SMSU ATHLETICS: Hmielewski reflects on time at SMSU: ‘There’s a lot to be proud of’
MARSHALL — Southwest Minnesota State University Director of Athletics Chris Hmielewski announced on Wednesday afternoon he is resigning from his position effective June 4 after 15 seasons and 25 years at SMSU for an opportunity to work in the private sector at Benaiah Holdings, Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he will serve as their chief of staff and help lead three companies.
Hmielewski will work with Elah technology, a mobile tech company, Benaiah Management, an insurance and management company and Benaiah Capital, a digital assets company that is a family company of FinTech companies.
“I was recruited by Benaiah Holdings, Inc. a few months ago and at the change of the year, they called me and President Ben Wiener talked to me and put an offer on the table to help lead those companies as their chief of staff where I can grow and develop those three companies,” Hmielewski said. “Within the last month, our talks have progressed and I made the decision to move into the private sector from the public sector.”
Hmielewski added, “I’d also really like to thank the chairman of the board at Benaiah Holdings, Inc. and President Ben Wiener for providing me the opportunity to move from the public sector to the private sector. I’m very excited about the companies I’ll help lead; this opportunity only comes around once and timing is everything and it was the right time. I’m thankful for what they see in me and to be able to train me to have success not only for Benaiah Holdings, Inc. but also the three companies that are within the company that I’ll be working with.”
In 1996, Hmielewski was transitioning from his playing career in baseball with the Montreal Expos organization and the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the Northern League and came to SMSU to finish his education. After graduating in 1998, Hmielewski said his initial plan wasn’t to stay at SMSU, but Butch Raymond, Paul Blanchard and former SMSU President Douglas Sweetland helped create a position for him at SMSU.
“I was very fortunate because my wife Mary Jo grew up here in the region, so I finished my degree at SMSU and I had a great experience here as a student,” Hmielewski said. “I did not plan to stay at SMSU, my goal was to actually become an English teacher and coach baseball, but a lot of credit goes to Butch Raymond, Paul Blanchard and President [Douglas] Sweetland because they really convinced me that this was a great opportunity here at SMSU and created a position for me and gave me a chance to grow more.”
After working in the Office of Admission as an admission counselor, assistant and associate director of enrollment, a change was happening in the athletics department when athletic director Howard Gauthier left. Out of athletics entirely, Hmielewski said it was the strong recommendations from coaches and staff members that gave him the opportunity to pursue the position and he became the interim director of athletics on Aug. 17, 2006.
“It was a crazy week already because Howard had quit and I had gotten out of athletics because of my family and I stepped away from baseball,” Hmielewski said. “Then there was talk of who would take over and my name was brought forth by coaches and staff members and I was fortunate to get an interview and they asked me if I would take over.”
16 years later, Hmielewski is grateful for the opportunity he had and is proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish within the department.
“Here we are 16 years later and it’s been a great run and there’s a lot to be proud of,” Hmielewski said. “There’s been a lot of growth in our department and credit goes to our team of coaches, staff members and administrators; we’ve been able to create a very stable department and we’ve done this together and we’ve established the brand of SMSU athletics and what it means to be a Mustang.”
One of the largest projects Hmielewski was involved with was the creation of the Schwan Regional Event Center. While the REC and Mattke Field serve as the primary home to SMSU football and soccer and Marshall High School football and soccer, Hmielewski said it has allowed them to extend their facilities to the entire region in addition to helping their recruiting of student-athletes.
“When I was hired, they were in the middle of that project, but a lot of work that I did involved the scoreboard and sports marketing and inventory that’s displayed on the REC, the R/A Facility and the PE Gym,” Hmielewski said. “It’s been a great asset for not only SMSU athletics but the high school and regional teams as well and provided high school teams to showcase our arenas. Both our football and soccer programs have benefited from playing at the REC, but it extends to much more than that. The REC has given us a facility that’s arguably one of the best in the region and it’s also helped us with recruiting.”
Other major projects Hmielewski became involved in was providing student-athletes with the opportunity to further their athletic careers with the addition of the men’s and women’s cross country (2012), men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field (2013), women’s swimming and diving (2018) and Esports (2020) programs. With the track and field program, Hmielewski said their partnership with the high school and creating the Marshall Regional Track and Field Complex has positively impacted the program and built a strong foundation for the future.
“It’s been a lot of fun to put together business plans, hire coaches and provide an overall great experience for our student-athletes,” Hmielewski said. “When we added the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field program, we did a walkthrough of our facilities at the old high school which is the current middle school and decided we needed upgrades, so we were able to partner with the high school move the facility to the track and field complex and with their program we’ve seen not only positive things from an enrollment standpoint but we’ve built a foundation through our student-athletes.”
With the women’s swimming and diving program, Hmielewski said after having years of success with a men’s team, creating a women’s program has helped them move forward in Title IX compliance as well as create more opportunities for female student-athletes.
“With women’s swimming and diving, that’s another special one because we’ve certainly had a rich history for men’s swimming and diving, but like our cross country and track and field program, the swimming and diving program positively impacts with us moving forward in Title IX compliance and supporting and expanding opportunities for female student-athletes,” Hmielewski said.
Finally, with Esports, Hmielewski said their past provost Dr. Dwight Watson asked him and Associate Athletic Director Tim Steinbach to conduct research on the Esports and gaming industry and through the support of SMSU President Dr. Kumara Jayasuriya, they will have 40 student-athletes in the program going into their second season.
“With Esports, our past provost Dr. Dwight Watson, asked Tim Steinbach and I to do a presentation at the faculty and staff professional development day. We knew very little about Esports, but we educated ourselves and delivered to what I consider a good crowd of faculty and students,” Hmielewski said. “President Jayasuriya was looking for enrollment opportunities and he’s done a lot of research and had experience and a passion with Esports through his kids and it was an opportunity we saw for our students who love gaming. We’re very proud of the fact that we have an expanding menu of options to compete in and we will have 40 Esports student-athletes in year two.”
While Hmielewski said there are a lot of great memories from past teams and seasons to choose from, he added the volleyball team’s runner-up finish at the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and the men’s basketball team’s Elite 8 run in 2009 were near the top, but another highlight for him came away from the field.
“Our 2014 runner-up finish for volleyball at the NCAA Tournament was a top moment as well as when we were able to compete in the Elite 8 in men’s basketball in 2009,” Hmielewski said. ” But we’ve really challenged our student-athletes and for them to achieve a GPA of over 3.1, that’s been one of the best memories because it was the effort of our entire department and campus. We’ve done that for years now and I couldn’t be more proud of our efforts; sports are another way to learn life skills and we take it very seriously in athletics and it’s good to develop young people and prepare them for life.”
Working in athletics is a very tiresome job with odd hours and requires a lot of sacrifice away from family. Hmielewski said he is extremely grateful for his wife and three children for all of their support, understanding and flexibility that came with the ups and downs of his position throughout the years and is happy they were able to create a lot of special memories at SMSU.
“I’m very thankful for my wife for her support with the demands that this job has; it’s not a 9-5 job and there was a lot of flexibility and understanding involved when the position took me away from my family. I’m thankful for my kids, Andrew, Ashtin and Matthew because they’ve only seen me as a director of athletics and thought that was a cool job and we’ve enjoyed sports and did things as a family away from their activities and watched a lot of games together. I’m very thankful for my family and the opportunities they gave for me to have a professional career.”