Q + A with Dr. Johnson
The Grace College online Master’s of Athletic Administration was designed by Dr. Darrel Johnson to meet the specific needs of high school athletic administrators as they work toward National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. The hundreds of students who have conferred the degree would agree — the program is affordable, convenient and practical. We sat down with Dr. Johnson to get a better understanding of the degree, its origin story, and the way it collaborates with NIAAA athletics.
Q: How did the master of science in athletic administration degree come to be?
A: I started the program with two friends of mine whom I’ve worked with for years through the Indiana state athletic administrator’s association, Dr. Tom and Dr. Tonya Sawyer. Two of us (Tom and I) were nearing retirement age and we asked ourselves, what is something we can do to continue making a contribution to education? We talked about a number of things, but both of us were high school athletic directors for a number of years, so we landed on working with NIAAA athletics to create a program tailored to high school athletic directors. We came up with a skeleton of an idea and went to the director of NIAAA athletics, it was Bruce Whitehead at the time, and presented it to him. He was very excited about it right away because it benefited both the association and athletic directors. Through all of that, the athletic administration program was born.
Q: What is unique about the program and what makes it successful?
A: First of all, many programs look at a wide scope of athletic administration, but we are unique because we focus specifically on high school athletic directors. Secondly, we came up with three cornerstones to focus our program around practicality, affordability, and convenience. One, we designed the program to be practical. All of the projects and activities can be immediately applied to the schools that the directors work for. I’ve gotten countless phone calls from principals and superintendents that have said, “Thank you for assigning that project! This was exactly what we needed to get done.” The second thing is that we wanted it to be affordable. We keep it affordable by relying heavily on LTCs or “Leadership Training Courses” offered through the NIAAA and CIAAA (Canadian Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association). These training courses are then launching points for the project assignments. This keeps overhead low so that we can offer a degree that is very affordable for our students. The third one is convenience. Athletic directors have incredibly busy seasons (like football season) where they have no time to do school work and they also have relatively free seasons (like summer). So our program allows our coaches to start and stop their coursework on any day of the year as they have time. It is truly an open enrollment program that is self-guided. Students often look at us and say, “Wow, that is amazing!”
Q: What is the process of signing up for and taking LTCs?
A: Students of the program are required to sign-up and pay for leadership training courses on their own. And these are offered in one of two ways; online and in-person. Most of these are offered at workshops at national and state NIAAA athletics and CIAAA athletics conventions. These workshops are extremely interactive and engaging.
Q: How do you know which LTCs to sign up for?
A: There are a number of leadership training courses that are recommended in order to earn certification. And we also recommend several workshops that we feel are especially helpful for the projects we assign, but we are quick to allow students to trade those out to take the workshops that best serve them and their school’s needs. In a sense, the students can create their own concentration for the degree. But there is some framework to it. When students graduate from our program, they are very prepared for their NIAAA athletics certification. And if they are strategic about it, their projects from the program can be used for their certification project as well.
Q: Can you give us a quick peek into the professionals that instruct these programs?
I graduated from Grace College with a physical education degree. I coached basketball for 14 years at several Christian high schools (during which I also served as athletic director) and Bible colleges. Then I came to Grace and spent 32 years teaching in physical education and sport management. I have a master’s in physical education from Kent State University as well as a doctorate in sport sociology from the University of Alabama.
Dr. Tom Sawyer has spent the largest part of his career at Indiana State University where he developed the undergraduate and graduate sport management programs. He finished his career as the department chair. He is a nationally-known leader and prolific writer in the field of sports. He has written over 193 peer-reviewed articles for notable professional journals; made over 250 states, regional, national, and international presentations; and written 10 professional books and over 32 chapters in other publications. Most notably, he has authored the definitive book on sports facility development. He is also an editor of three physical education/sport management journals. Because of that, we have had a number of our students’ projects get published.
Dr. Tonya Sawyer serves as the athletic compliance coordinator at Indiana State University. She played softball at St. Mary of the Woods College where she earned her bachelor of science degree, and she has received her master’s and doctorate degrees from ISU. She has worked with and has overseen all of ISU’s intercollegiate programs and has most recently served as the primary compliance liaison for women’s basketball, baseball, football, and track and field.
Q: How has athletic administration had an impact on your life?
A: It’s given me the opportunity to interact with all sorts of young people — to direct them toward the Lord and strengthen them in their faith. I love getting to use athletics as a means of teaching about the Christian life. My favorite passages of scripture are where Paul uses athletics as an example of how to walk out our faith. My field has really given me a platform to direct young people toward the Lord.
Q: Do you have to live in the United States to enroll in the program?
A: No, we offer the program in collaboration with the CIAAA Canadian Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association as well. Now we have nearly as many Canadian participants as we do American. There is also an international branch of the NIAAA athletics that has brought students from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Africa, and I recently got an inquiry from Brazil. So we have students from all around the world now.
Are you a high school athletic director ready to take your career to the next level?