Q & A: Sports Talk

November 30, 2008
White: striving for "a harmonious relationship between the pursuit of athletic success and the pursuit of academic excellence."

White: striving for "a harmonious relationship between the pursuit of athletic success and the pursuit of academic excellence." Jon Gardiner

A hundred days into his job as Duke's vice president and athletics director—and with a few early-fall football victories to boast of—Kevin White sat down to talk about his new role. White spent the past eight years as director of athletics at the University of Notre Dame. At Duke, he'll be putting into action a strategic plan completed in the last academic year.

Since you landed on the scene, has anything surprised you about Duke athletics?

The strategic plan spoke very clearly to the fact that there was some catching up to do here at Duke. I was actually inspired by that, by the fact that the university had put together a team to take a good hard look at what Duke athletics might be, or should become, over the next decade or so. I'm not sure that Duke is in a much different position than my previous institution was prior to my arrival in the spring of 2000. This isn't the first time I've been down this path. There's an awful lot to do, there are some pretty significant challenges, but my sense is it's going to be a heck of a lot of fun.

One element of your agenda is tapping into new revenue sources. What might they be?

Some of the new opportunities in college athletics are in the realm of new media, but I'm not quite sure how that's going to shake out. In addition to that, at Duke we have some opportunity to create meaningful associations with corporate partners. We're not looking at over-commercialization. But we are looking at the possibility of putting together meaningful relations, so corporate entities might choose to be associated with Duke athletics and also with one another. If you negate all the gimmicky financial mechanisms in college athletics, there are only about six schools that aren't relying on some form of institutional subsidy to make their budgets. So we're entering into a pretty tough period as it relates to the financing of intercollegiate athletics. We're going to need to be creative.

Is there something at the top of your list of priorities?

Wallace Wade Stadium, to me, clearly is the most significant need we have. It's really going to be important that we put a football business plan in place. We have got to develop a passionate fan base that will, each and every Saturday, fill the stadium. We have got to figure out how to reconfigure that facility to make it more effective and efficient and perhaps enlarge it to some degree, potentially including club seating. I would think a minimum of about 40,000 seats is going to become a necessity. We've been very reliant on Cameron Indoor Stadium and all the revenue that's been produced by men's basketball. We're in an elite position when you look at men's basketball within this country. We've got to provide some financial relief, and it can only come from football.

The so-called Olympic sports are not obvious revenue makers or reputation builders. So what's the argument for enhancing those areas?

There's the educational component that students enjoy from participating in a sport at an elite academic institution. Then there's institutional advancement, meaning greater exposure for the institution. Revenue sports clearly can provide both, but so can Olympic sports.

Can we be sure that there's a positive correlation between a university's athletic success and its
overall reputation?

There should be a harmonious relationship between the pursuit of athletic success and the pursuit of academic excellence. And I think it's historically been managed quite well here at Duke. The question always comes up: What are the most significant challenges in college athletics? And I find myself saying that the most significant challenge is maintaining the appropriate balance between academics and athletics. That is a never-ending tug-of-war. There are places where student-athletes essentially major in athletics and minor in academics. At a place like Duke, student-athletes obviously major academically, and if they weren't majoring athletically as well, we wouldn't be very competitive.

Student-athletes may be competing academically, but they're also spending something like forty hours a week in their team sports. Is that a healthy balance?

Well, the demands continue to grow. Duke is one of those institutions where student-athletes tend to really get involved deeply in community service as well. It has evolved to the point where student-athletes live a very structured, hard-charging existence. But they know what they signed up for; they are a very competitive breed. Students across the board can't partake in every opportunity at a place like this. Student-athletes pick the things they want to focus on and excel at, and in that sense they're no different from their peers.

If you're focused on building a winning football program, won't there be pressure to make more admissions exceptions?

We believe that savvy student-athletes are looking for the whole package, academics and athletics. They're not just signing on for something that will occupy them for four or five years, they're making a decision that will influence their lives forty or fifty years from now. And I don't think there's anybody at Duke who is advocating diminishing academic standards in any sports, certainly not in football.

You've mentioned financial pressures and the academics-athletics balance. What else keeps you up at night?

If you look at the number of student-athletes in our program, with all the related transactions, it's a huge issue to ensure compliance with the rules both within the ACC and the NCAA. Duke has a reputation that others in higher education can only dream about. So we've got an awful lot to lose. What's the expression? It takes you a hundred years to create a reputation and about three seconds to lose it.