WATERLOO — Northern Iowa director of athletics David Harris is not afraid to be bold.
That was illustrated late last month when Harris and his staff introduced a five-year strategic plan for the UNI athletic department.
It was a plan that established benchmarks for academic excellence, community involvement, competitive excellence, diversity and inclusion and financial accountability.
Just days after introducing that plan, Harris, UNI President Mark Nook and Panther coaches Ben Jacobson, Mark Farley, Bobbi Petersen, Tanya Warren and Doug Schwab went on an eight-city Panther Caravan where they welcomed feedback about the plan.
Tuesday during the final stop at Waterloo’s RiverLoop Amphitheatre, hundreds of Panther fans turned out.
“I think it is ambitious,” Schwab said of Harris’s strategic plan. “It would be very easy to say we are going to do this and this, but he set something out for every sport and how we are going to move forward ... some really big things.”
While the plan calls for some major infrastructure — a $1.2 million meeting room inside the UNI-Dome for the Panther football team, a new basketball court and practice facility, a new outdoor track surface, a $1.2 million outdoor turf practice field, a center-hung video board at the McLeod Center, and moving the softball and soccer competition fields on campus — it reaches into academics and the overall student-athlete experience.
“I think our fans like to see lofty goals,” Jacobson said. “I think in a lot of ways the fans have gotten used to that with our teams.
“Across the board we have done a terrific job in the classroom, but competitively, and we were talking about this the other day, every time you turn around it is somebody ... you look at the coaches surrounding you and somebody is winning.
“I think our fans have gotten used to that so when they see David put that out — and some of those things in there are going to be hard and take some work to get done — but David is not scared of that and I think our fans appreciate that,” finished Jacobson.
This was the second year of the Panther Caravan and the timing of the release of the strategic plan was purposeful, said Harris.
Harris wanted to introduce the plan to the public and then he wanted to get out and receive feedback while the caravan took him to Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Omaha, Des Moines and finally Waterloo.
“At the end of the day, we are going to put out a final product that we really want to represent the best of what we are capable of doing,” Harris said. “It would be naive of me to think we can get together and come up with all of the best ideas. We have to listen to people, so the caravan gave us another chance to listen.
“If there was a common thread ... I think they appreciate we are trying to be ambitious, that we are trying to achieve big things.”
Harris was able to give tentative start dates on two of the major projects. He hopes to start construction on the UNI football meeting room at the conclusion of the 2018 season. The new outdoor track surface, which he originally hoped to have in place before the 2019 outdoor season, has been pushed back to 2020.
“We felt like delaying it for a year gives us the best opportunity to get the funding necessary to be able to do it the way we need to do it,” Harris said.
“It was good of him to announce it and then go out and let people ask questions about it, good questions,” Farley said of the football meeting room. “Everybody knows the direction and the thoughts behind it and it gives people a target to hit.”
The caravan was not only about business. While getting feedback on the strategic plan was important, it was equally important for Northern Iowa to grow “the Purple Circle.”
Petersen and Warren both said there never seems to be enough time to fully thank the Panther fans who come to UNI’s home events.
“I love the one-on-one part, the part before and after the panel,” Petersen said. “You get to interact in that one-on-one situation where I feel the fans get to ask questions they wouldn’t normally ask in a panel situation.”
“It is fun for us to get out and shake hands with our fans, thank them for all the support throughout the year,” Warren added. “They come to our home in the McLeod Center. It is really nice and fun for us to go on their home turf, sit and talk to them and say we really appreciate everything you do for us.”