By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor
It’s not exactly “Man Bites Dog,” the old newspaper standard by which headline stories were determined.
But the role reversal that Rick Jakacki and Kevin Miller have experienced certainly makes for interesting reading.
And Jakacki, who spent 20 years as a sportswriter/editor with the Port Huron Times Herald, knows a good story.
After Miller, a former radio personality with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, moved to Michigan’s thumb to pursue a career in education, he yearned to keep his hand in athletics – so he began to work as a stringer on Friday nights covering prep football for the Times Herald.
It was a neat “hobby” for Miller. But for Jakacki, whose career was in print journalism, the steady hum of immediate, electronic mediums became increasingly difficult to ignore. Figuratively, the writing was on the wall.
“It’s always been said that you never treat anyone badly because you never know when it’ll bite you, or when someone can help you in the future,” Jakacki said.
“I saw the way the newspaper trend was going, and it was scary going to work. We were cutting back all the time, not covering as many events, not traveling as much, not filling people’s jobs, implementing furloughs. I always wanted to go out on my own terms, not have the paper tell me when to leave.”
Following the 2009-10 school year, the athletic director at one of the schools in the Times Herald coverage area announced he was leaving. John Knuth, the AD at Croswell-Lexington, was headed back to Marysville, where he’d built a prep volleyball power.
By then, Miller had become the superintendent at Cros-Lex, and had been submitting stories to Jakacki for years. Now, it was Miller’s turn to lend his newspaper “boss” a hand, one that Jakacki certainly had never bitten.
And so it was that Jakacki became an employee working for his former part-time employee.
He couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve never heard of a person going from sportswriter to athletic director, but talk about a smooth transition,” Jakacki said. “I’m working with all the same people I used to write about: ADs, students, coaches, officials. And now I’m at a school that plays the same teams I covered.”
The athletic office desk suits him just fine, and he’s easily shifted from story writer to storyteller. Coupled with his administrative duties, he’s become the Pioneers’ No. 1 cheerleader, lauding the exploits of the school’s 700-plus students, nearly 70 percent of whom participate in at least one extracurricular activity.
“We got a new gym and locker rooms in the fall of 2011, and a new training room and weight room this fall” Jakacki said, putting on his tour guide hat prior to a show-and-tell session. The new digs allow for increased MHSAA Tournament opportunities, and thus increased exposure for the school.
“The best atmosphere we’ve enjoyed since I began here was this fall’s MHSAA Volleyball Regional between Marysville and North Branch. It was electric; this place was packed,” he recalled.
It’s more than athletic events drawing people to Croswell-Lexington these days. Jakacki proclaims with equal enthusiasm that the school district recently ranked 20th among 560 in Michigan for academic achievement.
Extracurricular activity, including the Pioneer Activities Leadership Council, plays a vital role in the makeup of the student population.
“There are about 40 or 50 kids who meet with the principal and me on the second Friday of each month during the school year,” Jakacki said of the Council. “It’s after school, and they don’t get credit. But they show up to talk about various leadership ideas.”
If Jakacki sounds like a proud parent while extolling the virtues of his new workplace, well, that’s fine with him. The Pioneers’ student-athletes have become like family, adding to his own children: Liam (18), Cameron (14) and Zoe (10).
“It’s funny. Having three kids of my own, I got to watch them play a lot of sports,” Jakacki said. “After getting to know all these kids, it’s like watching my kids play. People sometimes ask, ‘How can you just go to a random baseball game?’ Well it’s like watching nine of my own kids. That’s something I didn’t expect when I took this job.”
So it is fitting that his office is across from the cafetorium, where traffic flow and student interaction is steady. And, now, so is the work.
“I was looking for job security, and I love dealing with kids and sports,” Jakacki said. “It was a perfect transition for me. Now I deal with them every day.
“What’s the old saying, as you get older don’t get a job, get something you love to do? That’s what I’ve done. If I work 12-hour days, I don’t mind because I love what I do.”
It’s a story the former sportswriter never tires of telling.
PHOTO: Croswell-Lexington athletic director Rick Jakacki stands in his school's gymnasium. He formerly covered the school as a reporter for the Port Huron Times Herald.
This is the final installment of a series, "Career Paths," focusing on the unsung contributions of athletic directors. See below for earlier installments.
A first-of-its-kind mentorship program is greeting more than 100 first-time high school athletic directors who are officially beginning their tenures at Michigan High School Athletic Association member schools with the start of the 2023-24 school year.
The “AD Connection Program” has matched those first-year high school athletic directors with one of eight mentors who have recently retired from the field and will now provide assistance as those new administrators transition to this essential role in school sports.
A total of 102 first-year high school athletic directors are beginning at MHSAA schools, meaning a new athletic administrator will be taking over at nearly 14 percent of the 750 member high schools across the state. Athletic director turnover at MHSAA high schools has reached 10 percent or more annually over the last few years, and it’s hoped that this additional mentorship will support athletic directors adjusting to the high pace and responsibilities of the position for the first time.
The AD Connection Program will build on training received at the required in-service program all new athletic directors must attend each fall. There is also a strong connection to programming from the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional development organization for the state’s athletic administrators.
"When you crystalize it, the AD Connection Program is an attempt for us to give a true year-long in-service to new athletic directors with people who have done it,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Brad Bush, who is coordinating the program and joined the MHSAA staff in January after more than two decades as an athletic administrator at Chelsea High School. “This also connects new ADs with a larger professional group, and it will culminate in March at the annual MIAAA conference, where there will be several face-to-face meetings with all ADs.
“These mentors are meant to become that first-year AD’s go-to person.”
Mentors will conduct frequent meetings with their cohorts. They also will meet monthly (or more) with each first-time athletic director individually via zoom, and at least once during the academic year face-to-face at the mentee’s school.
The eight mentors, noting their most recent schools as an athletic director, are Chris Ervin (most recently at St. Johns), Brian Gordon (Royal Oak), Sean Jacques (Calumet), Tim Johnston (East Grand Rapids), Karen Leinaar (Frankfort), Scott Robertson (Grand Haven), Meg Seng (Ann Arbor Greenhills) and Wayne Welton (Chelsea). Leinaar also will serve as the AD Connection Program’s liaison to the MIAAA, which she serves as executive director.
High school practices at MHSAA member schools may begin today, Monday Aug. 7, for the nine fall sports for which the MHSAA sponsors a postseason tournament. The AD Connection Program was approved by the MHSAA Representative Council during its annual Winter Meeting on March 24.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.3 million spectators each year.