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University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea, left, congratulates Dale Lennon, the school's new athletic director, at a press conference last month announcing the hiring.

MIKE MCCLEARY, Tribune

 Athletics and winning have been faithful sidekicks for Dale Lennon over the years.

 As a four-sport athlete at Rugby, a fullback the University of North Dakota and a coach at three colleges, Lennon has won far more than he's lost.

 He has no intention of letting that change when he steps into a new role as the University of Mary athletic director on July 1.

 "My role as athletic director will be to give coaches the greatest chance of success on the field ... and I'm too competitive myself to be satisfied with average," Lennon said Monday as he looked ahead to the coming challenge.

 Lennon, 56, will move over from another administrative position at U-Mary when he succeeds Roger Thomas at athletic director. For the last year and one-half Lennon has been the U-Mary director of public affairs.

 Prior to rejoining U-Mary, Lennon spent 19 seasons in the college coaching ranks at U-Mary (1997-98), UND (1999-2007) and Southern Illinois University (2008-2015). His coaching record is 153-75 with just five losing seasons. Lennon's UND teams reached the NCAA Division II championship game twice and won a national title in 2001. Lennon-coached teams won eight conference titles.

 Lennon played on UND teams that went 10-2, 6-4, 7-3 and 6-5. At Rugby, he was part of a strong run of athletes who captured North Star Conference championships in football, basketball and track his senior year of 1978-79.

 The idea of athletic administration has been rattling around in the back of Lennon's mind for quite a spell. Twice during his coaching career he was invited to apply for athletic directorships, but instead followed coaching paths that were too tempting to bypass.

 "Since then athletic administration has always been in the back of my mind," he said.

 Lennon said the transition to the athletic director's chair has been facilitated by his long-standing relationship with the man he's replacing, Roger Thomas. Lennon took over the reins from Thomas once before when he became UND's head football coach in 1999.

 "Roger and I go way back. we've been through a lot of battles together," Lennon said. "I coached his son (Drew, at UND) and his son (Drew) coached my son (Trevor, at U-Mary). We've known each other a long time."

 Thomas became U-Mary's athletic director in 2008 as the school was adjusting to the move from the NAIA to NCAA Division II status. Lennon said the move to the NCAA was a big leap, but the days of transition are past.

 "Roger came in during the transition and we've learned some of those lessons. We want to put some of those lessons we've learned into play and be successful. ... It's going to be a challenge. There are obstacles in front of us and it's going to take some time. 

 "Success on the field is not going to happen overnight. I don't know that there are going to be a lot of immediate changes the first year, but there has to be progress made."

 Lennon said there are things that must and can be changed in the short term. Two of those changes -- in the athletic website and the booster club -- will be quickly noticeable.

 A third is something about which Lennon is emphatic. He intends to draw upon the university's growing base of athletic alumni to enhance the school's sense of athletic tradition.

 "Our outreach to the athletic alumni will be very significant. ... We have to connect and bring them back into the fold," he said. "... We really want to bring the athletic alumni back and make them feel a sense of ownership."

 During his coaching career, Lennon learned that there are benefits to be found in coaching at public and private colleges.

 "It's beneficial to have been in both settings," he said. "There is definitely some carryover, but there are some differences. ... With public schools there's a bureaucracy that exists and channels that you have to adhere to. At private schools there's more of a direct route to an answer."

 And down the road looms a rules change that could put private schools in a better competitive position relative to public schools.

 "There's new NCAA legislation that will take effect in 2018 that will be advantageous to private schools. ... Academic aid will be stackable with athletic aid, whereas now students have to decide between the two," Lennon observed. "In the NAIA days (at U-Mary) we were able to do that."

 No matter how much success Marauder athletic teams enjoy under Lennon's watch, he knows there's always going to be a line he has to tread carefully.

 "There are certainly (high-profile) sports where you need to be successful, but at the same time you want balance in the athletic department where every sport believes it has a chance to be successful," Lennon said. "That's the trick to being an athletic director."

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Sports Reporter