Ben Sasse drew mixed opinions in his handling of sports programs at Midland University.
Sasse added sports programs, made a controversial hire and invested in Midland athletics. While outside eyes recognized his effort, reactions were divisive among those at Midland regarding their support of his decisions.
By Fall 2014, Midland tallied its highest enrollment at the time with 1,362 students, consisting of about 700 student athletes. After adding 11 varsity sports since 2009, Midland currently has 33 varsity programs. The university also approved a plan to invest $1.6 million in Memorial Field, its multi-sport venue, ahead of the 2014 football season.
When Sasse first took over in December 2010, however, Midland was struggling to stay afloat, then-women’s basketball coach Joanne Bracker said. Coaches hoped Sasse would be the one to resurrect Midland, Bracker said.
She was an academic advisor and physical education professor at Midland until her retirement in 2017. Bracker was the head women’s basketball coach from the program’s inception until she retired from coaching in 2012.
It was nice for athletes to have opportunities to compete because they might not have been able to play elsewhere, she said. However, Bracker felt there were many drawbacks, like problems with scholarship money, attendance and team size. She called the scholarships some athletes received limited.
Because student-athletes drove to road matches instead of flying like some Division I schools, she said they would miss class for extended periods of time. Bracker felt forced to accept the fact students would have to miss as many classes as needed due to their transportation, she added.
She was told she needed to have 35 players on the women’s basketball team, which she said she felt was an unrealistic requirement. UF’s current women's basketball roster sits at 15 athletes.
Some coaches fought to offer a quality program despite these hurdles, Bracker said. She tried to go out of her way to improve the experience for her players and give them opportunities not commonplace for schools as small as Midland.
“I've always been about quality,” Bracker said. “And I want to give that student the best opportunity.”
Matt Fritsche took over for Bracker as the head women’s basketball coach following her retirement. His one, and only, year in the position came during the 2012-2013 season. While he had communicated with the athletic director at the time, Jason Dannelly, Fritsche said his own hire was mostly decided by Sasse.
Fritsche only spent a year at Midland because the university couldn’t afford to pay him as much as he would have liked, he said. He took a $20,000 pay cut, he said, in order to coach collegiately.
The former basketball coach said he enjoyed his time working with Sasse and agreed with Sasse’s decision to add more sports to the university.
“He understands, weirdly enough, that activities and athletics are like the other half of education,” Fritsche said.
As a coach at a school with a large student-athlete population, Fritsche agreed with Bracker that class attendance was a hurdle instructors had to work around. At Creighton University — where he previously coached in Nebraska — Fritsche had private jets for team transportation. But Midland could only offer a van and team members’ cars.
“[National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools] sports is not super glamorous,” Fritsche said. “It's for kids that love to play and coaches that love to coach.”
Dejah Jimenez, a 26-year-old former wrestler at Midland, competed for the university for a year and a half until she left for personal reasons. Her friend from high school’s commitment to Midland caused her father to reach out to the school, leading to her eventual offer.
Her coaches, Beau Vest and especially Antonio Barber, made sure to hold the team accountable while providing valuable advice. She said Barber became a father figure for her while at Midland. Vest and Barber were both inherited from Dana College when the school was absorbed by Midland.
Sasse grew Midland’s athletics by offering scholarships to student athletes at Dana College, which was closed and absorbed into Midland.
Jimenez said many of her friends were athletes, in part because the population was rich with student-athletes.
“Everything’s so sports oriented that it kind of makes it seem like we had a culture for sports,” she said.
Casey Thiele was Midland’s head football coach from 2007 until he stepped down in 2011. He said the football team saw around a dozen players join the team after Dana was absorbed by Midland, but he hoped to bring in more.
Due to the teams’ tremendous rivalry, Thiele expected animosity and a divided locker room. However, he said Midland’s players accepted Dana’s because his team saw how Dana came to an end.
“That was a sobering thing that could easily happen to us,” he said. “I think there was a strong level of empathy.”
Thiele thought the move to involve Dana’s athletes in Midland’s football team made the group stronger. The players who made the transition were a great fit and had strong characters, he said. Thiele also said the coaches who were added to his staff helped him and went on to be successful.
“Sasse did a really, really good job of coordinating the transition of Dana students,” he said.
Sasse held on-campus meetings consisting of faculty, staff, coaches and custodians to see what was and what wasn’t working at Midland, Thiele said..
“The one thing that was going better than most of the rest of the college was athletics,” he said.
Thiele said Sasse did everything he could to enhance the athletic experience at the school because it was increasing student enrollment. Sasse focused on this and then worked to catch the rest of the school up to the success of Midland’s athletics, he said.
Sasse saw three athletic directors during his time as president, but his first hire at the position was the most controversial one he would make.
Jason Dannelly, who served for slightly more than a year, was hired by Sasse in August 2011. Dannelly resigned in November 2012 due to personal reasons. Less than eight months later, he was arrested and later charged with solicitation, pandering and terroristic threats, Dannelly offered a student $300 in exchange for sex and said he would help advise another student through legal trouble for sex. He pleaded no-contest.
Fritsche was hired while Dannelly was still at the school and said he felt “remorseful” for the student-athletes who were affected. Dave Gillespie, Midland’s next athletic director, was the perfect hire to make sure everyone in the department was treated fairly, Fristche said.
He thought Sasse addressed the situation regarding Dannelly immediately and appropriately. The Alligator was unable to find a public comment by Sasse regarding Dannelly’s charges.
As Sasse now turns his attention to UF as the school’s 13th president, he’ll inherit a much larger school and sports program.
Fritsche doesn’t know what Sasse’s plan will be for UF sports upon arrival, but he believes Sasse will try to help both academics and athletics flourish.
“Dr. Sasse is going to look at things more globally than what he probably did at Midland where things were so small,” Fritsche said.
Kyle Bumpers is a fourth-year journalism major and the sports editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he cries about Russell Wilson and writes an outrageous amount of movie reviews on Letterboxd.