A Huge Year

Kevin BuismanKevin Buisman’s cell phone is rarely quiet. And when it rings, Minnesota State Mankato’s athletic director usually has to respond with a sense of urgency.

Like the Saturday morning last December when Mike Hastings, the head coach of the Mavericks men’s hockey team, called him. Several of Hastings’ players were suddenly sick, and the coach was worried that he wouldn’t have enough healthy men available for the game against Princeton that evening.

Buisman was in his office, getting ready for a football game that afternoon. The undefeated Mavericks could earn a trip to the national championship game with a win against the Concord University Mountain Lions, and Buisman was planning to meet the players and coaches in the locker room before the game.

But now he was focused on figuring out what to do about the sick hockey players. He started making calls.

By the time the football game started at 2 p.m., Buisman had cancelled the hockey game (it would officially be ruled a no-contest under NCAA bylaws), relayed the news to Coach Hastings and discussed it with key members of his own staff so that a press release could be drafted and delivered to the media and season ticket holders. He had even made it to the locker room and walked onto the field at Blakeslee Stadium with the football team.

“I sometimes say that my job is a little bit like being at the fire station,” Buisman says. “You don’t know what you’re going to deal with on any given day, but the alarm sounds and you have to go answer the bell.”

No alarms went off when his cell phone rang on the morning of November 20. Buisman was at the University of Wisconsin—Parkside in Somers, Wis., where the women’s soccer team was playing Central Missouri in the NCAA Regional Tournament. Buisman was expecting his doctor to call with the results from some recent tests, and when his phone rang he thought it would be a quick, easy conversation. “I wasn’t nervous or anxious,” he remembers. “So when they said, ‘You’ve got cancer,’ you could have knocked me over with a feather.”

A Banner Year

At the time of that call, two of the University’s athletic teams—women’s soccer and football— had been ranked No. 1 nationally and had been undefeated in the regular season. By the end of February, two more teams had earned No. 1 rankings: men’s hockey and men’s track and field. In March, the baseball team was ranked second in the country as well.

“We knew we had veteran teams returning, and certainly there were high expectations for them,” Buisman says. “We hoped we would be poised for a lot of success, but having four No. 1 teams was beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Paul Allan, the associate athletic director for communications, has been at the University since 1985. He’s never seen such a concentration of success. “We’ve never even had two teams ranked No. 1 at one time before,” Allan says. “We don’t go around pinching ourselves or anything, but those of us in the department who understand the history definitely appreciate the significance of this.”

Maverick football team celebratingThe coaches confirm that they had high hopes for each of their seasons—but they do every year. “As a coach, you are always working to reach the pinnacle,” says Todd Hoffner, the head football coach. “This year was no different in that regard. But this year, we had a lot of maturity and experience on our team. I would say the leadership of our seniors was perhaps the most instrumental part of our success.”

seniors_cup copy“Anytime you start the season with more juniors and seniors than freshmen and sophomores, you’re hoping that your veteran leadership will point you in the right direction,” Hastings adds. “We certainly had some expectations going in.”

Brian Bahl knew his team was going to be good, too. But when the women’s soccer team knocked ofTeam Celebrationf the defending national champions in September, he realized just how good they were. “That’s when I knew we had a team that had ascended to a different level,” Bahl says. “To go undefeated, though, was above and beyond and is a credit to how hard our ladies work and how determined they are.”

The significance of his team’s first-ever No. 1 ranking was not lost on Jim Dilling, an award-winning Minnesota State Mankato athlete who returned to his alma mater in 2013 as the head coach of the men’s track and field team. “It made me so proud to watch these young student-athletes achieve such great things,” Dilling says. “It gives the team confidence and reassurance that all of their hard work has begun to pay off.”

2014 Indoor Track ChampionshipIt also adds a little oomph to the University’s notoriety on a national level. That’s good for coaches as they are out recruiting potential players, but it’s also good for the University’s recruitment efforts in general. “It raises the profile of the entire institution,” Buisman says. He notes that the football team’s nationally televised game against Colorado State Universit—Pueblo for the NCAA Division II title on December 20 was a three-and-a-half hour “infomercial” for the University. “You can’t put a direct value on that kind of exposure,” he says, “but it has to help the institution when you have that kind of attention at
a national level.”

It’s helped Buisman, too. Being out of the office for surgery and subsequent radiation treatments has been a challenge, especially for a guy who had only taken five sick days in the past 10 years. But seeing the teams—and the staff—succeed has made that easier. “I’ve got an incredible staff,” he says. “They don’t need me. They’ll get it all done without me. … I’ve had to let go of a lot, but I know that there are people who are going to grow at a personal and professional level because of the opportunities they’re having.”

Outpouring of Support

Buisman’s first phone call after talking to hisdoctor was to his wife, Heather. It would be two days before he would see her in person and be able to discuss the diagnosis in more depth, but he needed to talk to her right away. “I sat there thinking, ‘What do I do next?’” Buisman remembers. “‘Call my wife. But then I need a plan. I need to think about how I deal with this.’ And right then and there I decided that everything I needed to know about dealing with cancer came
from our student-athletes.”

There are three things that every student-athlete hears over and over—and each of them applies to Buisman’s battle against cancer as well: Focus on what you can control, take one step at a time, and be prepared to deal with adversity. And as he sat alone processing the news he had just been given, Buisman approached the diagnosis like an athlete.

“There are a lot of things about cancer that I can’t control—but I can control my attitude and my effort,” he says. “I can’t get overwhelmed about what is going to happen next; I have to take it one step at a time. And finally, I have to be ready to
deal with adversity—and really, not only to deal with it, but to persevere in spite of it.”

Buisman got the news on a Friday morning. On Sunday, he and Heather told their two daughters. On Tuesday, he called a staff meeting. “I don’t call many of those in the middle of the semester,” he says. “There was a lot of speculation
about what it might be about.”

“That meeting was hard,” Allan says. Buisman had already told him about the diagnosis, but no one else knew. “It was Kevin by himself in the Johnson Alumni Room. It was tough.”

The staff reacted with stunned silence—and then, quite quickly, with a remarkable outpouring of support. “People lined up to give me a hug and wish me well,” he says. “It started right there, and it’s just continued. From texts and phone calls and notes on social media to the parade of meals that were delivered when I got home from surgery, it’s been amazing the level of support. We talk about the ‘MavFam.’ That’s a little bit of branding on our part, but it’s also very much a reality for me.”

The positive attitude Buisman has maintained throughout his experience has had an impact on
those around him as well. “Seeing how strong and determined he was right from the very beginning
has inspired all of us,” Bahl says.

“We’ve all drawn strength from him,” Hastings adds. “You want positive example setters for your athletes, and the example Kevin is setting on how to deal with adversity has been incredible.”

Buisman has been open about his own experience so that he can set an example for other men as well. “What Kevin’s going through has made all of us examine what we are doing in our own lives to take care of ourselves and our families,” Dilling says. “Kevin made it abundantly clear that you cannot postpone checkups or put your personal health on the backburner, even though collegiate athletics can be incredibly time-consuming.”

“I know that I can be stubborn,” Buisman says. “And if I’m stubborn, then there are probably a bunch of other guys like me. I hope they can see what happened to me and just get in and get a physical.”

Raising the Bar

In January, Buisman had surgery to remove 14 lymph nodes and the surrounding tissue as well as a tumor at the base of his left tonsil. The cancer hadn’t spread, and his doctors were hopeful that a 10-day course of twice-a-day radiation would render him cancer free. “We’re pretty confident in the prognosis,” Buisman says.

He’s also pretty confident that Minnesota State Mankato Athletics will continue to see success. Many of the coaches agree with him—and cite him as one of the contributing factors.

“It’s so important to have the resources you need—from support staff to great athletic
trainers—to be successful,” Hoffner says. “Kevin has put that together for us. He created a Division I model at a Division II university. Without those resources, it would be hard to be successful over the long term.”

But now, that’s the expectation. After you have four teams claim the top spot in one year, the bar is raised for future success as
well. “Success breeds success,” Dilling says. “I think that trend is already beginning to take shape here.”

“We all push each other, feed off each other and make each other better,” Bahl adds. “That approach just keeps moving the bar higher and higher.”