James Votruba: NKU basketball success 'much quicker than I expected'

Visionary leader sees opportunity and danger ahead

CINCINNATI - More students, more donors, better access to state capital and more pressure to build on prior success: That’s what James Votruba said Northern Kentucky University gained Tuesday night, when it won the Horizon League conference tournament in Detroit.

Votruba was NKU’s fourth president and the driving force behind its quest to compete in NCAA Division I athletics. By qualifying for the NCAA tournament in its first year of eligibility, Votruba said the Norse achieved an “over the moon” accomplishment that was “much quicker than I expected.”

But the work isn’t finished. Votruba said NKU needs to capitalize on its accomplishment by recruiting more students and boosting the sustainability of its academic and sports programs.

Now an NKU professor and board chairman for St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Votruba remains a highly visible business leader in Cincinnati. He spoke to WCPO by phone from Park City, Utah.

“It was a big surprise for our community that we went so far so quickly,” he said. “In the halls of Frankfort, in high schools around the state and our region, NKU will have much stronger visibility and be better able to compete for the strongest students.

"I think it will increase donor support, increase the fan base. It will make it easier for the next president to go to Frankfort and make the case that we are every bit as strong an institution as the others and should be treated as such.”

When Votruba started pushing for NKU to join Division I nearly a decade ago, he figured it would take 15 to 20 years to reach the level of competitiveness it achieved this year.

“Xavier was kind of our model,” he said. “If you look at how long it took for Xavier to be nationally competitive, year in and year out, it was not done in a few years. It took a lot of years. It took several coaches. It took strong boosters, strong private support.”

Votruba cautioned that NKU will face new challenges, now that it’s reached the first plateau of an NCAA tournament bid.

“When you have a coach like John Brannen, who achieves so quickly and recruits so well, we’re going to have to do everything we can to keep him on board and building this program,” he said. “We’re going to have to make sure our facilities (improve). BB&T Arena is a perfect facility. UC seems to think so. But we’re going to have to bring our other facilities up to par and that’s going to take private support. And we’re going to have to make sure we resist any temptation to cross the line on behalf of winning because it’s dangerous.”

“You can’t win without great coaches and great athletes," Votruba said. "Not at the highest levels. Both of those can cause a university to compromise itself in ways that challenge its core mission.”

But the dangers ahead haven’t diminished the joy Votruba felt in watching the Norse rise this season. He still thinks of NKU as an aspirational institution with plenty of untapped potential in fields like data analytics and health care. Not to mention basketball, where Votruba is still thinking big:

“In the next five years,” he said, “I’d love to see a Crosstown Shootout with three teams rather than two.”

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