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BOGACZYK: Kopp Provided Herd Athletics More than Vision

Dr. Kopp at the Hoops Family Field dedication




HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - In the wake of a stunning loss, Marshall University will have to fill the president's chair. The Thundering Herd athletic teams will also have to fill a seat at the games they play.

The death of Dr. Stephen J. Kopp of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday night leaves a large void in Herd Nation. In his 9 1/2 years as president of the university, he changed its profile. In those years, Herd athletics included the presence of Kopp in more ways than one.

He was 63.

Kopp took over as MU president the day the Herd officially entered Conference USA - July 1, 2005. He and his wife, Jane, supported Marshall teams with their presence ... again and again. When it was game time, the Kopps usually were in the seats.

And he supported Herd athletics with his vision on facilities, his commitment to doing things not only the best way, but the right way. The many facilities that were made possible through the Vision Campaign for Athletics will be only part of his leadership legacy.

And he was much more than a cheerleader, and so his death was a stinging blow to an athletic program about to send its C-USA champion football team into the Boca Raton Bowl next week.

"Dr. Kopp was a true friend and he was the best president I ever worked for, very supportive of athletics," said Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, an MU alumnus who has been the AD at four Division I schools. "He didn't  micromanage athletics; he let me be the AD.

"Whenever we needed support, he was always there for us. It's very unique that student-athletes know who the president is, but our student-athletes knew who Dr. Kopp was because he was always around. He went to games, football, basketball, softball, all of the sports. He went to as many athletic events as he could."

With apologies to the other Herd sports, Kopp's favorite was softball. In his younger years, he coached the game. He knew the game, as Marshall Coach Shonda Stanton learned early in the late president's tenure.

"I am truly saddened and heartbroken by the sudden loss of President Kopp," Stanton said Thursday. "I cannot even begin to explain the profound effect he had on me and our softball program. I can remember our very first conversation and he quickly communicated his passion for the game of softball. Having coached his daughter's travel team through the years, we discussed his playbook and sure enough the next day I received a copy of it in campus mail. 

"I will miss receiving his texts on Championship game day saying "expect victory" and will miss the emails and calls regarding how proud he always was of the way our student-athletes competed and represented Marshall University.

"I will miss his words of wisdom regarding our play on the field, and miss seeing that smile as he always sat in the upper left hand corner of Dot Hicks Field. More importantly I will miss his genuine, caring spirit.   

"President Kopp took the time to meet with every one of our recruits that came on campus, because he cared so deeply about every individual and every aspect of this great university. He knew our student-athletes by name and made them feel valued through his conversations and support."

Herd football Coach Doc Holliday and his team will honor Dr. Kopp's memory during the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday, with players wearing a "SJK" helmet sticker. On Thursday, in the midst of bowl preparations, Holliday's focus wasn't only on the opponent, Northern Illinois.

"I've never been around a president who loved athletics like he did," said Holliday, in his 34th year as a college football coach. "He loved the competition. He was always involved and talked to every recruit I've had here. He should have been a football coach because he was in his office at 5 in the morning and left at night, and he never told you `no' as far as visiting with recruits, their parents. He always came over and talked to our team.

"What's amazing is what he's done for this university and I hope people truly appreciate that. About $200 million in new buildings and renovations ... You look around the entire university, the arts center downtown, new engineering building, the pharmacy school, the physical therapy program, the new rec center, the new dorms, and in athletics, that Chris Cline indoor facility ... just what he brought here. He had a great love of and vision for this university.

"And he loved the job, he and Jane. I'm sure he kissed Jane goodbye and walked out that door every morning and he never went to work. He never had a job because he loved what he was doing.

"He loved to go to work, to roll up his sleeves. He always wanted to know what it was all about. The   academic side. The athletic side. He understood what athletics brought to the university as far as visibility and everything that went along with it. Not only was he a great president, he was a great friend."

When the indoor facility was dedicated on Sept. 6, a year after a new soccer stadium opened, Kopp spoke of what it took to make dream into reality.

"Translating a vision into reality is difficult," Kopp said that day. "Projects like this don't happen on a random basis. They happen because people with a vision roll up their sleeves and get to work."

Hamrick said Kopp has been intimately involved with the Herd in building success as well as building facilities.

"Dr. Kopp was very, very instrumental in the Sports Medicine Institute portion of the Vision Campaign, because that's his background (physiology and biophysics). And it will provide the best medical care for our student-atheltes. He was always concerned, not just for students, but for student-athletes. He knew how hard they worked. He knew their time demands.

"He also had high expectations of our student-athletes, and our graduation rates are very high. He always came to the football banquet, listened to our senior speak, and he got such a joy from that.

"He was always behind our bench in basketball. I remember one time ... he usually had to have talks with me. I had to have a talk with him and to kind get him to quit yelling at the officials. According to Dr. Kopp, Marshall never committed a foul, in football never committed a penalty. But that's how he felt about Marshall University."

The morning after Kopp's death, the Herd football team's Academic Honor Roll board in the Shewey Building was getting an update. From the just-completed fall semester, 33 players posted grade point averages of 3.0 or better.

The MU president would have really appreciated that, said Tara Helton, the director of the academic-advising Buck Harless Student-Athlete Program.

"Dr. Kopp was an avid supporter of the Buck Harless Student-Athlete Program from the beginning of his time here," Helton said. "He truly understood and appreciated the effort and dedication our student- athletes exhibited both in the classroom and athletically.

"His words of support and encouragement were always appreciated by the student athletes, as well as, my staff.  His great leadership and unwavering support will be missed."

Veteran broadcaster Steve Cotton is known as the "Voice of the Herd." But when Cotton wasn't wearing his headset and sitting with Kopp at various sporting events, it was the president often doing the talking.

It was fascinating to talk with Dr. Kopp because he was so knowledgeable about so many things," Cotton said Thursday. "In the stands at a softball game he loved to talk about the strategy, but the conversation would turn to anything from the mechanics behind a good breaking ball or the design elements of the new engineering complex.

"Ultimately, though, he would start asking about individual student-athletes and whether I knew them, their backgrounds, their stories. His interest in the students was evident.

"Dr. Kopp was a competitor and he loved that aspect of athletics. He hosted the annual quoits tournament, which was a fun time, but he was in it to win, too. Behind the smiles and handshakes when it was over, if his team lost, you could tell he was irritated."

Stanton struggled for words to capture Herd softball's big fan.

arshall University and the Huntington community have lost a true visionary and an exemplary leader," Stanton said. "His legacy is a journey from success to significance in which he embodied living purposefully, building relationships and impacting growth. 

"When I think of President Kopp the man, I think of Proverbs 23:7: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."  His heart was so full of love for others and I am thankful for his demonstration of that love. My heart goes out to his dear wife, Jane, as I will continually lift her in my thoughts and prayers."

Holliday said Kopp's presence with Herd football will be missed.

"Dr. Kopp would come in the locker room and always tell the kids how proud he was of them," Holliday said. "He was the team banquet on Saturday night, saw those 19 seniors get up and speak, was proud they're all getting their degrees or have them already.

"He was just like a proud father, watching those kids walk out of there with the success they've had. And it meant a lot to me, Diana (Holliday's wife) ... both he and Jane, because they were always there for us.

"You know, a lot of college and university presidents, they don't make themselves available and don't make themselves visible. He was just proud to be the president here and he loved his job. He went way too soon, because he was a special president and a special friend."

Hamrick, as the Herd AD, had the strongest connection with and the most contact with Kopp of anyone in the sports programs the president appreciated.

"Dr. Kopp meant the world to Marshall University and especially to everyone in Thundering Herd athletics," Hamrick said. "His loss will be felt by everyone. He will be missed immensely. He was popular among our student-athletes and always cared very much for their welfare.

"My last memory of him was in the locker room after the Conference USA Championship football game and how he happy he was that the Herd had won a title.

"I graduated from Marshall University in 1980 and followed Marshall over the years before I came back here in July 2009 as athletic director. And Marshall University has never, ever -- in my opinion, speaking as an alum -- had a president who has done more for this entire university than Dr. Stephen Kopp."