Kentucky State University is looking for a new athletic director, and its list of finalists reads in an interesting fashion.
The candidates are Wheeler Brown, no relation to Kentucky State University President M. Christopher Brown II, who formerly served as athletic director at Jackson State University in Mississippi from 2015 to 2018; Derrick A. Johnson, former director of athletics at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina from 2015 to 2018; Roger K. Ogden, currently the assistant athletic director at Lane College in Tennessee since 2015; Carlton A. Rice, currently the director of athletics at Lawson State Community College in Alabama since 2013 and Trayvean D. Scott, currently executive athletic director at Southern University and A&M College since 2013.
The list breaks down to a choice between five executives all with HBCU experience, with two from Division I, two from Division II and one from a community college. It shows an interesting approach to what the next phase of Thorobred athletics may be, and in some ways, how the future of college athletic administration is changing for some black colleges throughout the country.
KSU is unique because of its geography and resources. It is a historically black college with a neutral racial composition, nearly evenly divided among black and white students and faculty. It is smack in the middle of the highway connecting Lexington and Louisville, cities hosting the state’s biggest collegiate sports brands.
Like most HBCUs, Kentucky State is competing for large-scale relevance in the shadows of large flagship institutions with slim budgets and but with surprising fan support. But unlike most HBCUs, KSU has to navigate building recruiting pipelines, marketing, and institutional support for a campus that has a few more white people than your average black college community.
Kentucky State is not alone in this challenge. Lincoln University of Missouri, Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University, Delaware State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore have similar objectives. They are charged with supercharging their athletic culture with all of the trappings an HBCU gameday experience has to offer in person and on YouTube, while being inclusive and representative of diverse groups of people both on, and interested in coming to their campuses.
These schools aren’t like other HBCUs where the majority of the white students you’ll see are on the baseball or softball team; they are a part of the full campus experience, and bring just as much loyalty to HBCU pride as black students bring, and as much concern as black students have for shortcomings real and perceived. This matters a lot for the SIAC, which has carved out a niche as the nation’s most progressive HBCU conference in business dealings, and the most socially aware sports brand we have.
It also speaks to the core of what athletics means to an academic enterprise, and how schools should use athletics to build that enterprise. It is a gear in the machine that builds legislative and corporate relationships, school pride, and market share in local media space. It can increase applications, gifts and revenues when a school invests in sports, or it can sink an operational budget if it all goes wrong.
But those are the macro-level considerations for Thorobred sports. What is Kentucky State actually looking for in a new AD? Is it someone who can keep the ship afloat with familiarity in the Division II space? Is it someone who can position the school for a possible move to Division I? Or is it someone who can maintain a level of competitiveness in the face of reduced resources?
That’s what the finalist list appears to be seeking. Brown has been productive in big-time roles at North Carolina A&T and Jackson State, but departed both campuses under controversial headlines. Ogden is a former sports information director turned AD after an executive resignation at Lane. The others appear to have solid backgrounds, with Scott having an advantage of the best headline leading into final interviews concerning Southern’s Academic Progress Rate rebirth.
Kentucky State may be a small school in the middle of NCAA Power 5 country, but it is also one of a handful of institutions that will have to balance historically black history and expectations with predominantly white demographic trends, while trying to survive in a treacherous era of budget cuts and policy change within higher education at large.
This AD search and what it will yield in personnel management and academic support are going to be a model for other campuses searching for pathways to prominence while balancing the delicate prospect of race and culture.