The Howard Payne Lady Jackets’ undefeated run to the NCAA Division III women’s basketball national championship turned head coach Chris Kielsmeier into one of the hottest commodities in the country. With numerous job offers pouring in, one proved too good for Kielsmeier to refuse.

After nine seasons — the last eight as head coach — Kielsmeier is leaving Howard Payne to become the head coach at Division II Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., which is 100 miles northwest of Omaha and four hours from his hometown of Alden, Iowa.

“It was a decision to get closer to home and to take another step in my professional career,” Kielsmeier said. “It wasn’t an easy decision in any way. It still isn’t and it won’t be for some time.

“You go to college and after that, to me, you’re just always trying to push yourself in your professional career. For nine years I did that here. I feel it’s the next step in my career, but the biggest thing is it’s closer to home. It’s four hours from my house, where my family lives. My sister’s family is within four hours, my grandpa is within four hours, my parents are within four hours and my brother’s within four hours.”

Kielsmeier broke the news to the returning members of the Lady Jackets roster during a team meeting Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s hard to put into words. It was very difficult and very emotional for all of us,” Kielsmeier said. “But as I told the team, all this emotion and what we’re feeling is that way because we all care so much and that’s a good thing. Any time that you’re leaving a place and nobody cares, what have you done for that place?

“I’ve cried a lot. I love this place. This has been a special place to me and it always will be. The people are what makes this university and this town so special. I’m leaving some great friends, but in life, when you make a decision like this, you have to go with it.”

Assistant coach Lindy Hatfield, who spent the last two seasons on the Lady Jackets staff, also is leaving the program to pursue career opportunities outside of coaching.

Kielsmeier departs as the winningest coach in Lady Jackets history with a 179-44 career record. In each of the last seven seasons, the Lady Jackets either tied or broke the school record for single-season wins. Howard Payne also pieced together five straight 20-win seasons and four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament — the only four in program history — in which they advanced deeper each year. Howard Payne’s perfect 33-0 mark en route to the 2008 national championship ranks as the most single-season wins without a loss in NCAA Division III women’s basketball history.

The Lady Jackets have also built win streaks of 36 straight at the Brownwood Coliseum, 34 in a row against American Southwest Conference foes and 18 consecutive away from home.

As rewarding as the victories on the court have been, Kielsmeier has enjoyed just as many triumphs off the court.

“Howard Payne University has allowed me to grow not only as a coach, but also as a person,” Kielsmeier said. “How many jobs do people have that they can truly say they’ve grown as a person? I can say I’ve grown so much as a coach and a person and that’s a special feeling to know this place has helped me grow so much. I’m thankful for the opportunity that Mr. (Mike) Jones, our athletic director, and the university gave me.”

“We appreciate so much all that Coach Kielsmeier has done for women’s basketball, Howard Payne University, and the city of Brownwood,” Jones said. “He is a great coach and friend and we will all miss him. We wish him the best as he begins a new chapter in his life and career.”

No time table has been established for naming Kielsmeier’s replacement.

Wayne State is a member of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference along with Bemidji State, Concordia-St. Paul, the University of Mary, Minnesota-Crookston, Minnesota State-Moorhead, Northern State, Southwest Minnesota State, Upper Iowa and Winona State.

New additions to the conference this year will include Augustana, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State.

The Lady Wildcats have advanced to the NCAA tournament in two of the past three seasons, including reaching the second round this past year while posting a 22-10 overall record.

“This is a successful program that’s ready to win big,” Kielsmeier said.

Wayne State doesn’t have the same home court atmosphere as Howard Payne, though the Lady Wildcats were 12-3 at Rice Auditorium last season. Wayne State’s average home attendance was just 403, while the Lady Jackets drew an average of 1,616 per home game and 2,711 per game in three NCAA tournament contests at the Brownwood Coliseum during the 2007-08 campaign.

The support the community has shown the Lady Jackets and the relationship that has developed between the Howard Payne women’s basketball program and the surrounding area heads the list of accomplishments Kielsmeier most cherishes.

“I feel our fans are as passionate as any in the country, and I’m proud we could build something people care about when it wasn’t that way,” Kielsmeier said. “When I got here, people weren’t excited about women’s basketball in this town. Now, people love women’s basketball and they love our players. To me, that will be what I remember, combined with the fact that everybody involved with the program tried to do things the right way.

“I wasn’t perfect at times, our players weren’t perfect, but we tried to do it the right way all the time. We had tremendous success, won a ton of championships, and we did it the right way. People were proud not only of the fact that we won, but the way we won.”

Though Kielsmeier will no longer be a fixture when Howard Payne takes the court in the fall, one of his greatest hopes is that the love affair between the Lady Jackets and the community continues long after he is gone.

“I’d like to thank every person that supported Lady Jacket basketball, and I hope that support will continue to be there for years to come,” Kielsmeier said.