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Following White’s journey to ND

Ken Fowler | Monday, April 30, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a four-part series looking at Notre Dame’s athletic department under the direction of Kevin White as he enters his eighth year at the school.

Now entrenched at Notre Dame for more than seven years, Kevin White’s career once seemed far less stable.

He was a star among young athletic directors, both an image-changer and a fund-raiser, sought by schools looking for a fresh face with a track record of success. By his mid-40s, White was exactly what colleges wanted, and at no time was that more evident than in the summer of 1997.

Just a year into his tenure at Arizona State, Division I-A universities were once again calling to see if White would be interested in leaving the ever-improving school. But White’s answer was always the same, even if university presidents tried their hardest to make it change.

In his first year at Arizona State, the Sun Devils football team went 11-1, falling three points short of a national championship with a 20-17 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Donations went through the roof.

That led to many would-be suitors, something White never denied. In the search for success and self-sufficiency – and a clean, spirited face to guide an athletic department – the 46-year-old White was a natural fit.

In an interview with the Times-Picayune shortly after departing Tulane, White was pressed about previous offers for his services.

“I don’t want to get into that,” White told the reporter. “Leave it at a handful.”

A decade later, White still shies away from claiming success as an administrator and boasting about how badly schools wanted to hire him.

“I’m a displaced New Yorker … that has been very, very fortunate,” White said in an interview with The Observer. “I have been surrounded by great administrators, great coaches and a wonderful, highly talented group of student athletes at every institution. … It came together at different places and at different times.”

When he was at Tulane and badgered about his rising stock, White might have wanted to “leave it at that,” but top universities didn’t.

Boston College beckoning

Boston College Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk left Chestnut Hill for Houston on July 17, 1997, after the program found itself at the center of a betting scandal.

Boston College wanted a fresh start with someone who had experience cleaning up messes but could also provide sound leadership for the coming years. Veterans in the Chestnut Hill athletic department contacted Gene Corrigan, who had recently stepped down as NCAA president after serving as commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference and, before that, as Notre Dame’s athletic director from 1981 through 1987. Boston College hired Corrigan as a “consultant,” and he offered his take of who were the best-qualified people for the job.

Kevin White was on top, according to the Boston Globe. The other two names in the mix were Marquette Athletic Director Bill Cords and Northwestern Athletic Director Rick Taylor.

To most observers, Cords and Taylor were only fallbacks – Boston College wanted White. But White had been at Arizona State just a year, and he didn’t want to jump ship so early. Just two months earlier, White withdrew his name from Virginia Tech’s search for a new athletic director – another one in which White appeared to be the main target. He was happy with the Sun Devils and told Boston College he would gladly serve as a consultant in its search.

Yet Boston College kept hoping White would change his mind.

In an interview with the Boston Globe published Aug. 14 that year, White was succinct.

“I’m not a candidate,” he said.

Two weeks later, the Globe reported White had made the “short list,” despite his public statements that he was not interested in the job. White insisted he was merely a consultant for Boston College and had no aspirations to take the job at the time.

Two weeks after that, Boston College President Father William P. Leahy received a letter from White asking that his name finally be withdrawn from consideration for the open position. In the letter, White recommended two people – San Francisco Athletic Director Bill Hogan and DeFilippo, the latter who was later hired by the Eagles.

Since coming to Notre Dame, White’s name rarely has come up in articles as either a candidate or a consultant for job openings.

“In certain settings, some things become more public than in other settings,” White said in an interview with The Observer. “Here, I’ve worked very hard, so to speak, not to abuse the platform. But I’m deeply involved in a zillion things. People have been very kind to me, very generous, and they invite me into those conversations all the time. I’m not any less involved than I was at Arizona State. I’m probably more involved. I just hope my involvement sometimes isn’t quite so public.”

In a telephone interview with The Observer last October, Corrigan said he believes White and DeFilippo are two of the most talented athletic directors in Division I – and that they are still friends.

But since White served as a consultant for Boston College, his relationship with the school has changed at least somewhat as other troubles between the two schools emerged.

In 2002, some Boston College players celebrated their 14-7 victory of the then-unbeaten Irish at Notre Dame Stadium by tearing up grass and causing damage to the visiting locker room.

A year later, Boston College backed off its initial condemnations of Miami and Virginia Tech for bolting the Big East for the ACC and followed the Hurricanes and Hokies to the conference. Notre Dame joined the Big East for most sports in 1995.

Since then, White has said the football rivalry between the two schools could end after 2010 because Notre Dame agreed to play three Big East teams a year, and the Eagles wouldn’t fit because of the other longstanding Irish series.

Boston College officials told the Globe that Notre Dame was refusing to play the Eagles, though Associate Athletic Director John Heisler reiterated to the Associated Press that the scheduling issue and commitments with the Big East are the reason for the series’ discontinuation.

White’s journey

White graduated from St. Joseph’s College (Rensselaer, Ind.) with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1972. He earned his Master’s degree in athletics administration from Central Michigan in 1976 and his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois in 1983. His dissertation, “An Appraisal of the Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Programs, and the Relationship to Men’s Athletics at the Big Ten Conference Institutions Before and After Title IX Implementation,” followed four years of postgraduate studies at Michigan State.

At Tulane, White put his dissertation in action at a southern school struggling to keep up with the still-controversial Title IX rules.

In a column on the day White announced he would accept the Arizona State job, Dave Lagarde of the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune highlighted White’s role in increasing the Green Wave’s athletic department budget and the transition to Conference USA. But he started with the progress he brought to female sports.

“White’s accomplishments in his five-year stay at Tulane were many,” he said. “He brought the Green Wave’s women’s athletic programs up to speed with the complicated and controversial Title IX.”

White had a successful five years at Tulane, where he rebuilt and reorganized an athletic department that had been mired in scandal in the 1980s. He did that, and improved nearly every sport at the school, on an operating budget about one-third of the size of Notre Dame’s current yearly expenditures on football alone.

Quelling crises

In April and May 1998, White faced what may have been his toughest challenge before coming to Notre Dame.

Before he was the athletic director at Arizona State, White held the same position at Tulane for five school years (1991-96). When White arrived there, the men’s basketball program was just re-starting after four years without a squad as the result of a points-shaving scandal in 1985.

But a new scandal emerged at Arizona State.

In the summer of 1997, the FBI began investigating a points-shaving scheme allegedly tied to two Arizona State players. Now on thin ice, Sun Devils coach Bill Frieder vigorously defended the program against the illegal gambling charges. But early that September, two other players were accused of theft in a dormitory, and White forced Frieder out with a $350,000 buyout of the $1 million remaining on his contract.

As White sought a full-time coach, he wound up associated with an unusual departure of the coach of one of the Big East’s most storied basketball teams.

White was connected with the unexpected resignation of Fran Fraschilla at St. John’s in New York City in March of 1998. The New York Times reported that Fraschilla used his contacts with White – in the search for a new basketball coach at Arizona State – to force St. John’s into giving him a high-paying contract extension. Some reports said Fraschilla claimed White offered him the ASU job, but, through a spokesman, White denied offering anyone but eventual coach Rob Evans the job – a philosophy adopted by White, that only the acceptor even gets the chance to say “yes.”

“Kevin did discuss the job with Fran,” Arizona State sports information director Doug Tammaro told the Times. “[Fraschilla] was not offered the job.”

The St. John’s job eventually went to Mike Jarvis, who told the Washington Post he talked to White about the Arizona State position but never had an interview.

With the way he handled the situation – and the image he earned as someone who could clean up programs mired in scandal – White’s stock was on the rise. Two years later, as Notre Dame’s athletic department was reeling in the wake of an age discrimination lawsuit and a booster scandal, University President Emeritus Father Edward Malloy hired White to reinvigorate and restore the tradition-filled school.

The third part of this series will run Tuesday and look at Kevin White’s tenure at Notre Dame.