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Interim ISU Athletics Director Jeri Beggs wants to be more than a 'placeholder'

Illinois State University’s interim athletics director Jeri Beggs said Monday that she does not want to be “just a placeholder” and that she'll proactively help the department plan for the future.

Monday was Beggs’ first day on the job, taking over from former athletics director Kyle Brennan. He resigned last month amid questions about spending on a 2021 donor trip. ISU is likely to begin a national search for a permanent AD sometime in the fall. Beggs does not expect to seek that job.

Jeri Beggs was named ISU's interim Director of Athletics on Friday.
Illinois State University
Monday was Jeri Beggs' first day as interim athletics director at Illinois State University.

Beggs’ background made a unique fit for the interim role. She’s a marketing professor at ISU who’s spent the past 14 years as its faculty athletics representative. Beggs also has a national perspective as a member of the NCAA Division 1 board of directors, and she’s served on other NCAA panels. Beggs had already submitted her papers to retire when interim ISU president Aondover Tarhule asked her April 14 to temporarily oversee Athletics.

“I don’t want to be just a placeholder. I’m hoping that we can actually move forward and do some good work in the time that I’m here,” Beggs said. “I’ve been using the tag Redbirds Rally. We’re going to have to rally together. We’re already doing really good work. But I think we can do more. We can do better. We can be better stewards of our financial resources. We can do a better job of communicating what we are doing. And I’m just hoping to tighten all that up.”

Beggs visited WGLT on Monday for an interview. A transcript is below, lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: Let's start with what's going right in Athletics right now. What are the strengths that you feel like you can really build off here?

Beggs: Well, I think that's what's been bothering me probably the most about what we've been hearing is, is that it overshadows the really good work that's going on in Athletics. We have outstanding coaches, we have fabulous staff, and they're working really hard. I'm finding out how hard they're working as I'm trying to now keep up with them and their schedules.

But the main focus that I want to get everyone back to is the 450 student-athletes who wear Illinois State on their jersey and the fabulous things that they're doing. You’ve probably been hearing that we've been winning some championships – our men's golf team, our women's basketball team, our women's tennis team, gymnastics … they have all brought home championships, either regular or tournament championships. So that's very exciting for the programs.

But probably even more exciting to me as a faculty member is what we're doing in the classroom. And that is absolutely amazing. We're having an academic banquet (Monday night) to celebrate that. And of last fall, we had 120 4.0s (GPA) out of 400 some students. We have a semester GPA of 3.36, which is the highest average we've had other than COVID years when it was artificially high. We had six teams break their team record for GPA last fall. The student-athletes are doing great things in the classroom and on the playing field, so that's my focus moving forward. Supporting those student-athletes.

Are those in the ISU community doing a good job of not taking this out on the wrong people – the student-athletes and coaches – or is there some work to do there?

I certainly understand people paying attention to what they're hearing, and not being happy with what they're hearing. I completely understand that. But I've actually been quite surprised at how many people seem willing to turn the page and say, ‘OK, let's do better. Let's get back to what it means to be a Redbird. Let's support these teams.’ And so we've actually been pleasantly surprised at how few people seem to really want to dwell in the past. They want to they want to move on and figure out, how do we support Redbird athletics? How do we support these student-athletes? So I've been really happy with that.

What are your biggest priorities going to be in these first few weeks?

As probably everyone knows, I do not have day-to-day experience in an athletics department. I have a lot of national experience in collegiate athletics.

But what I really hope to do is take advantage of what I've been doing in my consulting work, which is strategic planning. So I plan to go in, and listen. I'm going to collect data, I'm going to listen to coaches and staff and students and donors and fans and boosters. And I'm going to help them plan and organize for the future. Set the table, essentially, for the next athletic director, who’s hopefully going to be here in the fall.

Your work with the NCAA has given you a unique vantage point on modern college athletics. What sort of insight do you bring that could come in handy?

So one of the things I focus on is the national level, and the legal and political, and (things) that probably the staff here doesn't pay attention as much to because they're too busy doing the day-to-day things.

I'm serving the fourth year of a four-year term on the D-1 NCAA board of directors. And of course, that's very high-level decision-making. And then I've also served the last year – finished up in January – on the (NCAA) Transformation Committee, which was a group put together of 21 people across the nation, hand-selected, to figure out how we're going to modernize college athletics. We've had a lot going on in college athletics. We not only had to deal with COVID. We had to deal with Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), which has changed the landscape dramatically. And then we also have transfer at a rate that we haven't seen in the past, now that everyone has access to a one-time transfer exception. So it’s a dynamic, fluid situation. We are asking for legal and political help from Congress right now, which is a new thing for the NCAA. We need national NIL rules, not state by state. And there are a couple of other things we're asking Congress for.

So I probably am the best one on campus in terms of talking about the national setting. But again, that doesn't mean that I have the day-to-day experience that our staff members do. But they're being very supportive, and I know that they're going to help me as I move through these next few months.

What does a successful interim tenure look like to you?

I've had a lot of people say, ‘Are you this just there to maintain?’ And I hope it's more than that. I hope what we can do together, the staff and I, is more than just maintain. I hope we can get organized. I hope we can do a better job of communicating. I hope we can restore some trust internally and externally with the Athletics department. So certainly, I hope I leave it better than I found it. So that would be one measure of success.

But I also hope that we can create a culture internally that is a better place to work. And I hope we can get some trust back from our fans and our constituents externally.

You seem like someone who has a lot of connections in the college sports world. Who are the types of people that you turn to for advice in a moment like this?

Well, before I took the job, I actually reached out to a bunch of my friends, who work either in college athletics as ADs or who work as faculty athletics reps or commissioner of the Missouri Valley. And I just said, ‘Do you think I can do this job?’ And they all said, ‘Yes, you can absolutely do the job.’ And I think the next question was, ‘Should I do this job?’

And I decided that if I take it, there could be some regrets. But if I didn't take it, I knew I would regret that decision. This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something completely different than the marketing professor career that I've had. I'm calling it the capstone on my career essentially, right? Because I was retiring; I'd already turned in my paperwork to retire and had some plans to stay in college athletics, but of course, not in this way.

So I reached out to a lot of people prior to taking the job. And since then, I have had so many people reach out who are in college athletics as ADs, faculty reps, commissioners, but then also just support of the community. I've had so many people reach out and say, ‘We're so happy you've taken this job. Tell us how we can help you.’ And that's what we're going to have to count on.

Kyle Brennan
Emily Bollinger
Illinois State University Athletics Director Kyle Brennan, whose resignation was effective Sunday. He was hired in January 2021.

I've been using the tag Redbirds Rally. We are going to have to rally together. We're already doing really good work. But I think we can do more. We can do better. We can be better stewards of our financial resources. We can do a better job of communicating what we are doing. And I'm just hoping to tighten all that up.

Have you or do you plan to reach out to Kyle Brennan?

I don't know. Right now, my focus is forward not backward. And so I'm really spending time with the senior staff and the coaches and the current people who are on the staff there. If for some reason I needed to, I know that I could. But I'm not really sure. I don't have a good answer for you that, yes or no. Right now my focus is forward, not backwards.

You're a professor, and you have researched and taught ethics and ethical decision-making. How do you lean on that expertise to manage a department where there have been questions raised about decision-making and how money was spent?

That's an interesting question. It's funny, I was in a meeting already (Monday) morning where we were talking about making a decision. And I brought up the concepts of distributive and procedural justice. So distributive justice is, did you get what was coming to you? Was it a fair decision? Procedural justice is, were you treated fairly and properly in the process of getting that? And so I think I will be leaning on it. I can't tell you exactly the situations. But I think I have spent a lot of time teaching my students and thinking about ethical decision-making. I certainly know the content area, that's for sure. I didn't really ever think about how I would be put in a position where I'm going to have to make those kinds of decisions on a regular basis. We don't get many of those as faculty members, to be honest. But I hope I can lean into that and help make good decisions along the way.

Do you have any hiring to do? Are there key positions on the staff in Athletics that you're going to be needing to fast-track on hiring?

Well, we're very lean right now. When you look at the organizational chart, there are quite a few positions open in the Athletics department. And so some of those will need to be filled sooner rather than later. And I know that President Tarhule has said he will help me get some of those done. I'll be talking to him about which ones make sense now, and which ones would make sense for the new athletics director to get to hire.

But we definitely need some more bodies there. They're working very hard and they do that 12 months a year, but we actually have some openings right now that need to be filled. So we're going to have to fill a few of those along the way and get some more hands on deck to help us.

June and July have a tendency to be a little bit – I've been told – quieter, because there are no sports. But that's a planning stage for them. So I think I come in at a good time, where we will have some time to plan, but then it's full speed ahead come August.

In terms of talking to donors, do you expect to be doing much of that yourself?

I think I will be doing some of that, definitely. I actually have a little background in that; I was a fundraiser in my 20s for SIU Carbondale. I did major gifts and annual giving fundraising. And then also just being a marketing professor, I certainly understand communication, brand management. I think donors maybe need to see me at events and hear me talk and be reassured by what I'm trying to do. And so I think I will definitely play a part in donor relations and all of that.

One response I’ve heard from some of WGLT’s reporting is that donor trips like the one ISU took to Indianapolis are necessary if this program is ever to build the facilities and recruit the athletes it will need to be more than it is ... to get back to the NCAA Tournament or achieve some sort of mid-major success in college sports. That it’s the cost of doing business. What do you think?

I don't know about that particular trip. But I do know in general, that it's a part of the donor relation, donor cultivation process to allow things like access and lunches and dinners and you know, those kinds of things are a part of that. I certainly know across the nation, if you talk to fundraisers in athletics, they're doing those kinds of things.

What I think is important is that we do what makes sense for Illinois State, with our mindsets and our stewardship values, in terms of how we spend our money. I can see why donors would be upset by large expenditures related to donor events. But I don't know that you can raise money without spending some money is the bottom line.

On any college campus, there can be friction between the athletic and academic sides of the house. We heard some of that frustration at last week’s Academic Senate meeting. As someone who’s straddled both worlds, do you have any thoughts on what’s the best way to reduce siloed thinking when it comes to Athletics?

I don't know about how to how to stop that. I do know that at Illinois State, I think we've had the best relationship between academics and athletics of any college campus I've been on, and this is my fifth college campus.

I think Athletics does a really good job of communicating with academics. They coach their student-athletes about what do you need to say when you're going to miss because of a game? Our student-athletes get great grades, and they give them lots of support to help them be good students. And so I've actually felt very little friction in the 14 years I've served as the faculty athletic rep between athletics and academics here on this campus, much less than the other campuses I've been on.

And we owe it to both sides -- athletics for being a good partner, and academics for wanting all of our students to succeed. So I'll give credit to both sides of that.

I hope one of the things I can do is try to bridge the gap a little bit. I've got some ideas for bringing our student-athletes essentially onto campus and participating in some events that are here. I don't know how many of them have been to a show from the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts. I don't know how many of them have seen the esports facility. And so I'm looking for opportunities to bridge that.

Oftentimes our student-athletes live in a little bit of a bubble. Because many students come here without any friends, and they have to get involved in organizations. Student-athletes come here and automatically have this group that they're attached to and they don't have a lot of time and energy to get involved on campus. So honestly, one of the things the NCAA has been trying to do for the last five to 10 years is encourage student-athletes to get involved in (registered student organizations) and internships and study abroad. Some of those things sort of traditional student would already be doing. So I'm hoping to help us find some time and ways to get involved on campus, so that our students get the benefit of our wonderful campus in a way maybe they haven't always had time for.

It sounds like you will not be seeking the permanent AD job. Is that right?

It is. I had already turned in my retirement paperwork. I had other plans. I had already taken a part-time position with the Missouri Valley Conference staff starting, supposedly, in July. Jeff Jackson, the commissioner, has been very gracious to say he will wait for me until I'm finished here. So I have no intentions of being the permanent.

But I also don't want to be just a placeholder, I'm hoping that we can actually move forward and do some good work in the time that I'm here.

What do you know about the status of construction at the Indoor Practice Facility?

All I know is that we are being told it will be finished this summer.

I think if anybody drives by, they might be surprised by hearing that, because we don't see anything vertically. Remember, it's one of those buildings that is essentially a dome. And so all the work is being done on the ground at this point, and I think once they're ready to go vertical, it will happen very quickly. So you don't really see it rise up like you would a normal building.

I have not toured the facility. This is Day 1 for me, so I have not had a chance to dig into that. But we were being told, even in my other role as the faculty athletic rep on the Athletics Council, that it would be done this summer. The important part is that it's done before cold weather comes in the fall so that we can start to get our teams indoors and have more indoor facilities when the weather is bad.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.