 1985 and his master's degree in sports administration in 1991, both at MSU.
‘‘We're going to aggressively pursue new opportunities,’’ Nielsen said. ‘‘We'll find ways to support the coaches. . . . We're going to find resources, if necessary, to support them so they can continue doing what they have been doing - winning championships and producing great individuals.’’
Nielsen acknowledged that one of his main goals will be building up a struggling Golden Flashes football team that has been unable ‘‘to get over the hump.’’
‘‘We're not that far away,’’ he said. ‘‘We're going to get there quick.’’
Basketball will be another sport that gets Nielsen's attention.
Recently, Lefton said he wanted the new athletic director to look into redoing the contracts for coach Geno Ford and his assistants. They led the Flashes to the regular-season Mid-American Conference championship and to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
‘‘It's an issue I'll deal with in due time,’’ Nielsen said.