My first experience with the NAIA came in 1996 when I went to watch my brother play college football at Dana College. He redshirted his first year, so I didn’t actually get to see him play that fall but my Dad and I went to a bunch of the games anyway just so we could get a chance to watch his team play.
Two year’s later I joined him and started playing college football at the NAIA level. I’m not trying to romanticize what my time associated with the NAIA has been because there have been as many downs for me as there has been ups. Like anything in life, you learn from the downs and probably remember the ups for a little bit more than they actually were.
Even though I started watching my brother in 1996, I probably didn’t really know what the NAIA was until 1999 or 2000. That’s when I got started working more college media events and was traveling as the radio voice of Dana College and Midland Lutheran College women’s basketball (now Midland University)
Despite stepping away from the day-to-day duties of the Victory Sports Network a few years ago it seems like I will always be associated with VSN and the NAIA. I’ve written, broadcast and covered professional sports, NCAA sports and high schools sports but regardless of all of that people always ask me about the NAIA.
That’s both good and bad. It’s nice to be considered the person who is the “beat writer” for NAIA athletics because information flows your way more frequently than it would say if you were just a college sports writer. But in the same respect, any article I write on any other subject is discounted because I’m “that NAIA writer.”
I hated that people feel that way about the NAIA because of the truly magnificent things that are accomplished at this level of athletics. And before the haters come out of the wood work to say “well DII and DIII do the blah blah blah same” I want to assure you that I am not discounting any of the efforts that take place at those levels. All I’m saying is when you have the blue oval and those four white letters behind you, you are already ahead of your fellow small college counterparts in the NAIA. If you don’t believe me, ask the enrollment driven schools of DII and DIII to remove all mention of their collegiate affiliation from their marketing materials and their coaches recruiting pitches for one year and see how it affects recruitment.
I’ve personally heard coaches say to recruits “well, we’re NCAA DII now… “ and talk down about members in the NAIA. Meanwhile they walk these recruits past trophy cases filled with NAIA hardware.
My experience the NAIA has been a wild ride. I never set out to start a web site that would become a national leader in NAIA news and opinions. All I wanted to do was have a message board where people could come and talk about NAIA football. I literally started the site because I wasn’t able to take the day after the fourth of July off in 2002 and I went into work at an office where I was the only person around. So I jumped on that crappy office Compaq computer and started a message board.
I started thinking about the start of VSN lately and all of the things that I have seen happen. I’ve never really sat down and shared those moments with people because I thought I was too busy and didn’t have the time. Sure, some of these moments are a lot more special to me than they are the NAIA, its members or people within the division. The point is that everyone has a list of great memories at this level and I think if they actually sat down and wrote them out they would understand how very special the NAIA level is and that people should never write off the experience just because it happens to take place at a level of college athletics that isn’t the NCAA.
1. Meeting fans that are truly passionate about the NAIA. It’s rare you meet people that have knowledge of NAIA athletics, so when you do it’s like Christmas. Especially when it is in a random place and they happen to be wearing a t-shirt from some obscure college that you happen to be the only person in the room to know.
2. That moment you look out of the University of Sioux Falls charter plane to Helena, Mont. and see what looks like a sidewalk cleared for you to land on.
3. Freddy T’s during the old NAIA Championship Site in Savannah, Tenn.
4. Old Havana Cigar Bar in Rome, Ga.
5. Pounds upon pounds of crab legs and oysters at Jefferson’s in Rome, Ga.
6. Joe Barker and the patented “MOVE those chains” when the NAIA football championship was in Savannah.
7. The 6th Floor of the Pickwick Inn and trading stories with David Long after the Banquet.
8. Being able to call some of the best athletic directors in the country your friend.
9. Going out for a night on the town in Helena, Mont with fans and alumni.
10. The Marysville House outside of Helena with the world’s simplest and best menu: Steak, Seafood, Chicken, Pork.
11. Before KC Power and Lights, meeting all the NAIA DI MBB Coaches at Tanners or the Quaaf.
12. The occasional jar of Apple Pie from a coaching staff in Kentucky.
13. Seeing schools for the first time in 2002 and seeing how much they have built or improved in the last 12 years.
14. Watching football programs be built and overnight become national powers.
15. Having Andy Lambert (Sterling College) coach one of your teams in the VSN Senior Classic and realizing what a truly special coach he is.
16. The first time you hear the high school bands in Municipal Auditorium in KC.
17. The Georgetown College band at the NAIA DI MBB tournament.
18. Enjoying a late night pie run to Perkins with assistant football coaches the night before a football game.
19. The day I met Matt Zimmer, the football beat writer for former NAIA member University of Sioux Falls. I haven’t met another writer who was as gifted, funny and fearless as Zim. He has a writing style that should have him writing nationally and as well as for the Argus Leader.
20. Being able to have a personal relationship with Bruce Brown when he was the NAIA’s Champions of Character presenter. If parents, coaches and athletes enacted to 10 percent of Bruce’s message, athletics in general would be completely different. Don’t believe me? Check out proactivecoaching.info
21. Walking into the NAIA’s old Olathe headquarters and listening to the manufacturing of Honeywell products.
22. Having former Saint Francis (Ind.) QB Eric Hooks help me calm the victims of a car accident that happened right outside the hotel for our VSN Senior Game.
23. Meeting Kevin Donley of Saint Francis (Ind.) and feeling like you were instantly accepted into his family.
24. Running into NAIA coaches at a White Castle in Louisville, Ky. during football coaches’ convention and pounding down greasy sliders with them.
25. Having the opportunity to hire my staff when College Fanz bought VSN and developing some of the best friendships of my life with those co-workers.
26. Having one of those coworkers bust into your hotel room the night before a broadcast, jump on your bed and slap you across the face because you decided to go home early.
27. Seeing the Shiloh Civil War Memorial and getting a guided tour of the grounds.
28. Ruining a pair of new Nike shoes because you were shooting photos at what is now known as “The Mud Bowl.”
29. Being able to brag (to no one at all) that you were at every game of the NAIA basketball tournament from Wednesday morning through Saturday night.
30. Meeting a broadcaster who thought he could announce every one of those games and watching him go down in flames four games in.
31. Going on a spring football tour and meeting former Paul Quinn head coach Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley and even though I spoke to him on the phone several times, including the day before I arrived, he had no idea who I was or why I was there.
32. Being able to get the cell phone number of hundreds of coaches and having them actually pick up when you call. (My friends hit “ignore”)
33. Driving up to a school to broadcast a game and having the entire crew say “so, where are we broadcasting from?”
34. The Cozy Inn in Salina, Kan.
35. The bathroom experience in McPherson, Kan. where there might have been a bomb exploded due to point No. 34 of this list.
36. Having to swat and kill a bat that was flying in my room in the “President’s House” at Geneva College. Then realizing my life had become Chris Farley’s from “Black Sheep”.
37. Meeting Frosty Westering before he passed away and having multiple phone conversations with him.
38. Having an autographed copy of “Make the Big Time Where You Are” with a personal note from Frosty.
39. Meeting so many people whose lives were touched by Frosty.
40. Meeting a person who was an NAIA staffer and not getting off on the right foot only to turn into great friends years later.
41. Meeting NAIA staff you still consider to be friends regardless of your differences.
42. Effie Burgers in Lewiston, Idaho.
43. Randomly meeting Greg Beachner on the sidelines of Sioux Falls football games and eventually hiring his extremely talented son to work for VSN.
44. Meeting an MidAmerica Nazarene graduate on the VSN message boards and eventually hiring him as the business’s CPA.
45. Being able to attend the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho and realize what a truly special event it is.
46. Ed Cheff. Enough said.
47. Watching your alma mater win a national championship in wrestling.
48. Watching a member of that national championship team become a world champion in the UFC.
49. Knowing the first members of the NAIAFootball.net message board personally.
50. Becoming great friends with some of those members.
51. Broadcasting a football game with one of those members.
52. Taking photos with the College Fanz Crew with our “fans” at a McDonalds in Missouri Valley…extremely hungover.
53. Meeting and having a conversation with Jim Spivey, an NAIA basketball legend.
54. Hearing Ray Harper from Oklahoma City University tell the story of how he got hired to the person that hired him and not remember the last time you laughed that hard.
55. Meeting the guy that hired him, Jim Abbott, and realizing how truly great he is at his job.
56. Meeting the people that started the DII and DIII web sites.
57. Being able to shut up and listen when you sit down at a table of some of the best minds in small college athletics.
58. Watching the TV show “Justified” and know the towns they are talking about because you’ve been to Williamsburg, Corbin and Barbourville.
59. Standing on the sideline when Saint Xavier University won the NAIA football championship and seeing Mike Feminis jump into his assistant coaches’ arms.
60. Putting a microphone on Gary Wagner of Carroll College and listening to his every word.
61. Watching coaches start in the NAIA and move up into prominent jobs in DI.
62. Broadcasting NAIA DI basketball games with coaches who have just been eliminated.
63. Watching those coaches come into their own behind the mic and eventually turn into sports talk show hosts.
64. Watching a SportsCenter Top 10 and seeing a highlight and instantly knowing its an NAIA team.
65. Texting the coach of the NAIA team on SportsCenter to give them a bad time about it.
66. The great “Ice Storm” that left Sioux Falls and Carroll College stuck on the interstate in Georgia and the tweets and text messages that followed.
67. Fan meet ups at random.
68. Actually driving on the “Highway 20” that the Zac Brown Band sang about while going to Rome.
69. Randomly meeting Nicole Chin on the sideline of one of the NAIA’s postseason playoff games and eventually hiring her as the graphic artist and designer that made the NAIA Preview magazine look great.
70. Some of the longest car drives across the country to places normal people have never heard of.
71. Playing $2 blackjack with oil field workers in the hotel lobby of a random hotel in Minot, N.D. the night before a broadcast.
72. Having one of the largest human beings I’ve ever been around walk up to me in a bar and scare the living hell out of me saying, “So…I’m only a second team All-American?” before laughing and introducing themselves.
73. Being publicly scolded at a Hall of Fame induction by Bob Petrino Sr. because the NAIA “screwed” his 1983 team out of a postseason… . even though I never worked for the NAIA and was born in 1980.
74. Having a fan accuse you of being bias toward Saint Francis (Ind.) because “you are related to their coaches.” (Note, my name is spelled Dannelly and their name is spelled Donley)
75. Finding a used condom in the broadcast booth of a school that will remain nameless.
76. Thinking you will have hundreds of fans show up to your pregame show broadcast only to get a few random people wandering in and out of the picture.
77. Having a dance party on I-80 outside of Chicago because traffic was at a complete stop.
78. Being disappointed every time a great NAIA coach gets passed over for a job at a higher level.
79. Being able to say I never fell from or had to get a tetanus shot from the old press box at MidAmerica Nazarene.
80. Having a hard drive full of bloopers from our broadcasts and random instant replays that were kept.
81. Deciding that after an initial 28 hour drive to California, a game broadcast and a postseason announcement broadcast that a four hour stopover in Las Vegas on the way home was a good idea.
82. Brandi Benson’s scarf.
83. Ripping the seat out of my pants while changing a tire on a trip back from San Antonio.
84. Never being able to look at a Dodge Sprinter van the same ever again.
Before you point out there are not 157 bullet points to this list know that it will be continued and added to randomly. After the initial list is published I’m sure I’ll have friends and coworkers say “hey, remember that time…”
This isn’t meant to be a “look at me list” rather it’s a list of things that I hope will allow others to pause for a moment and realize what a truly special place the NAIA is and how it has shaped so many lives as athletes, coaches and administrators.
I’ll be the first to say the NAIA is far from perfect. Hell, nothing is perfect and if anything I’m a prime example of imperfection. But what the NAIA can be is the perfect place at the perfect time for college athletics. With all the changes happening in the NCAA, the NAIA provides the niche that more teams in DII and DIII should gravitate towards.
Somewhere along the way, everyone loses their way. The NCAA is at a crossroads because the majority of their members are a lot closer to looking like NAIA members than looking like the DI members that are driving the bus.
The NAIA, now more than every, needs to clearly define, promote and build upon the void they can fill in collegiate athletics. College athletics should be about the experience of the student athlete and providing them with every opportunity to have a great experience.
That needs to be the central focus of everything the NAIA does going forward. Not chip and dip sponsorships, not telling everyone why the NAIA is great and definitely not new legislation that makes the organization look more and more like the NCAA.
The athletes in the NAIA are truly special and someday some of them will sit down and write out a long list of why their experience at whatever NAIA College they went to was great. Let’s just make sure when they do step away they can say that the NAIA experience truly helped to shape their lives.