ALBANY -- It's been three years since Mike Kiefer came to Albany to take over as the athletic director at Darton College.
In that short period of time, he's hired coaches, added new sports and furthered the progress of an already-successful sports program.
His professional accomplishments are obvious ... but does anyone outside the school really know Kiefer, his thought process or what he has planned for the school's future?
Well, to do that, first you need to get to know the man behind Cavalier athletics.
Kiefer, a Missouri native, grew up your average Midwestern kid, playing soccer, baseball and basketball. He went to college at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., before transferring to the University of Missouri at Rolla to finish up his education.
After that, while serving as the men's and women's soccer coach and faculty member at Neosho County Community College in Kansas, he was promoted to athletic director in just his second year on the job.
Not only did he have to adjust quickly to the new position, he had to deal with financial hurdles.
"When I got there as the athletic director, it was a small school with limited resources," Kiefer said. "So I think I kind of got creative with ways to get things accomplished."
While he did get plenty accomplished as the A.D., he was still the men's and women's soccer coach and had two kids at home to keep him busy. So he started looking for jobs solely in administration.
That's where Darton stepped up and Kiefer stepped in to Albany.
"The (Georgia) weather was the biggest seller (for me), aside from the job itself," the 34-year-old Kiefer said. "I didn't like the icy winters of the Midwest."
Kiefer said he thought the town was nice, but was really impressed with Darton and the things the school had in place for the future, which made it that much easier for Kiefer to get his bearings.
"My gameplan when I first got here was to not do anything drastic to 'rock the boat,' so to speak," Kiefer said. "I probably spent that first year or two evaluating the program, identifying what our strengths were and some areas of opportunity to improve resources and, ultimately, the program in general."
Kiefer said he was more excited than nervous, especially about the future of the program.
"Long term, I want to make the Darton athletic department the premiere junior college athletic department in the country," Kiefer said. "How do you get there? Well, I think you do that year in and year out by making sure that your athletes are having an enjoyable experience here, being successful academically, being successful athletically and, ultimately, creating that community support and awareness of what we're doing here."
So what are they doing down there in that office off Gillionville Road?
The Herald sat down with Kiefer to find out.
In the time you've been at Darton, can you give yourself a grade, on a scale of 1 to 10, on whether you feel like you've accomplished what you've set out to do in that time?
"If we said 10 was accomplishing everything that we wanted to accomplish, I'd say we're about a 6 or a 7 on a three-year grade. I think we've improved scholarship resources in many of our sports and I think we'll continue to work in that direction. I think we've made some facility improvements, and I think we'll obviously continue to work on that. We've grown the athletic department as far as participation numbers. We have about 250 student-athletes competing in 11 sports. Since I've been here, we've added cross-country and wrestling programs. Those programs are our newest programs, but they've been successful on a national stage already, so in a three-year period, to accomplish that, I think is a pretty good achievement. Our team G.P.A.'s have also improved the last few years and something we'll continue to work on, as well as improving our transfer rates to four-year colleges and universities. I think we'll also continue to find ways to generate more revenue so we do have the funding and resources in place for our student-athletes to achieve everything they set out to."
Once you arrived, what was the first big decision you had to make? Was it the right one, in hindsight?
"Blake Miller, our softball coach at the time, resigned my first week here at Darton. So my first decision was trying to lead a search for a new head softball coach. And that's when subsequently we conducted the search and hired David Dews, and yeah, I think it was a good decision. In coach Dews' three years here, they've already won a conference championship, a regional championship and finished sixth at nationals. In addition to that, they've also had two nominations for Academic Team of the Year awards by the NJCAA. So overall, academically, athletically, I think that was a pretty good decision."
Can you talk about some of the other big decisions or dilemmas you've had come across your desk in your time on the job?
"Yeah, there are decisions in general on a relatively regular basis. The toughest decisions are to keep in mind that any decision you make is to ensure the overall success of the student-athletes and try and utilize that thought process in making those decisions. Some of the decisions are easier than others -- some are financial-related, some are academically-related, some are discipline-related and sometimes it's a combination of factors."
What have been the highlights for you, personally, so far?
"I'd say the 2008-09 academic year was a highlight for me. In the three years I've been here, it was our most successful year. From the beginning of that year, it seemed like everything just clicked and did everything well ... I think we won like three conference championships that year, four region tournament championships and five of our teams finished sixth or better at the national championships. ... It all kind of seemed to come together that year."
Have there been any low points as you see it, or has it been smooth sailing for the most part?
"I don't really look at them as low points ... I just see them as (opportunities) for improvement as much as anything else. In this business of collegiate athletics or athletics or sports in general, you can't get too high on the highs or too low on the lows. They're going to come no matter what, so you have to keep an even keel and know that tomorrow's going to be another day. So if you are at a lower point, you utilize that as a learning opportunity and a way to improve."
Have you been given affirmation of any kind from anyone as high as the president down to one of the coaches who works for you that you've made a difference so far? Whether an "atta boy," or just a "job well done?"
"Yeah, I get 'thank-you's' occasionally from coaches that I work with ... and from the community as much as anything, but the biggest 'thank-you's,' I'll be honest with you, are from the student-athletes. After they spend their time here, whether it's a year or two years, and on the way out (they're like) 'Thank you for the opportunity' or 'Thank you for the experience.' Those are the most important 'thank-you's' I think.
What did you accomplish that you were proud of at your previous job at Neosho County Community College?
"I think when I first took over as A.D. there were some compliance issues, so the accomplishment I'm proudest of there was when I took over that position, I spent a lot of time and effort trying to clean up the compliance issues and making sure everyone in the department and the college were adhering to the various rules and regulations of the NJCAA, as well as that conference."
What did you learn most from that position that you brought with you to that job?
"Attention to detail, a little bit of work ethic, and ... ways to be creative and maximize resources."
Did your predecessor give you any advice on his way out and your way into Albany?
"As far as coming here, I think the previous A.D. at Darton had already left, so I didn't have any communication with him prior to my arrival. The A.D. before him, Nancy Abraham, I have spoken with her and she's given me some insight on Darton College and Darton College Athletics, particularly from a historical perspective. Nancy still teaches in our department as an adjunct P.E. instructor, so she's been a valuable resource."
Any chances of seeing Darton field any new sports in the next five years?
"I think it's kind of hard to put a timeline on it. The most recent sport (addition) was when we promoted wrestling from the club level to intercollegiate sports about two years ago. Yeah, I think we do look at possible additions to sports in the future, but there's no real timeline in place at this time for anything. The biggest hurdles for us to overcome are 1, to make sure we have the proper funding in position so that these sports can be successful, and 2, the aspect of being compliant with Title 9. As we look to add new sports, we have to make sure to keep those two things in mind. The sports that have been thrown around recently as possible additions have been volleyball, track & field, tennis and, obviously, men's basketball."
Any chance of contracting any of the programs?
"No. I think it's important that we offer a wide variety of athletic opportunities to meet the diverse interests of our student population. I really don't think contracting any athletic programs would support that philosophy."
There was talk at some point of merging ASU and Darton. How do you feel about that?
"Yeah, I think there was some talk, but I don't think the discussions of that merger really developed or got far enough for me to develop an opinion on it."
(The Herald then quizzed Kiefer on a few of the issues surrounding the school's various sports programs and these were his answers.)
Golf, which has won three national titles this decade, is moving from NJCAA Division II to Division I next year. When and why was the decision made to move that particular program up?
"Every two years, we have to declare divisional status for our sports with the NJCAA, so it just occurred in the natural cycle of our declaration. The golf team has consistently competed against those top NJCAA Division I programs in the past in various regular season tournaments and those kind of things, and they've always performed pretty well. The D1 golf membership, at least at this point, appears to be a bit more comprehensive and organized than the D2 membership, so that's something else that kind of came into play into us making our decision to make that jump. People may not believe this, but the jump is actually a budget-neutral decision for us -- it doesn't cost us anything more to play for the Division I level necessarily than what we have been at the Division II level -- and the flexibility, in terms of how we allocate our scholarship resources, makes us a better fit for Division I than Division II. So, all in all, I think now is as good a time as any to make the jump. The team's obviously been successful at the Division II level, and who doesn't want a new challenge? Division I gives us that opportunity."
What do you make of all their success? How exciting has it been to watch them dominate in NJCAA Division II?
"You know, they work hard for their success. Yeah, they have been dominant, but coach (Dale) Dover and the golf team work very hard, I honestly believe they work harder than most of the golf teams out there. I think part of that might be the old football coach mentality coach Dover has, and it doesn't come easy. He'd be the first to tell you you have to be lucky at times, so I think they've had kind of a combination of talent and work ethic, but (they've had) that luck on occasion as well."
Coach Dover has also hinted in the last couple of seasons he isn't sure how much longer he'll coach. Have you had that conversation with him and are you throwing everything from a Ferrari to a gold watch his way to convince him to stay?
"Coach Dover is unique. Obviously, he's been very successful and has an eye for talent and -- maybe more so -- an eye for potential and the ability to maximize that potential in his student-athletes by instilling that work ethic that you need to be successful. Yeah, we know he's been looking to step aside at some point. This past spring, he actually brought back Bill Jones -one of Darton's golfers a number of years ago and a national champion and All-American - as an assistant coach. I think Dale's kind of grooming Bill at this point to be his successor. I don't know if that will happen in a year or two years, or somewhere down the road, but I do see it on the horizon."
Any thought of ever starting a women's golf team?
"Thoughts, yeah. Approximately every two years, we do what we call an Athletic Interest Survey, which is basically a survey that the college conducts of our student population to identify if we're meeting the interest and abilities of our student population. That's kind of the tool we use to determine if we're going to expand athletic programs, and if so, which programs we select. If the student population in that survey comes back that women's golf is a sport that's of interest to them, plus if they have the ability to be competitive at the collegiate level, then yeah we'd love to have that sport."
Are you pleased with the varied success of the two soccer programs? On one hand, the men have fallen a little short of expectations but continue to improve every year, then on the women's side, they've been making huge splashes on the nation scene the last few years, but keep falling short of the big one. Do you like the direction of both programs?
Yeah, I do like the directions they're both heading. I don't think it's necessarily fair to compare the two programs because I think they're very distinct and I think we need to look at them as separate when we evaluate them.
How long do you think it will be before one of the two programs breaks through and wins a national title? Can we get a prediction?
"You know, it's hard to make predictions. Like I said, you gotta be good and you gotta be lucky. I'm confident with both those programs that they're going to be very good ... but luck's a little harder to control. Without making a prediction, I think both teams are going to be in the mix."
So does that mean within the next five to 10 years they might have a shot?
"Without a doubt. I think both teams, within the next five years, should make national championship appearances again. And once you're at the tournament, anything could happen."
Given your background in soccer, have you given any coaches or anyone advice when it comes to that particular sport?
"Any of our coaches, if they ask me for advice, I give them my advice, but I don't get involved in the day-to-day operations of running their team. I try to be supportive the best I can and give them the autonomy to run their programs the best they can."
Are you happy with the job coach Bart Sasnett has done with the men's team, and likewise Ken Veilands with the women?
"I know that coach Veilands has established the women's soccer team as one of the premier junior college women's soccer teams in the country year in and year out. He's won numerous region championships, they have those two national runner-up finishes and I think that someday very soon they will break through and get that first national championship. On the men's side, I think the program does continue to grow under the direction of coach Sasnett. He's been here three years now, and I really believe the program has progressed each and every year. I think it's taken him some time because he's kind of methodically implemented his philosophy and style into that program, but I think if last year's success serves as any indicator, there's a lot of promise in this program and good things yet to come."
First things first: There has been talk and debate for years about why Darton doesn't have a men's basketball program. It's one of the "Big Three" sports a school usually has. What is the reason Darton doesn't have men's basketball, and is it a sport you've considered adding?
"It is a sport that I think we'd consider adding in the future if we can overcome some of those hurdles I mentioned earlier: 1, if we had the funding in place to ensure it would be successful, and 2, to make sure that we're maintaining Title 9 compliance.
So is there any interest from the students in adding men's basketball?
"Believe it or not, the last time we did the Athletic Interest Survey, we did not get a resounding response from male students that they wanted to see intercollegiate basketball added to the athletic department. Most of the interest that I hear about is out in the community and not necessarily from our student population."
Does the success of the women's program over the years under coach Laura Blackwell make it tough to take the focus and resources off that and divert to a men's program?
"I don't think we'd ever want to divert resources from one of our programs to try and help another out or start a new program. To me, that's like saying the existing program isn't the priority anymore and we're shifting resources to something new. I don't think that's the approach we want to take and I think we'd have to find new resources, separate from our existing resources, in order enough to fund any new programs."
Can you talk about the job coach Blackwell has done with that women's program? Last year was a bit of a down year, but overall she has the Lady Cavs competitive every season.
"Yeah, coach Blackwell is one of our veteran coaches that we have on staff - she's been here a number of years - and I would expect her team to bounce back this year. They struggled a little bit last year - I think it was a bit of an anomaly to be honest with you due to some injuries, some ineligibility issues and that sort of thing - but I would expect her to have a good recruiting class and think that the talent and depth overall would be improved next year, and I think they would be competing again for that conference championship or region tournament championship.
Coach Blackwell does do a great job of recruiting the local area and its talent. Is that something to stress to your coaches: To look around Southwest Georgia before anywhere else, or do you leave it up to the coach how to recruit their players, many of whom come from outside the U.S.?
"I try and give our coaches the autonomy to go out there and recruit the athletes they feel they need to be successful in their programs, but I don't want to limit them to any certain geographic areas ... I think coach Blackwell has identified some very good local talent previously, and she's been able to take advantage of that and capitalize on this recruiting base she has in her local area, maybe more so than some of our coaches are able to."
Speaking of recruiting, how has coach David Dews and his staff managed to recruit so much international talent? Is Darton softball becoming known around the world?
"Most of their recent international talent has been from Russia. I think since softball has recently been dropped as an Olympic sport, it's my understanding that the Russian Olympic Federation has done the same and they don't have the same type of programming in place that maybe they did last year or a couple years ago. I think that the pipeline, so to speak, is drying up. Most connections I think were part of a network or connection that coach Dews had with some other four-year colleges and university coaches. Those recruiting connections ... are critical for a program like us at Darton College to be successful. We don't have unlimited recruiting resources where our coaches can fly or drive across the country to scout talent. So we have to utilize that network of coaches to help us identify talent and find the student-athletes that are the right fit for Darton. I think coach Dews and the softball program, as well as a number of our other programs, have done a good job of networking."
What can you say about the job Dews has done getting the program to national prominence so quickly?
"I'm pleased with the job (he's done so far). I think the best aspect or indicator of their success has been their ability to recruit. If you can recruit the talent into a program, you're going to give yourself an opportunity to be successful and he's worked hard at recruiting and it's been a success for some of the recruiting that they've had."
Head coach Glenn Eames has said he's retiring after this season. Have you given any thought to his replacement yet?
"We're currently in the search process right now for an assistant coach. That assistant coach will have the opportunity to kind of show us what they're capable of as far as being a coach and maybe give them a bit of an edge as we go into a search for a head coach come the end of the season once Glenn does decide to step down."
Any thoughts on the job he's done in his long tenure at Darton?
"Glenn is Darton baseball. He built this program from scratch. That includes the field, the facilities, every aspect of Darton baseball, Glenn built it. That itself speaks volumes to me. He's really had a challenge of juggling numerous responsibilities and roles on this campus. I am -- and I know the college is -- grateful for his dedication over the years."
As an A.D., is replacing someone like Eames, who has been here so long and given so much to build the program, nearly impossible?
"I guess I really don't think of it in that way, necessarily. I look at it as an exciting opportunity because Glenn's still going to be around campus, assuming some other responsibilities. He'll still be around the program and a vital resource and an asset to the baseball program and athletic department in general."
Assistant Molly Gilbert has been tapped by you to take over the teams this year. As another one of your hires, what makes you confident she's ready to make the big step from assistant to head coach?
"Molly's always shown a tremendous dedication to Darton College and Darton College swimming. The last two swim coaches that we had, they were each here a couple of years, so it's like they were building something, but they left before they saw it through to completion. As we went through the search process this time around for a head coach, none of the other candidates came across the way Molly did in terms of being dedicated to Darton swimming. So that's the decision I think we utilize in saying Molly's the right fit. This is somebody who's going to be here. ... Yeah, there's going to be some growing pains, like there is for any assistant coach making the jump to a head coach position, but I'm confident Molly will be a very successful coach at Darton, probably for very many years."
Considering the strides the team has made in the last few seasons and having at least an individual national champ each year, how close are the men's women's teams to winning a national team title?
"They're close, I hope, but Indian River State College has won like the past 30-plus junior college national championships. ... Our women's team finished second the last two years, the men's team was fourth last year and third the year prior to that. But someone at some point's going to beat Indian River and knock off that streak. Might as well be Darton."