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75th Anniversary Features


April 17, 2013

by Mark Krug, NJCAA Assistant Executive Director

NOTE: As part of the ongoing celebration of its 75th Anniversary, the national headquarters of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) will release nine insightful articles during the 2012-13 academic year that will make up the NJCAA 75th Anniversary Feature Series. Below is the eighth in the series, which can also be found in the April  issue of NJCAA Review.

For any organization to succeed it must have a mission that its membership and constituents believe in. There must be passion and commitment from everyone in order for the organization to prosper.

At the root of it all, however, is great leadership. Throughout the 75 years of the NJCAA, great leadership has been displayed by a select group of individuals. Since 1938, 17 men and women have been chosen to lead the NJCAA through the challenges and obstacles each era presented. Each were hand-picked by their peers to lead the organization due to their unique abilities and experiences.

The tireless work and dedication these men and women provided to the NJCAA cannot be understated. Their leadership has made the NJCAA what it is today and provides great models for future presidents of the organization.

The profiles and accomplishments of many NJCAA presidents from 1938 -73 have been chronicled in previous 75th Anniversary Series features. The NJCAA recently caught up with several former presidents that resided over the organization from 1973-2011 for their perspectives and memories as well as an update on what they are doing now.

Mesa Community College, Ariz.
NJCAA President 1973-86

Only Reed Swenson of Weber College (Utah) served more years as NJCAA president than Theo Heap of Mesa Community College (Ariz.) who led the organization from 1973-86, which could arguably be one of the most challenging eras in the organization’s history.

Heap’s leadership helped the NJCAA successfully adopt and implement the women’s division in 1975. Along with then Executive Director George E. Killian, Heap won the support of many influential college presidents in the NJCAA on the creation of the women’s division, which proved to be the driving factor in getting the legislation passed.

“It was controversial,” recalled Heap. “When it first was brought up at one of our meetings in Hutchinson, there was quite a bit of opposition to it. I didn’t understand that. There were even some women that were opposed to it because they had the AIAW. George Killian and I believed we had to do this right and we got key presidents from around the country involved.”

In addition, Heap’s background in constitutional government – he was a professor in the subject at Arizona State University and Mesa Community College – shaped the development of the NJCAA Constitution and Bylaws that guaranteed the women’s division equal representation on the board of directors. This was not an easy task as opposition stood in the way from both male and female administrators.

“I had enough experience and knew how to write it so it was legally recognized. Many women administrators didn’t think they would get a fair shake. I told them to read the constitution I drafted and see what it says. Everything will be exactly equal. I felt strongly that women had every right to participate in our organization.“

Having written the majority of the NJCAA’s legislative changes in creating the women’s division, Heap’s expertise was sought after by the NCAA and NAIA. He served as a consultant when both organizations adopted women’s athletics in the early 1980’s.

Heap faced other challenges as president, including tackling the NJCAA’s growing membership that was inching upward to 600 colleges. The organization expanded from 19 to 21 regions in ’73, then to 22 regions in ’76 and 24 regions in ’83.

Tabbed as the first basketball coach and athletic director at Mesa in 1965, Heap first served as the Region 1 Director and was later voted-in as NJCAA treasurer in 1969.

He was president at Mesa from 1978-84.

After a pseudo-retirement, he continued to work at Mesa until as recently as 2010 at the college’s fitness center dedicated to disabled and handicapped faculty, staff and students.

Having just turned 87 in April 2013, Heap resides in Mesa with his wife (Gloria) and remains active in the things he loves. A gifted writer, he is currently writing a book on American history.

“It is on the making of America. I went back to the beginning and brought if forward to the common man. It is the people of America that have made this country great and that is the story I’m trying to tell. It’s a fun topic and I really enjoy doing it.”

Casper College, Wyo.
NJCAA President 1986-90

Known to many as ‘Swede’, Erickson was from a unique era in two-year college athletics. He was hired in 1957 as the men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Casper College (Wyo.) and soon became involved with the NJCAA as the Region 9 Director in 1969. His personality and demeanor was infectious and he was later appointed vice-president of the men’s division in 1977. He was elected president in 1986.

Transitioning into the late 1980s and early ‘90s, many NJCAA member colleges were in a state of change. Long seen as an extension of the high school educational systems in their communities, more and more two-year colleges by this time were elevating in status. Campus renovations, new athletic facilities and growing enrollments were adding greater opportunities for student-athletes and presenting the NJCAA with challenges at the same time.

As a successful coach and then later in his career as an athletic director, Erickson’s first-hand experience as both was a huge asset for the NJCAA. He was able to connect and relate to nearly every constituent and the challenges they faced.

According to Wayne Baker, who worked in the NJCAA national office when Erickson was both an officer and president, Swede’s most valuable asset was his personality.

“He was the kind of person that could connect the dots and everyone from coaches to administrators…from men’s officers to women’s officers. He had a very dynamic personality that allowed him to connect with a large group of people.”

During Erickson’s four years as president, the NJCAA expanded the representation of college presidents on its board of directors and improved student-athlete eligibility standards from a 1.5 GPA per semester to a 1.75 GPA. It also launched a national letter of intent program. Likely his biggest accomplishment as president was beginning the frame work for defined procedures and limits for each sport, which resulted from a first-hand experience attending the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., as president.

“I remember going to Grand Junction with Erickson to the baseball World Series and one of the team’s passed out a stat sheet that claimed their record was 110-12 for the season,” explained Baker. “I remember his reaction and our discussion that day. That incident started the process of establishing the sports procedures we currently have today. Being a former coach he knew that if everyone had to abide by the same limits as far as numbers of games and length of seasons no one had an advantage. That gave the NJCAA a boost of credibility because that day in the press box in Grand Junction he believed there wasn’t any.”

Erickson served one term as president and soon retired from his athletic director duties at Casper. He died in August of 1999 after a battle with cancer.

St. Louis Community College, Mo.
NJCAA President 1990-96

From the beginning, Lea Plarski was a leader. When the NJCAA women’s division was created in 1975 Plarski was elected to serve as the division’s vice-president. She held the top-post in the women’s division for 15 years. Her leadership and persistence advanced opportunities for female student-athletes, coaches and administrators. Not only did the NJCAA make history by becoming the first of the three major collegiate sport organizations in the United States to offer women’s athletics, it also became the first to elect a female president. Plarski was voted in as the NJCAA’s 13th president in 1990.

“It was an honor to be elected,” said Plarski. “ From the very beginning, I felt trust, respect, and support.

Responsibility was a heavy weight, but fifteen years as vice-president of the women’s division helped smooth the transition for me. It was important to establish credibility among all our constituents, and I was made to feel equal among my peers. I never had the feeling that lines had been drawn, even though a small pocket of regional directors still resisted the women’s division.”

During her tenure, she pushed for greater opportunities for all student-athletes. She led the establishment of the championship events committee to review bids from interested groups as well as recruit suitable sites to host NJCAA Championships.

In addition, she helped further pursue the goal first laid out by Swede Erickson in establishing limits for each sport in terms of practice, games/scrimmages and length of seasons. As anticipated, it took several years for these ‘sport procedures’ to be voted into the association’s bylaws, but it finally came to fruition in 1993.

“We all worked in the trenches together, and the membership trusted me to carry out the goals of the organization,” said Plarski. “Maintaining integrity, working cooperatively, and ensuring fairness were operating principles for us.”

Plarski not only was an effective leader for the organization but she also proved to be a great evaluator of talent as well. She is credited as being a mentor to many administrators that went on to be important leaders for the NJCAA, including Karen Sykes and Mary Ellen Leicht.

Voted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, Plarski’s name continues to shine in the NJCAA through the Lea Plarski Award, which was created in 1995. The award is dedicated to her 21 years of service to the NJCAA and its student-athletes. The award is presented annually to a student-athlete that exemplifies sportsmanship, leadership, community service, academic excellence, athletic ability and achievements – qualities that were the cornerstones of the Plarski era.

Now retired, she resides in Palm Harbor, Fla.

“Even though I am retired, I continue to love the people of the NJCAA,” said Plarski. “They are just a special group of people that have endured a lot of adversity. We always worked together. The tug-of-war was always in the direction of how the organization could be improved.”

Mesabi Range Community & Technical College, Minn.
NJCAA President 1996-99

William ‘Bill’ Wirtanen was a calm and steady presence on the NJCAA board of directors for 21 years as the men’s director for Region 13. He was selected to serve the final years of Henry Witt’s term as the men’s vice-president in 1993 and three years later was voted president.

“I enjoyed the work,” said Wirtanen. “I was able to connect with a lot of people. Our region (Region 13) was one of the largest in the country. The thing that was unique was that we had Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Northern Michigan. Getting everyone on the same page and reign in with other regions, the way we thought was best, was quite a chore. I enjoyed it though. I got to work with many good people.”

His service to the NJCAA was key in that he came from a primarily non-scholarship area in Minnesota. More often than not, many legislative issues and advancements within the organization today and during Wirtanen’s time of service focused primarily on Division I and Division II issues. Wirtanen’s influence helped make sure opportunities and policies either advanced or did not adversely affect non-scholarship member colleges.

“The development of sport divisions was significant,” he added. “Many regions had institutions, like mine, that were recruiting local students to participate in their athletic programs. When I went to see some of the national events, I could tell immediately that we were not going to be able to compete against those offering many scholarships nationally. So the idea of divisions came along. It was a good move by the NJCAA. I think it gave colleges that were not interested in recruiting nationally and offering full scholarships the avenue to compete on the same level with similar colleges across the country.”

Wirtanen retired from his duties with the NJCAA and Mesabi Range Community & Technical College (Minn.) in 1999 and spent many years traveling with his wife and family.

“I have thought about my time with the NJCAA and I am pleased to have been a member of the organization that is the governing body of junior college athletics in the country,” commented Wirtanen. “It was an honor and a privilege to serve as a region director and as an officer.”

Most recently he has battled through multiple health problems after suffering a stroke in 2005. He is currently battling multiple myeloma.

Dean College, Mass.
NJCAA President 1999-2005

When the NJCAA women’s division was launched in the mid-1970’s, Sykes was recruited to be one of several new region directors for the organization’s expanded board of directors. She soon was recognized for her leadership abilities and elected to secretary-treasurer in 1983 and then vice-president in 1990. She became president in 1999 and served two terms.

During her tenure as an officer and president, Sykes helped usher in several key changes and initiatives that assisted the NJCAA in elevating its status and credibility. She authored the NJCAA Guide to Gender Equality and Title IX as well as the Position Statement on Leadership Roles for Women in Two-Year College Athletics. Both documents appear in the organization’s bylaws.

As the NJCAA moved into the 21st century, Sykes led an effort to transition the organization out of an era of handshake agreements and business dealings to one based upon more structured and defined policies. She was instrumental in launching the committee on strategic planning and strengthened the role of the finance and budget committee.

“It was time for the organization to sit down and look at issues that were overdue in being addressed,” Sykes explained. “It was time to get away from the old way of doing things and begin to transition into modern business practices. The organization needed an updated vision and strategic plan. That’s probably why I stayed involved in the NJCAA for as long as I did. I believed there were opportunities to help improve the organization.”

Perhaps her greatest challenge during her time as president was the resignation of long-time NJCAA Executive Director George E. Killian in 2004.

“That was probably one of the hardest things that I had to deal with while I was involved in the NJCAA,” said Sykes. “George was the NJCAA. Those two were synonymous. Yet the time was right, and his services were needed full time with FISU. The NJCAA needed someone full-time as well. “

“I do have to say that of all the people I have had an opportunity to work with in sports; I have the most respect for George Killian. He took the organization from working out of a one-man office to basically what it is today. The push for equality for men and women was mainly his idea. What he was able to accomplish with sheer will is amazing. I have nothing but respect for him.“

With no defined plan or policy on how to go about hiring Killian’s successor, Sykes led the development of a formal process with specific criteria and actions. The end result was a huge step forward for the NJCAA and produced Wayne Baker as the next executive director.

“We tried to put a process in place where we came up with specific guidelines and went through a true hiring process,” she explained. “There were many worthy applications submitted and each had to describe their philosophy and vision for the NJCAA. It was tough on the applicants. In the long run, Wayne Baker had the vision that was best for the organization. I think it was a good process. It gave us credibility.”

Sykes has since retired from Dean College where she last was vice-president and Dean of Faculty. She is  still very active in the sport she loves –softball – and assists the ISF (International Softball Federation) in developing coaching manuals, development courses and programs.

In March of 2012, she led a Level 1 certification course in Malaysia, where she taught the basics of softball theory and practical sessions.

“Softball has always been a part of my life,” said Sykes. “Since I have had the opportunity to influence the sport internationally, I am thrilled to work with people from parts of the world that have so little. We forget in this country what it’s like to have nothing. In Malaysia, they don’t even have fields to play on. They throw down bases on a soccer pitch. They are trying to build a program from nothing and it is inspiring to be a part of that.”

Scottsdale Community College, Ariz.
NJCAA President 2005-11

When Art Becker was elected NJCAA president in 2005, the organization knew what they were looking for. Likely no other previous leader of the NJCAA had as much experience as Becker. From 1989 to 2003 he had served the NJCAA as both an assistant and lead director for Region 1. During that time he chaired several committees and hosted many national championship events on his campus.

“In the early years one thing I was really proud of was when we ran the men’s national golf tournament,” recalled Becker. “We ran it for several years in a row and it was all three divisions. It took two courses and it was a massive task for the week but I really enjoyed it. One year, George Killian came and he spoke to me about possibly running for an office position.”

During his tenure as president, Becker was a strong advocate of sportsmanship and academic advancement. His efforts yielded the creation of the national standards and ethics committee as well as the NJCAA Sportsmanship Policy (Article XVIII). In addition, many improvements to student-athlete eligibility standards were established during his two terms as president.

“I really enjoyed having an active role in the formation of eligibility legislation and other bylaws. The NJCAA has changed so much since I came in as a coach in 1975. In those days it was a 1.5 grade point average and we gradually moved that to a 2.0. The improvements to our eligibility standards as well as the implementation of Article XVIII or the sportsmanship code are accomplishments we all should be proud of.”

Always championing a ‘national perspective’, Becker believed the direction in which the organization should move should be dictated by the membership. With that in mind he directed several nation-wide membership surveys that produced valuable insight on topics such as national championship qualification, districting and regional boundaries.

“Generally speaking, everybody has a great global view,” added Becker. “You look at the big picture as opposed to your own perspective and I think in some respect we all represent various parts of the country and you want those parts of the country to be successful. However, you have do things the right way. The NJCAA has to make sure everybody has an opportunity and that there is a level playing field.”

Like his predecessor, Becker also faced the daunting task of leading a search committee to hire the next executive director of the NJCAA in January 2009 when Wayne Baker stepped down. After an extensive review of several worthy candidates, the committee selected NJCAA veteran Mary Ellen Leicht.

The selection of Leicht was historically significant. Not only did she become the first female executive director of the NJCAA, but also the first female chief executive of any national collegiate sports governing body in the United States.

“Hiring Mary Ellen was a big milestone and a major accomplishment,” Becker stated. “No one can argue with the point that the NJCAA is the place of qualified, confident, outstanding individuals that are females that are involved in athletics in major roles.”

Becker is still actively involved in the NJCAA and returned to where it all began for him in 1989 as he currently serves as the men’s assistant director in Region 1. He also is the treasurer for the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.

“It might be time for me to retire,” laughed Becker. “I guess I am still contemplating my future. I teach classes and am still involved in our conference and Region 1. I just like being involved in athletics in any fashion.”

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