Sometimes the distance between “high-profile” and “behind-the-scenes” isn’t very far.
In my time with Northern Illinois University intercollegiate athletics, I had the opportunity to work with many talented, intelligent, dedicated, caring women on a daily basis.
High-profile? Sure, former NIU athletics director Cary Groth – one of the nation’s first female ADs at an institution with FBS football – and ex-Huskies head women’s basketball coach Jane Albright – the architect of the greatest decade (1984 to 1994) in NIU hoops history, male or female – immediately come to mind.
Behind-the-scenes? NIU’s Janaan Mickey takes the grand prize. Hands down. No contest. In the 1960s (forgive me, Gloria Steinheim), Mickey would’ve been the indispensable “gal Friday.” Now, it’s executive secretary or administrative aide and rightfully so. Believe me, current NIU athletic director Sean Frazier must look further than Parker Executive Search for a suitable replacement.
Competent, patient, discreet, dedicated, polite but tough-minded, loyal, and most of all, 110 percent Cardinal and Black. Who ya gonna call? Janaan Mickey, not the Ghostbusters. Who wouldn’t like to see her list of VIP phone numbers? Sensitive matters? Few were more aware or protective. I’ve heard people (plural) refer to her as a “saint.”
(Before I go much further and get in trouble, my predecessor Bud Nangle and I truly appreciated the important role of bright, resourceful executive secretaries. NIU sports information was blessed with exceptional hires, including Dianne Wunsch, Janet Kersten, Shirley Miller and Marcia Agema. Didn’t think I’d mention you, eh, ladies?)
Upon her May 29 retirement, Mickey will have served Huskies athletics for 321/2 years. She’s worked for 11 different ADs, 10 head football coaches and five presidents. Talk about the NIU lives she has touched.
For the record, here’s the chronological list of her AD bosses: Bob Brigham, Jim Mellard (interim), Gerald O’Dell, Ray Dembinski (interim), Groth, George Shur (interim), Jim Phillips, Robert Collins (interim), Jeff Compher, Christian Spears (interim) and Frazier.
“Janaan is one of the most respected people in the business of higher education,” said Groth, who recently retired as AD at Nevada. “People who have come in contact with her have always commented on her professionalism and positive attitude. Many tried hiring her away from NIU. She was an outstanding colleague throughout my years at NIU and continues to be someone I call a dear friend. She will be missed by so many. Thank you, Janaan, for all that you have done for NIU and me.”
Commented Phillips, now the AD at Northwestern: “In the world of college athletics, you are fortunate to serve with an incredible group of dedicated staff and students. No one exemplifies that to me more than Janaan, who for 32-plus years came to work every day ready to serve not only 11 directors of athletics at NIU, but thousands of student-athletes. Her unwavering commitment to advancing Huskie athletics was unmatched. The one quality that I believe serves her the most is selfless. Every single day, Janaan gave everything she had to the institution, department, staff, and students. It was never about her. Thanks, Janaan, for making a difference in the lives of so many, including mine.”
Mickey, a Rochelle resident, wife, and mother, doesn’t plan any immediate exotic world cruises in retirement.
“It will be strange not to come in to work,” she admitted, adding with a chuckle – “Eleven ADs? Is that an NCAA record?”
She has a disarming sense of humor and perspective – two other necessary traits in a demanding job.
“It is a pretty small number of individuals – athletics administrators, coaches, support staff and, most importantly, student-athletes – who comprise the schools at the Division I level,” Mickey stated. “For me to have been part of that group for the last three decades – over half of my adult life – is an incredible privilege.
“I have had the opportunity to attend events, meet people and just watch young men and women work toward their goals, whether in life or sports, and that is humbling. I’m proud to be a Huskie and cannot be more grateful.”
Whatever the current eligibility requirements for admission into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame for staff (five years after retirement?), there’s no doubt what should be done.
Nominate Janaan Mickey, gal Friday extraordinaire, immediately.
Speaking of extraordinary Huskies, how about Northern Illinois Athletics Hall of Famer T. J. Lux earlier this month?
At age 37 and retired from European professional ball for several years, Lux collected a game-high 35 points and was named the MVP of the McLegends XII Charity Basketball Game on May 3 at Highland (Ind.) High School.
The 6-foot-9 Lux, NIU’s all-time scorer (1,996 career points in 1995-2000) and rebounder (1,100), scored 29 points in the first half, plus canned five 3-pointers and threw down some dunks in the 164-124 victory over the High School All-Stars. Ex-Ball State star Dan Palombizio and 1981 Indiana Mr. Basketball added 17 points as the McLegends player-coach. Lux started with four former Purdue football players – two of which are current NFL roster performers.
“My expectations were just to compete and play hard in a meaningful basketball game again,” said Lux, the current head boys basketball coach at Merrillville High School, his alma mater. “I’m about six or seven years removed from playing and it’s such a big part of what we do. Any opportunity to play brings it out. I got it going. It was fun.”
One of the prep all-stars said: “[Lux] got a dunk, too. I couldn’t believe it. But he should have got a tech for slapping the backboard.”
As the grizzled, older NIU Noon Ball veterans used to razz the younger guys in Evans Field House when wisdom and experience upset young legs: “Old guys.”
Nice job, T.J.
The game’s proceeds went to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of northwest Indiana and Highland High.
Anybody see the comment by East Carolina and former NIU AD Jeff Compher in USA Today last week about his concerns regarding future nonconference ECU football scheduling with the SEC? Solution’s easy, Jeff. Just call up Presbyterian (again).
• Mike Korcek is a former NIU sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com.