Episode 12: Greg Burke, Northwestern State University

Cody Junot (00:00):
Welcome to A New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game with scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot. And in this New Gameday podcast series, we’re talking with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new game day. As we get ready to thrive in our new world, whether that be this fall or maybe into the spring, as we all deal with COVID-19 and athletics. We’ll discuss with that new game day’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how administrators are already adapting to our new world. Our guest today is the longest serving AD in both the Southland conference and the state of Louisiana having served as the director of athletics at Northwestern State since 1996. I’m pleased to be joined by Greg Burke, Greg, thanks for taking the time here today. How is everybody at Northwestern State?

Greg Burke (00:49):
Everybody’s doing well. I mean, I think that we are now a few weeks away from the start of fall semester, and right now our university is full speed ahead with a plan to safely bring our students back to campus and to engage them in a safe way. And we’re talking about a hybrid online in-classroom type experience for them and hoping we can sustain that throughout the semester, but we’re at the same time, we’re no different than anybody else. These have been very challenging, and to use the most overused word of 2020, unprecedented times. But I think at the same time it challenges you to rise above it and survive, and the old saying that even out of something that’s challenging or not good, comes some lessons. And I think that we’re seeing that at Northwestern State, as well.

Cody Junot (01:41):
You talk about bringing students back to campus, get there here in a couple of weeks, you do have your student athletes back working out, participating in voluntary activities, and you talk about things changing. I would imagine there have already been some changes in some of the procedural things. So you are continuing to learn as we go ahead and plan for a potential fall athletics calendar?

Greg Burke (02:04):
Well, absolutely. And it started with the NCAA announcing in late May that it would be permissible to have voluntary workouts. And obviously the whole process of the whole look of that was different than in any other time. I mean, in the past, voluntary workouts was very, as I said on a TV interview, this isn’t, ‘Hey guys, and gals, the doors are open, come on in and work out.’ I mean, we actually, the date for the start of that was June 1st. And we obviously involved our sports medicine staff at great depth. And we also consulted extensively with our local sports medicine partner, the Natchitoches regional medical center, their CEO, their chief medical officer. and we didn’t embark on our voluntary workouts until June 9th, when we felt like we had a plan that we had a very good comfort level with was in place.

Greg Burke (02:58):
And then of course, part of that involves some baseline testing to every, I mean, every student athlete that came back and wanted to participate in workouts, had to do a baseline antibody test, and if they were positive, then we tested them for PCR, and then once we had that baseline every day, the minute there was only one entrance to our athletic field house – which is where our weight room is located – and that one entrance, the minute they opened the door, they were met by sports medicine staff, temperatures checking their health. How are you feeling? And the whole nine yards before they could either go to the weight room or go out to the field to condition. And that’s continued. And obviously the pace has picked up like it has for everybody else in July with more student athletes, not just football, but volleyball and soccer coming back.

Greg Burke (03:43):
But as much as it’s been a different approach to getting it done, I walked out yesterday and our football guys are out there and our coaches are coaching and our young men are working hard and there’s still that part of it that’s still there, and I actually talked to one of our coaches real briefly and he said, ‘Man, it just feels great just to be out on the field. It feels great just to be with our student athletes, coaching them and interacting with them,’ because that’s what those guys are wired to do. And that’s what those student athletes that they’re blessed. When I visit with recruits, I talk all the time about how blessed they are to play at the division one level. And we talk about friends that they grew up with played club ball with or AAU ball with or high school ball with, and when they walk across the high school stage and get their diploma for most of those friends, the playing days are done. But I tell that recruit, ‘The Lord has blessed you with the ability to keep playing this sport that you love,’ and so that’s why it was so important for us to have a good process in place because it was about our coaches and student athletes.

Cody Junot (04:47):
Yeah, getting out there and participating, run around almost a return to normalcy, at least for a few minutes or perhaps a few hours because so many things have changed since the middle of March. And we go back to the middle of the March and as you know, the NCAA makes us decision pause the NCAA tournament, then canceled the NCAA tournament and in the fall, or excuse me, the spring sports, following that many athletic administrators were left with tons of questions. And one of the main takeaways were, how do we communicate those messages? Those changes to our constituents, to our fans, to our coaches, as things change. And we know that they changed very, very rapidly. So throughout the pandemic, how have you gone about communicating with your fans, your student athletes, your coaches, your constituents?

Greg Burke (05:41):
I think it started with us. I mean, I think within our department, I think we had to decide right away that obviously this COVID-19 wasn’t something we asked for, but hey, it’s here and how are we going to function? Our football coach, Brad Laird, did a great job throughout the pandemic, especially those April and May months when student athletes expected to be in school and the football team expected to be going through spring practice of having different. He did zoom meetings with positions. He did zoom meetings with the whole team and he brought in different guest speakers. And one of the guest speakers he brought in was Gary Reasons. And Gary played on two super bowl championship teams for the New York Giants as a linebacker during coach Bill Parcels.

Greg Burke (06:33):
And he was maybe not as well-known as the Lawrence Taylors of the world, but I can tell you Gary reasons was an academic Kodak, all American and he was the brains of that defense for Bill Parcels and is still very engaged. And Gary talked to our football team and it this stuck with us, and we talked about this as a department that the departments, the coaches, the student athletes who are going to not just survive, but come out better from this pandemic are going to be those who “Pivot in the marketplace.” And we kept talking to each other about the value of pivoting in the marketplace, A.) For ourselves and mental health has been a big deal. I mean, it, that was something we worried about. I worried about with our coaches and our staff, as well as our student athletes, but mental health isn’t as big of an issue if you’re functioning and you have energy going, I also had a staff member that sent me an article, ‘Driving leadership, performance and development in a crisis, 10 different ways that you need to do it.’

Greg Burke (07:32):
Number 10 was remember that cold recruiting engines take time to restart. So, maybe to that point as well, we were not going to let our engine get cold. And if we didn’t let our engine get cold that kept our fans engaged, as well, whether it was one thing we did from a development and marketing perspective between myself, our Deputy AD who oversees the external and our development and engagement director, we just picked up the phone and called just the old fashioned way. We picked up the phone and called a lot of our supporters and it had nothing to do with any kind of a donation or a request. It was, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How are you doing on a personal level? How’s your business doing?’ And actually our development and engagement director, Mike Jaworski wrote a column on that approach in the most recent I think it was in an Ad column in the Natchitoches magazine.

Greg Burke (08:21):
Mike wrote a column about that, but we thought that was good. I think it was very important that if we expected to keep our donors and our fans engaged, we need to keep ourselves engaged. We did weekly coaching staff WebExes. We tried to mix it up a little bit. I tried I think one week I said to everybody, ‘Hey, if you are a baseball or softball player, what would your walk up song be?’ Everybody sent me their walk-ups songs. And then I did the deal where here’s the walkup songs and here’s the people and match them up. And whoever gets the most is going to get a gift certificate to a local restaurant. And we had a lot of fun with it. And so I think that you had to be a little bit creative and I’m thinking maybe a little bit out of the box to keep people engaged.

Greg Burke (09:00):
I think social media wise, and as you know, that in this day and time that’s, and especially with people not being able to go anywhere, you know darn well that they were constantly on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. So we really try to get creative there with one of our features we did was call it NSU nationwide demons coast to coast. And this is something that Doug Ireland, our retired, SID and myself have kept up with for years. Doug, you mentioned I’ve been here 24 years, Doug’s been here longer than that. We’ve got about 130 former NSU athletes and or coaches and staff working across the nation in college athletics. And we contacted those people and did a little survey or interview with them about where they are and talk about your experience at NSU. And just really tried to do as much as we could to engage our fans, but it started with us. I mean, if we didn’t have that mentality and if we didn’t keep ourselves the adrenaline going for ourselves, there was no way that our fans were going to be engaged, as well.

Cody Junot (10:03):
I think that’s an excellent point that you bring up: pivoting and being able to adapt, right. Because we were forced to back in March. And so you mentioned the old fashioned where again, in this very busy society that we live in, we maybe don’t have the time or don’t feel like we have the time to pick up the telephone and call someone. Maybe we should slow down and do that. So I think taking that and then meshing it together with the social media approach to communicate with younger folks, younger fans, who that’s how they are getting all of their information, makes a lot of sense. Sticking with the social media aspect, and you mentioned the reaching out to former NSU student athletes or staffers who are still working across the country and creating a series around that, were there any other kind of initiatives that your team started that you probably wouldn’t have if you weren’t forced to pivot?

Greg Burke (10:59):
I don’t know if, you know, I think we’ve always kind of prided ourselves on being creative. I think that this just, we just had to up our game, honestly. I mean, like I said, we did way back Wednesday, we called it way back Wednesday and every Wednesday we would go pull, an old video of, the softball team winning the Southland Conference Championship on our field in 2013, or somebody actually dug out a video of our football team in 1988, winning a playoff game at Boise State, things of that nature. I think first of all, we had a little bit more time to be creative because if you think about it during April and May, if it were normal time, as administrators a lot of our time is consumed with the day in and day out, weekend in and weekend out athletic events.

Greg Burke (11:48):
But I think once again, because we had the extra time, A.) I think it was valuable that we utilized it, but B.) I think once again, the value of that was also, it kept us engaged. It kept our engine from going cold and by virtue of doing that it also kept our fans engaged, as well. Because if we weren’t out engaging our fans, and like I said, you know they’re going to be very connected to social media because like a lot of us, they were pretty much tethered to to their home base. Couldn’t go anywhere. And if we weren’t engaging them, they weren’t going to be engaged with us. So it just gave us an opportunity to expand. we do a scholarship banquet every year in conjunction with our foundation, the NSU nation.

Greg Burke (12:31):
And we invite the athletic endowed scholarship donors to come back and sit with the student athlete who’s the beneficiary of their scholarship. Obviously, we couldn’t have that banquet this year. So something we said, ‘You know what, we’ve never done this, but we need to do this regardless moving forward.’ We actually – and of course the student athletes were all back home – we had the student athlete do about a one minute video. ‘Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Burke. I’m so and so. I’m a women’s basketball player and I’m the recipient of your scholarship. And I’m so sorry we can’t get the meet at the scholarship banquet, but I want you to know how much you mean to me, how much your support means,’ and the feedback that we got from those from our donors was in measurable. And we said to ourselves, why had we not thought to do this before?

Greg Burke (13:17):
We actually do a Vick’s choice – Vick is our demon, our mascot demon – so we call it the Vick’s choice awards. Most schools do a student athlete end-of-the-year type banquet or whatever. And we pick the team of the year and the athlete of the year and this and that. And they get to walk up and make a quick acceptance speech. While once again, we couldn’t have that, but we picked the student athlete of the year, the demon hero of the year or whatever, and they may have been living in Dallas and we said, ‘Hey, send us a 60-second acceptance speech. Put it up on social media.’ And like I said, it’s shown us these are some things that maybe we can be doing in the future even when we get past all of the COVID restrictions.

Greg Burke (13:58):
And I think something else real quick, I wanted to mention, I mentioned mental health, which as you know is a really big topic. It’s moved to, it’s a front burner topic and it needs to stay a front burner topic and May was mental health month. And once again, none of us were around each other, but we have a mental health committee and we convened via WebEx, of course, and we put together a month-long plan that involved a lot of social media, uh, whether it was student athlete talking about the value of mental health. I did a closing video at the end of the month. Kolleen Brown is an assistant athletic trainer who oversees that committee. She kind of opened the month up. We got our campus counseling office involved as well, but we thought that once again, and we said to each other, ‘Gosh, we need to do that every year,’ but I think it really, this year, probably more than any other year was very informative to our donors and our supporters. Because once again, they were very much in tune and much more in tune with us than they might otherwise be.

Cody Junot (15:00):
It sounds like a lot of creativity and a lot of reexamining the way things were done and finding new ways to do some of the things that you were already doing, right. Adapting, out of necessity, but maybe realizing to your point earlier, why haven’t we been doing this all along? And so taking that thought and moving it over to the game day, whenever we return, right? Whether that’s six weeks from now, six months from now, how can you continue to be creative, think outside the box, do things a little bit differently to keep your fans engaged during these contests where maybe there is nobody around to see it live, but you’re doing it through a stream or maybe you have a very limited, you know, fan base that’s allowed to be there in attendance. How can you continue to keep them engaged in this new game day environment?

Greg Burke (15:55):
Creativity has to be the driver. I mean, it just has to be, and I feel good about our ability to do that based on the fact that, I keep saying it, but our engine never got cold. I mean, I think that we learned a lot about creativity and we learned about how creative we can be back in April, May, and even in June. And now we can carry that forward and we’re going to have to carry it forward because like you said, we may have an empty stadium, we may have…and right now, we’re planning on 50% at our stadium and we’ve got a seating alignment. I mean, gosh, about two months ago, we got a hold of a seating chart from the Miami Dolphins, looked at a lot about how they did things and kind of implemented that with our folks as well.

Greg Burke (16:37):
So there are going to be a lot, and we’ve had season ticket people already that have said, ‘Look, we’re all in.’ And that’s our theme this year. ‘We just can’t be all in your stadium. We just, right now, we don’t feel good about coming to the ball game, but we’re going to be engaged.’ When you hear that from people, you have to say to yourself, if they’re saying that to us, then we’ve got to step up. You know, we’re, we’re looking at, you know, we’re going to have to maybe adjust our normal game day things like video board messaging and radio and content streaming, things of that nature. And we’re not going to be able to provide as much in-venue type inventory because either we’re not going to be just something as simple as some presentations on the field that are sponsored related.

Greg Burke (17:20):
Well, we’re not doing anything on the field this year. Like everybody else, our sidelines are going to be very clean. So we’re going to have to get more creative in how we still, obviously you need to retain your sponsors because you need to retain the revenue. So we’re going to have to get more creative in how we do that, both even within the venue, but then outside of the venue for people that, and we have to be very aware of the fact that there are going to be more people than ever that are not going to have literal eyes on us, but they’re going to have virtual eyes on us. And that’s the difference. Those virtual eyes are something we’ve got to put ourselves in the shoes of those people and say, ‘What is it that we can present to them that first of all is going to make our event still exciting and engaging,’ but then we’ve got to put ourselves in the shoes of our, our sponsors and say, ‘If I’m a sponsor, what can somebody say to me that even though football is going to look different, I still feel good about my investment in your program?’

Greg Burke (18:18):
And granted part of any investment I think is about relationships and it’s about in a town like our size, it’s understanding the value of a university to the community economically and socially and all that kind of stuff. But business is still business. There has to be a mindset or a partial mindset on the part of the sponsor that, ‘Hey, I’m getting something out of this.’ And so, you know, we we’ve talked about doing a lot as far as even on the radio. And, we can do more on the radio. We can do more with our streaming. I mean, we can maybe take some graphics and things that we would normally do in stadium, but we still do them on our video board, but then let’s think about the people that are watching the stream. That sponsor can also get the recognition on that video stream, as well.

Greg Burke (19:03):
There’s a lot more room in a radio broadcast than you really think there is, and we’ve got a good radio guy, who’s been with us a lot of years, and I know we can count on him to fill every breath that he takes – to use the old, the old song by the police – we can count on him to utilize every minute of the broadcast to help maybe expand our inventory in that way as well. You know, it’s very important. Like I said, it’s very important to hold serve with the dollars that we’re securing right now, but I think that you have to put yourself in the shoes of the sponsor and they’ve got to have a good feeling about what you’re putting in front of them.

Cody Junot (19:40):
Yeah, I think that’s very important. Revenue on both ends for your institution at Northwestern State and your partners or sponsors in the community. We know that NCAA revenue distributions are down, and so everyone is trying to find a way to add those while adapting to our changing surroundings. And it sounds like you have already had some conversations with some of your partners about that. If you would, let’s dive in a little bit further down that hole. What have those conversations been like? You know, has it been a two way street in the sense of the partner coming in with ideas, you coming with ideas? Have you been driving those discussions? But how, to your point, can you help each other continue to add value?

Greg Burke (20:28):
I’ll start by commenting that we are partnering with Peak sports. The owner of that company, Ryan Holloway, Ryan actually worked with our athletic department. I hired Ryan back in like 2007, and he spent about three years here in marketing. And, we maintain a great friendship through the years. And, we partnered, we started partnering with him about a year and a half ago. And so his rep on our campuses is the direct conduit between our department and those sponsors, but between myself, our deputy AD Haley Taitono, especially between the two of us, we have a lot of communication with Erica Mulder. Erica is our Peak sports rep and she’s out seeing sponsors. And right now we’re in that process for renewing. And once again, like everything else it’s different than it would have been a year ago.

Greg Burke (21:20):
I hate to say it, but in the past, it was kind of the, I don’t want to say the same old, same old, but you could pretty much put the same thing in front of them, and as long as they were happy, while you put the same thing in front of them right now, and they’re looking thinking, well, it’s not the same. It’s not the same old, same old, because it’s 2020 and we’re dealing with COVID. And so, we’re at, you know, I’ve always felt like when you go to even the first time you ever go to see somebody for a sponsorship, I’ve always felt like you need to ask them what’s important to them. The approach is not to go in and say, ‘Well, hey, have I got a deal for you.’ Now, you need to ask because what’s important to a fast food restaurant is different than what’s important to an insurance company.

Greg Burke (21:59):
And so I think that’s the same approach we’re taking right now with our sponsors, ‘Hey things are going to look different.’ It’s kind of like I’ve told our departments and it’s hard. You have to keep people focused. But we do the big run out with our team on game day with the purple smoke. And I’ve said, look, the team is still going to run through the purple smoke. The marching band, our spirit of Northwestern, 300 strong, is going to be playing the fight song. The video board is going to be going. It’s going to be game day. You just have to understand that how we get to game day is going to look a little bit different. And we’ve got to go to the sponsors and say, ‘Not only how we get to game day, but game day itself is going to look a little bit different.

Greg Burke (22:39):
Talk about what’s important to you because we no longer can do A, or we can’t do B, but let’s talk about a way maybe we can be creative.’ And I think it means even more when you involve them. Once again, instead of going in and saying, ‘Hey, it’s COVID-19 time and things are different and here’s what we want to put in front of you.’ I think that the, once again, the give and take, and that’s all part of a partnership, that’s all part of building relationships. And I think that’s what, that’s what we’re doing right now with all of our sponsors.

Cody Junot (23:05):
It sounds like you guys already had a very close and personable relationship with your partners, right? And I would term them more as partners rather than sponsors based on that answer. And it sounds like you’ve been able to grow closer and involve them a little bit more as things evolve and change, which, again, getting back to maybe the topic of, ‘Hey, why weren’t we doing this a little bit, a little bit sooner or earlier?’ Lastly, Greg, we’ve talked about how you’re messaging to your fans and constituents and partners, coaches, staff. But what’s the one thing that you’re driving home? What’s the one message that you’re constantly reminding folks when they ask you, ‘Hey, what the fall going to look like? Are we going to have a fall, or are we not? What’s the one message that you’re driving home when you’re speaking with friends, family, coaches, student-athletes?

Greg Burke (23:56):
Well, like I said, previously, our theme for football this year is all in. And I think that’s, that’s what we’re stressing to everybody. We’re all in whether it’s our department, our coaches, and our staff. We’re all in this together. Then you start expanding that circle to, obviously, our student athletes are right with us, their parents, our fans. And it goes back to the fact that you have to just come to grips very, very quickly with the fact that times are different, but just because times are different doesn’t mean we can’t achieve the ultimate goal, which is to create a great experience for our student athletes, to create a great fan experience for those who support our program, whether they’re sitting in Turpin stadium watching a game, or they’re in their living room watching it on their iPad. Same thing with our supporters, our sponsors, our partners, as we talked about. Things are going to be a little bit different, but we’re all in this together.

Greg Burke (24:56):
And individually, we’re not going to make the best of the circumstances, but collectively, and I’ll just even reflect to the fact that, I mentioned earlier that the staff member brought that article to me about driving leadership performance and it really resonated through our department because if there’s only one leader in this department and his name is Greg Burke, we were not going to navigate very well, but people in other leadership positions. But then, I mean, we didn’t have a marketing director. We lost our marketing director…The position was frozen. We had a young man who’s a graduate assistant and he stepped up and he handled the way back Wednesdays every week. He went and found a cool video from the past. And sometimes we would say to him, the folks that have been around, ‘Hey, go check out the ADA football season or go check out the ’04 football season or the ’13 softball season.’

Greg Burke (25:53):
But that young man stepped into a leadership role that no way would he have ever imagined that he would have been in back in January when we didn’t know how things were going to transpire with COVID, and so I think it’s very much an all in approach and that’s been our message on a long week. I think we’ve been very communicative. I think that’s one thing that we thought was very important was to be communicated because you can’t be all in if you’re not all in together on a pretty ongoing basis. I mean, letters to season ticket holders. I mentioned those donor calls, and I think that’s just been the constant message is we’re all in this together. It’s not what we signed up for, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have the end game that we all want. And that’s all, we’re all NSU Demons. And we’re all about this athletic program, this university, and most importantly, we’re all about our student athletes.

Cody Junot (26:45):
No, I think that’s a great message. We can’t be all in if we’re not all in together. Greg it’s really been insightful, have really enjoyed time and the conversation here. Again, thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule for joining us here on ‘A New Game Day.’

Greg Burke (27:00):
Glad to do it. And to everybody out there, stay safe and stay steady.