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For Clemson’s first Black deputy athletic director, representation matters

Kevin White, Clemson’s deputy athletic director, doesn’t wake up every morning dwelling on the fact he’s the first Black person to ever hold that title at the university.

He’s far too focused on being the best deputy AD he can be, which means assisting the Clemson athletic department in everything from branding to facility expansion to name, image and likeness (NIL) initiatives on a daily basis in his No. 2 role behind athletic director Graham Neff.

Still, there are moments along the way — an interaction here, a conversation there — that help the 44-year-old White keep the importance and the historic nature of his role in perspective.

Like when he’s introducing himself to someone new and mentions that he works for Clemson athletics and their next question is usually: “So are you a coach?”

Or when he was walking down the Avenue of Champions on campus with Neff, ahead of the Tigers’ 2022 spring football game at Memorial Stadium, and noticed an older Black man on the sidewalk who was “kind of just looking at me,” White said.

“Do I know this guy?” White thought.

The man broke the silence.

“So you’re the new hire,” the man said. “We’re so glad that you’re here.”

In that moment, White told The State, “the gravity of the situation hit me.”

“Obviously, I’m the first at Clemson in this type of role,” he said. “So it’s not lost on me that it’s a tremendous responsibility. I try to make time for people when they call me from across the country — people, students on campus, our student-athletes — because somebody poured into me and somebody gave me an opportunity: Some of them that look like me, and some of them that don’t. But everybody gave me an opportunity to excel in this profession and continue to rise. And so I always want to make sure that I give time to people that want time with me.”

And his time’s in high demand.

As White emphasized numerous times during a wide-ranging conversation in his office last week, he feels like he’s only in the position he’s in thanks to the athletic directors who hired, mentored and gave him opportunities to lead — plus the dozens of co-workers who’ve helped make his expansive title of “day-to-day operations” easy and a caring, supportive family back home.

But the industry clearly thinks highly of White. He’s not only a trailblazer, one worth highlighting during Black History Month, but a well-regarded college sports administrator who’s already been contacted about multiple Division I athletic director jobs since joining Clemson in April 2022.

White has declined to pursue those opportunities, he said, partially because they weren’t the right fit but primarily because he’s in no rush to leave Clemson. He loves the school and enjoys his role and has big plans for Clemson athletics in 2024 and beyond. His ultimate goal hasn’t changed, though.

“I probably don’t get many calls about similar jobs because they realize you’re at Clemson, and why are you gonna leave Clemson?” White said. “The next step, hopefully, for me is the AD chair at the right place. … I know how special this place is and how fortunate I am to be here. I just want to be able to make an impact while I’m here and leave a lasting impression on folks.”

Clemson athletic director Graham Neff (far left) and deputy athletic director Kevin White (middle) at a Tigers football game Courtesy of Clemson Athletics
Clemson athletic director Graham Neff (far left) and deputy athletic director Kevin White (middle) at a Tigers football game Courtesy of Clemson Athletics

Life as Clemson’s deputy AD

He’s making good on that promise so far, just like he did in previous roles at Georgia State in Atlanta (where he got his foot into the door as a travel coordinator) and SMU in Dallas (where he started as the chief financial officer and became chief operating officer) and Northwestern outside Chicago (where he was a deputy AD under former Wildcats athletic director and current ACC commissioner Jim Phillips).

White likes to joke that his day-to-day role at Clemson changes every daily, and that’s not an exaggeration. In simplest terms, and as laid out on his school bio, White helps manage internal and external operations for the athletic department while working as the sports administrator for Clemson’s three-time national champion football team and its men’s basketball team.

That can and does mean just about anything: financial management, facility expansion, fan experience, communications, in-house broadcast production.

There are meetings — lots of meetings.

Last week, among other duties, White huddled with various co-workers to discuss the school’s Feb. 28 “Clemson Day” event at the S.C. State House in Columbia; early logistics for the football team’s 2024 season opener against Atlanta in Georgia; and the business impact of Clemson being featured in an episode of the FOX television dating show “Farmer Wants A Wife.”

Sometimes, his role can be as simple as traveling with the men’s basketball team for road games to provide institutional support — far from the worst setup for White, a longtime hoops lover who played a year of JV basketball at his alma mater, UNC.

Watch a Clemson men’s basketball game on TV, and you’ll probably catch a shot of Kevin White sitting behind the team bench. As the designated sports administrator for the team, he oftens travels with the Tigers, like he did for their memorable Feb. 6 upset of then-No. 3 UNC in the Smith Center. Courtesy of Clemson Athletics
Watch a Clemson men’s basketball game on TV, and you’ll probably catch a shot of Kevin White sitting behind the team bench. As the designated sports administrator for the team, he oftens travels with the Tigers, like he did for their memorable Feb. 6 upset of then-No. 3 UNC in the Smith Center. Courtesy of Clemson Athletics

But he’s always in the room, too, for the big conversations. NIL. Conference realignment. How Clemson can best position itself in the ever-changing space of college athletics, which is a world away from how it operated when White got his first job in the industry at Georgia State in 2009.

Neff, who held the deputy AD job at Clemson before succeeding Dan Radakovich as the school’s athletic director in 2021, recruited White from Northwestern to fill the department’s No. 2 role and has said he’ll make an “immediate and long-lasting impact on Clemson athletics.”

In less than two years on the job, White’s work at Clemson has drawn national attention. Outside of his aforementioned athletic director opportunities, the LEAD1 Association, which represents FBS athletic directors, selected White as one of nine participants in its Diversity Fellowship Program Class of 2023-24 last September.

The annual initiative, per a release, “aims to increase senior-diverse leadership throughout the FBS by providing athletics administrators of color and female athletic administrators with a year-long immersion program” that includes virtual monthly meetings, as well as mentorship.

The power of representation

In pouring into White and other deputy athletic directors, LEAD1 is trying to address a lingering diversity issue within college sports leadership.

In 2021, ESPN research revealed that only 29 Black athletic directors had been hired at Power Five schools since 1981, slightly less than 10% of the total hires over that 40-year period. And in 2022, 77.1% of all FBS athletic directors were white and 72.5% of all FBS ADs were white men, according to research from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Clemson has never had a Black athletic director.

White tackles the subject of race in his industry head-on and with a nuanced perspective. Never, he said, has he felt like he missed out on a job because he was Black. And even though he’s only directly worked under one Black athletic director (Derrick Gragg at Northwestern), White said all of his bosses have been critical in his career development and advancement.

Clemson deputy athletic director Kevin White Courtesy of Clemson Athletics
Clemson deputy athletic director Kevin White Courtesy of Clemson Athletics

But the magnitude of his position at Clemson is never lost on him. A lot of that perspective comes from his late father, Jeffrey White, who was among the first Black people to graduate from the University of Tennessee’s pharmacy school in the 1970s and had a long career as one of the first Black pharmacists in Chattanooga.

“But it wasn’t something that he ever talked about,” White said.

So as a ’90s kid with no Google at his disposal, how was he to know? For years, White never put two and two together on his father’s pioneer status. It wasn’t until he was a teenager, and his father invited some current and incoming pharmacy students over to the Whites’ house to visit, that things clicked. White’s dad, as one of those students told him, was “big time.”

“For the first time, I started looking and paying attention,” White said. “Now that I look back on it, I don’t know that I’d ever met another black pharmacist while growing up. … It was never something that he paid attention to, or that he highlighted. But I knew that he was an inspiration to those pharmacy students.”

The message, to White, was clear: Representation matters.

That’s why he feels so lucky to count Northwestern AD Gragg, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir and Clemson chief of staff Max Allen — all Black men in leadership positions at major universities — as three of his many mentors. And why he doesn’t take offense to the “Are you a coach?” question, instead looking at it as a chance to share with people about his career path.

Even with an all-hands-on-deck role at Clemson and athletic director dreams, White is serious about paying it forward, just like his father was with pharmacy students. He replies to every email he gets from a young person.

And he always makes time for their requests — job advice, an interview for a class project, a meeting on campus — because he knows the importance of seeing someone who looks like you in a job you covet or a field you want to pursue.

“For me, it represents so much more than just myself,” White said.

And the reminders are always there. After a recent Clemson football game, White was hanging out in one of the end zones at Memorial Stadium when a Black student walked up to him and asked if they could take a picture together.

White was confused.

“You must think I’m someone else,” he said.

The student grinned.

“I know who you are.”