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Sulphur native Bruce Hemphill was introduced as McNeese State’s ninth director of athletics on Aug. 15, and formally began his duties on Thursday. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Sulphur native Bruce Hemphill was introduced as McNeese State’s ninth director of athletics on Aug. 15, and formally began his duties on Thursday. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Sunday Talk: Sitting down with McNeese's new athletic director

Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 8:38 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

Sulphur native Bruce Hemphill was introduced as McNeese State’s ninth director of athletics on Aug. 15, and formally began his duties on Thursday.

The 57-year-old Hemphill, who has spent most of his professional life as an athletics administrator in North Carolina in addition to a stint in Wyoming, talked to the American Press about coming home for his “dream job” and the challenges he’ll face at McNeese in a rapidly changing world of college sports.

American Press: I guess the retired life must be overrated, because you’re jumping right back in.

Hemphill: I never had any intention to retire to begin with. To give you background, I had a brother pass away about a year-and-a half ago. I have an elderly mother who needs help. She’s independent and she’s feisty, but she needs help.

I had enough years in North Carolina to take early retirement, and this is a place I’ve wanted to be for a long, long time. Not only with McNeese, but back home. This is my home and this is where I wanted to be. That fact and with those events taking place, I said ‘It’s time.’ I had no intention of retiring to begin with. I just had enough years to do it, so I did it.

Was this possibility ever on your radar when you moved back?

It’s always been a dream to work at McNeese. So much of it is because this is the university I grew up with. I have so many fond memories from here, not only from the coaches but the players. Keeping up with so many events here when I was a kid.

When I was playing at LSU, we had an open date every year. And what did I do? I’d fly back here in my car as fast as I could to come back for a McNeese game.

One time when I had friends playing for McNeese, we had practice on a Friday night, and I came home from Baton Rouge, ate, took a quick sleep and we got up early Saturday morning to head up to Ruston to watch McNeese and Louisiana Tech play. So it’s a university I’ve always held very special.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for you and McNeese, and what do you see as the biggest challenges for you?

I think the opportunities, the obvious ones, are that I’m from here and this is where I want to be. I’ve loved this university for many years. Knowing a lot of people here I think will help us. The fact I understand the McNeese people both within the university and outside. Getting to know the people I’m not familiar with and having an instant connection — growing relationships are so important.

And what’s fixin’ to happen ­­here — that’s my Sulphur slang — with the economic boom. It’s rough times now but I really feel there are great things that’s going to be happening. Not only because of the great work we’re going to do, but economically things are going to be better. We hope the state has bottomed out as far as the money they’re giving education. There’s a little glimmer of hope. Can we count on it going back to the way it was? No. That’s why we’re looking at outside revenue.

What does McNeese do well in your opinion? What can it do better?

The first thing that’s always the history and tradition of McNeese is the coaching and personnel. Having coaches that could go leave and go elsewhere. Having coaches that truly want to be here and the success that McNeese has had over the years has been truly astounding with not having the resources other schools have, whatever the reasons are. The possibilities, I think, are great.

Having our students take more ownership in the college experience can be very positive. The economic development that’s going to happen is a big plus too. There are so many corporations that are already here. I know Tommy (McClelland, Hemphill’s predecessor) and the administration has reached out to them. Let’s try again.

The people here love the university whether they’re alums or live in the area. We’re it in Southwest Louisiana.

You may have seen this at the high school level in North Carolina, but I think that there may be some fragmentation in local sports that wasn’t there even 10 or 15 years ago. There’s more cable choices. Maybe because of economics people stay home. You’re not just competing against the people in your backyard. It’s everything now. How do you deal with that reality?

You hit the nail on the head. People have so many more options. When I was a young boy growing up, people had three stations. There were cartoons Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon baseball, and that was it. And you were here Saturday night.

It was the same thing when I was at Sulphur. We averaged 9,000 fans every Friday game. It was because we were good, but it was the place to be Friday night. They didn’t have the options kids have now with video games, peer pressure, cars, the digital world of television and Internet. Kids and parents have so many options that they don’t have to leave their house. So we’ve got to give them a reason to be here.

Obviously winning is important. We not only have to have a great product on the field, but we have to make the environment positive for our fans. Not to say it wasn’t before, but those are things we’re going to evaluate. It’s good that the challenge is there and that we’ll get even greater.

You look at the challenge of Saturday nights. You have 50 games that you can pick up. If the Tigers are playing at home in Baton Rouge — mmm, tough challenge. You’ve got to have more than just the staunchest McNeese fans. You’ve got to give a reason for the other people to want to join in too.

The economics, it’s not only tough for higher education but all people. They’ve got tough choices to make.

Saturday nights are very much a tradition here. But if you look at places like Michigan, the regional universities try to schedule so they aren’t competing with Michigan State and Michigan...

I know what you’re alluding to, and that’s a very touchy subject. Where do you cross the line with tradition versus economics? I’ll be very involved with that too. Matt (Viator) will be very involved too. I’m not going to make a judgement on that one way or the other. That’s something that’s going to involve the whole university. When do we get the largest crowds on campus? For 5 or 6 home football games. How can we make that more entertaining for our clientele, and how do we get more people in the stands and make it more fun?

All those things we’ve been talking about, from where LSU’s playing to all the choices they have on TV to watch, we’ve got to give them a reason to want to come out. It’s always been there with the tailgaters and the students, but how do we make that more positive? By building relationships. Our staff is doing a great job with marketing and promotions, but we want to assess and evaluate how we can get better.

We have one casino and there’s a second going up. That chips away at the entertainment dollar. People can sit at home for free. You can get Netflix for $5 of 6, that’s an entertaining evening for a lot of folks.

It’s not just sports you’re dealing with.

No. We’ve got a lot of options today.

Was it a bit daunting at first when you applied? A lot is different from 10 years ago when you were last in college athletics at Wyoming.

We’ve got a great staff here. We’re specialized. Bridget (Martin) is the go-to person for compliance. Danielle Mayeaux is the go-to for marketing and ticketing. Bryant Carter for budgeting and travel. Just right on down the line. So we’ve got some specialized areas.

As far as the catch-up, I have the people who have been mentors to me throughout the years, many of them at the top level of college sports. I’m not in the act of name-dropping, but I’ve been around some of the best.

For instance, Jim Valvano. Great basketball coach but probably an even better entertainer. His staff meetings you had to bite your lip and hold your nose because he was going to say something out of this world.

The management style of John Swofford, unbelievable.

The recruiting of Mack Brown. The best I have ever seen. Smooth as they come. I used to call him “One Take.” Never had to do an interview more than once.

Being able to learn all those things don’t go out of style. The management style, people skills, recruiting. Those things don’t change.

People have asked me about this, so I’d like you to put into your own words explaining that it was the state of Wyoming and not the university that filed that logo lawsuit against McNeese...

Good! I’ll tell you a quick story.

My younger brother, who is no longer with us, calls me when I was working at the University of Wyoming with my office right next to the athletic director’s.

He said “Bruce, you would not believe the furor that’s going on down here. People are ranting and raving and cussing me because I’ve got a Wyoming T-shirt on. What is going on up there?”

There was silence.

I said, “Greg, what are you talking about?”

“You wouldn’t believe! People are just in an uproar. They’re so mad at Wyoming and me because my brother is up there.”

I said, “I’ve never heard of this before. Hang on. Let me go talk to the AD. Maybe I’ve got my head in the sand.”

I go and ask him and he says, “Huh? I don’t have a clue.”

Well, it’s my brother, so I’m going to look after him and follow up. I’m going to see the president. So I ask him, “What is going on with that?”

He said, “I think I’ve heard that there’s something going on with some university down south, but it has nothing to do with our university. It must be with the state attorney general or secretary of state.”

We never even knew. In fact the only way I knew it was settled was when my brother told me it was done. McNeese had to go change the angle of the bucking horse. It was never a news item — although sometimes we wondered up in Laramie if we ever got our news.

So it was never an issue — never even heard of it — until my brother brought it up.

But you’re not the first that’s asked me that. It was huge here.

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