Many stops on O’Dell’s path to NIU

By Jeff Kirik

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series profiling new NIU Athletic Director Gerald O’Dell.

Trust, caring and a commitment to excellence.

That’s what new NIU Athletic Director Gerald O’Dell believes in, and that’s how he plans to help the NIU athletic department get to the top.

The 39-year-old O’Dell steps in at NIU with quite a task ahead of him, but he feels his ambition can help him get the job done.

O’Dell was born in Battle Creek, Mich., and grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. He came from a broken home. His family moved around a lot. His mother died at the age of 43. He struggled through hard times. But O’Dell wouldn’t let them stand in his way. He was self-motivated and that helped him get through the rough times.

However, there were good times in his childhood, too. In fact, it was during his youth in Wichita Falls that O’Dell discovered he had one true love in his life—football.

“I’m still very close to the coaches, a lot of the coaches who have since retired,” he said. “Some are still active. They were like my fathers. So they had a big influence on my life.”

He played football in high school and continued his career at Southeast Oklahoma State University. In college, he played middle guard and was defensive captain his last two years, but he lacked the size and ability to make it to the pros.

O’Dell said his college experience was a positive one. He belonged to a fraternity and won several academic honors in addition to being on the football team, but he added they were not the only memorable things he gained from college.

“I enjoyed college a lot more than I did high school,” he said. “Most of the true friends I have now were people I met there—everlasting friends. That’s probably somewhat typical of most college students.”

Since he could no longer play football, he decided he wanted to coach. After graduating from Southeast Oklahoma State, O’Dell attended University of Oklahoma on a teaching fellowship. He received his master’s degree there still with the intention of coaching football.

O’Dell then worked as an assistant football coach at Broken Arrow High School in Broken Arrow, Okla. After a two-year stay there, he went back to Oklahoma in 1975 to work as an assistant under Barry Switzer. Four years later, he moved on to Iowa State and then headed to Minnesota.

At Minnesota, O’Dell came to a crossroads of sorts. He had wanted to coach football his whole life, but after a year in Gopherland, he was offered a job in athletic administration. O’Dell chose the latter and hasn’t thought twice about the decision since.

“I made the decision to get out of coaching,” he said. “I knew when it was time. I have no regrets. It was a tough decision at the time. When you think back to growing up a kid in Wichita Falls, Texas—all you want to do is be a football coach.”

He accepted the postition as Minnesota’s assistant athletic director where he had a large number of responsibilities. He was in charge of promotion and therefore, dealt with different forms of media.

Now O’Dell is at NIU, and he seems pleased with the way things have worked out. He’s the athletic director at a Division I school and is newly married to his wife Barbara, whom he met during his stay at Iowa State.

O’Dell brings to NIU his ambition and what he calls his philosophy for “three strong elements for success.” He said he thinks people must have each of these qualities to succeed.

“One, you have to trust people, or how can they trust you?” he said. “You have to care about people, and they have to care about you. And being committed to excellence—that’s the key here.”

He has been on the job for a little over two weeks and has been in meetings constantly during that time. O’Dell is aware of the amount of work that is ahead of him, but that only makes the post more inviting to him.

“It’s challenging as far as the time management,” he said. “The job is not so challenging. It’s just the time and, of course, that goes with it (the job).”