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Publish date: Apr 19, 2011

One in a series of profiles from the Spring 2011 issue of Champion magazine.

Northern Exposure

Minnesota Duluth reels in its community to benefit athletics


By Gary Brown

The University of Minnesota Duluth athletics program sponsors 14 sports and has a payroll of about 50 staff members and coaches. But every second Sunday in February, they are one team working one event for one purpose at one place … with about 2,000 holes.

Using the beauty that comes with being at the western-most edge of the world’s largest fresh-water lake, and tapping into an activity that comes naturally to the natives, UMD stages an annual ice fishing contest that attracts more than 1,000 flannel-clad anglers, rewards them with $50,000 in prizes – including a new car – and in the end raises another $50,000 to support the school’s general athletics fund.

More than 1,400 ice anglers arrive to compete in Minnesota Duluth’s Big Jig event on Pike Lake. Many are there to support the sports programs at UMD, as well as compete for a chance to win big prizes.

That’s no small fish.

On the contrary, it’s the “Big Jig,” the school’s aptly named fundraiser that not only supports athletics but engages an entire community. Like many smaller schools that are regionally anchored, Minnesota Duluth relies heavily on hooking gown with town – in this case with a shiny, bright-colored jig.

While almost all schools’ athletics departments reach out to their communities, the Big Jig is, well, bigger than a car wash, blood drive or bake sale. Conceived more than a decade ago by UMD alumnus and experienced fundraiser David Kolquist, the idea of dragging hundreds of people and thousands of pounds of equipment onto an ice-covered lake raised then-AD Bob Corran’s eyebrows, and blood pressure.

“But it was one of those things that, after you thought about it for a minute or two, made infinite sense,” said Corran, now the athletics director at Vermont.

The light bulb certainly came on for Kolquist, who has a national reputation for conducting events to raise awareness and funds for ALS and other causes. He had been a volunteer with the UMD athletics department with fundraising for 17 years, helping with everything from annual campaigns to bowling events.

Football player David Nadeau nears the end of the drilling workout.

“We had some experience with fishing, and we noticed there weren’t too many ice fishing events – probably because it takes so many volunteers,” he said. “So we thought that with the volunteer resources at the school because of all the student-athletes, and their need to get involved to keep programs afloat, that the ice fishing event could work.”

The idea caught on like a 5-pound walleye. Longtime UMD men’s basketball coach Gary Holquist said it dovetailed with the school’s quest to develop a different type of revenue flow behind the concept of engaging the community and using the resources and natural environment in northern Minnesota. What better than to be on a lake ice fishing in the middle of winter?

“The best thing about it is that we do get a chance to attract some people who might not be regularly engaged with our athletics department,” Holquist said. “They might not be active spectators – and this gives us a chance to interact with a new clientele and expose them to what UMD athletics is all about.”

That has been the lure of the Big Jig, 10 years running.

Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, 7:30 a.m.

The stillness of the overcast Minnesota morning is interrupted by a school bus that creaks up to the crest of the ice at Pike Lake, about 15 minutes west of the UMD campus. Out of it spills about 40 football players wearing anything from heavy overalls and stocking caps to bright orange and down-filled jump suits. They are whooping and hollering like it’s pregame for the national championship – something this group is familiar with, having won the school’s second Division II title just two months earlier.

Members of the football team rest at the halfway point of drilling the ice fishing holes.

The upperclassmen are familiar with this morning workout. Today, they are lucky, with temperatures already in the 20s. It’s been 10 below with a wicked wind in years past. Two years ago, in fact, the event had to be canceled because it was minus 30, without the wind chill.

The football players stride onto the lake and commandeer 4-foot-tall augers with black, menacing, rotating blades capable of cutting through 2 feet of ice. Under the direction of football coach and current AD Bob Nielson, they line up and start their engines, sounding like a horde of bees, and then systematically and strategically begin drilling foot-wide holes about five yards apart for almost an hour, until the surface of the lake resembles a giant game of Chinese checkers.

“It’s my favorite formation in February,” Nielson says of his five-yards-and-a-cloud-of-snow offense.

Meanwhile, the baseball team is manning parking-lot positions, preparing to herd hundreds of SUVs, pickups and Jeeps. Softball players are hanging signs and banners. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams – just hours from having returned from a two-day road trip to Minnesota-Crookston and Minnesota State Moorhead – stand as ambassadors for their teams, department and university, ready to greet the army of anglers. Track and field athletes monitor weigh-in equipment calibrated to a hundredth of an ounce. This is, after all, a competition.

Andrew Jacobson and Jared Brohman post their claim on a few fishing holes after driving more than an hour to participate in the contest.

Nielson, holding a walking stick he uses to measure the thickness of the ice, takes stock of his kingdom.

“The nature of it – being on the ice and the logistics involved are a little different than the kinds of things you typically see at auctions and dinners,” he says matter-of-factly. Then, more emphatically (though Nielson is pretty even-keeled overall), he points out: “What really makes this unique is that it is a whole department team effort, from support staff and administrators to coaches and student-athletes.

“It’s more than just the money the event raises – it’s an opportunity for student-athletes to see each other working to support each other. It’s one thing to be there at each other’s games in that show of support, but there is a real team camaraderie that is apparent at this event.”

Freshman linebacker and environmental studies major Nate Zuk echoes that sentiment.

“It’s a good way to get fans, too. They see us doing this, and maybe they’ll come back and watch our games,” he says after drilling about 40 holes. He’s breathing hard but says the experience doesn’t come close to football workouts. “This is easy. I’d choose this any day over what we have to do for football.”


Throughout the day, UMD strength coach Justin May shuttles workers, visitors and anglers around in a four-wheeler, usually while talking into a radio, either giving or receiving his next set of instructions.

May has been designated as prince of logistics, an assignment he relishes, regardless of whether others might consider it a short straw.

Justin May, Minnesota Duluth’s strength coach, and members of the softball team ready the four-wheeler to be given away as one of the Big Jig prizes.

“We are a small school,” May says. “There are 54 employees and about 450 student-athletes, and we all do it together. No one of us is any more important than the other.”

But May has been doggedly dotting the i’s longer than most. From permits filed with the county, state and Department of Natural Resources; to contracting for snow removal; to securing sponsorships from corporations and local businesses that donate almost all of the 100 prizes the Big Jig offers, May has been pulling logistics levers for six months, and he says he should have started earlier.

When will he begin preparing for next year’s Jig? “Tomorrow,” he says.

Also on the move is Assistant AD Karen Stromme, who is a blur of positive energy. She’s essentially in charge of making sure everyone – from participants to staff – is having a good time.

Today, the 1,400 fishermen certainly are. They range from hard-core competitors to parents staging a winter picnic, tugging toddlers behind them in flat-bed sleds.

They are being entertained by UMD alum and professional fisherman Scott Glorvigen, who’s emceeing the event from a staging area near an official-looking leader board that by the end of the day will display all the prizewinners.

Samantha Lefebvre, a Minnesota Duluth junior and Big Jig newbie, builds a wall to protect her from cold winds.

Glorvigen and his twin brother, Marty, have worked the Jig from its inception.

“Marty and I got our degrees in industrial technology, and we’ve made the fishing industry our business and have made a pretty good living at it, so when they asked us to come back to do this, it was a way we could give back to the university through our notoriety as fishermen, graduates and being part of this community,” he says.

As accomplished pros, the Glorvigens are nationally recognized, yet they are local heroes.

“We spend a lot of time educating fishermen about new techniques and new products via TV, radio and the Internet,” Scott says. “I mean, look at this event today. All these people are out here, and look at all the equipment they are using. A lot of that stuff has been developed because of competitive angling. It’s not unlike athletics when you get out there on that edge and you push performance. The end result is that you have better products and better techniques.”

Stromme says the Big Jig is similar. She and her UMD colleagues have worked annually to improve upon the previous effort.

“It’s truly a collaboration,” says the former women’s basketball coach who in 21 seasons at UMD won 440 games. “Even in our promotional materials, this is not couched as a UMD event. Yet as the years go by and people become accustomed to interacting with our student-athletes, I see more and more Big Jig participants wearing UMD colors and congratulating our kids on their accomplishments. It’s a pay-it-forward kind of event.”

3 p.m.

Nielson blows an air horn that signals the end of the contest. About 150 participants have caught fish ranging from 5-inch perch to the more than 2-pound, Ford Focus-winning walleye, which Scott Glorvigen says “a pro would have been happy to catch.”

Bryan Johnson holds up what eventually will win the 2011 Big Jig, a walleye weighing in at 2.3 pounds.

The announcement of prizes goes on for about 30 minutes, after which contented pro and amateur anglers alike lug gear back to their cars. Once the crowd clears, the UMD men’s ice hockey team will clean the ice, completing the all-for-one approach that endears the university to the community. By morning, the holes will freeze over, but the warmth the event has created with Duluthians will stick around.

For the UMD folks, they are pleased once again with those lasting results.

“UMD is one of the only schools that does this sort of thing,” says senior softball player Sammie Gardner, who in just a couple of days will join her teammates for a trip to Denver to open the 2011 season against Colorado School of Mines. “By doing this, it helps build a lot of support for us. Each team here is benefiting from this, but it also gets people who may not be familiar with our programs an idea of who we are.”

Senior basketball player Katie Haas also has to prepare for another athletics contest later in the week, but right now she’s reflecting on this one.

Members of the Minnesota Duluth track and field teams take down names and fish entries at the official weigh-in station.

“This benefits not just women’s basketball but the whole athletics department,” says the biochemistry and molecular biology major. “So it is important that all the athletes from every team get out here and show the community that we care and that we are here for them. When you walk around and interact with the people here – I mean it’s not like we’re doing some huge service for them – but this shows that we appreciate that they are here and that they support us.”       

College athletics often gets tagged as “the front porch” of a university, which is why community engagement is so important. As athletics goes, so goes the local perception of the school, to an extent. In the case of Minnesota Duluth, the Big Jig is a panoramic porch with a luring welcome mat.

Coach Holquist likened the Jig as part and parcel of the school’s overall mission. He cited a three-pronged approach in that regard.

“Because our institution is so academically centered, we stress the whole idea of being year-round learners,” he said. “Second, we want all of our teams to strive toward championship-level performance in their athletics competitions. Third, we want student-athletes to be engaged in their community. Sure, the Big Jig is about raising money to support UMD athletics, but the whole idea of engagement and being involved with the community is even better.

“We’re an 11,000-student university and a big employer in this community of 130,000 people. UMD athletics is the front porch of the university, and we really do try to uphold those values of using our natural resources to be engaged in the community.”


Brad Skytta of North Star Ford (far left) gets ready to award the grand prize, a new Ford Focus, to Johnson.

Those goals fit not only locally but nationally, as well. Division II several years ago constructed community engagement – which differs from community service – as a pillar in its strategic-positioning platform. The division even altered its recruiting legislation to encourage schools to conduct more events in which athletics could co-mingle with the community (even if there were potential prospects involved) rather than just do something to serve it.

Everyone benefits from the approach. Kolquist, the Big Jig creator, said engagement is all about the details, ensuring that at the end of the event the customers are satisfied and will recommend it to their friends in the future.

In the process, Kolquist said, those who run the event – especially in the case of student-athletes – will reap the rewards. The participants may get prizes, but the student-athletes get something, too.

“The idea is to get student-athletes some experience in what it takes to do this instead of people doing stuff for them,” Kolquist said. “At the end of the day, they learn a little bit, they interact with the community, and people see that they’re not just looking for a handout.”

One young fisherman who was there with his father said as the clock was winding down, “It’s OK that I haven’t caught anything. I’m having fun here with my dad. All I want is a little nibble.”

UMD got more than a nibble.

“Student-athletes see this as not just giving back but taking responsibility for the direction we are going,” Nielson said. “They’re pulling together for the betterment of the entire program.”