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Q-and-A: SDSU athletic director Justin Sell reflects on football success, future at FCS level

Jun. 11—BROOKINGS — It's kind of a strange time to be Justin Sell.

On the one hand, being the athletic director of a college outside the major Division I level might be one of the most unenviable jobs in sports right now. The revolutionary changes taking place across college athletics are only making things harder for schools that don't reside in the Big Ten or the SEC, as are economic realities across the country.

On the other hand, things have never been better at South Dakota State, where Sell has been in charge since 2009.

The recently-ended 2023-24 academic year saw the Jackrabbits win another national championship in football, both basketball teams win regular season and conference tournament titles to get back to the NCAA tournament, a handful of athletes go on to the NFL (where several SDSU alumni are already thriving), attendance records set at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, all while moving closer to the christening of First Bank and Trust Arena, the renovated home of SDSU basketball. Teams and athletes in non-revenue sports had success as well, leading to record giving and fundraising efforts coming into the department.

In short, it's the best of times for Jackrabbit athletics, even if there are external happenings beyond their control they'll have to deal with sooner than later.

With that in mind, Sioux Falls Live's Matt Zimmer sat down with Sell last week for a wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation on the state of SDSU sports, the future, and how the sea change happening above them will eventually impact them on its way down.

Part 1 of the conversation focused on football, looking at the impact of the program's consecutive FCS national championships, and the future of the team within the FCS level or a possible move up to FBS.

Part 2 of the conversation will be published later this week.

Matt Zimmer: Let's start with football. Winning another national championship, finally climbing that mountain and reaching the place you'd been working towards for over a decade, what's that done for the department as a whole?

Justin Sell: It's been incredible, across the board. You can pick every category — branding, university applications, interest from students and a passion for their school. If you want to talk ticket sales, fundraising, corporate sponsorships and the auction. The new (basketball) arena and creating scarcity impact — people are worried they're not gonna get in and get their tickets, and part of that comes from not being able to get into four (football) games last year.

So from all of those measurables it's crazy. We're all trained as mid-major ADs to be men's basketball-centric, at least from a business sense. That's what drives the revenue, and that's because the NCAA model was set up for our distributions to come from the men's basketball tournament.

But being able to step back and get out of that thinking and understand the value of football — and for us wrestling and women's basketball, too, those four are all revenue drivers for us — but football has been way bigger than I ever thought, and I thought it could be big. We wouldn't have put so many resources and so much facility development into it if we didn't. But the positive impacts are far greater than I ever imagined.

A lot of schools say we're a basketball school or we're a football-oriented school. Well, we're everything. And we're proud of that. But man, when you have success in those big ones and then you've won eight cross country (conference) titles in a row, soccer is going to the tournament, softball's success — (football) opens the door to showcasing the broad-based success we're having.

MZ: We talked often in past years about the impact of football success before you'd actually won the whole thing, and there were varying opinions out there about how much of a difference it would really make. Like, this program was already doing some pretty great things — Dallas Goedert, FBS wins, national TV, new stadium, etc., — would finally winning a national championship really change that much? With the momentum in this program right now I'd say we got our answer.

JS: No question. Having the chance to improve the environment, being able to serve alcohol helped. The weather has been great. We've always had talented players but the number of them has increased. You come to a game on Saturday you don't know what's gonna happen other than you know it's probably gonna be great. It feels great to be a Jackrabbit fan right now. There's a great sense of pride, but a big thing has been getting more fans and younger fans. We've obviously been blessed to have a lot of loyal fans, some who have been with us for 30, 40, 50 years, but to grow you need a new subset of new fans and we're attracting those. We went from 600 at our auction last year to 1,100 this year, and a lot of them were younger fans. You're seeing a swell where we need it to grow.

It's almost hard to grasp sometimes how broad our impact is in the state of South Dakota. It goes well beyond Brookings. This is the largest sports organization in South Dakota and I don't know if we always realized that and the impact it has and how far it stretches. When you go to Sioux Falls for the Summit League tournament, that environment has been a game-changer, and now we've captured that on Saturdays, and that momentum is spreading to more and more people.

The national championships mattered. You were in Frisco. It was incredible. Our fan base was so behind the team down there, and I walked around down there and didn't even know half the people there. Because they were coming from all over. Because we've added so many new fans. I realized this is really starting to change and go to another level.

I think SDSU has always had a sense of itself, but we now have kids going to the NFL and having chances to grow beyond this place and still be tied to the degree they got here. It built over time, but we also stayed true to who we are throughout that process. There was always an understanding that it wouldn't happen overnight. Nothing has here.

MZ: It feels like you're growing while many of your peers are not. Teams in the Summit League and MVFC have attendance and budget issues. So do the Division II schools in the area that you compete with for fans and dollars. There are logical reasons for that, many of which are outside the control of those schools' administrations. Meanwhile Sioux Falls is growing rapidly, and it seems like the door is wide open to just keep building that Jackrabbit brand as the dominant force in the state's sports landscape.

JS: One thing we talk about a lot is, who do you want to compete against? There are short term and long term answers to that. There's been a lot of transition in and out of the Summit League. You've got this philosophy of making sure you're taking care of your own house and being the best program you can be, but you can't be blind to who are you playing and what is the competition because ultimately that does drive all those things. People want to see meaningful contests. They want to see your team achieving at the highest level they can be at. Are those things being reshaped now? Football is kind of its own discussion right now. Wanting to be as good as we can be in that sport, what does that look like? And then as you align your other sports is that the same answer or are there two different answers?

As far as how you keep it together, the long term build and approach, I've always appreciated this place because it's never felt like one game was ever going to cost anyone their job. Our fans and donors are so good at balancing the whole. In our world right now it's so common to build that one team that has the chance to burst through the door and then it breaks apart. Everyone's trying to put together that one magical team, but we've just kind of kept plodding along. We've kept people around. We've kept our feel, our values. If you come here you're gonna have great fan support, play in great facilities, and from scholarship perspectives get nutrition, athletic training, coaches that care about you — you're going to be treated really well here. And your fan base feels that. I can't speak to other fan bases and the challenges they may be facing, but for us we're drawing people towards that because we all feel the same about it. We're just kind of locked in on those values. Our fans care about college athletics, about higher education, so they're happy to support scholarships, facilities, things that help the student athlete.

We've also worked hard to maintain access to all. Pricing in the new arena — there will be places they won't be increased to appeal to families. The premium stuff gets sold and it needs to to pay the bills, and we're thankful we have people that pay for that, but it's about more than that, and I think that's why we're maintaining what we have and growing it.

And then it's just fun. You come up from Sioux Falls (for football) and tailgate and watch the game, who's not gonna have fun at one of our football games? You look up in the stands on a football Saturday and all of our state leaders are here, there's increased media attention, so there's this connecting piece to it. And again, we're winning. Your fans have to have hope. They have to have belief. Having that matters.

I tell all of our fans, they need to own the national championships. If you helped us build the S-JAC, you're a national champion, because without it, I don't know if we'd be there.

MZ: Is there a 'next thing' for football? I'm not talking about the FBS thing, we'll get to that, but what other things are on the radar for continuing to enhance the football program and the football experience?

JS: Every year we look at how we can refresh it. We opened the stadium in 2016, which feels like yesterday but is now eight years ago. So refreshing some of the spaces and menus and things, which we did last year. We're looking at at-seat ordering opportunities, because we definitely want to do that at the new basketball arena. So gameday environment will always be part of the conversation, but frankly it shifts a little bit because people's interests change over the years.

And we've been really lucky, and it's not said enough, in that our students have been awesome. Taking pride in being a Jackrabbit, being in the stands making a difference in the game, and zero incidents with them, too. Those are our best salespeople. You have to think when a kid from Sioux Falls goes to school here and goes to a football game they're going home and telling their friends and family, hey, my school is awesome.

Enhancing the locker room is something we definitely want to do, make it a little bit bigger, an equipment room tied to that and then an academic center because we've just outgrown our space with all the student athletes we have.

Sideline tablets or other technology things, we want to make sure we're able to stay current with things like that and trying to plan how to work those things into our long term budget. Those things impact your ability to compete at the highest level.

MZ: Missouri State's announcement that they're moving up to FBS got people up in Fargo all riled up that the Bison have to make the move too, as soon as possible. I have argued that regardless of what the Bison do, the Jacks need not be in any hurry to jump. What says the athletic director?

JS: I think first, fans and others need to understand these are university decisions. We act like the athletic department can just go decide to do this —

MZ: Or the football program can.

JS: Right. It doesn't work that way. First of all we have a Board of Regents and we're tied to that. They make the ultimate decisions. They had to approve us moving to D1. You've got that piece to it. Then, as a university, what makes most sense for us and what we're trying to accomplish as a university? We want to represent our university values and whats important to them.

Nobody wants to be asleep at the wheel, so you get kind of pushed into — there's a panic that happens around not wanting to be the last one there. So some of the choices of the last 10 years are people jumping to things where they aren't really sure what they're jumping into. Is (moving to FBS) really the better of two options or the lesser of a bad one? You can't quite tell and everyone is in their own situation and how they're reading the tea leaves. Geography is a part of that, and Missouri State might have much different choices than we have up here.

So there's this dynamic of how do you maintain some patience — because patience is definitely a strategy in itself that in our world tends to be viewed more negatively, like you've got your head in the sand. Well I think you can do both. You can have your head out of the sand and be very well aware of what's going on around you while being patient. So to that point it's always about, I'm trying to think for the next 20 years, who do we need to be competing against? If that's the current Summit League, the MVFC and we can strengthen that — great. If all those things start to break apart and Division I looks very different, including football, then certainly, we have to ask how do we position ourselves.

Right now we're in a league with half the schools playing football and half not. So we have football-related decisions all those schools respect. UND has hockey, Denver and St. Thomas and Omaha have hockey to deal with and we all respect that. So you're trying to make sure your current setup is good. As good as you can make it. And then as things start to evolve and change how are you understanding what that is, what your university is trying to do and trying to find like-minded universities.

MZ: Right. So many people seem to think it's about wins and losses or TV, or attendance. I'm not saying those things don't matter, but my take is the important thing is being in a league with the best peers you can surround yourself with that have not just a similar profile to yours but similar goals, with geography that makes for a reasonable travel budget as well as regional rivalries.

JS: 100 percent. In this case, really until the power four is resolved and we know what impact that has on the G5s, and then we look at whatever subset of FCS schools, what do they think about their value of football and what they want to invest. The beauty for us is we're still growing. Still accomplishing things. So whatever that next level of competition is, if it's perceived as bigger budget and bigger schools, well, you look at budgets and things and we still have room to grow. I think South Dakota State has the mentality of figuring out how do we take those steps. Now there might be an adjustment to it. You have to find the right competition.

But I think there's too much forcing of the old square peg in the round hole. We're extremely relevant to the people that matter the most to us right now. We've built a tremendous resume. We aren't desperate. There are some schools that are in desperation mode because their league is falling apart or whatever. They have decisions to make because they need a place to play. We aren't in that spot right now.

That could change in the next three or six or 12 months, so how are you making sure you're on top of, what are those factors that are important when the call comes on a Friday at 5:00 and you have to make a decision by noon on Monday. That's probably not a realistic scenario but the pressure is there, and you don't want to be starting those conversations or talking about your philosophy or find out your university and board of regents are not aligned, so frankly we've been working on this for years. Just on being educated on the talking points and what does today look like and what do we think tomorrow could look like, and more important, tomorrow to the next 20 years.

So do you make a jump and figure it out from there or is it more, I think it'll sort itself out and you'll probably still be in the same place without all the pain.