"Hold Please, I'll Be Right With You"

GO HUSKIES Arriving to NIU Athletics in November 1983, Janaan Mickey will retire from NIU next Thursday, May 29
Arriving to NIU Athletics in November 1983, Janaan Mickey will retire from NIU next Thursday, May 29

May 22, 2014

"I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend."
-- Quote by Morgan Freeman in "The Shawshank Redemption"

Thirty-two and a half years is a long time.

Thirty-two and a half years is a long time to do the same thing everyday. To put that into the perspective, the Northern Illinois University football team won its first Mid-American Conference title 31 and half years ago, advancing to the California Bowl versus Cal State Fullerton (who no longer sponsors a football team) a month later and defeating the Titans, 20-17.

On November 7, 1983, Janaan Mickey, NIU's Senior Administrative Assistant, started her career with the Huskies for then Athletic Director Dr. Bob Brigham. Next Thursday, May 29, Mickey will close her lengthy tenure in the NIU Athletics Department, retiring from the university after 32 and half years.

That's long enough to put her amongst the longest serving coaches or administrators in NIU Athletics. Mickey is the Huskies' Iron Woman, working for NIU Athletics longer than any woman has before.

For fans or students that may not be able to place the name with her face, Janaan is the lady behind the front desk in the Athletic Director's suite. The first thing people see entering the suite is Janaan's red hair and matching glasses, followed by a smile and joyous "Hi, how may I help you."

"She has this incredible way with people," said former NIU Athletic Director Cary Groth, "you can have the angriest coaches, supporters, non-supporters, media, it doesn't matter who they are. Janaan works well with everyone - they all enjoyed talking with her - she's the perfect person for that role."

As it was in most athletics departments around the country, the NIU men's and women's departments were separated during the infancy of Title IX. After beginning a job on campus in September 1982, Mickey came to the athletics department after taking a suggestion from her mother, Phyllis, the secretary for the women's athletic department, to talk to Brigham about open secretary's position in the men's athletics department.

On most job descriptions these days, "the ability to multitask" is listed towards the top in most descriptions. Mickey can recall the first time hearing that term in her first meeting with Dr. Brigham.

"I met with Bob, and it was the first time in my life that I had heard the word multitasking. `Are you good at multitasking?' he asked. And that was in 1983. I don't know when it came into popular culture or business culture to use that word, but it was the first time I'd ever heard it. Obviously, I could figure out what he meant by that, but I had no idea really what would happen."

Janaan and her mother, Phyllis, a former administrative
assistant in the women's athletic department.

Entering the position, "I thought I would stay two years," recalled Mickey, "I literally wanted to move to downtown Chicago, and work downtown, but it just didn't happen. Partly because my mother was widowed by then and still had four kids at home, and I felt like I was abandoning her if I left."

Shortly after she started working for Brigham, he offered Mickey more advice to working in college athletics, finding her modus operandi - for better or worse.

"(Bob said) don't let the coaches get you to do things that they could do for themselves. Learn to say no. I did learn to say no: no, I'm not busy. No, it's no problem. No, I'm happy to help you. No, I can fit that in, let me know how I can help you. That's how I learned to say no, let me help you. I'm not sure that's what Bob meant," laughed Mickey. "In fact, I'm pretty sure that's not what he meant, but you know, for better, worse, rich, whatever; I became the "how can I help you?" lady. That was my business model."

Please and thank you also goes a long way in Mickey's business model.

"We have to work harder at NIU because we don't have a lot of the things bigger schools that we compete against have, so I feel like it's important to tell people thank you. Thank you for committing yourself, your kid, your financial gift, whatever it is. Even if someone's calling to yell at me on the phone," laughed Mickey.

That particular model has served her well over the years, as the hundreds of NIU Athletics staff members and thousands of athletes have endeared themselves to Mickey. All told, she's been the administrative assistant for a total of 11 athletics directors, five of whom were interim directors.

Groth can recall from her own experience how valuable Mickey was to the department and to her during her 20-plus year career at NIU, 10 of which she served as athletic director.

"When I needed to confide in someone, talk with someone about what was going on and run through some things, she was it," added Groth. "I worked with some great people in Robert Collins and Dee Abrahamson, and of course Dr. Kaplan and Dr. La Tourette across campus, but Janaan and I were so close and you have to have that kind of relationship with your right hand. She was that and then some. I used to kid her all the time telling her `you're the AD' because she got all the work done while we were out there trying to sell and get people involved, you have to have someone running the business if you will."

Mickey put heart and soul into the job at NIU, taking her position as a personal challenge, much like many of the athletes that compete for the Huskies. The challenge served as a mission for her life of service to Northern Illinois University, spreading a positive message to those she came in contact with.

She recalled a high school guidance counselor telling her that college wasn't for her, citing "you'll never make it in college."

"It was a challenge for me at some cellular level," said Mickey, "I think it showed me that there are kids who are ill-prepared or underprepared for college life who can still do what they want to do.

"What's the old saying - whether you say you can or can't, you're right. I learned not to let anyone try to convince you that you're not good enough, or you can't do something. That's not for someone else to determine for you. That's up to you."

As hinted at before, the changes in college athletics over the years have been drastic and Mickey is one of the last pieces of the old guard at NIU... A much different time.

"You could smoke in the offices. I was not a smoker, but when you got hired, often there was already an ashtray there. In fact, I kept an NIU ashtray for a long time, I don't know where it is, but I kept one. You could go look at people's wooden desks and they'd have big burn marks in them from the cigarettes falling off the ashtrays," recalled Mickey.

"The advent of technology has been amazing too. The first time they put a computer on my desk. The first time they brought in our electronic phones, replacing my old rotary phone with all the different lines so I could answer twelve different lines. I was stunned when someone said `you're using your new electronic phone.' I said `how do you know?' and she said `your phone number just showed up on my screen of my phone"

It's these kinds of changes in which she also recalls a conversation with Dr. Brigham about the future of college athletics.

"I remember one conversation that I had with Dr. Brigham, where I told him one day athletics will be run like a business. He goes `you know Jan, I don't know that that day will come.' That day has come indeed. If anybody watches the news, athletics is huge business."

The progress on the field and the numerous successes of NIU has been a highlight to Mickey as well.

"Meteoric highs and just numbing, numbing, numbing lows. Seeing our players go on to the NFL, WNBA, NBA, some in Europe. That's fun! That's fun for me because they continue to do what you love to do on a national or international level. That's very exciting for me," said Mickey, "and because we are NIU, not one of the biggest schools in the country, our people still get picked, our people still get looked at, and I take a little bit of smug satisfaction from that."

While some may look at being a "small school" or a "stepping stone" as a problem or a hinderance, Mickey believes that that role NIU has been casted into is one of her biggest satisfactions in her time here, creating some of her most memorable moments with the department.

"Sometimes our school is looked at as a stepping-stone. I think when we prepare our people correctly to go on to better jobs, coaches, they go on to what they really want to do. That's really satisfying," said Mickey, "I don't think people should ever be apologetic if they're advancing in their chosen career. I can't dispute that.  

"We prepare our young coaches very well and if its their goal to go on and be a head coach, or administrator at the highest level of what they want to do, awesome. Yeah, it's hard when they leave, but you want people to do the best they can do. It leaves a hole sometimes but its also growing and changing. I think if things don't change, that's not good, which is why some people are probably glad I'm leaving," laughed a sarcastic Mickey.

While that may seem like an unusual point of pride, it's not really that farfetched when you consider comments from Groth. When asked what Mickey's retirement means to Northern Illinois University, Groth said "it's a loss in institutional memory, department culture and history. When Mike Korcek retired, we lost a big piece of history, and Janaan is like that. She knows who to go to, how to get it done, she has the history of the program. I mean, she worked for six athletic directors, 11 if you include interims.

"You really don't need an AD when you've got Janaan; we're just a figure head," laughed Groth. "If it wasn't for her I never would've progressed in this business and had the kind of success I've had in my life, because if you don't have the right person in your first AD job, you're sunk, and I did. So did Jim Phillips. I know Sean was an AD before he came to NIU but we'll all say the same thing. You have to have the right person with the right personality, skill set and intelligence and she's it."

Mickey's thank yous over the past 31 and a half years are vast, but there are two people at NIU that stand out.

"It goes without saying that I owe Dr. Brigham, who hired me, a huge debt of thanks. Former President John Peters: though I've worked with several Presidents, he and I got to be friends. I didn't get to work with his predecessors as much. Dr. Baker continues John's approach today. It was not often that his administrative assistant would call and say `I've got Dr. Peters on the phone.' I would answer and he'd say "Janaan, its John". That was to me, very unusual. He was very supportive.

"I thank all of the athletic directors that came after Dr. Brigham for continuing to keep me. I mean this could have been a real short train ride, because everyone who comes in, I believe would have the ability or the opportunity to make a change and they didn't. I wouldn't be here if they didn't think I was worth keeping, or tolerated me."

Of course, Mickey saved the best thank you for last.

"My family, certainly, for putting up with my long hours. The `I'll be home when I get home' thing for so many years - they put up with a lot of stuff for me."

The Mickey family from left to right: Ryan, Janaan, Tim and Shelby.

Her service and presence in NIU Athletics has been an undeniable piece of the department's culture over the last 30-plus years and she won't soon be forgotten in the hallways of the Convocation Center. Mickey's purpose, pleasantries and overall nature made her a friend to everyone that came across her. That type of genuineness is once in a lifetime in a department like NIU's.

Some would argue Janaan Mickey's an institution to Northern Illinois University. If you tell her that, she will promptly reply with a smile and say "I belong in an institution." And that's what makes her great. As far as final words or a closing statement for this piece, she said "hold for a moment, I'll be right with you... Don't take yourself too seriously."

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