NWAACC executive director puts students first

Azurdia wants to make athletics key part of junior college scene

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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Marco Azurdia had a spacious view from his third-floor office at Wenatchee Valley College. He was beloved in the community, and enjoyed having an impact on students lives as a vice president at the two-year college where he had worked for 20 years.

So why did Azurdia, 49, leave that behind for an out-of-the-way office on the Clark College campus, a space that he notes with a chuckle was once a bathroom?

"I've always had an eye on this job," he said, smiling as he looked around his cozy digs.

The job Azurdia jumped at is executive director of the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges, the organization that oversees sports for 34 two-year colleges in Washington and Oregon. Azurdia was hired in the summer of 2011 when Dick McClain retired after 19 years in the job.

Azurdia's vision is to make participating in NWAACC events a big-time experience for the athletes and the college community. His game plan includes making the sports experience consistently first-class at all NWAACC venues and helping coaches and administrators make the most of often limited resources.

"For a lot of community college athletes this is the end of the road," Azurdia said. "I want to try to move the league to make sure those two years are special years."

The executive director's responsibilities range from addressing eligibility issues and discipline, to planning major events such as this week's NWAACC basketball tournament in Kennewick, to long-range strategies for improvement.

"His energy level is just off the charts," said Dr. Walt Tribley, president of Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula College, who worked alongside Azurdia at Wenatchee Valley College. "Marco would work all day as vice president of student development and then volunteer to do whatever was needed at the basketball games that night."

It will take more than energy and passion to turn Azurdia's vision for NWAACC into reality. Azurdia understands that the cultures and challenges at the NWAACC schools are as varied as the vast territory the league covers. As a basketball coach for Wenatchee Valley -- he won 220 games in 11 seasons as the women's head coach for the Knights -- his teams played in front of lively crowds and he was often recognized in the grocery store. At more-urban community colleges, including Clark College, athletics is less ingrained in the culture.

But such differences shouldn't prevent every NWAACC program from providing a first-class experience for the athletes, Azurdia said.

"I'm trying to change that 'Oh, it's just juco ball' attitude," Azurdia explained.

His ideas range from implementing an online system for coaches to exchange game video (thus limiting the need to travel to scout opponents) to online certification for coaches and of athletes' eligibility.

As a coach and athletic director at Wenatchee Valley, Azurdia did not view limited resources as an excuse for a second-rate product.

"He does have big ideas, and I think that's a good thing," said Jim Martineau, the current chairman of the NWAACC executive board and athletic director at Clackamas Community College. "For Marco, it's all about the student-athlete experience, and he doesn't want it to be just another mediocre college experience."

Brent Darnell was the point guard for the Wenatchee Valley men's basketball team that won the 1996 NWAACC title. Azurdia was an assistant coach for that team in addition to being the head coach for the women's team.

"He had an ability to be tough, demanding and intense," Darnell said. "But when practice was over and you left the gym you feel like you were great friends. It was amazing the relationship he built with his players."

Darnell went on to coach girls basketball at Eastmont High School in East Wenatchee, a path he said he wouldn't have considered until he witnessed Azurdia coaching the women's team at Wenatchee Valley.

"He can get along with anybody," Darnell said, describing one reason he expects Azurdia to have great success directing NWAACC. "You might not agree with him or like his opinion, but you know where he stands on things. And he'll work with you. He's not going to throw you under the bus."

The advocate in Azurdia is clear when he discusses the need to raise expectations at each community college. That includes small details such as making sure a visiting team has clean towels in the locker room, he said. The bigger picture is to encourage leaders at every college in the NWAACC to make athletics a priority on campus.

"I would like to get coaches and athletic directors to help make athletics relevant on their campus," Azurdia said. "Is athletics the be-all, end-all? No. But I would say the same thing about music or art. Like those things, athletics is a vehicle that can impact and change people."

Tribley predicts that Azurdia is in the right job at the right time.

"Marco is an innovator and a person who has a vision for what athletics is and what it can be for students. It's absolutely a great fit to have somebody of his character leading the athletic conference," Tribley said.

Darnell, the former point guard, also predicts success. He's just not sure how long Azurdia will last with the NWAACC.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the guy is an athletic director at a big time Pac-12 school down the road," Darnell said.

Azurdia said he already has his dream job.

"This is it for me. I love coming to work every day," he said.

If Azurdia has one regret about taking the NWAACC job, it's his office. Not because it's a relatively small space without the river view he had in Wenatchee. But because tucked away on the west side of Fort Vancouver Way, he doesn't have the daily interaction with students that he had during his days as a coach and administrator at Wenatchee Valley College.

For that reason, he prefers a door is open so he can hear students' voices as he works to ensure doors are open for community college athletes — that they are treated fairly and have a college experience that helps them succeed beyond the sports arena.

"I got into athletics as a coach to impact lives," Azurdia said. "And this job is another significant way to do that."