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Innovative Leadership With UCF’s Danny White

Guest Danny White, UCF; Jim Cavale, INFLCR
11:42 min watch


Danny White, Vice President and Director of Athletics at UCF, and Jim Cavale, Founder and CEO of INFLCR, get together with AthleticDirectorU to talk about UCF’s unique senior leadership structure and the importance of creative and digital services. White explains his rationale behind having four Deputy ADs, plus four more Executive Associate ADs, why the Knights’ external unit is setup like a professional sports franchise and thoughts on managing his own social media.


(Click the timestamp below to jump to a specific question/topic or keep scrolling for the full transcript)

  • - You have four Deputy ADs, please share your intention with the structure of your leadership team
  • - What is your approach to hiring the right people?
  • - How does your father’s success at developing ADs influence your leadership?
  • - If you’re executing a search with three finalists, how will you make the final decision?
  • - What is your philosophy regarding social media?
  • - Thoughts on the importance of creative departments


(Full Transcript)


Jim Cavale: Welcome to this AthleticDirectorU exclusive. I’m Jim Cavale, founder and CEO of INFLCR. And I’m joined by Danny White, the Athletic Director at the University of Central Florida. And, Danny, first off, thanks for making time. We’re here in NACDA. I know you had a lot going on.


Danny White: Yeah, no question. This works out great. Just pop in a room, knock out an interview and go on to see what other great events they got here in NACDA.


And bestow a lot of knowledge upon your peers from experiences and things you have going on. And I think, you know, that’s a key component of what we’re going to do today is really share a lot of your learnings especially in this role as athletics director at UCF. And I think a great place to start is talking about senior leadership. You know, I think, you look at athletic departments, you see the title, deputy athletic director; you see executive associate athletic director; and altogether you’ve got four folks in your athletic department that have those titles. And some might look at that as top-heavy, but I think there’s intention there and I think it’s great if you could share the intention of the structure of your leadership team.


Yeah, you know, titles and salary are one way to motivate people. I think what I want is a staff full of ambitious, competitive people, and I think primarily they’re motivated by what they’re doing and how it impacts our organization and ultimately how does that give them a chance to achieve their career goals. And we have those conversations all the time. So, that’s probably where title has bigger impact for them. I want a leadership team that has aspirations to be an athletics director. I want to help them send to that chair and we have several, really talented folks. You know, we’re unique because we’re one of the youngest athletic departments in the country. We’re building so much, not just buildings, but infrastructure; we’re building a division one athletic department and a high-level one very quickly. So, we probably have more leadership positions maybe than others but a lot of that is just our work volume and some of the decisions we make. We have in-house ticket sales. We have in-house corporate partnerships. So somebody has got to run those things because we’re not relying on a third-party company to do that. So, those are some of the, I guess, dynamics at play and how we arrived at where we are. I’m a believer in change. I do not like to keep things the same. Our org chart will never stay stagnant and we like to get creative with it too.


I always love the phrase, “If you’re not putting yourself out of business, someone else will.” You have to innovate or die and you’re truly setting an innovation pace for, really, the rest of college athletics and a lot of how you’re doing things. I want to stay on this people topic because you can’t really accomplish anything great without great people.


Talk about how you look and identify for talent. Because, you know, some folks might use a search firm. Others might actually watch skills that are being displayed out there in leadership, and that’s something that you use to get the right people on your team. What’s your approach to get the right folks?


At recruiting, you know, when needed, ideally, now that we have our staff set up the way it is, I would love for our leadership folks to get opportunity to be an AD. And I’d love to build, promote from within whenever possible. I think that the more we can reward the people we have that are a big part of our success with promotions at UCF, then I think it’s great for our culture and it shows that you don’t necessarily have to leave UCF to advance your career. Sometimes that’s the reality, but there are opportunities within our department. But getting in, I didn’t have the opportunity to do that. I needed to bring some people in that had the perspective of where we’re trying to go. So I recruited Eric Wood, who is at Arkansas, to come in and really be a leader for us on all things that I don’t have a lot of background in the internal parts of an athletic department. We recently tweaked his title to deputy AD for competitive excellence. And what we’re trying to do and we’ve set up our revenue and our external side kind of like a pro-sport franchise. We look a lot like the Orlando Magic. Alex Martin who’s one of our trustees and the president of the Magic gave me great advice and kind of gave me a peak behind the window on how an NBA team operates and how they approach the marketplace. And so, by that same line of thinking, it occurred to me that we don’t have someone other than me that’s in charge of and empowered to eliminate any competitive hurdle that could impact competitive success or success in the classroom, how we interact with campus, the registrar, the admissions office, different things that our coaches view as a deterrent to us ultimately being as successful as we want to be. So I empowered Eric to do that, and he’s got great perspective because he’s been in the SEC and he’s seen how programs at that level operate. And then recruited Scott Carr to come in and we gave him the Deputy AD for Brand Advancement title. And it’s really all things that impact our brand and how we interact with our campus community and obviously alumni base and the city of Orlando. So, I’ve had to recruit to times. But now that we have our staff, the way it is, and we have some really talented people in the athletics department, we’d love to, like I mentioned, we’d love to promote from within whenever possible.


That’s awesome. Does that reflect what you’ve experienced just in your family with the tree starting with your father and your brothers?


Yeah, you know what, I saw how… how much success my dad has had. And there’s a reason he’s had so many athletics directors that work for him… that had worked for him at some point. And it’s this, you know, internal promotional opportunity that, you know, people were groomed and moved on. And so, probably, watching that happen has had an impact on the way we have set things up at UCF. And we did the same thing when I was at Buffalo too.


Yeah, multiplying leaders is, I would say, the best reflection of the leader, if he can multiply more leaders underneath him or her and you’ve obviously seen your father do that. You’re doing that. It’s a great philosophy, so now you’re in a search, let’s say, executive search, right. There’s three finalists. They’re in a dead heat, all right. What are you going to do to make the decision?


You know, typically, I’m a big researcher. With coaching searches and then in this example with, you know, search for an executive team person, if I’m hiring outside of our department… if I’m hiring outside of our department, I don’t know a lot, a lot less about those people than I do obviously with the people we have at UCF. But, ultimately, I’ve learned a lot about everybody before the interview ever happens.




And I’ve talked to people they’ve worked for, and I’ve done a ton of research on them. And it comes down to, what I always say, we’re asked about, you know, different hires is the interview really matters. And somebody is going to win the interview. And I haven’t had too many where there was just, you know, a dead heat kind of situation. Usually, someone separates themselves and it probably comes down to a gut feeling because, you know, I’m not going to be interviewing people that aren’t qualified for the job or capable of doing the job, but who’s the best fit for UCF and the best fit in terms of working with me and those would probably be some of the things I’d be thinking about.


I want to switch topics. As a founder of a company playing more in the social media space of this college athletics world, I’m just interested to ask you about social media when it comes to Danny White, because, number one, you’ve got a really good following for an athletic director in the 30,000-follower range; and Twitter is a place where I see that you’re very active and have really done some unique and original things to promote your institution and its brand. So, for the other athletic director’s out there, what’s your philosophy with social media?


You know, we wanted, like, so many people are trying to do. We want to tell our own story. And I think social media is an incredibly powerful platform to do that. But you have to tell it in ways that are interesting. And, you know, Eric DeSalvo who leads our hashtag content division in our athletics department, like, it’s the first hashtag content division in college sports, does a great job. Not that anybody should think about hiring him. He’s happy at UCF. We’re happy to have him. Yeah, a lot of it, they give me great ideas. But I do, you know, most of my stuff on my own because I think it’s… when it’s more organic and person that way when your voice is behind it, I think our fans resonate with that a lot more.


Of course.


Some things we do are pretty generic, but a lot of the things we do are … have a lot of, I guess, I’ll go back to the term organic, whatever that means.


Well, the natural stuff with your voice, you picking the content you want and sharing it and telling the story you want to tell it. It’s going to resonate with your fan base and follower base more.


Yeah. And at critical moments, you know, we’ve done things right after games and on the practice field and, you know, just kind of letting them in in our world a little bit and I think it’s a great way to communicate with a mass audience and that’s what we’re all dealing with with our alumni bases and fan bases.


It’s awesome. All right. So, org chart. When you think about this whole revolution of fans consuming more and more sports content on their phones, their social media rather than TV, through traditional media, it’s a reality that’s becoming more tangible every day. They’re, you know, on their phones even when you see them in the stadium; they’re looking down at the phones, right? And so, that reality has given way to a lot of new roles inside of college athletic departments even departments called hashtag content that, you know, didn’t even exist five years ago. Talk about this department and this org chart that you’ve been able to develop and deploy around social media at UCF?


You know, it’s in… so we have the hashtag content but it’s really our communication’s team; it’s our video services team. We have a ton of content creators. And what I think is interesting is probably more so now than ever before, we have this intersection of what our coaches really care about and are working on and what our administration is doing. Because all of this stuff impacts our brand. It has a huge impact on recruiting. I’ve coaches asking me about our content stuff and our communication staff and wanting more staff and more support because they realize it’s had an enormous impact on recruiting. And it obviously has a big impact on us building our fan base and building a season ticket base and all those things. So there’s that… it’s a team approach. Everybody is involved in it. Obviously, the hashtag content group is more, you know, the leaders on the social stuff. But everything we do, ultimately, gets amplified on social. And we have some really talented people that are working on it every single day. But do we need more people? Yes. And as we grow as a department, I see that part of what we do only growing exponentially.


Well, you guys are doing a great job on social with your leadership team and that’s big reason that… a factor you’re on and you just sit here with me for this interview. Congrats on all your success and God speed for the future.


Thank you. Thanks so much.