NJCAA Executive Director leaves her mark on 'The Tournament'

Originally printed in March 23rd edition of Hutchinson News. Published with permission. 

In July, Mary Ellen Leicht bids farewell to a 28­year career with the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), the last eight of which she served as the organization's executive director.

In 2009, Leicht made history when she was named the nation's first female chief executive for a national collegiate athletic association.

Leicht grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and admits to being a lifelong sports enthusiast. That will not change following her retirement. Following high school, her next stop was the University of Wisconsin­Eau Claire, where she starred in basketball. Next, she was off to the University of New Mexico, earning a master's degree in sports administration.

Her retirement coincides with what she calls a six­month sabbatical, which may include time as a volunteer while deciding new endeavors. She will continue to reside in Colorado.

In 1989, women and sports administration were words not often spoken in the same sentence, none of which deterred Leicht from responding to a newspaper advertisement from the NJCAA seeking an eligibility administrator.

Soon, she found herself face­to­face with George Killian, the legendary NJCAA executive director, who spent nearly four decades leading the organization. Apparently, Killian liked what he saw and hired her on the spot.

Leicht's rise in the organization was swift, and soon Killian promoted her to the position of associate executive director.

Earlier this week, Leicht paused in between games and nonstop meetings for a sit­down interview in a new meeting room built as part of the $30 million facelift of the Sports Arena, a venue that is coincidentally named the George Killian Room.

She seemed relaxed and reflective, as she nostalgically recalled her first visit to Hutchinson in the late 1990s to observe the NJCAA World Series softball tournament, which was held at Fun Valley.

In her first visit to Hutchinson and the 30 or more to follow, she spoke of the welcoming attitude she always received from Hutchinson residents.

No two days are similar in running the organization from the NJCAA's headquarters in Colorado Springs. A staff of 10 oversees 504 member institutions in 44 states, including three divisions of sports. The number of sports played by NJCAA members varies from two to 22, so no one at the national headquarters has muchof a problem finding something to do on any given day.

Directors in 24 regions maintain constant communication with the national office on a host of issues, including eligibility, with routine audits conducted to confirm that member institutions are in compliance. Three staff members at the national office are assigned to compliance issues.

Leicht leaves behind a national organization on sound financial footing.

When asked to list her accomplishments, she modestly declined to give herself too much credit, but did say the NJCAA started the conversation about renovating the Sports Arena, a four­year project that is approaching a successful culmination.

"It was my pleasure to sit at the table with representatives of Hutchinson Community College, the city of Hutchinson, Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss ways to move the tournament forward," Leicht said. "At those meetings, everyone listened to each other's point of view."

Arriving this week for the 70th annual NJCAA basketball tournament, she couldn't help but smile when observing the results of those meetings.

Other accomplishments during her tenure included adding more advanced technology, including video streaming of national championship contests.

Also, she told how her office instituted more efficient processes for interaction between the NJCAA and member institutions.

When asked what she will miss most about her work with the NJCAA, she minced few words.

“I will miss the people who give their hearts and souls to the NJCAA and are dedicated to the community college experience,” Leicht said. “As for the staff at the NJCAA office, they are all phenomenal, both personally and professionally.”

In a 2012 interview for this column, Leicht summed up the goals of the organization she leads.

“The NJCAA fulfills a unique niche in the higher education landscape,” Leicht said. “We, the NJCAA, provide opportunities to individuals who may not have been able to further their academic and athletic career due to family ties, economics or a myriad of other reasons. There is a long list of professional and Olympic athletes who get their careers started at an NJCAA institution, which speaks to the high level of competition experienced within our organization.”

Speaking for the hundreds of volunteers who annually make the NJCAA basketball tournament happen, we say thanks to Leicht for a job well done and extend our best wishes in the next chapter of her life. And feel free to stop back anytime for a future NJCAA basketball tournament.

Richard Shank is the external affairs representative for Hutchinson Regional Medical Center. Email: shankr@prodigy.net