Sept. 26, 2000
by John Heisler
Kevin White, Notre Dame’s new athletic director, stood just north of Notre Dame Stadium, posing for a Chicago Tribune photographer on an early May afternoon.
Two students bicycled past the photo shoot, seemingly unsure of who the subject was, but thinking maybe they should have known. White smiled and waved as they rode by.
One hundred yards down Moose Krause Drive, the two students doubled back on their bikes and introduced themselves to White. Turns out they were members of the Notre Dame men’s swimming team — and they simply wanted to say hello.
The next night, White invited all of Notre Dame’s student-athletes to the Monogram Room in the Joyce Center for pizza. It was the middle of final exam week, but Notre Dame’s newest athletic administrator hated to miss a chance to meet his newest constituents.
Thirty-two pizzas later, they called it a night.
When Notre Dame’s spring sports teams headed around the country for NCAA competition, White was there.
Canceled out of a weekend trip to UCLA to see the men’s tennis team take on the second-rated Bruins in Los Angeles, he stayed home to see the Irish women’s tennis squad defeat Illinois-Chicago in a first-round NCAA match.
He’d never seen a lacrosse game before, but he flew to Baltimore the next day to see the Irish men’s team stun fifth-seeded Loyola. When the Irish celebrated in the steamy locker room, there was White, standing on a bench with an instamatic camera, snapping an impromptu team photo.
A week later he returned to Baltimore for a quarterfinal NCAA men’s lacrosse game at Johns Hopkins. The following week he made a pair of stops in Starkville, Miss., to watch the Irish baseball team take homestanding Mississippi State to the wire in an NCAA regional. Finally, it was off to Durham, N.C., for a couple of days to see the Irish track teams compete in the NCAA championships.
If you thought Notre Dame’s new athletic director would be spending his first few weeks on the job sitting around his office and reading up on the accumulated mail, you would be dead wrong. Maybe never has anyone hit the ground running faster than White did after arriving on campus in mid-April.
Notre Dame’s coaches quickly learned that White intended not only to attend games, but also to be a frequent visitor to practices. Irish athletes couldn’t help but notice.
White’s mantra is simple — make the experience of the student-athlete the very best it can possibly be. If you accomplish that, you’re off to a great start. White made certain his administrative staff understood that mission from day one.
At the March press conference announcing his hiring, White brought smiles to the faces of the many Irish coaches in the audience when he talked about his goal of making every Notre Dame sport competitive with the top five teams in the country.
Notre Dame finished 21st in the Sears Directors’ Cup all-sports standings for 1999-2000 and won the BIG EAST Commissioner’s Trophies for both men and women for the fourth straight year. White estimates that Notre Dame’s athletic budget currently ranks about 35th among Division I-A programs — and he knows that improving that 21st -place finish will come in part from a devotion of more resources to the overall athletic program, whether they be for scholarships, facilities or any number of other priorities.
In that regard, White and associate athletic director Tom Kelly (he oversees facilities) have embarked on an ambitious project with architects from HNTB in Kansas City to create a facilities master plan for Notre Dame athletics. He knows full well the comparative shopping that goes on in recruiting of the elite student-athlete.
An Amityville, N.Y., native, he hired three new associate athletic directors — Sandy Barbour (she replaced him as Tulane athletic director when he left for Arizona State) to oversee compliance and administration, Bernard Muir to handle student services and student-athlete welfare and Jim Phillips for community relations. Chris Reynolds joined the compliance program as an assistant athletic director for rules education, and an additional administrator will be hired to handle the varied human resource issues germane to a department that includes 250 full-time employees.
In the middle of all this, White also found himself in the market for a new men’s basketball coach in mid-July. It took him all of 48 hours to identify Mike Brey as his first coaching hire — and he’s passionate about the choice:
“I don’t know where you’re going to find more ‘stuff,’ as I call it, in a 41-year-old package. He has played and coached for arguably the most accomplished high school basketball coach in history in Morgan Wootten. He had an eight-year run as an assistant at Duke that may be unprecedented in terms of success (six Final Fours, four title games, two NCAA championships). Then, he went to Delaware for five years as head coach and did things there that had never been done before. I think he’ll be a great fit for us.”
In addition to hiring Brey, he quickly set about working on contracts to keep other Irish coaches in place.
More than anything, White is a people person. He’s a one-man gang when it comes to external relations. From the time he was hired he began calling, writing and traveling to visit anyone with a connection to Notre Dame. He went to see Gene Corrigan, one of his mentors, he sat down with Ara Parseghian. He met with former athletes, current athletes — anyone who could give him a better handle on where Notre Dame was when it came to athletics.
“I hear the music, I just don’t know all the words to the song yet,” White said.
Internally, he made sure everybody in the department knew they were part of the plan. A few days after classes began, he held the first of what will be monthly town meetings to brief all athletic department employees on what’s happening.
“I’ve never been in an environment where people love the place so much,” he said that day.
“It’s a virus, It’s intoxicating. And yet I think we have to understand that by itself that isn’t enough. We have to be effective at what we do to go where we want to go.”
There are plenty of Notre Damers who believe the Irish athletic program already is on solid ground. After all, there’s a football program that commands weekly sellouts and national television audiences and more than its share of attention. Women’s basketball appears to be a routine top-10 program, and the men’s basketball program is on the verge of its first preseason ranking in a decade. The other Olympic sports grow more successful every year.
White, however, takes nothing for granted. Where there are relationships, he has made improving them a priority. Where there are no relationships, he will build them, with a hands-on philosophy to boot.
Most impressive is how White attacks all these challenges at a breakneck pace. He’ll drive to Chicago Sunday nights to do a live radio show, arrive home after midnight, then grab a 5:30 a.m. flight for another meeting. Arizona State colleagues recall how he would go so hard for so long that, at some point, he would simply have to crash for a day or so.
As a former track coach (as was his wife Jane, both at Central Michigan), he knows that end of the business.
As an educator (he has a Ph.D, his wife has a master’s degree — and Kevin plans to teach in the Notre Dame MBA program next semester), he understands the student-athlete concept.
As an athletic director for 19 years at Loras, Maine, Tulane and Arizona State, he also knows, as he’s fond of saying, that “the lights have never been brighter and the money has never been greater.”
In other words, the scrutiny will be there.
Kevin White thinks he’s ready.