Connecticut's Niehoff to Head NFHS
April 25, 2018
Special from NFHS
Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CAS-CIAC) the past seven years, has been selected as the next executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), effective Aug. 1.
Niehoff was chosen from among four finalists by the NFHS Board of Directors at meetings last week in Indianapolis. She will succeed Bob Gardner, who is retiring this summer after eight years as NFHS executive director and 48 years in secondary education, including the final 18 years on the NFHS staff in Indianapolis.
“Faced with an overwhelming response from outstanding candidates from across the nation, we are pleased to welcome the next NFHS Executive Director, Karissa Niehoff,” said Jerome Singleton, president of the NFHS Board of Directors and commissioner of the South Carolina High School League. “She displays all the qualities we were seeking and beyond. It goes without saying, Bob Gardner is a hard act to follow as he will be regaled as a world-class director, peer and true fan of high school activities and athletics.
“I speak for myself and the Board of Directors when I share that the final four candidates were more than qualified with unique leadership styles and expertise in various fields of athletics and activities. Ms. Niehoff brings a stellar background in athletic administration, team participation and large-scale leadership. She displays the characteristics of a natural leader who will forge forward only to enhance the tradition of excellence in all NFHS programs.
“I am anticipating some exciting advancements in every aspect of the NFHS which, in turn, will broaden offerings at the state and local levels for NFHS members. We thank each applicant as it was a tedious process and difficult task for all involved. Congratulations to Karissa Niehoff on her new role as Executive Director as well as the extensive accomplishments and experience she earned over her impressive career,” Singleton concluded.
Niehoff, who has directed the NFHS-member CIAC since January 2011, will be the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which will celebrate its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year.
Previous full-time executive directors of the NFHS are the late H.V. Porter (1940-58) and Cliff Fagan (1958-77), along with Brice Durbin (1977-93), Bob Kanaby (1993-2010) and Gardner (2010-18).
“I am truly humbled with this opportunity – what a privilege to serve as the next executive director of the NFHS,” Niehoff said. “I am excited to work with the staff and to be able to serve the 51 member state associations – picking up on what has already been accomplished to serve as the national leader in the world of education-based athletics and activities. I believe the NFHS is on the cusp of some exciting new opportunities for students in high school athletics and activities, and I consider it an honor to have been selected to lead this organization.”
Niehoff was named deputy executive director of CAS-CIAC in July 2010 and assumed the executive director’s position the following January. She began her career in Connecticut public education in 1989 as a physical education instructor at Greenwich High School. In the succeeding years, she was a teacher, coach, athletic director, assistant principal and principal at the middle school and high school levels.
Niehoff was a highly successful field hockey coach at Litchfield High School and Joel Barlow High School with four conference titles and one state championship. Niehoff also coached high school volleyball, softball, basketball and track. In 2000, Niehoff was appointed assistant principal of Har-Bur Middle School in Burlington. Four years later, she assumed the position of principal of Lewis Mills High School, a post she held until joining the Connecticut association.
At the national level, Niehoff has served on the NFHS Board of Directors the past three years, including a term this year as president-elect. She is currently chair of the NFHS Field Hockey Rules Committee and recently completed a term on the NFHS Student Services Committee. Niehoff also served 10 years on the United States Field Hockey Association Board of Ethics and was the field hockey program leader in 1996 at the International Youth Camp during the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Niehoff served on the Education Committee of the United States Olympic Committee, authoring the “OlympiKids School Celebration Guide,” acting as U.S. delegate to International Olympic Academies in Greece and Canada, and representing the USOC at numerous national conventions, conferences and educational programs. She was co-founder and dean of the “Passing The Torch” Academy For Youth Sport Leadership, a USOC initiative to promote leadership and the spirit of Olympism within the realm of youth sport. In 1997, she coached a girls basketball team at the World Scholar Athlete Games, which involved more than 2,000 coaches and athletes from 150 countries.
Prior to joining the Connecticut association, Niehoff served on numerous CAS and CIAC boards and committees, including the Field Hockey Committee, CIAC Board of Control and as chair of the Sportsmanship Committee.
Niehoff earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, a master’s from Southern Connecticut State University, a sixth-year degree in educational leadership from Central Connecticut State University and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Connecticut.
Niehoff, who was the sixth woman in 2010 to lead a state high school association on a full-time basis, has been inducted into multiple women’s sports halls of fame. She also has conducted numerous professional development workshops and presentations at the local, regional and national levels in the fields of education, athletics and leadership.
2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
March 8, 2023
Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.
Thank you, Bill Baker.
The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.
Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.
“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.
“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”
It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.
To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.
The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.
Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.
“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”
Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.
Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.
She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.
“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”
Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.
After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.
Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.
Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award
1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba
2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton
PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.