Jan. 8, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – For years, Gary White has been a major backer for Marshall University’s athletic program.
In his new and very crucial role as MU interim president following the death three weeks ago of Dr. Stephen Kopp, White intends to be a facilitator for Thundering Herd sports, too.
He’s a Logan native and resident with a long connection to the university through more than his Board of Governors experience and more than 25 years working alongside the late James “Buck” Harless, whose prominent MU support includes the student-athlete academic advising program in his name.
White, 64, brings to the president’s job a keen focus on what something like the Herd’s recent Conference USA football championship and 13-1 season can mean.
After an introductory session with area news media on Wednesday, White took time to visit with HerdZone.com and the Herd Insider on what some of his athletic perspectives will be from his time in Old Main.
It will aid the university and Herd athletics that White’s extensive background in business, in state education circles and in dealing with the state legislature gives him deep connections at a time when public funding for education in West Virginia is being parceled out with the utmost care.
“It’s probably fair to say because of my experience with the Board of Governors, early on I developed a different opinion and greater appreciation for the importance of athletics here at Marshall than I previously had,” White said. “It’s abundantly clear to me that in order to have a successful and well-rounded institution, you need to have a successful athletic program – and that’s across the spectrum.
“It provides a point of entry for students that you might not otherwise get. It is a coalescing factor among alumni. It’s important, just generally, to the current student body, and obviously, given the last hour of discussion that I’ve had with the media here, in today’s environment (of tightened funding) we cannot discount the importance of the revenue side of athletics.”
White said one of the many things he learned from Harless “was the importance of stewardship.” White and his wife, Jo Ann, have displayed that over the years, and White’s financial support of the Herd has been significant.
He is one of the top dozen contributors to the Vision Campaign for Athletics. White also jumped on board early with then-new Athletic Director Mike Hamrick as one of the approximately 50 members of the Football Enhancement Fund, created by Hamrick to aid in the hiring of Coach Doc Holliday and improving the program in other facets.
White attended the 2014 football team banquet last month, and was impressed there and also last spring when the Harless Student-Athlete Program had its year-ending gathering that included talks by those in the program.
“Those student-athletes, across the board, talked about how important it was for that program, for them to be given a road to succeed,” White said, “and it causes me to recognize that a number of those student-athletes would neither be students, nor athletes, if we didn’t have a successful and well-funded program here at Marshall University.”
Hamrick used White’s counsel – and the interim president’s statewide connections -- to underscore the AD’s decision to hire Holliday, who was then associate head coach at rival West Virginia. White said he “has known Mike a long time, and it’s a good relationship.”
White underscored his desire to “continue and protect the legacy of Dr. Kopp.” In that regard, he views working with Hamrick much as the AD worked with the late MU president.
“I think, going forward, it’s very much a continuation of how we’ve worked in the past,” White said. “That’s one of the things that made the decision for me -- to come here in this interim role -- much, much easier.
“I not only have that relationship with Mike, but all the people who sit around this table as the senior management of this institution. To varying degrees, I have personal relationships with all of them. There’s an element of familiarity and trust there. I see Mike and I just working together to continue to improve on what’s already been done.”
That said, White stressed, “I’m not here as a caretaker … let’s be very clear about that.” So, what does he see as something he’d like to develop in Herd athletics during what will be his short time in the president’s chair?
“This is not something I’ve spent a lot of time talking about, but it’s something I’ve thought a lot about, and I want to talk to Mike about,” White said. “I know clearly it’s an objective of his, and I believe one of Doc Holliday and would be of Coach (Dan) D’Antoni, too.
“For whatever reason, we either haven’t done a good job or haven’t been as successful as I think we could be – or should be – with our former student-athletes who have gone on to do great things. We’re doing much better than we’ve done in the past. Let me be the first to say that. But I don’t think we have yet taken full advantage.
“For an institution the size of Marshall and a program the size of Marshall, particularly in football, we have a disproportionate share – it seems to me – of athletes who have gone on to be professionals who have done very, very well and aren’t involved (at MU).
“I hope Mike and I can work together to try and improve our relationship with them and to improve upon what’s been done. I think it’s a really worthwhile objective to explore.”
Another “worthwhile objective” on the radar for many Herd fans is the need for a baseball park. White doesn’t disagree, but like Hamrick, knows that hearing the words “Play Ball!” at a new Herd home will take more than a university’s involvement.
“Yeah, I think it is important,” White said of the need for a baseball stadium. “I do think it’s the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s complicated by the financial situation and somewhat complicated by real estate, but I think all of that will work itself out in due time.
“But I also think in order to be as well-rounded as we need to be in athletics, that has to be a priority when we figure out a way to get it done.”
Here’s where White’s deep connections in the state could help the Herd, as Steve Williams, Huntington’s mayor, tries to figure out how to get that piece of the puzzle with Hamrick.
“I may have a role to play there,” White said. “I know Steve very, very well and we worked together in the state legislature and I have a good relationship with Steve, and I’m an advocate in that regard.
“We no longer can afford for everyone to have their own ‘whatever it is.’ We have to be cooperative and leverage the nearest dollars.”
White said the formal announcement of announced six-year contract extensions for Hamrick and Holliday “is coming soon. We are still working out a few details. The agreements in principle are done.”
White first came to Marshall from Logan 46 school years ago in his packed Plymouth. He and Jo Ann were MU students when the football team plane crash took 75 lives on Nov. 14, 1970.
“Jo Ann and I had gone back to Logan for the weekend and we … you know how there are those events where you remember where you were?” White said. “We were at the Logan Bowling Center, a bowling alley, and it had a great restaurant.
“We were sitting in a corner booth with another couple, friends of ours, and there was a TV –up on the wall in a corner – pretty unusual back then -- and all of a sudden the message came across about the crash. And it was just chilling.
“I would draw this comparison … The only other similar event -- a permanent marker in my mind -- is I was on a commercial airplane, third for takeoff from LaGuardia (Airport) when the first plane hit the (World Trade Center) towers on 9/11. So, those are life-changing events.”
When the interim president talks about and watches sports, he also thinks of the Whites’ daughter, Jennifer. “If there was a sports event on TV, she was watching it,” White said. “I don’t think she ever watched a cartoon, but sports, she was into it.”
Jennifer was a special needs child with a form of cerebral palsy. The Whites were told Jennifer might not live past age 2. She lived with her parents until dying at age 39 in December 2011.
With Herd athletics as with the entire university, White said he will be visible – as Kopp was for Herd sports throughout his 9 1/2 years at MU.
“We are going to move the university ahead in the way Dr. Kopp would have wanted. But to say we’re only going to focus on things Dr. Kopp would have focused on would not be a fair statement. We will undoubtedly have some initiatives of our own, based on the circumstances presented.
“But the objective here, for me … It’s like we learned in the Boy Scouts: Always leave it better than you found it.”
That includes the Thundering Herd.
“In athletics, I just want us to play to our full potential,” White said. “I told Doc the (Dec. 13) night of the football banquet that he really has accomplished bringing us back to playing for championships – not just playing, but playing for championships. And there’s no reason we can’t – in any given year -- be successful in all of our sports, to be champions or playing for championships.
“We need to keep doing what Mike’s been doing. We have a well-rounded program, in my mind. We aren’t going to be on top every year in every sport. That’s ridiculous to assume. But with the right facilities and with the programs we already have in place, I think it’s a goal that we can accomplish.”