Mass exodus in the athletics department
Former athletic director Kevin Steele and head coaches Kristin Steele (volleyball), Skelly Kellar (soccer), Wade Watkins (cross country/track) and Lee Dobbins (softball) have all been hired by Ottawa University to work on a new project in Surprise, Arizona, Steele confirmed to The Trailblazer.
Following Steele’s resignation, Todd Garrett was appointed as interim athletic director. Garrett said that following the resignation of the coaches, he met with student-athletes to notify them of the situation. Garrett has since said that he is confident that the athletics program will respond well to the coaching changes.
“Collegiate athletics is a revolving door,” Garrett said. “It’s part of the culture in higher education athletics that coaches are going to come and go. I have no concerns on our ability to replace these vacant roles.”
Before the search for new coaches could begin, university president Dr. David Spittal said that a new athletic director had to be appointed. Garrett spent about a month as the interim before he was appointed the permanent athletic director, and Spittal said he was very satisfied with Garrett’s appointment.
“Because of the short transition, I needed someone to step in very quickly and he was my first choice,” Spittal said.
Before becoming athletic director, Garrett had a long history with MNU. He graduated from MNU and served as head baseball coach from 1998-2006, director of the Pioneer Athletic Association from 2002-2006 and, most recently, director of university development since 2006.
Since his appointment, Garrett, Spittal and a committee of faculty and staff have worked closely and quickly to begin the process of interviewing and hiring new interim head coaches.
“We’ve appointed interim coaches who were the assistant [coaches],” Spittal said.
The university has set high standards for potential coaches. Spittal said that the committee will look to see if the candidates recommended by the athletic department fit the mission of the university, display a strong commitment to Christ and have a history of success. Once the list of candidates has been narrowed down, the remaining few will be brought to campus to be interviewed in person by Spittal. If the candidate’s interview goes well, the final decision will be made by the president and his cabinet.
Spittal said that interim coaches will also be considered in the hiring process.
“If we’ve had a coach who has proven himself and we have a vacancy, certainly he is considered,” Spittal said.
Spittal and Garrett both stressed that the decisions will always be based on what is in the best interest of the student-athletes affected.
“It’s the success of the student-athlete that’s my primary concern,” Spittal said.
“I hope that our student-athletes will understand that we’re going to do the very best for the student-athlete and for our campus community,” Garrett said. “Change is hard but life is all about change.”
Senior track athlete George Robinson said that this time of transition gives him and other seniors a chance to step up as leaders to help the teams through this stage of uncertainty.
“It is up to us now to guide the younger athletes and take them under our wings,” Robinson said.
Former cross country head coach Wade Watkins said his departure was difficult but that the future is exciting.
Watkins spent time away from family and friends as coach for MNU.
“This is an amazing opportunity for me and I get to be closer to my wife,” Watkins said.
Following Watkins’ departure, assistant distance and cross country coach Mike Webb was named as the interim head cross country coach.
The departure of head softball coach Lee Dobbins was unique, due to the fact that the Pioneers never played a game under Dobbins, who was hired by MNU in June 2016. Junior softball player Shelby Frans said that she felt that the team never connected to Dobbins and was closer to then-assistant and current interim head coach, Rob Wade.
“I’m two-and-a-half years in and this is my fourth head coach,” Frans said. “We didn’t play a single game under [Dobbins] and I felt like he just kind of walked out on us without even giving us a chance.”
With Wade as the interim head coach, Frans said she thinks the change is a blessing in disguise. She said that Wade’s personal relationships with the players and his desire to see them succeed in all areas of their lives will benefit the team in the long run.
Junior volleyball player Rachel Kater said that she was sad that head coach Kristen Steele was moving on, but also said that she is excited for what’s next.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to learn from another great coach my senior year,” Kater said.
Assistant coach Paula Rosa is the interim head volleyball coach.
Sophomore soccer players Hannah Benedict and Anesa Curic said that it made sense for head coach Skelly Kellar to go back to his native Arizona with his family, and that the sting of the loss was dulled with the appointment of graduate assistant Bobby Reiss as the interim head women’s soccer coach.
“We were pretty upset about it at first but then Bobby said he was stepping up and I think everyone was fine,” Benedict said.
Garrett said that the athletic department has already begun the search for new head coaches. The situation within the department may look grave from an outsider’s perspective, but Garrett takes a different approach. Garrett said he looks to the past to see how the department has responded in these situations in the past.
“We have a wonderful footprint across our nation,” Garrett said. “We are well-recognized for our education, athletic success and the quality of people that have been in this institution. It’s going to be a great opportunity for this department to bring on new faces, maybe new ideas, and create a direction that can continually line up with the mission of the university.”
Former coaches Kristin Steele, Lee Dobbins and Skelly Kellar could not be reached for comment.
Carlos Guzman- More by this author
Carlos Guzman ('19) is from Overland Park, Kansas and is the Sports editor for The Trailblazer. He is a biology major with an emphasis in pre-medicine and is also pursuing a minor degree in Youth and Family Ministry. Carlos is also on the cross country and track and field team.