University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman introduced new Director of Athletics Danny White Friday afternoon at the Ray & Lucy Hand Digital Studio.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman
“I want to thank everyone for being here with us today. To be in front of you twice in one week, truly says something about the sense of urgency we have in the leadership here at UT to move Volunteer athletics forward to greatness. Today, we are here to formally introduce Dr. Danny White, who we announced yesterday as our new vice chancellor and director of athletics. Before I hand it over to Danny, first I want to thank president Randy Boyd and chairman John Compton for their support in helping me find our new athletic director. More importantly, helping me convince him he wanted to come here. Their guidance and support has been absolutely invaluable. I also want to thank the many others in Vol Nation who have offered great advice and great support.
“I want to give you all some insight into how this all transpired over the last few days. We retained Parker Executive search firm on Saturday and they began to compile a list of potential AD candidates. I spent Monday evening and all-day Tuesday taking calls and talking to different groups inside athletics such as head coaches, senior leadership teams, student-athlete advisory council, the faculty-senate committee on athletics and groups of donors, just try to try to find out what we should be looking for in our next athletic director. We were confident that the position would be attractive and attract robust interest. We were immediately proven correct. Our search firm presented us with an impressive and diverse list of prospects, but it was clear who the top candidate was. It was Danny White. We moved swiftly, and I had my first conversation with Danny on Tuesday night over Zoom during the Tennessee-Florida basketball game actually, we both missed that. On Wednesday morning, president Boyd, chairman Compton and I had a 90-minute Zoom meeting with Danny, and that evening, the three of us flew to Orlando to meet with Danny and his lovely family. We were blown away by his ideas, his character and his commitment to both academic and athletic success. Shawn, Aidan, Molly, Caitlin and James, welcome to Knoxville. We are so happy that you can be here today to help us celebrate this great day for your husband and father and our next athletic director. Danny is a leader, an innovator, a builder. He comes from an extraordinary family of college athletics administrators, including the renowned and respected athletic director at Duke University, his dad Kevin White.
“As a matter of fact, a little side note. As I was reaching out and asking people for input about what we should be looking for in an athletic director, I was speaking with Peyton Manning and he said ‘I called coach Cutcliffe and said ‘what should I tell her about qualities in an athletic director?’ And he said tell her to pick someone exactly like our athletic director, Kevin White.’ And that was just really amazing because we did our best because we hired his son. The irony is, Peyton had no idea that Danny was on our short list. Danny has a stellar record of hiring great coaches and winning championships. His first task will be to hire a new head football coach and then to support the hiring of assistants and others in the athletic department. In these searches, he will of course be looking for fierce competitors and proven champions. But he will also be looking to assemble a team with diverse backgrounds and talents, a team with character and integrity, and a team that reflects his own commitment to all of our student-athletes and to the best traditions of the University of Tennessee. It is my sincere honor and privilege to welcome Dr. Danny White to the great University of Tennessee.”
Director of Athletics Danny White
“Good morning, good afternoon—what time is it? I don’t even know what day it is right now. I appreciate you guys for making the time to join us this afternoon. I’m really excited to be here and so proud to be able to step into this unbelievable opportunity. I want to thank Chancellor Plowman, Chairman John Compton and President Randy Boyd. I just met these guys in the last couple days and its been an absolute whirlwind. I’m so impressed with their leadership, their commitment and their obvious love and passion for this place.
“When I finished the Zoom on Wednesday morning, I got a call from the search executives and they said it went pretty well. I said, ‘Okay, what are the next steps?’ They said, ‘They’re going to be in your living room this evening.’ At that point I thought that they were being pretty aggressive and I like that. I would like to think that I’m pretty aggressive and we need to be aggressive here at Tennessee to get to where we need to be and to get this athletic department where it belongs at the very top of college athletics nationally.
“I will be remised if I didn’t talk about some folks that gave me an incredible opportunity at UCF. Dr. John Hitt, the president that hired me there. President Whittaker and President Cartwright who is the current president there. The student athletes, the coaches, the staff and the staff that bought into a vision that five years ago people thought we were insane. We talked about doing some things that had never been done before and it’s all been accomplished and it’s only going to continue. I’m very proud of all of the work we did there and proud of the folks that contributed in that effort.
“Our success and any success that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of at both UCF and Buffalo starts with building a strong plan. And I really look forward to doing that with student athletes and coaches here at Tennessee and other key contributors. I just had the opportunity to meet with folks that have invested not only financially, but also emotionally and in every way possible in this place for many, many years. I can’t wait to get to work with everyone on what that vision is. What does Tennessee athletics need to look like five and 10 years from now? How do we regain our stature as a dominant college athletics brand in the Southeastern Conference and across the country?
“Chancellor Plowman had mentioned about my background a little bit. I would like to consider myself a product of college athletics. I grew up around student athletes and around coaches. I was on campuses and had donors and teams over to our house. Like these guys, I was probably pulling on players jerseys and trying to get them to give me piggy back rides as a kid. My mom incidentally was telling me the stories of when she was a track coach, and she would bring her team here to spend a week in Knoxville for big meets back in the day. We have a long history in college athletics. I would like to say that we’re not smart enough to do anything else. We’ve all kind of found ourselves working in this profession, but it’s really because it’s such a unique industry, but it’s bigger than that. On our staff we talk a lot about college athletics not being a job, but a lifestyle and you have to be bought into it. You have to believe in it and you have to believe in the student athlete experience. Before anything else I am extremely student athlete centric and I want the student athletes here at Tennessee to hear that from me as the Director of Athletics. Call the student athletes at UCF, they’ll confirm it. Every single decision we make will start and stop with their best interest. That’s what we’re going to be all about and if we do that, we’re going to see greater and greater success and will help them become the best version of themselves as an athlete, a student and a person, so that they will leave here and have every success in life.”
“Integrity is an enormous part of who I am, of the people that we hire. I want a head coach that I can trust unequivocally, and I know that person will hire a staff full of high-character people. That goes beyond just staying within rules and following regulations, whether they be university, conference or NCAA. It’s bigger than that. It’s having the right moral compass that’s going to rub off on our student-athletes. Be a role model for our student-athletes and make sure that we’re developing them in every way possible, that their parents will be proud of, that all of us will be proud of. Integrity is huge.
“I believe college athletics is all about the people. Recruiting and retaining talented student-athletes, coaches and staff to surround them. I think the same coach can be successful or not based on how they are supported from an administrative standpoint. Everything that needs to happen from a day-to-day basis, the energy that we approach our job with every day to support our programs, it’s the people that make the difference. Great facilities like this and the benefactors that invest in things like this are game-changers obviously in recruiting. But if we don’t have the right people, it’s for not. We have to be very intentional about recruiting, retaining and developing our talent here in all facets at Tennessee athletics.
“Building a championship culture, we talked about this the other night. There are a lot of different ways to define culture. The way we’ve defined it at UCF is when I see student-athletes realizing, any team, understanding that they’re not going to be successful if the team goal is not bigger than themselves. Beyond that, the overall athletic department’s success and the success of all the teams around them is bigger than their individual team. When I see student-athletes going to support each other at different events and caring about what Tennessee athletics is as a whole, what that brand is that they’re all representing on the national stage, and taking pride in building that brand, that’s championship culture to me. That tells me that they know they are a part of something big, a part of something special and I think that’s where we can achieve greater and greater success.
“Some of that, a lot of that may already be in place. There are a lot of great things happening in Tennessee athletics. There are unbelievable Olympic sports that have accomplished so much. There is a great and storied history. We obviously have some work to do on our football program as the chancellor mentioned from a leadership standpoint, and candidly from a competitive standpoint from where we have been. We need to get to work on that.
“The Tennessee opportunity, I saw an opportunity and I am flattered by the chancellor’s comments about classifying me as a builder. That’s how I have always thought of myself. I have never worked at the big-brand place until now, and I actually like the fact that the brand needs to be polished a little bit. Needs to be elevated back to where it was not that long ago in the college athletics space. I am really excited about the prospect of doing that and bringing Vol nation together. Bringing the fan base together from a positive support standpoint, a collaborative effort. It’s not just the big donors, the medium-sized donors, all the donors. It’s not just the season ticket holders. It’s not just our student-athletes and staff. It’s everybody that cares about this place.
“If you’re upset or you’re negative, text your buddy, don’t put it on social media. Let’s build some positive momentum. We’re going to have new leadership in our football staff. We have great leadership across the board in all of our sport programs. They need all of our support, and positive momentum comes from everybody that cares about UT athletics. I’m really looking forward to the charge of hopefully doing my part to inspire that. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of deal. There is no one person that can do that.
“If we all work together and get the right people as I mentioned on the bus here, I couldn’t be more excited about the success that we can have here. We can compete. This place has already shown and is showing in many sports that we can compete for Southeastern Conference championships, which means we can compete for national championships. In the future, we want to do a whole lot more of that. Just a few comments from me, and again I appreciate everybody coming to join us today. I know we have folks virtual in the COVID era that we’re in. Whether you’re virtual or in person, thanks for being here and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.”
On what Donde Plowman and Randy Boyd said to him in Florida and why the football investigation didn’t deter him from the job:
“One of the things I think I mentioned that evening, or maybe it was in the Zoom earlier in the day at some point; if everything was humming here and going great, I wouldn’t be standing here. It wouldn’t be an attractive proposition for me. I was really proud and excited about what we were building kind of from the ground up at UCF, and this isn’t a ground up because it’s been there. But there is a lot of building that needs to happen. The challenges in terms of the NCAA investigation, the challenges in terms of not being where we want to be competitively in football—that excites me, that energizes me and I want to be a part of fixing it and building it. Going back to what they said, I think it’s probably more about how they said it. When I saw the alignment of the leadership of this university and how they connect with each other and as I mentioned, the obvious love that they have for this institution, it’s hard to identify. But my wife and I talking, we just felt like it was something that we want to be a part of. We knew, and I’ve known coming through the college athletics ranks, what Tennessee Athletics is and can be on the national stage in college athletics and again; I just want to be a part of it.”
On his message to the football student-athletes for a timeline on the head coach hire and the balance of innovation and tradition at Tennessee:
“There is no knocking on the tradition at UCF, and they take pride in the fact that they are so young, so yeah, it is different. I’ll touch on the first question first, I am meeting with the football team later this afternoon. I have never started a coaching search without hearing from the student athletes. They know a whole lot what’s going on, what’s going well, what’s not going well. I’ll ask them to vote, if they’re watching this they’re learning right now and I’ll tell them again this afternoon. I’ll share a little bit about my philosophy and how I will be approaching things here. I want them to vote on team leaders. I can’t meet with over 100 people and have a meaningful meeting. I want to meet with six, seven, eight, nine of them and give them a little bit of time, and give the rest of the team some time after they’ve voted on their team representatives, and give them time to download everything they’re thinking. I’ll ask that group to share with me, represent to me what the thoughts are, what’s the tenor of the roster, what they think they need in terms of attributes. We are not going to be going over candidates, that’s not fair to potential candidates. That has helped me in every search that I have been a part of and have led. I think it has been a big part of why the vast majority, if not all of those searches, have led to a better-than-expected first year, which allows a new leader of a program to get some momentum early on.
“In terms of tradition, I have a lot to learn about Tennessee. I want to continue to be innovative, I want us to be a place that comes up with that new idea. I love it when other athletic departments follow what we did at UCF and steal our ideas, I take great pride in that. But we are not always going to have great ideas, we are going to have some bad ideas too. We have to make sure that we don’t have too much pride to stick that one in the trash can because it didn’t work. But you are right, and I do acknowledge it’s a different place. The same things that we did at UCF aren’t necessarily going to be applicable here and I recognize and honor the vast tradition here, so it’s a balancing act.
On what his process looks like in hiring a coach:
“Ideally, in the age of social media and everything, it starts and it ends with the student-athletes. I’ve been able to accomplish that in all three of my football searches. I want to hear from them first, and I want them to be the first ones to find out who their new coach is. What happens in between – there is a whole lot going on there. I’m going to do a lot of homework. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and calling. I’m fortunate to have a pretty significant network in intercollegiate athletics, and I realize it is probably because of the way I grew up. I can get a candidate’s opinion from folks, and really understand who they are from a character standpoint. I don’t want to even be interviewing someone if I have questions about that. We need to make sure the person we’re bringing in to run our program is going to do it the right way, is going to do right by these kids, and is going to have an aggressive vision to get us highly competitive. So, I don’t know if I can offer any more detail than that because it’s a pretty fluid situation.”
On if he has talked to Tennessee defensive assistant Kevin Steele, if Steele is a candidate for the head coaching job, and if he feels he needs to have someone in place before Feb. 3 (signing day):
“I hadn’t thought as far as in terms of the Wednesday signing day, as I am kind of operating on about three hours of sleep for the last six days combined trying to figure this all out. I’m scheduled to visit with Kevin later this afternoon. Everybody is a candidate – everybody in this room is a candidate as this point. We have not narrowed this thing down at all, and we’re working through it. We are going to move quickly, and I think there is way, just as I have witnessed, with how quickly our leadership moved and moving us a lot quicker than we thought we would in terms of making decisions. There’s definitely a way, and I have done it before, to move very quickly and make sure that we’re not taking shortcuts and we’re getting the right person.”
On what he would tell head coaching candidates and recruits who want to know what the future holds for the football program:
“I’ve already learned and will continue to learn more, working with outside counsel that’s involved in the investigation. Just looking at case precedent with other NCAA cases. Until it is done, nobody will know exactly what the final results are. We will be very transparent and honest with the candidates involved in this search, and give them a good forecast for what that will look like.”
On what has allowed him to find outside the box, big-time hires that other ADs may not have considered:
“I think that what I’ve tried to do is similar to how we market our program, in terms of building a brand. Whether it be in a community, building a compelling case for support and philanthropy, I think the same is true for hiring a coach. How are you landing in a space where it’s distinctive? What is different about this person that’s going to change things in a positive way for your program? It’s going to change the type of kid or the type of talent you can get from a recruiting standpoint. What’s their vision from a scheme standpoint that makes sense for your institution geographically, recruiting-wise? At the end of the day, what I would like to do and what I typically do is narrow a list to those that I feel comfortable with from a character and integrity standpoint, that I feel like there is something distinctive. That makes them stand apart, that’s different about the prospect of their leadership. On paper, on video, you can do a whole lot of research online, as I do. At some point, it comes down to a gut feeling. The interviews matter and winning the job really matters. That’s where the final decision comes.”
On building back Tennessee fans’ trust as a new athletic director coming in:
“I’ll repeat what I said to our chancellor a couple nights ago: I hate to lose. And I imagine our fans hate to lose maybe as much as I do, but there aren’t many people who hate to lose as much as I do. I want the same thing they want. I want us to get extremely competitive, I want us to be competing for championships. If that could happen tomorrow, I would snap my fingers and make that happen. I am asking for their trust, to know that they have an athletics director that is going to work his tail off to figure out how to get the right leadership, the right staff and the right support around our football program. To make sure that happens as quickly as possible while doing it the right way. Because if we don’t do it the right way, it is not going to be sustainable. We need to build a football program like this University has had in the past, that is sustainably and consistently competitive on the national stage. I want our fans to know how bad I want that. I would not have signed up for this if I didn’t think we could deliver that. It’s going to be a lot of work, and we need their support. We need them to be positive, we need them to be bought in and supporting our student athletes. Imagine being a 19-year-old kid, getting out of bed in the morning in their dorm or apartment, and its 50 degrees outside and you have to go hit the weights and your Twitter feed is filled with a bunch of negativity. We can’t have that. We need all of Vol Nation to be bought in, be positive, and support this program because they are a big part of the momentum that we need to build from this point forward.
On if he needed assurance from the NCAA on its investigation into the football program:
“I don’t know that I ever considered that (the investigation) would be crippling. I don’t think a university, an athletics department and a football program with this much history and this much going for it is going to be crippled by something. I think it’s a matter of how long it’s going to take to climb out of it. I didn’t make this decision in a short-term type of way. I view this, hopefully, if you all will have me. Might be running me out of here in six months, I don’t know. (laughs) Hopefully, this is something that I’m building and being a part of for the long term. I’m not contemplating some of the short-term scenarios. I think in any reasonable scenario, as you look at case precedent with other issues that we’ve seen across the country, nothing is insurmountable. We can get through this, and we’ll get through it the right way, and we’ll get the program right back to where it needs to be.”
On what excited him about coming to the University of Tennessee and if he sought any outside counsel for advice:
“I talked to folks in my immediate family that are uniquely positioned to help me. Obviously, my dad [Kevin White] and my brothers [Brian and Michael], one’s an AD and one’s a basketball coach. There weren’t a whole lot of people that I could talk to, because of how quickly it was moving and just how confidential the process needed to be for my sake and for the sake of Tennessee. The more I learned about it, and what gelled it and sealed it for us, were these three individuals [Chancellor Donde Plowman, President Randy Boyd and UT Chair of the Board of Trustees John Compton]. The leadership, as I mentioned earlier, they really care. I really felt like I have and I would have their support unequivocally. It’s a big job. It’s going to be a big challenge. There’s strong leadership here. I was in a great situation [at UCF]. Never thought I would leave. If you would’ve asked me seven days ago, I would’ve said ‘Nope, never leaving.’ So I’m not walking away from something, I’m running towards something that I think is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore one of the most iconic brands in college athletics.”
On the fan reaction during the first few weeks of 2018 as UCF capped a 13-0 season in football:
“It was all amusing. There was more than one national champion that year. I look forward to a better postseason [for the sport of college football]. I think everybody knows that, and I think we’re on the right track towards getting it. I think it’s going to be awesome for college football. It’s going to be awesome for Tennessee. It’s going to be awesome for all of college football, for the student-athletes that compete, participate in it and should have the ability to settle it on the field. It’s kind of funny, I’m on the other side of that conversation now. Have been for a few hours now, but if I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing. What those kids [at UCF] accomplished that year needed to be defended. I felt like in the role that I was in, I needed to fight for them and what they had accomplished which was phenomenal. An undefeated season is really tough to do. I’d do it again for any of our teams here. That’s just who I am. As I mentioned, I believe in student-athletes and I believe in the true spirit of competition.”
On his decision to leave UCF for the Tennessee AD job:
“What makes this one different is the opportunity to build. You saw in the Orlando market, that where we were five years ago and what I was fortunate to be a part of there … I just think that being a change agent takes a whole team. It’s not one individual and it’s not a small group of individuals that are going to be responsible for what needs to happen here. But I want to be a part of things like that. I’m not a placeholder type of leader … If there’s not an opportunity to build and fight for something, I’m going to be bored to tears. I don’t golf, don’t have a lot of hobbies. I love college athletics and I love trying to impact positive change, and there is a great opportunity here to do that.”
On social media and fan influence on a coaching hire decision:
“The last few coaching searches I’ve done at UCF, there was that list of one-two-three-four-five. Everybody is debating who it should be, and the people we hired weren’t even on that list. I’m not paying attention to that list. If I am, then I don’t know why you hired me. You might as well just go look at the list, start calling them up and see who wants to do it. It’s way more in depth than that, and we’re going to be expansive in our search, make sure that we turn over every single stone and look for what makes this place distinctive. We’d love to excite our fan base with whatever the hire is, and hopefully we do. Sometimes as I think about it, when I’m in a room with people with opinions. All of them have jobs, and they’re way smarter than me. They could be a doctor or an electrician, and they can all do all sorts of things that I would not be able to do in a million years. But I’m a reasonably smart person, and I’m going to be really, really close to this. I’m going to have all the facts at hand and do my very best to make the best decision for the University of Tennessee and its football program.
“I ask our folks to know that I’m going to put everything I have into this search and make sure that we’re making the best decision with everything that we know. I think that they’re going to like the outcome. Most importantly, I think our football program is going to thrive as we move forward on whatever that solution is.”
On an up-tempo brand of football and how a new hire would win the press conference:
“Schematically, that’s a more complicated conversation. I’m not at a place yet where we’ve identified [candidates]. I need to talk to these student athletes and do a lot of work, starting today, on what type of recruiting plan, scheme, and vision we think is going to give us the best opportunity to compete in the Southeastern Conference. You always want to win the press conference because you want people to be excited and celebrate. I hope we’re winning the press conference today. You guys are going to tell about that later or tomorrow. Why would we want people to not be excited and positive about what we’re doing? But we’re not going to try to win the press conference by making a decision we don’t feel good about in the short and long term as the best leader to take us where we all want to be.”
University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman
On identifying Danny White as a candidate and how they are going to search for a new football head coach:
“I wanted to find a builder; Someone who has built a strong program and would want to come here and join me in that same task. That’s what I see. What I’m doing is trying to help build this university and take it to the next level. Building this athletic department and the brand as Danny talked about, that was probably the single most important thing that I was looking for. The second thing was [Danny] had already been an athletic director. Experience in the role and successful experiences in hiring coaches.”
On what stood out about Danny White and why he was hired:
“I can think of two things. The search firm said when they called to see if [Danny] was interested, he said ‘I can win a national championship there.’ I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what they told me. And the way he talked about this has been the iconic brand. It might not be flourishing like it has in the past, but let’s get that luster back. That was sort of a drop-the-mic moment for me. His experience, energy and positivity were all things that made it seem like a no-brainer.
On the vetting process in hiring a new director of athletics:
“A couple of ways to answer that question. I’ve said to people before, I have a really good track record of hiring effective leaders. They just haven’t happened to be in athletics. I feel confident about that judgement of mine. The search firm really did a great job of bringing forth candidates and they shared research with me. When I saw the ranking of the 20 best athletic directors in the country, and this guy Danny White was number four, that looks interesting to me. It was a fast process, but that’s why you hire a search firm, to really bring the people from the industry, the domain of athletics. I feel confident in my judgement about leaders, builders, and changemakers.”
On if she has any update on when the investigation may conclude:
“I wish there was. No. I don’t know any more than I said on Monday. I can’t believe we were here just Monday.”
On what the plan is with current assistant football coaches going forward:
“Those plans will be made by our new athletic director. So when he tells me what they are, I’ll be able to tell you. We have an athletic director and those are his decisions and responsibilities.”
On how difficult it was to convince someone to take the Tennessee athletic director job:
“I had a small search committee of three people – me, John Compton and Randy Boyd – and I decided that we were just going to take the big guns, go down to Orlando and put on the hard sell. And it seemed like it worked. In seriousness, I think that the alignment of the leadership at the University of Tennessee right now – I’m sure there have been well-aligned leaders in the past, but maybe not the recent past. I felt like that was a selling point of this place. I said to Danny, I think not of three-legged stools, but four-legged stools. We have three of the legs, and I think we need the fourth. He really seemed like he would be well-aligned with this team that we have.”
On bolstering positivity surrounding the athletic department:
“I love what Danny said. We need to be positive. It’s hurtful when you see those things on social media. I’m a grown-up, so I can’t quite imagine what that’s like for a 19-year-old. I think that would be a great starting point for us today, is to try to think about positivity on social media. Social media can be great but it can also be painful. So let’s move in a positive direction.”