White on facilities, increasing revenue and concerns in college athletics
In part two of our sit down with Tennessee's Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics, Danny White, dives deeper into his fund raising plans for facilities, baseball, and the biggest challenges facing not only his department but all of college athletics.
Question: In terms of building, ten days or so ago you introduced the Shareholder’s Society and it was announced you and your wife committed to a $250,000 gift. In reading the notes on the Shareholder's Society, it appears that’s earmarked for facilities and renovations, but you didn’t put specifics. It’s not the Neyland Stadium renovation project. It’s not baseball. What is the ultimate goal with that society?
Danny White: We have more information we will share with the fan base here in the coming weeks. I’m excited about having a public conversation with the fans. What does the future of Neyland Stadium look like? I would like their input. I think it’s kind of a unique way to look at capital improvements, but an interactive dialogue with our fans will be fun and I think will help us prioritize in the right areas in terms of what the fan experience looks like in that stadium. There has been great work before my arrival here on a facilities' master plan. I want input from our coaches. We want to touch every single sport to be able to validate we have the best facilities in the country and to give our coaches the best advantages in recruiting. I was with some donors over the weekend who were involved with the golf project and I will say we probably have the best golf facility in the country. How do we position all the rest of our sports programs to say the same thing. There’s been a lot of work done and as we continue this conversation in a more public way from a fund raising standpoint we will be kind of molding specifically what that means for each sport but that doesn’t mean we can’t start raising money for it now and we are asking fans, donors, alums to be a participant. This isn’t about us all sitting back and watching Josh and his staff and student athletes see what they can do over the next few years. We all need to jump in and participate any way we can. The Shareholders Society is a great avenue for the people who have the ability to make a major gift commitment. Commit now to the future of Tennessee athletics and we will work on where your gift goes. There’s plenty of time to determine if it’s Neyland Stadium or is your passion our volleyball program or whatever it is and finding the right ways to recognize your gift from a naming standpoint. We are already in the process with some of the new staff we brought in on the Tennessee fund and our existing staff. We have feet on the streets and they are out there asking for money. I’m excited about what the Shareholder’s Society can do here. It’s a program I have done at previous places. I think with the passion and size of our fan base we can take it to a whole other level here.
Q: How important is it that the volume of donors increases and it’s not that you are asking the top 5-10% for more? How much of it for you is just to increase the number of donors?
DW: I think it’s really important. One of the things I have noticed as a challenge and I knew about it coming in, but it’s probably a new challenge for me is some of the negativity of our fan base. I think some of that probably is bred from the fact that in a broad base way we are not asking them to be participants. That’s what we are going to do now. We have these unbelievably generous leadership level donors here that have done so much for this place and I hope they continue to do an awful lot for the future of our athletics department and I think they will. But we have to get more people in the fold. We have to get more people invested who have skin in the game and are helping us. I think as we do that obviously financially those dollars are going to help us invest in our programs, build facilities and those things, but also having active participants out in their communities in East Tennessee throughout the state and around the country spreading the good word educating people about the real facts on the challenges we are facing and how we are working to be the Tennessee everyone wants us to be
Q: Fans are asking me about baseball. That facility is not near the top of the SEC. Where is that as a priority? How do you prioritize facilities and what kind of conversations have you had with coach Vitello? Has that been a deep discussion or has that been a general let’s talk at the end of the season kind of thing?
DW: Normally, it’s a conversation I would want to wait and have at the end of the season. But with everything that’s going on and with a potentially unique opportunity with the downtown project we have had multiple conversations and we will continue to talk to see what that needs to look like. I would say all of our sport program’s facility dreams are a priority. I wouldn’t put one over another. As we find giving opportunities that will probably determine which projects happen first. I would say with Tony’s leadership and the success of the baseball program there are a lot of donors who want to help that program in whatever that means. We need to decide and we are in conversations to try and figure out what’s the best way to position Tennessee baseball and be able to say our baseball program has as good as or the best facilities in the country which is really in the SEC.
Q: I asked you this in your opening press conference, now that you have been here 100 days, how do you balance modernizing the fan experience and not compromise traditions? Where is that line?
DW: I can answer that question a lot better now 100 days in than I could at the press conference. What I have learned is that we (Tennessee) have always been progressive. If anything we have lost our way a little bit there. If you look at the history of Tennessee, just simple things like the Southeastern Conference was founded in Knoxville. We were the first football program in the SEC to play black players in prominent ways and have success on the field. We were the first from what I can tell, at least one of the first flagship public universities to build a national brand and we did it with this bold orange color. We were the first to make women’s basketball cool and did a whole bunch of things before anyone else in terms of women’s sports. We were the first to have hallmark facilities in the conference. So we have been first movers and innovators and I think that’s how we had so much success. I think we are honoring our traditions if we get back to being the first. That’s different obviously in (20)21, (20)25 and (20)30 than it was in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. We need to get back to being innovative. I think it’s been a huge part of who we are. That’s one of the more impactful things that I have learned since I got here.
Q: Aside from winning, what is a good game day experience in Danny White’s mind?
DW: Our fans are coming to watch our team regardless of who we are playing. It’s an exciting brand of football and it’s an exciting experience that they can’t replicate in their man cave or in a sports bar. There’s a lot of things that I haven’t seen yet that I’m excited to see from a tradition standpoint that we want to continue to nurture, amplify and enhance anyway we can. What are we doing that's innovative and new that’s surprising for our fans, student-athletes, recruits and evolving all the time. It should never be something that stays the same.
Q: How hard is it now with the man caves, every game is on TV? Is it more important than ever that the experience has to be unique?
DW: I think anyone in sport right now is dealing with that challenge and I will learn a lot here over the next couple of years at Tennessee and what that means. At UCF, we had very little traditions. We were one of the youngest athletic departments in the country and the stadium was about half this size but we sold it out on a season ticket basis because we made that experience so much different than a man cave. It was fun. It was a party. It was an electric atmosphere. We need to find what that looks like here. Our advantage here compared to a place like that or a whole lot of places around college football is we have this history, tradition, and passion that’s very unique. Like I said, I can’t wait to see it myself. I have learned a lot about it. I obviously already knew a lot about it. There’s already some things coming to Knoxville, seeing the Vol Navy and all the things that happen on campus which are way different than the man cave. What else can we add to that and continue to make it an experience that people want to continue to be a part of again regardless of who we are playing, regardless of what the weather is because they want to see what happens next.
Q: You have this reputation of being a marketer, branding guy, great fan experience, etc. where do you get your ideas?
DW: Usually in conversations and brainstorming. I have had a lot of terrible ideas. I need people like Tom (Satkowiak) to tell me when it’s a terrible idea. I don’t come up with all of them, but I certainly encourage our staff to be innovative. Think outside the box. I want our future to look different than anyone else in the country. We should be trying to be a leader in college sports. We shouldn’t be trying to follow anyone. Let’s be Tennessee. Let’s build a unique version of Tennessee athletics that’s better and more exciting than anyone else has thought of.
Q: Big picture, lots of sweeping changes in college athletics particularly name, image, likeness. How do you put a plan together for that?
DW: In all likelihood we are going to be advantaged because we are the flagship of the state of Tennessee. We have this awesome huge fan base, but we are not spending a lot of time strategizing on something that no one knows what the rules of engagement are going to be yet. There are more important things to do right now. Once that’s determined and the NCAA sets the new rules we are going to dive in and figure out how we can do right by student athletes and make sure that we are staying true to what we have been and will continue to be. That is developing men and women as people as students as athletes. We want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the most important part of the mission of college athletics. But if we can create an advantage out of that opportunity then we are going to do it.
Q: Biggest concern you have for college athletics as a college athletics director for the next 2-5 years?
DW: I would say NIL (name, image, likeness) is the biggest concern. If we allow an enterprise that’s unique in the world and it’s made our system of higher education the best in the world…It’s such a special tradition in our country. If we allow it to become minor league sports I think it’s going to be a shame. It will have such a negative impact in the long run over college athletics. We can’t allow that to happen. The connection in terms of student athletes, alumni, fans, the university watching students of the university compete is an enormous part of the fabric of college sports and what makes it popular and what makes it work. We have to be careful as we roll this out. I can’t think of an example in minor league sports where a 100-thousand people are coming to watch. It’s not going to be as successful if we allow it to go too far. I think there’s going to be a lot of change in the next 5-10 years, but how we manage NIL is the biggest thing I’m concerned about.
Q: Next 100 days excites you why?
DW: I think we will be able to be a lot more productive. We have spent a lot of time on more foundational work: staffing, organizing, programming. Our fans are going to be able to see a whole lot more. We will be asking our fans to engage in very aggressive ways over the next 100 days. I think can accomplish a lot between now and the start of football season. I’m obviously excited to get my family up here in June. That will be great. I think people are going to be excited about what they see coming out of the athletics department here in the next 100 days.