Joel Nielsen, hired as Kent State University’s 11th Director of Athletics in March of 2010, arrived with a clear vision of making the Golden Flashes among the preeminent athletic departments in the nation. In Nielsen’s six years, Kent State’s athletic department has prospered athletically, academically and in the community.
Nielsen has most recently guided Kent State to the 2015-16 Cartwright Award, an honor that the Mid-American Conference bestows on a university for excellence in academics, athletics and citizenship. Under Nielsen, Kent State has received this honor three times, more than any other institution in the MAC.
The Golden Flashes under Nielsen have also claimed five Jacoby and Reese Trophy honors, which recognize the MAC’s top women’s and men’s athletics programs, respectively. No other institution has received the award more than twice. Overall, he has guided the department to 51 MAC regular season or tournament championships and two individual national champions. Additional major athletic highlights have included an 11-win football season (2012) and first bowl appearance in 40 years, baseball’s first appearance in the College World Series (2012), and the MAC’s only appearance in a gymnastics’ national championship (2011).
In March of 2016, President Beverly Warren and Nielsen announced “The Game Plan,” a four-year strategic vision aimed at enhancing the Kent State athletics department’s culture of academic and athletic success. Key takeaways include the department’s commitment to maintaining the current sport mix while adding women’s lacrosse for the 2018-19 competition season, a continued investment in the safety and well-being of the student-athletes, the utilization of men’s basketball as the initial vehicle for revenue generation and national distinctiveness, the investment in enhancing its identity and game atmosphere and the reliance upon private support to enhance budgetary aspirations. “This plan lays the foundation for us to make decisions that will enhance our winning and our academic success for many years to come,” Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen said.
In all, the strategic vision includes 18 goals and objectives, 44 strategies and 99 action steps. Among the early initiatives of the plan are the addition of staff positions in student-athlete development, the hiring of the MAC’s only head basketball sports performance coach and building the Kent State Athletic Training and Education Center. Completed in the fall of 2016, the KSU Athletic Training and Education Center is a 10,000-square foot, two-floor sports medicine facility that will be a major asset for the Golden Flashes’ 425 student-athletes. Key features of the facility include three therapy pools, including an underwater treadmill, and an AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill.
In the classroom, Nielsen has built Kent State into a model of success. His vision of academic excellence culminated in the department’s overall GPA of 3.212 in 2015-2016, a department record (third straight year). Also, 57 student-athletes earned a 4.0 GPA, shattering the previous record for the program.
Record fundraising levels were also accomplished in 2015-2016, with over $6.2 million dollars raised in cash and pledges for the year. The KSU Golden Flashes Club saw the highest total number of donors in the last ten years. Advancement highlights included a new seven-figure commitment and 23 pledges of $25,000 or greater. Also, former student-athlete giving increased by 15%.
Kent State was also named the 2012 National Champion in the Excellence in Management Cup by Texas A&M’s Laboratory for the Study of Intercollegiate Athletics. It was the fourth top three finish in four years for the department. Kent State won the Excellence in Management Cup in 2010, while placing third in 2011 and second in 2009. The Cup determines which Division I (FBS) athletic departments win the most conference championships and excel on the national stage, while carrying the lowest expenses.
Nielsen’s previous experience casts a vast net over intercollegiate athletics, having served as the director of athletics at every level of the NCAA. He previously served for seven years as the athletics director at the University of South Dakota, spearheading their transition to NCAA Division I. His resume includes serving as athletics director at Colorado College, as well as administrative positions with Wake Forest, Illinois State and Northern Illinois.
Nielsen earned a B.S. degree in business finance (1985) and a M.A. degree in sports administration (1991), both from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He also completed the necessary course requirements for an EdD. in Leadership and Educational Policy Studies at Northern Illinois. While at MSU, Nielsen played football and baseball before becoming a graduate assistant (1989-90) for head football coach Dan Runkle.
Nielsen and his wife, Sharon (who was a scholarship golfer at Northern Illinois), have three daughters, twins Kasey and Kelly, and Kory. Kasey and Kelly are sophomore members of the Kent State Women’s Golf team and Kory is a senior at Kent Roosevelt High School.