OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Ralph McFillen is set to call it a career after 10 years as commissioner of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association and 35 years in athletics administration on June 30, but that hasn't meant he's coasted to the finish line.
McFillen has been working nearly up to the final day, as he wrapped up the addition of Nebraska-Omaha to the MIAA membership last week with the ratification of the institutional representatives' approval for UNO's admittance during the conference's CEO Council meeting in San Diego, Calif.
It is the last touch on a memorable decade of service to the conference. When pushed to pin down one highlight of his time as MIAA commissioner, McFillen found the task difficult.
"We've really been able to raise the visibility of the MIAA not only locally in our campus communities, but regionally and especially in the Kansas City area," he said. "And it's been an ongoing process of several steps."
He began with the formation of a league headquarters in the metropolitan Kansas City area during his first year of 1997. McFillen's predecessor, Ken Jones, operated from his home in Maryville, Mo., for 16 years.
It combined the commissioner's office and the sports information operation, which had been in the metro as a separate office since 1991, into one location in Overland Park, Kan. -- at the time being just blocks from the NCAA headquarters (The NCAA moved to Indianapolis, Ind., in the summer of 1999).
The conference operated with two full-time staffers (McFillen and now-assistant to the commissioner for media relations Matt Newbery) until 2005's addition of a third person to coordinate compliance.
"We were able to obtain a grant from the NCAA which allowed us to better serve the membership by hiring (assistant to the commissioner) Natasha Oakes to take care of rules compliance and student-athlete eligibility," McFillen said. "Her addition has greatly benefitted our operation."
His first step in raising the public's awareness of the MIAA came by broadcasting football games live on Time Warner Cable's Metro Sports in Kansas City, as well as on outlets throughout the conference, from 1997-2002.
"The Thursday night games on Metro Sports certainly brought the conference a big boost of exposure," McFillen said, "and it coinciding with Northwest Missouri State's back-to-back national championships helped the cause as well!"
That exposure helped the MIAA get the attention of the Mineral Water Bowl, which was being played as a junior-college postseason game. The bowl committee wanted to involve area four-year small-college teams to generate more interest in their game, and it called onthe MIAA.
"We were able to get legislation passed to allow Division II schools to participate in postseason bowls if they weren't in the national playoffs," McFillen said. "There are now three such games for D-II schools, including the Pioneer Bowl and the Dixie Rotary Bowl."
The biggest step in raising the league's profile has been the move of the MIAA Postseason Basketball Tournament to Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium in 2003.
"The best feedback I've received about the basketball tournament moving to Kansas City from on campus has been from the student-athletes involved," McFillen said. "They really appreciated the improved championship experience of playing in a venue steeped in basketball history.
"Interest and attendance has improved over the tournament's time in Kansas City as well, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so."
The conference has made technological strides in McFillen's tenure, with the launch of themiaa.com in 1998 and the start this past winter of themiaa.tv -- a service of Penn Atlantic, Inc.
"The partnership with Penn Atlantic has a lot of potential, especially as we start our first full football season of webcasts this fall," McFillen said. "It's been great to be a part of this next wave of using the ever-broadening reach of the internet."
With all of the attention the games and competitions get, some forget college athletics is part of the educational process -- but not McFillen.
He expanded greatly the academic awards program, honoring three levels of achievement by individual student-athletes. McFillen also began to recognize the institutions for their success in graduating student-athletes with three awards -- best graduation rate, most-improved rate and highest differential to general student body rate.
He's also given the student-athletes a voice with the formation of the conference Student-Athlete Advisory Committee during his tenure.
"Ralph's impact on the most important group, our student-athletes, may not be as obvious as with others," said Dr. John Rich, a past MIAA president and the longtime faculty athletics representative of Emporia State University. "Students are the most important group we serve yet heard from the least.
"The MIAA SAAC has become a more active group and has been a catalyst for positive interaction between the campuses of the member institutions."
McFillen also was a catalyst to get as much representation of coaches and administrators from the MIAA to the various committees throughout NCAA Division II -- from regional advisory committees and rules committees to the division's driving force, the management council.
"Ralph has been exceptionally supportive of the MIAA Institutional Representatives, working to expand their opportunities to contribute both in the MIAA and at the national level," Dr. Rich said. "He has provided effective and responsible leadership to the conference.
"I wish him well and thank him for his service."
One thing he inherited upon his arrival is the MIAA's system of governance, and he's very grateful to have been a part of an already forward-thinking conference.
"The MIAA had representation of the institutions' faculty athletics representatives and senior woman administrators in governance long before I came aboard, along with the oversight of the CEO Council," McFillen said. "We have been one of the model conferences in Division II because of this structure."
"During the past 10 years while Ralph has served as commissioner, the MIAA has made significant progress and is recognized nationwide today as the premier NCAA Division II athletics conference," said Dr. C. Pat Taylor president of Southwest Baptist University and a past chair of the MIAA's CEO Council. "Much of our recent success as a conference can be attributed to Ralph's aggressive leadership.
"As Ralph retires he certainly can look back and know that the conference is stronger today than it has ever been. I have personally enjoyed working with Ralph."
As far as his plans for the future, the 65-year old McFillen and his wife, Pat, plan to spend more time with their two daughters -- Kim and Jennifer -- and their five grandchildren.
Ralph also has scheduled lessons for his first foray into the game of golf, and he'll continue his search for the elusive Larkspur Blue 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air (his favorite car).
"Both Pat and I are in good health, and are ready to take part in some new experiences as we move on together in life," McFillen said.
"It has been my privilege to serve this conference."
-- MIAA --