Dana Pappas is leaving New Mexico for flatter – and decidedly greener – pastures.
The longtime and popular Commissioner of Officials for the New Mexico Activities Association is preparing for a move. Next month, she begins a new job: Director of Officiating Services for the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS, based in Indianapolis.
Pappas, 45, is a Highland High and University of New Mexico graduate. She has been the NMAA’s officials czar since 2004. She will continue in that role through the end of July before heading to Indiana.
It is a new position being created by the NFHS.
“Exciting and daunting all at once,” Pappas said.
The NFHS has not previously had a position specifically created to address officiating, Pappas said, adding that her efforts with the NMAA got the attention of Indianapolis.
“She’s been superb in everything she’s done,” said current NMAA executive director Sally Marquez. It was Marquez’s predecessor, Gary Tripp, who made the decision 17 years ago to elevate Pappas to COO.
“Her strength is in relationship building and being able to have people come in and be a part of the association. Her connections are second to none.”
Pappas is due to begin work at her new job on Aug. 1. The NMAA already has advertised the position and hopes to have someone in place soon.
As Pappas departs New Mexico, she acknowledges that one of the primary issues her replacement will confront is one she’s been dealing with for years:
Namely, recruiting, and retaining, new – and, hopefully, younger – officials. Many older officials, in particular football referees, are aging out.
“This year is going to be especially challenging, coming off of the pandemic,” Pappas said. “Because we don’t know how it’s going to look. We had about 13-15 percent of our officials who opted out (in 2020). It’s a unique challenge, who is going to return post-pandemic.”
Among the highlights of Pappas’ tenure with the NMAA is creating the NMAA’s referee educational forum, which is in its 15th year. It is an ongoing program in which the state’s basketball officials gain guidance and training from NCAA and NBA officials in areas outside the rule book, things like communication and game management.
“There’s no other way to get that other than experience, or from people who have experienced it,” Pappas said. “I’m very proud that as a state, we’ve been able to broaden the training outside the rule book.”
She also spearheaded the creation of the first all-female officiating crew at the state basketball tournament. That crew worked the Gallup-Roswell Class 5A girls final in 2016.
“It was groundbreaking in the country,” Pappas said. “Which didn’t make sense. Aren’t more states doing it? But we were the first state to do that.”
At the NFHS, among her new duties will be to perform assessments with the 51 state associations, including the District of Columbia.
“Every state is structured so differently,” she said. “It’s about trying to figure out what the (NFHS) is doing well, what are they doing not so well. How can we better serve not only the state associations, but the thousands of officials that come under their charge?”
In New Mexico, Pappas has developed a reputation as a tireless proponent for officiating.
“She sees the potential in all her officials,” said Pappas’ assistant at the NMAA, Nate Acosta. “She makes all of us want to be better.”
Pappas’ husband, Ed Drangmeister, the athletic coordinator for Albuquerque Public Schools, will eventually join his wife in Indianapolis, though they will be separated for a while at first.
However, there is a major silver lining down the road: They are both huge Chicago Blackhawks fans, and Chicago is only a 2-hour drive from Indianapolis.
But Pappas has built long-lasting ties in New Mexico, personally and professionally, and the move to the Midwest will be emotional for that reason.
“I started there (in 1997) fresh out of college, and you approach it thinking of it as a job, something that will pay my bills,” she said. “It quickly became my passion, it quickly become my lifeblood, and it really didn’t have anything to do with work. It had to do with the people.
“The (New Mexico) officiating family has meant absolutely everything to me. They’ve been with me through every good moment, every bad moment. … It became something so much bigger than I ever thought it would be. It’s enriched me in ways I cannot express. It’s meant everything to me. They are a huge part of my life, and my heart.”