Q&A: CMU professor Tim Otteman on his cross-country tour to visit former students


If you show up late to Tim Otteman's class, he'll make you sing. It's one of the many ways he establishes lifelong connections with his students.

Otteman was born and raised in Mount Pleasant and is a proud 1984 Mount Pleasant High School graduate. He earned his undergraduate degree at Central Michigan University in journalism, with a concentration in public relations and a minor in advertising in the late ‘80s. 

He got his Master of Arts and Sports Administration degree in ‘91 and he finished his doctoral degree at CMU in 2008. 

Otteman’s family is still in the Mount Pleasant area, including his stepfather, brother and daughter. His daughter, Katie, is a freshman at CMU. Otteman left Mount Pleasant for about 10 years after college and lived in Detroit, Denver and Los Angeles, where he worked for Special Olympics. This was his first experience working in something recreation-sports-based. 

Otteman first started teaching at CMU in 2000, while he also took the role of the Director of Sports and Training for Michigan Special Olympics, which he did for five years. In 2005, Otteman started working in the recreation department at CMU full time. 

Central Michigan Life sat down with Otteman recently to discuss his unique teaching style and the importance of maintaining connections.

You recently went on a tour visiting your former students across the country. Why do you value those relationships?

I woke up in the middle of the night and the thought in my head was "I want to be taught by the people I taught," and I don't know where it came from. So I literally did a Facebook post that said, “If you work at a really cool job–unbelievable facility, phenomenal boss, whatever it is–and you're one of our kids, one of our students, tell me the story.” 

Within 24 hours, I got 51 responses from 15 different states. So I was like, "oh my God, what did I just do?" I've opened Pandora's Box, kind of. So I got a group of people together, some faculty and some people on alumni relations, to kind of rank them and figure out a way that we could come up with this group. 

And so they went from 51 to 14, and then from 14 down to nine. And so the nine were a pretty good representation of the breadth of our industry, and also geographic breadth. I was in the rainbow room in New York City, which is the most iconic event space in the world, 65th floor 30 Rockefeller Center, where you have birthday parties for former presidents. 

I went to Tampa, which bids and hosts all the major sporting events in the world. Then to Boise, Idaho to an Air Force Base, where our civilian contractors provide recreation opportunities for all the military servicemen. Then to Nashville to a recording studio, and I'm having a conversation with Dierks Bentley on the stairs. 

I mean, our students are so phenomenal as we watch them grow. I teach a senior capstone class, and I cry at the end of their presentations in that class. Everybody goes, “Oh my God, you're such a big baby.” I'm not crying because of how it happened, I'm crying because I know you're ready. 

And they go from student to intern, to practicing professional so fast. In our department, we have you call us by our first names because it happens that fast. I don't want the ivory tower of Dr. Otteman and a little lowly student to ever be the issue. I want it to be colleague to colleague because that's how quickly it happens. 

I think that tour, to me, was the ability to put tangible evidence to what we tell our students all the time. We're gonna stay in contact, we want to know where you go, we want you to come back to class, we want you to share your experiences, we want you to take our interns and we can only do that if we develop relationships. So people are like, “Why are you doing all these things on social media?” Because that's how you make the connection. 

You don't necessarily call people anymore, you text them. You send them a Facebook message. But spending that time to make the relationship is super important to me. 

What was the coolest place?

Rainbow room is pretty cool. If you look out the set of windows, it's all of Central Park. You literally don't move, you just turn and look out the other set of windows all the way down Manhattan and you see the new World Trade Center.

And your student works there?

She runs the room. I'm going to New York City in two weekends with another couple and that's one of our stops. I mean, but in the city of Tampa, we were there for nine hours and saw every facility they have. 

They host the NHL All-Star, the NBA All-Star Game, the Super Bowl, let alone their teams have been super successful in the last three or four years. But then you're in Nashville and you're on Music Row and you're in this recording studio, where, you know, that's where Taylor Swift started in that big machine record label and you're in the studio she recorded in. Then here's the student that's doing publicity. That's her job. 

It's cool, just to see how quickly they become rock stars. And they're everywhere. 

What's an unpopular opinion that you have?

If you come to my class late, you have to sing.

And you really do that?

100 percent. If you come in late, you put your stuff down, we put you in the front of the room and you sing a song of your choosing. If you don't have one ready, we as a class pick one for you. 

I've had two really good ones. One, the young lady who sang the alphabet backward. She sang the whole thing back in tune! So random. 

The other one was during week six, and the kid’s named Johnny. I told him he had to sing and he said he didn’t want to. We argued back and forth about it, and finally, he said he would sing but only if he’s sitting. 

So he's sitting in the middle row, and he slides his chair over to a young lady and puts his arm around her. He starts singing the song I lost that loving feeling from Top Gun. Well, what I don't know is that he's a music minor and he can really sing. 

So he started singing, and we're all like, “What the heck?” And he'd been trying for six weeks to figure out a way to ask the girl out on a date. They are now married. How about that? 

Who is your biggest influence?

My mom, for sure. We were very similar to each other. We would butt heads at times, but as a result of that, I think we also had the ability to separate from the butting of heads and help each other to a better end. So without a doubt, she’s it.

If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

I guess it's two pieces. It's not what you know, but who you know. That's step one. 

Step two is don't rush to graduate. 

When you leave here, the next step is work. Enjoy your time here. Embrace the people you're around, embrace your professors, your colleagues, your registered student organizations, your athletic teams and the people that are here. This is going to be a really special place for a really long time. 

To rush out of here doesn't make a lot of sense. And I say it from this perspective: As a townie, I lived at home, so I didn't get the residence hall experience. My best friends are my friends from high school. So those relationships normally are your college relationships, and I don't have them. We're making (my daughter) Katie live in the dorms for the first two years because both her mother and I missed out on it. It's important that you embrace your time here.