Photos by Hillary Ehlen and special to Bison Illustrated
Doug Okland has moved from the pool to one of the biggest non-profits corporations in the Midwest, Sanford Health.
As Doug Okland will readily admit, his transition from swim coach to healthcare finance is not entirely normal. “Isn’t that the path everyone follows,” he said, laughing. Never the less, Okland has carved out a steady career in healthcare after his days as an NDSU swimmer and then head swim coach. However, his path to be being a Bison may have been a partial blessing in disguise.
After attending Bismarck Century High School and winning state championships in his junior and senior seasons, Okland was at a crossroad. He wanted to pursue swimming on a Division I level, but his parents could not afford the tuition costs that come with being a student-athlete. North Dakota State (then a Division II school) was not in contention for Okland’s swim services for the 1983-84 season. His final four schools were the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, the University of Arkansas and the Naval Academy. For Okland, the decision came down to resources.
“Swimming is obviously not a revenue-producing sport,” he said. “Scholarships are limited, so as I looked around the Naval Academy. I saw that was a program where you’re not paying tuition and things like that. So I was still able to get to a DI program while still being financially able to do it. The Navy also really interested me, so it made a lot of sense for me.”
After swimming for the Naval Academy in 1983-84 and 1984-85, Okland suffered a severe shoulder injury. This marred his ability to compete at the high swim standards the Naval Academy upheld. In fact, the injury, coupled with a knee injury had Okland considering retirement from swimming altogether. “I really had not intended to swim anymore,” he said. “And probably, if I had not suffered the shoulder injury, I may have stayed and graduated there.”
Regardless, with no real intentions of swimming, Okland transferred to North Dakota State for his junior year. After sitting out the swim season and having surgery on his shoulder, Okland planned to re-enter the pool for the 1986-87 school year. Luckily for Okland, North Dakota State provided him with a perfect opportunity to compete once again. “NDSU, I would say, was a little more of a casual program. They did not have scholarships or anything like that,” he said. “I swam for NDSU but was kind of limited as to the amount of work I could put in. I was still having a lot of problems with my shoulder, but going from the Division I level to the Division II level, I was still able to be competitive for them at the Division II level. It kind of fit where I was at since I was not at the same level of training that I had been at when I was swimming for Navy.”
Under coach Paul Kloster, Okland swam for NDSU in the 1986-87 and 1987-88 school years. In that time, he was working as an assistant swim coach for Fargo North High School as well as working towards his master’s in Physical Education. As soon as he left the pool for good, Okland was called upon by North Dakota State once again, this time in a leadership role. “I think at that time NDSU was trying to figure out where it wanted to be with swimming,” he said. “So then I had taken over as the head men’s and women’s swimming coach for the next two years.”
It was then in 1989 that North Dakota State opted to cut golf, tennis and swimming as varsity sports. This was due to statewide budget cuts at the university level. While Okland struggled to vocalize the decision to his athletes, he understood the choice.
“It was frustrating but I absolutely understood it. I think they either had to make a significant investment to grow the program or cut the program,” Okland said. “The hard part was talking to the athletes that were there and had worked hard. Obviously, I have a bond with them through that process and I saw they’re frustration level. For me personally, I was at a point in my life where I was kind of figuring out what I was going to do long-term anyway, so I understood it. I’ve never had any hard feelings, it was never personal.” Despite the decision, Okland maintains his Bison fandom as well as his Team Maker status today.
Due to the cutting of swimming, Doug Okland was at another turning point. While NDSU offered him a graduate assistant position, he decided to turn it down. However, he was not ready to move away from Fargo either. He did opt to change his area of study from Physical Education though. “My wife was still in college, so I was not looking to move or anything like that,” he said. “After they cut swimming, I began working on getting my MBA with a lot of accounting classes and things like that. I took a temporary clerk job at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota ended up working there for five years with several nice promotions along the way.”
That was the beginning of a new point in Okland’s professional career. Since leaving Blue Cross Blue Shield, he has continued to work in healthcare finance in some capacity. From Blue Cross Blue Shield, he moved onto aiding Med-Center One in merging business offices with Bismarck Hospital in his hometown. “I’ve kind of stayed in healthcare finance since then,” he said. “I was with Merit Care for a bit and then I joined Eide Bailly for five years in Sioux Falls. Then I went back to Merit Care before the merger with Sanford, so it’s been about 29 years of that.”
Okland has been with Sanford Health, arguably the largest non-profit corporation in the Upper Midwest for 11 years now. Originally, he was the Chief Financial Officer of just the Fargo region. Due to some structural changes at Sanford, Okland became the Vice President of Finance for the entire corporation three years ago. While that may sound like plenty of technicalities and jargon, Okland simplifies it rather easily. “So my day-to-day duties are basically looking at the standardization across all of our markets,” he said. “I make sure that no matter which Sanford you walk into, there’s the same look, feel and touch to it.”
It is this brand and consistent label that has made Sanford Health what it is today. To the point that you cannot walk down a street in Fargo, Sioux Falls or Bismarck without seeing Sanford’s logo. For Okland, who came to Sanford before its rapid growth in the Midwest, it is exciting to see what Sanford has become.
“Our CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft is very much a visionary and he recognizes that the healthcare industry is going through tremendous change and you either grow or you get out,” he said. “We have been fortunate to be backed by an incredible philanthropist in Denny Sanford that has given Sanford its kickstart to grow and look at opportunities. It’s been really fun to be a part of that and see the growth.”
Not only that, but Okland has been on the ground floor to watch Sanford pave the way for healthcare in general. The corporation does this while maintaining its non-profit status, which is relatively unheard of in the world of healthcare. “I think in the Upper Midwest and in rural healthcare across the country, we have become the largest provider,” he said. “Yet, we still have our leadership structure in each of our markets. So we’re still functioning as local healthcare providers, not like some of your more national for-profit chains. We have a very different look and feel. So it’s exciting that this model continues to grow and we have people coming to us consistently.”
Okland has also since passed his NDSU blood to his kin. His son Andrew, played football for the Bison in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, both FCS National Championship seasons for North Dakota State. While Andrew ultimately transferred to Minnesota State University Moorhead to pursue his passion for music, his father still enjoyed his son’s run with the Bison. “It was very exciting to see him pick the Bison,” he said. “Especially when we thought he would choose to play basketball over football.”
It’s been an unconventional journey for Doug Okland and one that has been filled with several pace changes. Just like his days in the pool, he has thrived in every role he has taken on. Now, he spends his day making sure the citizens of the Upper Midwest are given premier healthcare. Much like his time as NDSU swim coach, he is ensuring the well-being of others. Perhaps swimming and healthcare are not different after all.
Be sure to look for the print edition of our special Alumni issue on magazine stands or in your mailbox later this month.