Athletic Director search delayed until spring; Kupec to continue as interim AD

Matt Kupec knew the Athletic Director job would be temporary from the day he was named interim in September. Southern Illinois University hired Parker Executive Search to find suitable candidates for the role, but heading into the new year, Kupec remains in the seat.

“There was a bunch of interviews, and from my understanding, no one rose to the level where we wanted to make an offer, and bring someone on board,” Kupec said.

January 2022 was the target date for finding a permanent replacement for former AD Liz Jarnigan, who was fired in September. Now, the search continues into the spring.

Advertisement

[see more: Athletic Director Liz Jarnigan fired amid alleged abuse cover-up on women’s swim and dive team]

“Somewhere in March, that’s where it’s looking right now. We’ve got a lot going on between now and then,” Kupec said.

Attempts to reach the Chancellor’s Office were redirected to a university statement: “The search for an athletic director continues. We will notify the public and the news media when we have information to report.”

Kupec reassured that he has full trust in Chancellor Austin Lane to make the right decision.

“He’s a great leader. I admire his vision for this place, what he’s done in the short time he’s been here. I have full confidence under his leadership where we’re gonna go,” Kupec said.

Kupec has not been involved in the process to find a new Athletic Director, citing his commitments to both the athletic department and the SIU Foundation, of which he continues to be CEO.

“I’ve been kinda outside of that,” Kupec said. “I’ve got enough to do running this place. I have not been involved at all.”

Advertisement

Kupec’s tenure as interim AD has come in perhaps the most uncertain period in recent memory for athletic departments across the country. As the omicron variant of COVID-19 has swept the nation, teams are seeing games canceled and postponed due to the virus.

Two men’s basketball games in early January were postponed to later in the month, causing the team to play six games in 12 days. Along with potential fatigue, this put them at a competitive disadvantage in terms of preparedness from game to game.

“You always, as a coach, always want more practice time,” men’s basketball head coach Bryan Mullins said. “For the kids, you want them to be one-hundred percent mentally and physically. It’s just not realistic.”

COVID protocols are determined by the NCAA, the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), the university, and local Jackson County health officials. Kupec and Mullins worked with the MVC to reschedule canceled basketball games against conference opponents Drake and Loyola-Chicago.

“I think we made the right call,” Kupec said. “It was tough. Coaches want to compete. Student athletes want to play… We’re trying not to lose games”

Players and coaches alike have adjusted to the constantly changing circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as it enters its third year.

“It’s bizarre, and someday I’m gonna look back when I’m old and tell my grandkids,” Graduate student softball player Jenny Jansen said. “It’s pretty wild to think about it in the scheme of things, but at this point it just feels like normal life, and who knows when we’ll ever be out of it.”

Kupec has observed student athletes continuing to closely follow safety protocols in order to avoid missing any more games. A challenge heading into yet another semester is avoiding COVID fatigue, and remaining committed to protecting themselves and each other from spreading the virus.

“Be diligent, and we’ll get through this,” Kupec said. “I’ve applauded the attitude about that. You’re in the weight room, you have a mask on. That kind of thing. I think we are, as a nation, we’re kind of tired of it. But it is what it is, and we’ve got to deal with it.”

On the positive side, the 2021-22 sports season has seen the return of fans at full capacity after being limited or missing the previous year entirely.

“That continuing support just means the world to us,” sophomore men’s basketball player Dalton Banks said. “We appreciate everybody that shows up and cheers for us. It really makes a difference.”

Mullins played for the Saluki basketball team from 2006-09, when the program was arguably at its peak. He acknowledged the crowd, as well as the Dawg Pound, as a vital part of the gameday environment.

“That’s what makes this place so special, is our community, our fans, the student section. The Dawg Pound’s been great,” Mullins said.

Although players and coaches are still subject to protocols, the return of fans to the stands has made this season feel the most like normal since the pandemic began.

“Those guys missed all that last year,” Kupec said. “They played a season without fans. And now, here, you’ve got the place rocking and rolling. It does feel good. It does feel more like normal.”

Although Southern Illinois is still searching for its next Athletic Director, the Salukis continue to navigate uncertainty in hopes of bringing success on the courts and in the community.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandyn_2020. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

Advertisement