By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Overcoming any obstacle is much easier and certainly more pleasant when you have people by your side to provide support and encouragement. They are likely to see things from a fresh perspective and offer alternatives you may not have otherwise considered. – Dana Massett
The University of Toledo’s hiring of Bryan Blair as Vice President and Director of Athletics could be the most consequential move in the school’s history.
While nearly half of Division I student-athletes are Black or African-American, only 12 (9.2 percent) Black men and three (2.3 percent) African-American women held one of the 130 athletic director positions at FBS schools in 2021.
No longer merely a job for retired coaches, the role of today’s athletic director requires highly skilled professionals who serve as CEOs, managing the complex arena of college athletic administration and overseeing business operations exceeding tens of millions of dollars.
Blair’s hiring should also positively impact Black student recruitment and retention, both issues of concern at most predominately white institutions.
I spoke with Blair about barriers to occupational mobility for Black athletic directors and strategies to improve Black student success.
Here is our conversation:
Perryman: Please provide our readers with a bit of your background and history.
Blair: I’ve been surrounded by many great people, starting with my parents. I grew up in the little town of Bennettsville, South Carolina. So, pine trees and dirt roads are the landscape. I grew up playing in the woods with my brother and just small, humble upbringings in the church and those kinds of things. I played four sports in high school and got a chance to play college football at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Nobody in my family had ever been a collegiate athlete. So, it was an amazing time to test and push me beyond what I thought was possible.
Perryman: How about your professional experience?
Blair: I went on to law school at the University of South Carolina with the idea of being a lawyer as a backup plan. I wanted to do something different with that law degree and try to combine it with sports, and I was able to do that. I started working in compliance at the NCAA national office at Rice University, then the University of South Carolina again, and then Washington State University, most recently as the Deputy Athletic Director working with our AD on a lot of the inner workings, especially the football program there. I got this opportunity to come to the University of Toledo, and here I am.
Perryman: Earlier, you mentioned the influence of your parents.
Blair: My mom was an educator, and so were my dad and my grandma. My mom was my middle school principal, my dad worked at the district office, and then grandma was a lifelong teacher in elementary and high schools. Education and its value have been something that’s been beaten in my head my entire life. It probably explains why I took that side of our occupation so seriously, in addition to my love for sports.
Perryman: You’ve reached a pinnacle as a Black AD in a predominantly white institution. What do you attribute your success, and how can people coming behind you overcome barriers to occupational mobility in college sports?
Blair: Everything that I’ve been able to accomplish and do is less about me and more about the people around me. Again, that starts with my parents, and I know everybody says that, but my mom and my dad held me to such a high standard I had to have A’s and B’s before I could play sports. I was never allowed to quit anything that I started. Anytime I wasn’t playing a sport, my dad had me working either around the house, around the yard, or even one of the businesses he started, so I never had a whole bunch of free time.
Then, I’ve had so many coaches take an interest, lean into me, and help me move along with my career, studies, or whatever it may be. I don’t think I’m anything special, although I try to work hard and treat people the right way. But, more than anything, I’ve had a tremendous upbringing from my parents and had people around me who have poured their heart and soul into helping me get to this point.
Perryman: So, you’re saying that success factors primarily include mentoring and networking?
Blair: I think that’s true in anything. Specifically, for minorities in athletic administration, getting people around you that can mentor, help you learn and grow in your profession, and network with a purpose.
I tell people all the time don’t network for jobs but to network for knowledge; network to be better at your current craft. So, when I reach out to people, ‘Hey, I saw you guys do this at your school. How can I do that? How can I steal that idea, or how can I get that idea and apply it here?’ So, networking for knowledge is something I learned early in my career and started to apply.
Perryman: What can Division I institutions do to ensure equity in hiring athletic directors and high-level administrators?
Blair: I hope they have more people on the committees and the search groups that represent a broader demographic. The search committee formed for this AD search was diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and perspective. You had people that had been in Toledo for a long time and some that were relatively new to Toledo. All of the different perspectives equal better decisions. I think recruiting broadly, too. UT utilized a search firm that’s nationally known and recruited nationally. So those are all keys to making sure your process doesn’t lean one way or another and that you’re inclusive in the search.
Perryman: An athletic director is like a major corporation’s CEO, and you’re usually not great at everything. What would you say your strengths are? Compliance, fundraising, marketing or negotiating contracts?
Blair: There are a lot of technical skills that we have to bring to the table that combine sports and academics. I think my strength is getting people excited about a common goal and moving in the same direction. If I had to say a secondary one, it would probably be strategy. I’m a strategic planning nerd. Having the vision and building out the logical steps that get you there is essential. So, analytical skills, decision making, all those things go into it. I started in compliance. I’ve worked in development and marketing, but my core strength is probably the people. I honestly think that’s the most critical part of any organization.
Perryman: During the golden years of University of Toledo athletics in the late 60s and early 70s, one of the keys to success was the contributions of local athletes. Unfortunately, today, many administrators often overlook the athletes in their own backyards. What is your philosophy on recruitment?
Blair: I won’t step in and tell our coaches you have to recruit here or recruit there. But, whether fundraising, ticket sales, or recruiting young people, our coaches want to take care of home first. They want to ensure they’re not overlooking or letting talent escape. We’ve had some outstanding players who have had the opportunity to go to some other institutions that were born and raised in Toledo. We have to make sure what we offer here is comparable to anywhere else. Hence, those athletes feel like they don’t have to leave to go find a home to go get ‘whatever they’re choosing to seek in their athletic experience.’ That’s really important to me.
But, one of the things so exciting about this job is our recruiting footprint. It’s just a tremendous talent base around us from Detroit to Ohio to Pennsylvania that we can pull from. Still, taking care of Toledo first, the folks and those athletes in our city that want to wear the city across their chest is important.
Perryman: Are you or any of your staff sitting on any local boards or giving back to the local community in any way?
Blair: I don’t know that yet; I’ve only been here for about a month. But that’ll be something I’m very much interested in, in terms of getting into the community and meeting people, gaining an understanding of where I can be of service and how I can help move some of those community initiatives forward, but also so that I can listen to the community and understand what some of the feedback is.
I went to the Old West End Festival a couple of weeks back because I had coffee with Keith Jordan at Onyx, and he said ‘hey, this is going on this weekend; you should check it out.’ So, I popped up with my family, and we went. My daughter had a ball, and she got some cotton candy. I got some excellent bbq, and it was a good opportunity to see the community on a great day in Toledo. So, I want to do much more of that informally and formally, looking at committees and opportunities here.
Perryman: This is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Do you have a strategy to recruit more minorities to some of the under-recruited sports such as softball, soccer, tennis, track, and golf?
Blair: I’d love to see some of our sports that aren’t football or basketball; see young African American kids have those opportunities. Some of that starts with the pipeline out of high school and there are some things we can do to encourage that participation. I certainly would love to see those young people thrive at the University of Toledo because I think we have a great product and environment to offer. And, frankly, having a Black athletic director encourages them to look at our university. I hope they do so, and I hope we recruit them and they have a great experience while they’re here. I’ll do my best to make sure that’s possible.
Perryman: Your thoughts on name image and likeness?
Blair: I’ve been here 50 days and spent 49 talking about it. It is the hot topic in college athletics. I’m all for young people having an opportunity to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL). I only wish we had consistent rules applicable across the country. If you give me the set of rules, we’ll devise a strategy to ensure we’re successful. Right now, it doesn’t feel like we know the rules. However, I’m hoping we get some rule changes, and we have the opportunity to learn and let this thing settle over time.
Perryman: What kind of student-athlete support programs have you seen that are the most effective and can be implemented on the broader campus to support student retention?
Blair: Honestly, UT students are retained, graduating and achieving at an extremely high level, in some cases higher than their counterparts who are non-athletes. So, the model we have set up – whether it be the academic advisors, the personal attention, tutors, or keeping track of grades throughout the year. In addition, I think our staff does a tremendous job of checking in with our student-athletes: how are you doing, what do you need, and how can we help make you more successful?
I’d like to see us grow in the area of life skills. With more resources and extensive staff, we might have some career development opportunities, resumes, interviewing skills, micro internships, and job shadowing. All of which we can do to set them up for success whenever their playing career is over.
Perryman: I noticed that the University of Toledo has exceptional graduation rates. Yet, there’s still a disparity in graduation rates between black and white students. How can you and your peers use your voices to encourage the prioritization of expanded recruitment and retention for students of color?
Blair: It’s a priority, a full stop for me. Some of it is having a relationship with the young person and where they know that you see them as a person, not just an athlete. Sometimes in sports, the only focus from an academic standpoint is to get you to keep those grades to be eligible. I want to see that total person be successful. I hope every student-athlete I interact with believes that. I know my staff understands that’s my priority and my expectation.
Perryman: How can your athletic department tangibly demonstrate your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Blair: To me, a lot of it goes back to the hiring process, ensuring your athletic department mirrors student-athletes and ensuring that culture is one of inclusivity. So, I think that being a priority from the top down to make sure we get diverse people on board, supporting them and making them feel supported, welcomed, and wanted, to be their authentic selves.
Perryman: Last question: It’s been 1980 since we’ve been to the NCAA tournament. What are you going to do about that?
Blair: We’ve got two remarkable coaches that bring back teams this year that are as good or better than they were even last year. We also have two sports that both won conference championships in the regular season.
They built challenging schedules this year. They’re going to push us in ways we weren’t driven historically. Then we’re going to try to take care of business the way we can during the regular season and tournament and move forward.
I also understand the importance of making it to the tournament, and our programs are well on their way to achieving that. When we achieve that, all these trials and tribulations of coming up just short will make that moment that much sweeter.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org)