If you would have asked Danny White a week ago if he would make the career move from Orlando to Knoxville, he would have said, “No. Never leaving.”
Since time machines don’t exist, White is now the athletic director at the University of Tennessee — a decision that was made quickly and quietly, and left him sleepless for days, he said.
White was officially introduced as the Vols athletic director by UT Chancellor Donde Plowman in a press conference in Knoxville on Friday afternoon. White will be replacing Phillip Fulmer, who said he would retire as soon as his replacement was found. Fulmer said his retirement was unrelated to the NCAA investigation underway at the university.
Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired for cause Monday after he was found violating multiple NCAA recruiting rules.
In what proved to be a hectic week within the Tennessee athletic program, Plowman said Friday the quick transition into White’s introduction “truly says something about the sense of urgency we have in the leadership here at UT to move Volunteer athletics forward to greatness.”
At the top of White’s remarks, he thanked UCF’s past presidents, student-athletes, coaches and staff who all “bought into a vision that five years ago people thought we were insane.”
While White said he was proud of the work he and his colleagues accomplished at UCF since his hiring in 2015, he said he was not “walking away” from it. “I’m running toward something I think is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore one of the most iconic brands in college athletics,” he said.
However, he did not move forward in laying out his plans for the future of the Vols athletic program without nodding to the success he had at UCF. Here’s how he compared the two from culture to priorities to finding a head coach:
Launching a head coach search
White’s first task as Tennessee athletic director would be to take on the search for a new head football coach, he said in an initial statement Thursday after UT announced his hire. This isn’t White’s first head coach search — which is one of the major reasons Plowman considered him a frontrunner for the position.
At UCF, White was responsible for launching several head coach searches which ended in the likes of Scott Frost (football), Josh Heupel (football), Johnny Dawkins (men’s basketball), Katie Abrahamson-Henderson (women’s basketball) and Greg Lovelady (baseball), among others.
As the athletic director at Buffalo from 2012-15, White hired Lance Leipold (football), Bobby Hurley (men’s basketball) and Nate Oats (men’s basketball).
“The last few coaching searches I’ve done at UCF, there was that list of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Everybody’s debating who it should be, and the people we hired weren’t even on that list,” White said Friday. “I’m not paying attention to that list. If I am, then I don’t know why you hired me. You might as well go look at the list and start calling them up and see who wants to do it.”
However, White said he couldn’t find a new head football coach without his student-athletes in the loop. In his past coach searches, he’s involved student-athletes in the form of team leaders who were voted by their teammates.
“That’s helped me in every search that I’ve been a part of, that I’ve led,” White said. “I think it’s 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.”
Student-athletes are at the forefront of White’s priorities as athletic director, he said. He called himself “student-athlete-centric,” and wants all student-athletes at Tennessee to know it.
“Call the student-athletes at UCF, they’ll confirm it,” he said.
Keeping student-athletes’ best interest at heart is how Vols will achieve greater and greater success as an athlete, student and person, White said.
Claiming a national championship, and doing it again
Fighting for student-athletes is one way White achieves a student-athletic-centric culture. Claiming a national championship is another.
Following an undefeated season in 2017, UCF claimed a national championship. White was at the forefront of the campaign, which drew praise from some, but criticism and eyerolls from most.
.@UCFDannyWhite didn’t stutter...#ChargeOn pic.twitter.com/ozdNaz4MCW— UCF Knights (@UCFKnights) January 1, 2018
The three words in the video that went viral — “National champs. Undefeated.” — is how White defends the success of the UCF football program following a 34-27 win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, capping off an undefeated season.
“I think that what those kids accomplished that year needed to be defended, and I felt in the role that I was in, I needed to fight for them,” White said.
Can Tennessee look forward to the same treatment?
“I’d do it again for any of our teams here,” White said. “That’s just who I am … I believe in student-athletes and I believe in the true spirit of competition.”
Defining a championship culture
National championships cannot be won without a championship culture, though.
White said championship culture at UCF was defined in part by the mutual understanding between student-athletes that the overall athletic department and success of all the teams is bigger than just an individual team. And he hopes to continue that at Tennessee.
“When I see student-athletes going to support each other at different events and caring about what Tennessee athletics is as a whole and what that brand is that they’re all representing on a national stage and taking pride in building that brand — that’s championship culture to me,” White said.
Building a successful program
The difference between the job at Tennessee and the others White has been offered over the years is the opportunity to build, he said.
White said he wouldn’t even be a part in building the Tennessee program if it wasn’t challenging. The NCAA investigation and state of the Vols football program doesn’t faze White, it excites and energizes him, he said. Furthermore, if there was no opportunity to build and fight for something, he would be “bored to tears,” he said.
“If everything was humming here and going great, I wouldn’t be standing here,” White said. “It wouldn’t be an attractive proposition for me.”
He also acknowledged that building Tennessee’s athletic program wouldn’t be a ground-up operation like UCF, but there’s still a lot of building that needs to happen, he said.
But building that successful program needs a plan from the start.
Planning from the start
Any success that comes Tennessee’s way will start with building a strong plan just like the ones White helped build at UCF and Buffalo, he said.
In creating a vision, White asked, “What does Tennessee athletics need to look like five to 10 years from now? How do we regain our stature as a dominant college athletics brand in the Southeastern Conference and across the country?”
Balancing innovation and tradition
While White’s specialty is building and finding new opportunities, it’s a balancing act between innovation and tradition, he said.
He knows he has a lot to learn about Tennessee tradition, but wants to continue to be innovative like he was at UCF.
“I love it when other athletic departments follow what we did at UCF, steal our ideas, I take great pride in that … the same things that we did at UCF aren’t necessarily gonna be applicable here,” he said.
He’s not wrong — I don’t think a lazy river in the middle of a tailgate would work very well in a city with an average low temperature of 60° during the bulk of football season.
The Sunshine State in January... ☀️ pic.twitter.com/M6LHetOZGM— UCF Knights (@UCFKnights) January 20, 2021
Watch Danny White’s introductory Tennessee press conference here:
University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman introduced Danny White as the Vols new athletic director in a press conference on Friday at noon. The press conference featured remarks from both Plowman and White, as well as an opportunity for UCF, Tennessee and national media outlets to ask questions in person or on Zoom.
Daniella Medina is a contributing writer for the USA TODAY Network. Follow her on Twitter @danimedinanews.