Settling into his new surroundings at Lee Lohman Arena, Mike Holmes is quickly developing an appreciation for what the St. Ambrose athletics program is and what it can become.
The university’s first new director of athletics since 1994 has spent his first two weeks on the job meeting with coaches and gaining an understanding for the workings of the 29 programs he now leads on the Davenport campus.
"At the core of what we want to do is provide all of our student-athletes with a first-class experience," Holmes said. "At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about and as a university and an athletic department, we want the St. Ambrose experience to be the best it can be."
A Des Moines native and Simpson College graduate who has worked as an educator, coach and administrator since 1989, Holmes joined the St. Ambrose staff on July 1 after working as the director of athletics at NCAA Division III Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
His resume includes working as a basketball coach at the high school and junior college level in Iowa and as a basketball coach and athletic director at the University of Maine-Presque Isle.
Holmes’ interest in administrative work began during his time in Maine, a job he took in 2014 after spending six seasons as a basketball coach and instructor at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa.
"The first time I really thought about it was on a bus ride home from a game in Vermont on a Tuesday night, thinking about family and the time away from them while realizing that I was going to get home at 4 in the morning that night," Holmes said.
The program at Maine-Presque Isle was transitioning to the NCAA Division III level, a situation which at the time left the basketball program he coached with six home games and 19 bus rides a season.
The closest opponent was a couple of hours away, and frequently the road led to competition in New York City or Boston with no chance for a return home game.
"At that time, I never thought I’d give it up. I thought I’d coach until they told I couldn’t coach anymore. It was my life, my career," Holmes said.
"But the more I thought, the more it made sense. It’s given me a chance to be around my family more, and what I traded was being around one team day after day to still having an opportunity to interact with and have an impact on student-athletes, but doing so with a greater number of teams."
Beyond his work in intercollegiate athletics, Holmes’ passions include disc golf and baseball.
He has been a competitive disc golfer for more than 15 years and welcomes moving into a community that is home to a sizable number of disc golf courses.
He’s also an avid baseball fan and has already found his way to Quad-Cities River Bandits games at Modern Woodmen Park, which also serves as the home ballpark for the St. Ambrose team.
"This area is regarded as one of the top areas in the country for disc golf, so I’m excited to get out and explore the course here, and I’ve always wanted to be part of a community with a minor-league baseball team where getting to games is convenient," Holmes said.
"The ballpark here is really convenient to campus, and that might be like a gambler moving in next door to a casino. I can see myself spending a lot of time there."
In his previous job at Franciscan, Holmes enjoyed watching the institution’s 17 athletics teams practice as well as compete while getting to know the 370 students who participated in those programs.
He expects to do the same at St. Ambrose.
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"Here, I have more than 800 people in our programs to get to know, and I’m excited about that," Holmes said. "I’m excited about that and that is something that is just beginning."
He arrives at a time shortly after ground has been broken for construction of a new football and track stadium as the St. Vincent’s facility continues to be developed jointly by St. Ambrose and Davenport Assumption High School.
Holmes believes completing the facility will enhance multiple programs within the athletic department and provide a centralized location for the football, soccer and lacrosse programs and coaches.
"There are a lot of good things ahead for our programs at that facility," Holmes said.
At St. Ambrose, Holmes steps into a role filled for the past 25 years by Ray Shovlain, who remains in a position he has had since 1982 as the men’s basketball coach and an instructor in the College of Business.
Shovlain is one of a number of veteran coaches on a staff Holmes now leads.
"That says something about the quality of this place. At a smaller institution, you might be fortunate to have one or two coaches who have been around for a double-digit number of years," Holmes said. "Here, we have a good number of coaches with that type of experience. They will all be a great resource to me."
In each of his previous two positions at Maine-Presque Isle and Franciscan, Holmes has overseen growing programs.
He helped lead Maine-Presque Isle to its first-ever conference affiliation and a little over a month after accepting the opportunity to lead the St. Ambrose program, Holmes saw a goal of moving the athletics programs at Franciscan into a more established conference that made greater geographic sense.
Holmes appreciates the strength of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, a league the Fighting Bees’ NAIA programs transitioned to in 2015, and looks forward to getting to know the league and its leaders as time progresses.
He expects to spend a lot of time during his first year at St. Ambrose working to gain an understanding of the institution, its athletic programs and its fit within the Quad-City community.
Holmes finds cross-river competition against programs from Augustana College intriguing but sees that as something to be considered sport by sport.
"If our coaches feel it is in the best interest of their programs, I would encourage them to pursue those opportunities," Holmes said. "I won’t micromanage their scheduling, but in general, good rivalry games are good things."
In the short term, he is working to hire a men’s volleyball coach and a women’s golf coach.
When the volleyball hire is made, it will give St. Ambrose separate coaches leading its men’s and women’s volleyball programs for the first time in five years.
"They’re different games in many respects, and those programs need separate coaches," Holmes said. "We have situations in a handful of sports where similar situations exist, and we’ll work to move toward addressing those as we get the finances and those type of things in order. Men’s volleyball is the first domino in that respect."
That is part of what Holmes is working on as he begins his tenure at St. Ambrose.
"St. Ambrose does a lot of things very well, and we want to make sure that we continue to do that," he said. "That is where we begin, looking to build on the good things going on already on this campus. We want any growth that we might have to be good growth and sustainable."