Sunday Conversation: Rod Lovett

Sunday Conversation: Rod Lovett

Rod Lovett’s position on the UI track and field coaching staff was eliminated in August 1989, shortly after he had signed a year’s lease locally on an apartment. He accepted a part-time position at Parkland College to help pay the bills. “It was a stopgap,” Lovett said. “I had no intention of being at Parkland longer than that semester.” More than a quarter of a century later, Lovett is still at Parkland and looking forward to another decade or more of service. He recently received the prestigious George E. Killian Award of Excellence from the National Junior College Athletic Association. Fred Kroner caught up this week with the 1980 Urbana graduate, who took time off Wednesday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.

What professions were you interested in as a child?
Truthfully, teaching and/or something in sports. I started coaching when I was 18 with my brother’s (Brad) youth baseball teams. That’s what I saw myself doing. I like business things, but I couldn’t see myself behind a desk 40 hours a week and I’m not a tie and coat guy. I had a unique situation of being a baseball assistant with the Urbana Legion (under coach Joe Lamb), the Champaign Legion (under coach Norlyn Loschen) and the Rantoul Legion (under coach Allen Jones).

Your first full-time job was at the UI. How did that happen?
I was hired while I was in grad school, working with Gary Wieneke’s men’s track program. I didn’t know a ton about track. My responsibilities were to do recruiting and a lot of administrative stuff like organizing on-campus visits. I did that a couple of years until seven positions were eliminated and one of them was mine. We won the Big Ten indoor championship (in 1987-88) and were the NCAA runner-up.

You didn’t imagine yourself being at Parkland for 25 years?
The baseball (coaching) job came open in 1990 and Jim Reed (athletic director) asked me to stay on. I did not see myself being a junior college baseball coach for a long period of time. When I started, my part-time stipend for baseball was $3,500. I put in a significant amount of time doing odd jobs, working part-time in the fitness center, teaching classes, working as an admissions rep and eventually I became full-time as an academic advisor around 1996.

Why have you stayed so long?
Parkland College is a great place to work and I enjoy the mission of a two-year school. I went to the UI for my bachelor’s and master’s and had never taken a class at Parkland, but I saw the impact it could make and how it was so important to so many people. I knew Jim Reed would retire and being athletic director was something I thought would be an interesting career choice.

So you replaced Jim Reed as the Parkland AD?
Brenda Winkeler and I were the two finalists. It was 1999 and she was coming off a national championship (in volleyball). She got the job in mid-November. In mid-December, she accepted the Eastern Illinois (volleyball coaching) job. Though I was disappointed (in initially being bypassed), I wanted the coaches to be supportive. Had I been bitter, who knows if they would have turned to me in January, 2000 to take over as AD.

Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
It depends on the time of year. What I like is that days are never the same. I try to jot things down the night before, but all it takes is one call or one email and the whole day changes. I get in about 8:30. Mickey (Cler, athletic assistant) and I go over the day before anything comes up. When you’re the AD at a two-year school, you’re doing everything and have to be ready to do whatever. If we have a basketball doubleheader, I’m at GFS getting concession stuff.

What’s your biggest challenge?
It would be easy to say budgetary. These are tough times in education. Enrollments are down. Funding from the state is at an all-time low. Trying to keep all programs at the level they’re achieving is tough. We don’t have a 16,000 seat arena or a TV contract we can market and sell. The other is that are coaches are part-time. The men’s basketball and baseball coaches have full-time jobs at Parkland, but the other six (head coaches) are part-time folks. I feel so blessed with the part-time coaches we’ve hired. A lot of times, we have only two or three applicants. Most of them are paid between $9,000 and $13,000, but the commitment they put in is significant. They never really have a dead period.

Your biggest headaches must be dealing with games that are postponed and need to be rescheduled.
When there’s inclement weather, we have to reschedule officials, facilities and transportation. We have a supervisor of officials we contract to do our scheduling. It’s their responsibility to get those people and that’s a big help.

What’s on top of your wish list?
If I had a magical wish list, it would be to have a satellite gym with a rubberized floor that we could use for soccer, baseball and softball for practice. It is a strain (scheduling the gymnasium). Many days we start at 6 or 7 a.m. and we’re booked until 10 or 11 at night. We don’t need a second gym for competition, but a second gym for practice would be outstanding.

How difficult was it for you to give up coaching baseball?
At first, it was tough. I enjoy the relationships you build, but you replace that with other things. I became the men’s Region 24 director and that has allowed me to get involved with things I wouldn’t have otherwise. To see kids who struggled when they were here, who fought the concept of being in college, and then they get a degree and a job is rewarding. It’s rewarding when you see young people come here not knowing where they’re going in life and they figure it out.

The George E. Killian Award is presented annually to persons who exemplify the NJCAA’s ideals of volunteerism, achievement, service, leadership and excellence. What does it mean to you to receive the 2014 award?
It was a surprise. I’ve enjoyed my work as the men’s Region 24 director. I don’t look at it that I’ve done anything extra. I’m appreciative that the national office thinks I’m doing a good job. From a personal standpoint, anything I set out to do, I want to do it at the highest level.
How does the future look for Parkland College athletics?

I don’t see any major changes on the horizon. We just completed building a new soccer field, where the old track was. We could tweak our baseball and softball facilities. We get requests for more sports, but with budgets, we’ll try to hold onto the eight we have and allow them to be successful. We have a green light (to add sports), but with the same budget and the same facilities. The most requests are for football and that’s probably the most unrealistic (to be added). At one time, there were eight or nine Illinois schools (junior colleges) with it and now we’re down to one. We get quite a few (requests) for cross-country and for wrestling. Bowling is one that’s gaining steam, and it’s relatively inexpensive.

Are there goals you’d still like to accomplish?
I feel so blessed to be the athletic director at a program which has had national champion individuals and teams, and have upgraded facilities. I want to see us improve our academics. I want to see 90 to 100 percent graduation and continuation rates. For most kids, this is the last stop as far as athletics go.

How do you like to spend your free time?
Amazingly, on a day off I end up doing sporting things. I go to seven or eight Cubs games a year. I was a Colts season ticket-holder for years. I went to the recent NCAA regional basketball games in St. Louis and the Elite Eight in Indianapolis. We have three kids (former Cobras) playing AA baseball now and I’d love to hit their games as they make the progression. Mark Carlson (former PC catcher and a major league umpire) has gotten me playoff and World Series tickets. I’ve been to some Cardinals (Series) games, but I can’t say that I cheered for them. I’m a Cubs fan, but there are days lately that has come in question. When I end up at a sporting event, I can enjoy it because I have no responsibilities.

What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?
People ask when will I retire. Everybody I know that retires goes out and looks for a part-time job. I see myself doing this another 10 or 15 years.