New Oakland AD Steve Waterfield faces challenges

Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News
New Oakland athletic director Steve Waterfield is introduced Tuesday in Rochester.

Rochester — Oakland University has found a new athletic director to wear its bear.

The university in a press conference Tuesday introduced Steve Waterfield, who comes to the Horizon League from Big Ten country. He was executive associate athletic director at the University of Nebraska.

Waterfield will officially start at Oakland on Thursday, Aug. 9.

The new athletic director's responsibilities over the years have ranged from athletic medicine to, most recently, communications. At Nebraska, Waterfield was tasked with creating and emerging media, the spirit squad, HuskerVision and licensing and branding.

The hiring comes five months after the departure of Jeff Konya, Oakland's AD since July 2014 before departing for the same position at Northeastern University.

Waterfield will have big shoes to fill, particularly in the marketing and branding department, as Konya's replacement. The former AD was the brains behind the Golden Grizzlies’ “Blacktop” court at the O'Rena that garnered national attention, and he also cultivated the popular spirit phrase, "Wear the Bear."

“I’ve got to listen and learn so much,” Waterfield said. “Branding is so important not only for the athletic department but for the entire university.”

Oakland University president Ora Pescovitz said Tuesday the 10-person selection committee, which called on the services of executive search firm DHR International, was most focused on finding an athletic director that will have a “powerful and cascading impact on a broad, diverse, and dispersed community of people.”

“This needs to be (Waterfield’s) primary and overriding focus,” Pescovitz said.

Glenn McIntosh, head of the university's search committee, said Waterfield was one of three candidates to receive an on-campus interview out of nearly 65 applicants. He earned $222,000 at Nebraska; Konya earned $210,000 at Oakland. 

Waterfield said he introduced himself to the school’s coaches Tuesday morning, but has not yet held discussions beyond preliminary meet-and-greets.

“I’ll let him enjoy the first few days and get his seat warm before we have those conversations,” men’s basketball coach Greg Kampe said. “The season’s right around the corner, so we’re just glad he’s here.”

A Sandusky, Ohio, native and Ohio State graduate, Waterfield has spent a majority of his life in the Midwest. He made a two-year stop at Miami (Fla.) before joining Nebraska, and prior to that, he had worked under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin for seven years.

At Oakland, Waterfield faces a new challenge: Getting a different type of student to engage with the athletic department.

“One of the things I look forward to is actually meeting with the students, meeting with groups, and just listening to them," he said. "What do they enjoy best about their athletics experience? What do they enjoy about games?

“I think it’s trying to give them that sense of pride and build it out, and continue to have them feel connected.”

Waterfield declined to comment on the possibility of bringing men's and women's ice hockey to the university at the Division I NCAA level, saying he has not yet had a chance to view the school’s report on the matter.

For now, Waterfield will take the next few days to spend with wife Jaime and two young sons, Austin and Davis, who were in attendance at Oakland on Tuesday clad in black and gold. Jaime was a golfer at Michigan State.

Waterfield said first on the agenda for Austin and Davis will be season passes to Cedar Point, and their very first taste of Faygo Red Pop, “which you can’t get in Lincoln."

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

Steve Waterfield, new Oakland athletic director, poses with wife Jaime and sons Austin and Davis.