SBJ/June 9-15, 2014/In Depth

'People look to him'

How a former high school track and field coach rose to become one of the most influential people in college sports

A line in Kevin White’s favorite book, the J.R. Moehringer memoir “The Tender Bar,” explains that so many of life’s nuances will be lost in time, and all that anyone will remember is “the extent to which I tried or did not try.”

It’s an idyllic reduction of life to the simplest terms, which is why it fits the Duke athletic director so well.

For White, 63, the job is about simple concepts, like being there. Duke won national championships in women’s golf and men’s lacrosse within a few days of each other last month, and White flew to Tulsa and then on to Baltimore so he could be present for both.

Kevin White, this year’s SportsBusiness Journal/Daily Athletic Director of the Year, has led Duke University athletics since 2008.
Photo by: Duke University
It’s about providing. Duke is in the midst of a $250 million fundraising campaign, with $100 million earmarked for facilities that will transform the experience and training for athletes in football, basketball, track, soccer, lacrosse and other sports. The school is more than 70 percent toward its overall goal.

It’s about putting himself in other people’s shoes. More than 20 sitting athletic directors formerly worked for White or mentored under him, including California’s Sandy Barbour, Stanford’s Bernard Muir, Florida State’s Stan Wilcox, Army’s Boo Corrigan, Northwestern’s Jim Phillips, Baylor’s Ian McCaw and North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham.

Those are the ways White will gauge the extent to which he has tried.

SBJ Podcast:
College writer Michael Smith and editor Tom Stinson give their thoughts on SBJ's Division I athletic director survey, as well as on Duke's Kevin White winning Athletic Director of the Year.

“In this business we get so caught up in egos and trophies and dollar signs,” said Barbour, who has known White since he gave her a job in 1991. “Kevin isn’t about any of that. Sure, he wants to win, but for him it’s more about the people. That’s the underpinning of what he does.”

A small, private school with 6,200 undergraduates, Duke is second in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup for overall athletic excellence, and the Blue Devils now have a football team capable of competing for championships, just like its storied basketball program.

At the same time, White is putting the pieces in place to ensure that these successes, especially in football, are not an anomaly. New additions to Cameron Indoor Stadium and Wallace Wade Stadium will make those historic buildings the revenue-producers they need to be to support athletics.

The competitive success, the facility development and the fundraising to drive it are just some of the reasons why White is the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily Athletic Director of the Year. White received the honor at last month’s Sports Business Awards in New York City.

“There isn’t anything that Kevin doesn’t understand,” Duke President Richard Brodhead said. “Whether it’s facilities or media contracts, Kevin is the consummate pro. People look to him.”

Where it all began

White, the grandson of Irish immigrants, spent most of his years growing up in Amityville, N.Y., a Long Island community about 40 miles from Manhattan.

His mother, Rita, was one of the first dancers in the Rockettes. She was a singer and dancer, and often headlined at
The Old Straw Hat, an Irish bar owned by the family, when she wasn’t touring with Bob Hope and Danny Kaye.

White’s father was one of the first salesmen to pitch the Everything credit card in the 1960s, which was the precursor to Master Charge and eventually MasterCard.

Those days on Long Island were where White learned to run track, and surf at Jones Beach and Fire Island. All five of his children concede that he’s still the best wave rider in the family.

After graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., White and his wife, Jane, went to visit his parents in New Port Richey, Fla., near Tampa and St. Petersburg. They had moved there from Long Island as Kevin’s father was battling cancer. White had no idea that the visit would turn into a four-year stay.

With a degree in business administration, White wound up taking a job as track coach and business teacher at Gulf High School in New Port Richey. That led to brief stints coaching track and field at Southeast Missouri State and Central Michigan before moving into administration.

SportsBusiness Journal named White AD of the Year at last month’s Sports Business Awards.
Photo by: Roxxe Ireland and Marc Bryan-Brown
At Southeast Missouri, White was one of two finalists for the head coaching job along with Tim Rademaker. White got the job and offered the assistant’s position to Rademaker, who went on to become a legendary track coach in the state over the next 30-plus years.

“What could have been a very uncomfortable situation turned into one of the best years of my life,” said Rademaker, who doesn’t speak that often to White now, but still considers him a friend. “That could have been tough, but he’s such a nice guy that he wins you over as a friend very easily. … He’s the kind of guy who always asks about you and how you’re doing, and how you became what you are. I admire him more than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”

White credits Rademaker for giving him the best advice he’s ever received.

“I remember Tim telling me to just be myself, and that will always be good enough,” White said. “Operate within your own skin.”

White never shook the running bug. He keeps a log of how many consecutive days he’s run, as well as the distances. A well-worn treadmill occupies a corner of his office at Duke. That’s where White says he does some of his best thinking.

“He’s a creature of habit and he’s extremely loyal,” FSU’s Wilcox said. “Really, he’s just a down-to-earth guy, something most people don’t realize.”

Corrigan, who worked with White at Notre Dame and Duke, put it another way.

“He’s this proud man from Amityville, N.Y., who loves working hard,” Corrigan said. “He doesn’t need to tell you who he is. He’s got his own rhythm.”

Words to live by

White’s colleagues know the Duke AD for his pet sayings and how they apply to his form of leadership.

“Athletics fit within the academy.”

Even as cynics decry that intercollegiate athletics are moving too close to the professional model, White won’t
relinquish his grasp on the importance of the school’s mission. For 32 years, he has taught a graduate-level class in sports business.

White was the first in his family to graduate from high school in the U.S., and his friends say that has driven an unabashed, passionate belief in education.

“You could say that I’ve been slow to move away from my educational roots,” White said. “Athletics are part of the educational mission, and if it ever unseats it, we will regret it.”

“I over E.”

White’s son, Danny, the AD at Buffalo, uses this one with his own staff. It means “intellect over emotion.”

“It’s pertinent to almost anything,” Danny White said. “Eliminate the drama.”

“Put the periscope up and survey the landscape.”

Whether it’s conference expansion, media contracts or the ACC’s grant of rights, White’s ability to see the big picture is why he’s become one of the most influential figures in the conference.

“As a commissioner, you need a few people internally who share the vision and understand what’s at stake,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “It’s one thing to hear from the commissioner or consultants, but it’s really important to have that voice from within the group. Kevin has been the strongest voice in all of that.”

“You can’t be half pregnant.”

One of Barbour’s favorites, she said, because White follows through on commitments and expects those around him to be all-in as well. Never has that been more evident than with Duke football, a perennial ACC doormat before the arrival of coach David Cutcliffe and later White.

“That relationship can make or break a coach,” said Cutcliffe, who guided the Blue Devils to a division title and spot in the ACC championship game last season. “Kevin is such a team builder. The only way to make it is to have both feet in the boat, and knowing that we’re aligned means everything. We’ve now got practice facilities as nice as anywhere in the country. We’re working on the stadium. We’re not done.”

Neither is White, who maintains a highly influential voice nationally and has advocated for ADs to play a more visible role within the NCAA.

But nothing gets him more excited than what’s happening on his own campus, especially when it comes to building facilities that are very “Duke-like” in their design and setting.

“We know who we are,” White said.

The same could be said of Duke’s AD.

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