By Stan Friedman
MASON CITY, IA (November 18, 2013) — Winning national athletic championships at any level of competition is a daunting task—as is retaining coaches in a small program for long stretches of time—but Covenanter Dan Mason, the athletic director for the North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC), has earned admiration and respect for his ability to accomplish both.
In 1995, Mason was named the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Coach of the Year when he guided the NIACC men’s basketball team to a national championship. After later leaving the school briefly, he returned as athletic director in 2006.
Since that time, he has hired multiple coaches and few have left—a rarity. The program is strong. The wrestling team is ranked fourth in the country, and the basketball teams are expected to do well. The track and cross-country programs are national contenders.
People inside and outside the program credit Mason, a member of First Covenant Church, with creating the right atmosphere. “I’m the caretaker of the program,” Mason says. “I try to create an infrastructure and an environment for people to reach their ceiling.”
Mason says his goal is for the culture to be “nurturing, educational, challenging, valuing the individual, and respectful.” He adds, “Clearly the values that we try and cultivate are based not only upon my belief system, but on a long history here at the college of trying to raise people towards their individual potential via athletics.”
He meets with each of the teams prior to their seasons. “I tell each of them they will have the opportunity to put their fingerprints on the unique team of that season. We stress that it is a privilege to play and with privilege comes responsibility. I share with them about us having athletics at the college since 1919 and that they have a legacy to uphold.”
Each athlete receives a handbook titled A Championship Environment. “Our thought is that if you put all of the resources, tools, etc., in place, then winning will follow,” Mason says.
“Dan obviously had coaching success at NIACC, but as he mentored and encouraged coaches in his new role, he allowed individuals to use their own gifts and craft their own styles as they coached,” says Craig Pinley, pastor of Paxton Covenant Church in Paxton, Illinois, who served as sports information director at the school from 2006 to 2008.
“What I most appreciated about Dan was his commitment to do things the right way—with integrity and dependability—and holding teams at NIACC to that standard,” Pinley adds. “I think that’s one reason why he’s able to keep coaches around longer than the norm in the community college realm.”
Pinley adds there was one time he wish he didn’t have to be around Mason. “When Dan was a senior at North Park, I was a freshman at North Central College and I watched him throw a shutout against my school as his team clinched the conference title in the spring of 1983.”
Mason says he tries to lead in the same way that he was mentored, especially by former North Park University basketball coach Dan McCarrell, who led the school to three NCAA Division III national championships over 17 years. Mason was a graduate assistant with the team and then followed McCarrell when he became coach of Mankato State in Minnesota.
Mason says that being a leader “means sometimes I’m going to let them learn things the hard way, and other times I’m going to guide you, but I try to do that with a servant’s heart.”
Sometimes he had to learn those lessons the hard way from McCarrell. At Mankato Mason had a player with tattoos and dreadlocks, a relative rarity at the time. Mason wasn’t coaching the athlete as well as he could have because of the differences between them.
“Coach McCarrell took me aside and said you can’t just coach the guys you would have been hanging out with in college. He had me shoot around with that player every day for the whole semester.” The player and coach wound up developing a great rapport. “It was an important lesson for me.”
Mason, who preaches at his church on a semi-regular basis, says his years at North Park were formative spiritually as well. He grew up in a Catholic home and came to the university to play baseball. During his sophomore year, he began to ask deeper questions about his life and faith. He was invited to attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting and has been involved with the organization ever since.
In addition to receiving mentoring from McCarrell, he also is grateful for others who were at the school and demonstrated hospitality. Former Covenant pastor Russ Carlson and his wife, Lori, were seminarians at the time. “They opened up their apartment to me,” Mason says. “Jimmy Sandberg (now pastor of Trinity Covenant Church in Oaklawn, Illinois) taught me how to drive in the city.”
He also learned “regular guy ministry” while working alongside other employees in the campus’s physical plant department who also mentored him.
“Now I get to influence others in the same way I was mentored,” he says.