If Peter Roby is the local boy who came back to bring Northeastern up the national athletic ladder, then Jeff Konya is the brash out-of-towner, determined to make the final leap up.
It takes approximately two seconds to realize what the Michigan native is all about. Every bit the sports marketing guru he is made out to be, Konya bounces ideas off the wall with an energetic enthusiasm that has emanated throughout the whole department since his arrival. After all, just 12 days into his official tenure, the Beanpot was brought back to Huntington Avenue for the first time in 30 years. And after two previous stops as a Division I athletic director, he feels like this is a sign of things to come.
“The ceiling here is quite a bit higher,” Konya said. “With the academic reputation of this institution, sitting in the sixth biggest media market in the country, having close to 160,000 living alumni, I think that the ceiling of what we can become and what appealed to me is different from the two previous places I’ve been.”
And the ceiling has typically been no match for Konya. A quick look into his time at California State University-Bakersfield and Oakland University reveal a man who is never afraid to go big.
A blue basketball court at CSUB. A “blacktop” basketball court at Oakland. Hiring co-head baseball coaches. New marketing campaigns that greatly increased both fundraising and attendance.
As for his plans at Northeastern? He mentions everything, from the mundane to the cutting edge. Leveraging what Konya referred to as one of best video production teams in the country. Looking into putting content on Twitch, a popular streaming service. Pushing for sports medicine innovations from cryogenics to mental health. Rebuilding the athletics website. Incorporating e-sports and more.
“I have a vision where the student section will have a dedicated part of the scoreboard and their tweets and their engagements will be shown the entire time,” Konya said. “Now nobody has ever done that. But how cool would that be? And that would certainly speak to the students here that they actually own a piece of the game presentation.”
While the big, bold headline ideas are percolating, right now Konya’s focus is on more immediate issues. He has created five focus groups within the athletic department to learn more and generate new ideas about facilities, marketing and branding, revenue generation, recognition and strategic planning. Of particular focus is the marketing and branding, something that Konya said Northeastern is lacking, as neither the names, “Northeastern” or “Huskies”, nor the “split N” or “husky head” logos are distinctive in the marketplace. Some of the ideas have already gotten past the talking stage, like the new athletic hashtag, #HowlinHuskies.
“When the NCAA referred to Northeastern on social media during our NCAA participation, we never told them how to refer to us, and they picked up #HowlinHuskies. So if the NCAA picked up on that as a unique term for us, then I think there may be some fire where there’s smoke,” Konya said.
While Konya certainly does a lot of talking, he has already proven he can match the talk with results. He already has created a brand new athletic recognition event, the Top Dog Awards, that promises to be a fun and innovative way to bring the athletic department together. The first time Konya spoke to the Student Athletic Advisory Council, he made a guarantee to sign with a national apparel brand and that Northeastern Athletics would be “geared up.” Two weeks later, it was announced that Under Armour would become the official apparel provider in a deal that is reportedly among the best in CAA.
“It’s a really big deal compared to where we were before,” Konya said. “Just in terms of the amount of apparel that our teams can get and hopefully can lead to the students getting a robust package of apparel and related gear. I think in that space right now, Under Armour is an up-and-comer, combined with their wanting to partner with us, their wanting to be innovative, they’re letting us beta test all sorts of gear as part of that relationship, and I think that kind of spoke to the partnership.”
While the next few years will certainly bring many changes, there is still a little of Roby within Konya. You can see it when he talks about getting the opportunity he’s been waiting for, to work at a private, high level academic institution. You can see it when he talks about creating lasting relationships with teams, coaches and players. And you can see it when he followed through on a bet he made with the women’s hockey team about catering Italian food from Boston’s famous North End as an occasional meal if they won the Hockey East Tournament. While Roby-esque, even Konya’s predecessor predicts a burst of fresh thought.
“I think what Jeff brings to the table is lots of experience, lots of new ideas, lot of energy, and a real innovative thinker,” Roby said. “So, I think people are going to get outside their comfort zone a little bit, which will be good. It’ll take a little time, because a transition like this always makes people a little anxious, and so they have to settle in and start to appreciate Jeff’s voice and his vision, and transition from what I was about to what Jeff is about.”
Konya knows the value of the intercollegiate athletics experience, both as a player at Princeton and as an athletic director.
And Konya knows exactly what he is here to do.
“There’s equity in the brand. There’s equity in the degree,” Konya said. “And if we can tell that message and that story to our different constituents about why this is important and why there is a huge return on investment for athletics, why we need more traditions, more history, more passion around what we do, then I think we have a real opportunity to approach that ceiling.”
Photo by Brian Bae