Powered by Nevco, A New Gameday from CollegeAD focuses on how athletic departments are working towards the eventual return of sports and what that will look like on gameday. Greg Burke who serves as the Director of Athletics at Northwestern State University joins the podcast to discuss the role of communication and out-of-the-box thinking during the COVID-19 crisis.
Greg Burke, the longest-serving AD in the Southland Conference and in the state of Louisiana, having led the NSU department since 1996, began the conversation by saying everyone on his campus is doing well and preparing for the start of the fall semester. He explained that students will have a hybrid learning environment of online and in-person classes and that everyone is working to engage them in the safest way possible.
Burke then explained that his student-athletes have returned for voluntary workouts. He says the process has obviously been different this year and he’s leaned on his sports medicine staff for guidance in safe practices. He said he’s also worked closely with their sports medicine regional partner, the Northwestern Regional Medical Center. He explained that they did not embark on voluntary workouts until June 9th, when they felt a good plan was in place. He explains that the first priority is the health and safety of the student-athletes, but understands that the players and coaches are anxious to play this fall and consider themselves fortunate to be playing at the Division I level.
Then Burke began to explain how important communication has been throughout this entire process. He says it starts from the top, his department made communication a priority. His football coach, Brad Laird, began Zoom meetings in March with his team and continually kept his student-athletes engaged, even bringing in guest speakers. One of the guest speakers he brought in was Gary Reasons who played on two Super Bowl teams for the New York Giants. His advice to the student-athletes is something that stuck with everyone. Reasons explained that the ones who come out of this on top will be the departments, the coaches, and the players who pivot in the marketplace.
He explained the way they tried to pivot with the marketplace is not to shut down completely but keep the lines of communication open. His department worked to continuously engage the student-athletes, donors, and fans in a safe way. Burke says they used old and new forms of communication, his people did pick up the phone and call people to have real conversations about what was going on and how they could all move forward together. He also explained how the department has leaned on social media during the pandemic.
Burke gave an example of their use of social media by highlighting NSU Nationwide, Demons Coast to Coast. He says they have about 130 former Demons in college athletics across the country. He says he contacted those people and did interviews with them about where they are and their experiences at NSU.
Burke says they’ve always prided themselves on being created but the pandemic did encourage them to “up their game.” He also explained that they had a bit more time to be creative because everything was shut down. The creativity kept his staff engaged and in turn enabled them to engage fans and student-athletes. AD Greg Burke pointed to an example of the scholarship banquet they normally have where student-athletes get to meet the people that donated to their scholarships. This year they had the student-athletes record videos to the donors instead of meeting in person. He said the feedback from the donors was immeasurable, to the point where he was wondering why they hadn’t thought to do it before. The pandemic forced them to think outside of the box and it was a valuable experience.
He also talked about March being Mental Health Month, and while they couldn’t be together, they produced content to showcase their mental health efforts. He says it was a cross-collaborative effort with other departments on campus. He says, as a result of taking their Mental Health discussions on social media, their donors were more engaged than ever in those discussions.
Burke says that creativity has to be the driver in keeping people engaged with the new game day. He explained he feels great about his department’s ability to do that because they “never let their engine get cold.” They’ve stayed actively engaged with people since the pandemic began. Greg Burke acknowledges that the new gameday strategy will be a challenge, but they are constantly working on ways to do it safely. He says they are discussing seating.
He says some season ticket holders have expressed concerns about coming to the stadium, but say they are still enthusiastically supporting NSU. Burke says that means his team has to step up the engagement outside of the stadium as well. While they may not be able to provide as much “in-venue” entertainment and engagement this year, so they will have to be creative to work with sponsors.
He closed the conversation by sharing the one message he is personally driving home to the student-athletes, staff, and partners. He says that he tells them we are all in this together. Times are different but that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve their goal, which is to create a great experience for student-athletes, a great experience for fans, and a great experience for supporters and partners.