When it comes to Central Michigan University, you could consider Derek van der Merwe a card-carrying member.
He played football here, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees here, and he’s spent the better part of the last 17 years working his way to becoming the go-to guy in the CMU athletics department.
“I love CMU, this has been my home — this is my community — and they’ve embraced me and have been great to my family,” van der Merwe said Friday, his first day back on campus since he was named athletics director at Austin Peay State University on Wednesday.
“But you get to that point where you’re ready to take that next step. I’ve had people approach me and talk to me over the last few years about making that next step, and the interest has grown and become much more serious this last year.”
It’s no secret van der Merwe wanted to become an athletics director. He was named one of three finalists for the job at Ferris State University in 2010 and participated in the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association Fellows program in 2011, a program designed to mentor and groom future ADs.
Van der Merwe has also “been in the final mix” for other jobs in the past few years, he says, not working out for one reason or another.
“The process of getting ready for these things is significant,” van der Merwe said. “The more you interview, the better you get. The more you relax, the more you are who you are … that’s very important. The more you get into these positions, the more you find the right fit for you.”
But this time around, things were different. Van der Merwe has a daughter entering high school and another entering middle school, and if there was ever a better time to relocate, it was now. So he started looking again.
And then the Austin Peay joy opened up. Dave Loos, the school’s athletics director and men’s basketball coach since 1997, decided to step down from his administrative role.
So van der Merwe approached his boss, CMU athletics director Dave Heeke.
“I had been looking at a couple different places the last few months and really tried to find what was the right fit,” van der Merwe said. “I knew that opportunity would be out there. I told Dave that professionally this was just the right time for me to make a move.
“I went down and interviewed at Austin Peay and with their people, and felt very confident that it was going to be the right decision for me.”
Heeke, reached by phone earlier this week, said he’s been aware of van der Merwe’s desire to become an athletics director for a while now. The two communicate regularly, and Heeke says it’s his job to help his staff meet their goals.
“He has handled virtually every aspect of an intercollegiate athletics program, understands the dynamics involved in and is ready to assume the role as a director,” Heeke said. “With a program like ours, you’re involved in so many different areas because you have such limited staffing and Derek has filled so many roles. He’s very well positioned to be an athletic director.”
Under Heeke, van der Merwe went from senior associate athletics director to deputy athletics director, in charge of finances, oversight of facilities, communications, marketing, among other duties. He also chaired the committee in charge of design and construction of the $22.5 million Events Center.
At Austin Peay, van der Merwe said he wants to see another Central Michigan, citing CMU’s facilities and cohesiveness as a campus community. APSU recently approved a new $16.9 million football stadium for the 2014 season and announced plans to add a new scoreboard and signage to its basketball arena.
“What’s missing is that brick-and-mortar campus will always exist,” van der Merwe said. “People will want to come to that sort of campus community environment, so athletics is an important part of that. Sometimes it’s the glue, from the colors, the fight song, it’s who we are – it’s our identity – and athletics helps create that strong identity.”
With van der Merwe departing later this month, he starts in Clarksville, Tenn., on July 8, it signals a change in a growing — but otherwise stable — CMU athletics department. Heeke has had little turnover with senior administrators since arriving at CMU in 2006, but he realizes this will be a tough spot to fill.
“We won’t be able to hire another Derek van der Merwe,” Heeke said. “I’m really going to step back and take a look at our organization, to evaluate where we are and the challenges ahead. Derek had an incredible skillset that will be difficult to replace.
“We have to look at how we can restructure, and down the road that might mean additional staffing might happen.”
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