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Shafer preaches positive attitude

Thursday, December 11, 2008

ELIZABETH DODD ~ edodd@semissourian.com
John Shafer answers questions Wednesday at a public forum about the Southeast Missouri State athletic director position.
John Shafer describes himself as a positive person, and he believes a new attitude can play a big role in changing the situation for Southeast Missouri State athletics.

Shafer, semi-retired after more than 25 years in athletic administration, interviewed Wednesday as one of the finalists for the athletic director job at Southeast. He participated in a public forum toward the end of his day of meetings and talked a lot about changing one thing that can be done quickly and with little cost.

"The first thing I'd try to do is change the attitude," Shafer said. "We're not going to talk about what we don't have. We're going to be positive. We're beat up and there's no reason to be this beat up. A lot of it is self-inflicted."

Shafer said that during his meetings with Southeast staffers, he observed, "They were like beaten pups."

"I want them to want to come into work in the morning," Shafer later added. "I challenge them to come to work with a smile and be positive about what you're doing. It's infectious. That's what I do. That's what I've always done."

Shafer said it worked for him in 2003 when he came in as the athletic director at Eastern Kentucky and challenged his staff to win both the men's and women's All-Sports trophies for the Ohio Valley Conference as well as the academic award. The Colonels men's teams won the All-Sports award in 2003-04 for the first time since 1994-95 and has won every one since. The women shared the award -- their first since 1993-94.

While the school didn't win the academics award, it established a record for athletes named to the school's academic list.

And it all started with the power of positive thinking, Shafer said.

"You don't have to fix anything or raise money," Shafer said. "You can just come in and, in a matter of hours, change. Immediately, that's the thing we're going to do is change our mindset. The reason that is No. 1 [on the priority list] is because I believe we can do that easily."

With more than 20 years working in the Southeastern Conference, including 17 years at Georgia, Shafer isn't just whistling "Dixie."

He talked about the challenges of resources, but saved the crowd of about 20 the details of fundraising campaigns during his four years as athletic director at Ole Miss that yielded increases in the athletics budget and building or renovation projects to help track, football, golf and more.

He said he was familiar with the budget limitations of an OVC school from his 19 months as athletic director at EKU.

"If we can get the donors back that were in before the problems, we're ahead of the game," Shafer said. "We have to re-recruit those people and re-recruit season-ticket holders who have fallen by the wayside."

Shafer was asked about NCAA compliance and addressed it from an education standpoint, saving his experiences at Georgia until after the public forum.

Shafer was associate AD for business affairs under Vince Dooley in the 1980s when the university dealt with serious allegations about academic integrity.

"Coach Dooley faced it straight on, and everything he did made Georgia what it is today," Shafer said. "It could have killed it.

"Twenty-five years ago, you didn't have compliance people, and I believe that changed it."

Shafer said the university's actions in hiring compliance administrators and implementing procedures to prevent it from happening again became the norm.

"We did have our stumbles that we recovered from, just like Southeast can recover from their stumbles," Shafer said.

He was asked during the forum about the role of fundraising on an AD's priority list, and while Shafer said he is a people person who enjoys that aspect, No. 1 on his list is the welfare of student-athletes.

Shafer said he left EKU less than halfway into his four-year contract due to health reasons. He said a diverticular colon disease left him without energy and unable to keep up with his duties. He began a program of diet and medication two years ago and has not "had an episode."

Shafer's passion for returning to intercollegiate athletics surfaced in the summer when he visited Southeast on a "fact-finding mission" as the university looked for an associate AD for external affairs to assist then-AD Don Kaverman. Shafer met with university president Dr. Kenneth Dobbins and toured some of the facilities with Kaverman, who was terminated in October with 120 days' notice and remains on administrative leave until Feb. 7.

"When I came in, I thought I could come here and help, that I could come in and help make a difference," Shafer said during the public forum. "When I got here and saw the situation, I thought I would make it worse. I didn't want to put anybody in that situation."

Asked to expound by one of those attending the forum, Shafer added, "When I came, I didn't know everything that was going on. I felt that if I came in, it might spook the staff. They might feel I was an infiltrator coming in to find out what was going on ... and they might not know what my role was."

While Kaverman's termination came in conjunction with an announcement of an NCAA investigation into the men's basketball program, it was clear by the time of Shafer's visit that the AD and the president were not on the same page.

Shafer said after the forum that the erosion of Kaverman's relationship with Dobbins has not entered his thoughts.

"I've always prided myself on doing my job, being successful at it and having a good relationship with the president," Shafer said. "I guess with Dr. Dobbins, my thought would be that I would try to make him confident in what I was doing. I'm sure we would have disagreements over what is a priority, and I'm sure we would have discussions over that, and at the end of the day, he makes the decision. It's my job to be prepared enough to sell him into helping us whenever he can and having confidence in what I do."

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