More than just a jersey: Saluki equipment department keeps athletes in gear

By Brooke Buerck, Sports Reporter

There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes before a Saluki athlete is prepared to step out on the court or field to compete.

While a lot of hard work is put in by the athletes themselves, as well as the coaching and administrative staff, there’s also ongoing and fervent work put in by the Saluki Athletics equipment department to ensure the Salukis are prepared to practice, compete and travel safely. 

The department is led by Director Andrew Harris, who is in his second year at SIU. Harris has had extensive experience in equipment management, and prior to joining Saluki athletics, he worked in football and Olympic sports equipment operations at the University of Minnesota.

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“I was the assistant director of football equipment at Minnesota for seven years,” Harris said. “[In] my last full year at Minnesota, I then moved over to the Olympic sports to take over about five sports there so that I could get more well-rounded for this position here.”

Harris oversees two full-time staff members, including assistant director Ashley Nowak and graduate assistant Becca Hult, as well as six student workers: four football managers and two evening launderers. 

The department is responsible for the equipment for all 15 varsity athletic teams; Harris oversees football primarily, along with men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s track and field and cross country, baseball and cheerleading, while Nowak, picks up responsibility for men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and swimming and diving. 

Nowak said football requires an effort from all members of the department. 

“For home [football] games, it’s all hands on deck,” Nowak said.

For the members of the department, many of their responsibilities often overlap one another.

“You constantly have seasons overlapping,” Nowak said. “Right now, a lot of people just view it as football, volleyball, and soccer season, but basketball has just started, softball and baseball are in their fall seasons. So it’s [about] being able to one minute be focused on basketball and the next minute be able to be focused on softball and, in that next minute, being able to switch over to soccer or volleyball.”

As part of their responsibilities, the department helps order and design uniforms for each team, but Harris and Nowak both said much more goes into preparing a team than just making sure game uniforms are ready and washed. 

“It’s more than just laundry,” Nowak said. “There’s a lot longer of a process to it than [a jersey] just getting put on an athlete’s body. When you’re watching a game, those uniforms have to come from somewhere, [as well as] all the gear that they wear to practice and to travel.”

Harris said the department oversees not only practice, travel and game apparel, but safety equipment.

“We do everything. If you look at it from a football context, it’s helmets, shoulder pads, cleats, leg pads, padded shorts… anything that they need to wear to practice safely, we provide them,” Harris said.

Along with washing and getting gear to teams, the department is also responsible for maintaining and repairing the equipment they have.

“[While] we’re doing laundry, I’m fixing football helmets,” Harris said. “And this morning I came in at 5 a.m. and was sewing jerseys from last Saturday’s game [against Arkansas State].”

When it comes to getting a team new gear, however, the department works collaboratively with coaches to design and order uniforms.

“The coaches give us ideas of what they want to see on [the new uniforms], then we can go to our uniform builder that Under Armor provides us and then we can put it all together. Then we show it to the coaches and then they tweak it from there,” Harris said.

Despite the new Saluki logo having been announced in February of this year, Harris said new jerseys will be ordered only when the current ones are finished with their three- or four-season cycle of use. 

“We try to [order new jerseys] in three to four year increments and cycle through so that we’re not doling out cash every year,” Harris said. “We’re doing it like Coach Kill said when he announced the new logo, we’re doing it within their uniform cycle.”

Although all of the Saluki athletics teams may not be getting brand new jerseys this year, the department has added a new semi trailer to their arsenal of travel equipment just this football season, which Harris said brings their travelling experience to new heights.

“The big thing for us right now is we just got the new equipment truck, the semi. That’s a huge game changer as far as football travel is concerned,” Harris said. “It’s just that peace of mind knowing […] stuff is in […] the truck and going to get where it’s supposed to be.”

Harris said the trailer allows for travelling long distances to away games a worry-free process.

“When we fly, instead of cramming everything on a plane… it allows us to load it here and make sure we have everything we need,” Harris said.

Not only is the equipment truck something new for Saluki athletics, though; Harris said change is constant when it comes to equipment. 

“Every day is something new, something different, and you’ve got to be prepared for it. Athletics in itself, as far as equipment is concerned, has become an arms race. Equipment has become this great big center spotlight,” Harris said. “[We’re always] finding bigger and better ways to improve safety.”

Nowak also said while she focuses primarily on different sports than Harris, being knowledgeable about all sports is important for being up-to-date on the constantly changing equipment designs. 

“It’s good to stay involved in all the sports to keep all of your knowledge up and going, because stuff’s constantly changing. Football is constantly coming out with new helmets, softball and baseball always have new bats, and for basketball, it’s all about the new footwear,” Nowak said.

While the department focuses on providing an athlete with innovative and current equipment to wear and to use, Harris said the work of the department is about more than just that.

“We try to give all of our athletes a positive and meaningful athletic experience,” Harris said. 

As the Salukis push through, or kick off, or prepare for their seasons this school year, Harris and Nowak continue to work with their staff as well to make sure each athlete has what they need for practice, game, and trips on the road.

Sports reporter Brooke Buerck can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bbuerck25

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