The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus couldn’t have known of the Columbia College athletic department when he noted that the only constant in life is change. For the last two decades, give or take, the Cougars have had the same people directing the volleyball and men’s basketball programs, and the department itself.
This year, the saying is finally true. James Arnold was named the college’s director of Athletics on April 24, and he named Allison Jones-Olson as the Cougars’ women’s volleyball coach a month later. Tomas Brock, who served as an assistant under longtime director of athletics and men’s basketball coach Bob Burchard, was selected to succeed him on the sidelines on Feb. 9.
Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind for Arnold, who has experience at all levels of college athletics—and nearly all of it in the Midwest. In addition, six of his last eight years have been spent at small mid-Missouri colleges: He made the short trip to Columbia from Fulton, Missouri, where he served a two year-stint as associate director of athletics and head women’s basketball coach at Westminster College.
And now, he’s excited to have the keys to the Cougar program. “Columbia College has performed at such a high level. We are one of the elite NAIA institutions in the Midwest, we’ve won three straight (American Midwest Conference) Presidents’ Cups, and I'm excited to be part of that and help in any way that I can,” says the Paw Paw, West Virginia, native.
Fans of the Cougars likely won’t notice one of the most significant changes: Whereas Burchard reported directly to three presidents over his 31-year tenure, the Department of Athletics is now housed under the academic side of the college, and Arnold reports to Dr. Piyusha Singh, the college’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. The setup is common among small colleges and universities, and helps reinforce the fact that the Cougars are students first, athletes second.
For his part, Arnold welcomes the transition. “Being under Dr. Singh and Academic Affairs is great for us … it’s already proven to be extremely fruitful because there's been these connections that are being made,” he said. Arnold noted that administrators who were previously unaware of how athletics worked are now realizing that the academic and athletic sides of the college are doing many similar, if not the same, things when it comes to issues such as student well-being and retention. “This is really a great opportunity with the reorganization to open some doors and share information and find ways to work together.”
Arnold also laid out his big-picture goals for this first year: “We certainly want to find ways to improve the day-to-day operations of our fantastic fitness center. We want to focus on customer service, upgrades, safety and security, and make sure our students, faculty, and staff have a first-class experience.
“We want to look back at this time next year and see that we took a massive step forward in our development efforts. That's both within Athletics, but also working closely with Suzanne Rothwell’s office in Advancement. In the past, we’ve been like train tracks: We’ve worked together, but we’ve never really connected to get the most out of that relationship, so that’s an area we want to improve. Drew Grzella already has some fantastic ideas of ways we can move forward, and with my position now being a full-time administrator, I can take some other things off his plate so he can really focus on development, and that will certainly have a positive impact.
“A year from today, I’d like to say that we found ways to maintain a major impact on the student-athlete’s day-to-day lives. Things such as the potential of developing a nutrition center, additional opportunities with the tutoring center, working closer with student services with our intramural program, just ways that the day-to-day life of a student can continue to be improved.
“For me personally, it's just to have an idea about what are the operational standards over the next year, so that I have an idea of whether to make changes. I don't want to make changes for change’s sake.
“We're always going to monitor the changing landscape in college athletics—that’s a given—but our plan moving forward is we are 100 percent committed to being an NAIA institution; we are committed to our relationship with the American Midwest Conference and the NAIA; and we will continue to take pride in being one of the nation’s premier NAIA institutions.