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VOL. 43 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 15, 2019

An unconventional pick for unique university

Is a sports marketing exec who’s never run a college program just what Vanderbilt needs?

By Tom Wood

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Malcolm Turner has known one precious mentor all of his life. Another was part of his life for an all-too-brief span.

But there is no question both have been important role models in helping determine what Turner, 47, hopes to accomplish as Vanderbilt’s new athletics director.

It is Turner’s first foray into collegiate athletics administration and comes at a pivotal moment in time for Vanderbilt, which faces numerous questions on a range of issues from potential coaching changes to waning attendance, from facilities to fundraising.

Nevertheless, Turner appears to be a perfect fit for Vandy because of his strong sports business career and a superlative educational background. He was named to the position in early December and began Feb. 1, replacing the late David Williams II, who announced his retirement in September and unexpectedly died Feb. 8 at age 71. Williams was the SEC’s first black athletic director.

Turner and Williams had a number of conversations during those few months of transition and breakfasted together on Turner’s first day on the job.

“I kind of insisted on the way I wanted to start my day was with him and, in part, thank him for his partnership already at that point, but also to talk about some things that were important to him,” Turner says of that morning’s meeting with Williams.

“I made the point that I wanted to build on the great work that he had already put in place, and it was just important for me in a lot of reasons.”

Williams’ mentorship – and a shared vision for the future of Vanderbilt athletics under a new leadership team – was clear to Turner from the day they met.

“Once it was announced and once I started my transition, he immediately made himself available,” Turner says. “He very quickly became just a really terrific partner for me.”

A living legacy

While Williams was Turner’s most recent mentor, the first and most important shining example of how one should live, behave and lead was his mother, Henrie Monteith Treadwell, Ph.D.

The Malcolm Turner file

Title: Vanderbilt vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director; named to post Dec. 11, and his first day on job was Feb. 1.

Age: 47

Family: Wife Jessica

Education: B.S. in business, University of North Carolina, where he was a Rhodes scholar finalist, Morehead-Cain Scholar and recipient of the Ernest L. Mackie Chancellor’s Award for character, scholarship and leadership; J.D./MBA, Harvard University, 1999.

Community involvement: Has served on advisory boards of Teach for America, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, the UNC Board of Visitors and the board of the Morehead-Cain Scholarship Fund.

Career highlights:

• Commissioner of the NBA G League from 2014-2019

• Managing director of Wasserman Media Group, 2007-2014

• Senior vice president of OnSport sports and entertainment consulting firm, 1999-2007

• Consultant to Major League Baseball Properties, 1999

• PGA Tour, tournament official, 1993-95

She shaped and molded the lives and characters of her children and the educational futures of a generation. Her story is a fascinating one to share during Black History Month, and it explains much of why and how Turner came to Vanderbilt.

In 1963, Treadwell made history as one of the first three African-American students – along with Robert G. Anderson and James L. Solomon Jr. – to enroll at the University of South Carolina. Two years later, she became the first black student to graduate from that university since 1877.

She went on to earn a master’s degree at Boston University, then a doctorate in biochemistry at Atlanta University.

“I think I always taught Malcolm and my children to work hard, to work to the top of your ability – whatever it is that you can do, you should do,” says Treadwell, a research professor at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

“Use the talents that have been given to you. Be honest, be sincere in your interactions with others and reach for the stars.”

Treadwell recalls the day her son said he was considering an offer to become Vanderbilt’s next athletics director.

Malcolm Turner, Vanderbilt University’s new athletics director, chats with well-wishers at the Feb. 9 basketball game against Alabama, just a few rows from a remembrance of David Williams, the recently retired athletics director who died the day before.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“He felt that this was a real opportunity for him to contribute, to use the skills that he has to enable even greater achievement at Vanderbilt,” she adds. “He recognized the rich record, the rich history of the institution.

“And as we talked about it, it was clear his excitement about going to Vanderbilt – or accepting the offer – became greater almost by the minute. He really did, once this entered his framework, it grew on him. He was very excited about it.”

Education drives Turner

Before coming to Vanderbilt, Williams served as Commissioner of the NBA G League, where he spearheaded major expansion and exposure. Prior to that he was a senior vice president of sports consulting and a member of the leadership team at OnSport, where he worked closely with the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR. When that company was acquired by Wasserman Media Group, Turner became a managing director of the firm’s consulting division.

Turner began his career with a PGA Tour diversity internship, which led to a full-time job.

Though it was his sports business and consulting acumen that Vanderbilt coveted, it was the prestige and academic standards of Vanderbilt that lured Turner to West End.

“I’ve admired this university from afar for a very long time,” says Turner, who graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in business administration. He also was a Rhodes scholar finalist, a Morehead-Cain Scholar and recipient of the Ernest L. Mackie Chancellor’s Award for character, scholarship and leadership.

“When I was taking a look at this opportunity, the academic reputation here at Vanderbilt University was consideration No. 1, without question.”

And that love for learning was implanted by his mother.

VU athletics directors

  • Malcolm Turner, 2019-
  • David Williams, 2003-2019
  • Todd Turner, 1996-2003
  • Paul Hoolahan, 1990-1996
  • Roy Kramer, 1978-1990
  • Clay Stapleton, 1973-1978
  • Bill Pace, 1971-1973
  • Jess Neely, 1967-1971, 1973 (interim)

“The academic piece of it has always been very important to me. And that goes back, in many respects, to my mother,” says Turner, who went on to earn a law degree and a master’s degree from Harvard in 1999.

“She desegregated the University of South Carolina, and so this is someone who demonstrated great courage and literally had to fight for education.

“With such a strong model of leadership and courage for me, and instilling the value of an education and the opportunity that an education creates for someone, and with an important piece of the consideration set that brought me here,” Turner continues.

“I’ve been fortunate to have worked really throughout all corners of this business, from facilities to media marketing partners and certainly my prior role with the NBA with players, officiating, you know, from our team ownership and construct and all that, and so … I think that will serve me well in terms of bringing a bit of an agency mindset to this role as well as in terms of identifying our challenges, but also trying to identify solutions and how we can create opportunities to move us forward.”

The Guepe challenge

The most famous assessment of Vanderbilt’s football program – and of the whole state of the athletics department for decades – came a year before Turner’s mother helped desegregate the University of South Carolina. The year was 1962 when a frustrated Art Guepe announced his retirement as coach.

“There is no way you can be Harvard Monday through Friday and try to be Alabama on Saturday,” Guepe said of the university’s stringent admissions and academic eligibility standards.

While the Williams era was highlighted by a streak of on-field successes –four national team championships – baseball in 2014, bowling in 2007, 2018 and tennis in 2015 – Vandy’s highest-profile sports have seen many ups and downs.

Before winning the Music City Bowl in 2008 under Bobby Johnson, the football Commodores hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1982. James Franklin led VU to three consecutive bowl appearances beginning in 2011, going 2-1 before his controversial exit to Penn State.

Derrick Mason has two bowl trips in his four seasons as coach, losing in 2016 to North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl and falling to Baylor in the Texas Bowl in December.

Meanwhile, the once-prominent Vandy men’s and women’s basketball programs have struggled since the 2016 arrivals of coaches Bryce Drew and Stephanie White.

The men got to the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Drew’s first season, but are 9-14 overall and 0-10 in the Southeastern Conference this year (through Feb. 9).

White has three losing seasons at Vandy, where she is a combined 27-57 through Feb. 10. This season’s team is 6-17 and 1-9.

Along with dwindling attendance (often filled with opposing fans), much has centered on the need for facilities upgrades. The football stadium hasn’t seen a major renovation since 1981 and is by far the smallest in the SEC. The largest seven SEC stadiums have more than twice the capacity of Vanderbilt’s 40,550.

In his first news conference after taking office, Turner acknowledged the difficult issues facing Vandy, but he didn’t directly address them. His plan is to listen to all voices then carefully consider and weigh options before acting.

Asked how long coaches will get to turn around struggling programs, Turner replied:

“It’s all situation, I don’t think I’m going to give a flat timeline. Certainly there’s history, you know, and I think context matters, in terms of a coach coming into a very strong situation with a strong base of talent and the resources that they need; that’s very different from the alternative, and it’s all the more reason I think it’s very difficult to give kind of a generic timeframe.

“But I think context matters. I think situation matters. And so I don’t think there’s one formula or one template, if you will, that would apply for each situation.”

On football as the face of the school’s athletic program:

“I think it’s important. I’m not going to say it’s the only bus, but it is a key driver.

“I recognize the importance of football, and so I will, as one of the early orders of business, (look at) that program in particular, but again I want to understand where our opportunities across the board for all our programs.”

On his priorities as athletics director:

“I want to understand where we are from a facilities standpoint,” he says. “But even before we get to the facilities, I want to understand those other facilities and resources that frankly our student-athletes touch on a more daily basis, routine basis, before game day, in the football stadium – I think all that is part of the mix, if you will. I think it would be incomplete to simply focus on the football stadium without taking a look at the progression before the stadium.”

On marketing Vanderbilt in a sports-saturated city:

“There’s great opportunity; there’s some challenges, too, marketing college athletics in what increasingly is a professional sports town,” he says.

“I want to take a look at the way the broader Vanderbilt University and the student body connects to Vanderbilt athletics and game attendance. That will certainly be one of the areas that I for sure will be taking a look at – from a marketing standpoint, from a game presentation, game execution, fan experience standpoint.

“I think all of those are critical components in terms of how do we elevate the performance of Vanderbilt athletics overall.”

Only after all that, Turner says, will he act.

“I’ve never gone in any new situation with all the answers to the test,” Turner explains. “When I do a bit of a listening tour and try to talk to as many people as I can both within the athletic department and our student-athletes and our coaches and our fan base and our partners and well beyond, certainly. I come to this role with some initial ideas that I will test in those conversations. And good ideas can come from a lot of places, and so I’m looking forward to engaging in that conversation.”

When he does act, expect a couple of things:

• It will be a decision based on what he says he believes is Vanderbilt’s best interest.

• He’ll reflect on the deeds and counsel of two mentors – his mother and David Williams – before making that decision.

“Vanderbilt is a place I have long admired from afar. I was on a wonderful run at the NBA and enjoyed that business, but I always said if I were to get into this space, it had to be a very specific, unique type of opportunity, and it just so happens that Vanderbilt was a place that lined up on a lot of areas that were just important to me.”

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