Kevin White thought he would be a career track-and-field coach before the persistence of the Loras College administration paid off. The Division III school had acted on the recommendation of White confidant Joe Piane, a former longtime Notre Dame cross country coach, and the Dubuque, Iowa institution sought White out as its athletic director.
"I think I'd have buyer's remorse if I left track and field. I don't think I can do it," White remembered. "And then about a month later they came back at me, and I remember sitting with my wife and saying, 'Gosh, do you really think we should consider this?' And of course three or four days later there's a press conference.
"As I tell people all the time: My career has been by absolute happenstance, and I've been the luckiest guy on the planet."
Who knew three decades later that White's influence would possess a chunk of the college sports landscape? His proteges currently call the shots at athletic departments across the country, most notably at a handful of programs in the nation's Power 5 conferences. Forget the Hayden Fry or Nick Saban coaching trees -- the White AD tree covers more ground. And, given its administrative status, it may be even more powerful.
One of its branches is seeking its second national title in as many years (Florida State's Stan Wilcox). Another found himself on the periphery of that title discussion and is readying for Thursday's Goodyear Cotton Bowl (Baylor's Ian McCaw). There are recent Rose Bowl winners (Stanford's Bernard Muir) and departments undergoing heavy makeovers (Penn State's Sandy Barbour). There is also one of White's five kids, Danny, who just made his first football coaching hire in his first athletic director job, at Buffalo.
"I like classic movies, and I really think he's the Godfather in college athletics," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "I just don't think any of us make any kind of move or make any major decision without checking in with the Godfather."
Phillips said he leaned on White this past year when faced with the unprecedented unionization movement from Northwestern football players. One year earlier, Phillips fired Wildcats men's basketball coach Bill Carmody and ended up hiring the only assistant coach among the candidates he interviewed: Duke's Chris Collins.
"It was important for me to get an honest evaluation of a guy that hadn't been in that seat before but certainly seemed to be ready," Phillips said.
The communication between White and Phillips is hardly unique among the White AD tree. Like so many in the inner-circle, Phillips, who started as a hoops graduate assistant at Arizona State, was brought into the administrative world by White, then ASU's athletic director. The two later reunited at Notre Dame when White was the Irish's athletic director, and the Chicago-born Phillips eventually took the top job at Northern Illinois and then Northwestern.
Similar brain-picking occurs during White's twice-a-month conversations with Todd Turner, the founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associates, a search and consulting firm. Former up-and-coming ADs back in the old Yankee Conference -- White at Maine, Turner at UConn--— the two exchange thoughts on the state of college sports, and Turner finds himself in new his day job coming across White's fingerprints with regularity.
"In the number of the searches I've helped manage, his lineage shows up almost every time. And it's because they're prepared and have had a good mentor," Turner said, adding. "I think Kevin has taken his role as a mentor really well. He sees that as part of his responsibility, and I think the proof is in the fact that so many of his proteges have not only gotten jobs, they've been really good at them."
Penn State president Eric Barron has used Turner's firm in each of the past two years, having made AD hires at Florida State (Wilcox) and Penn State (Barbour). Wilcox, who worked under White at Notre Dame and Duke before taking the Seminoles' job, joked that he had never wanted to be an AD during his previous life working in the Big East office, having seen all that was on their plates on a daily basis. White convinced him otherwise, and Barron trusted in that connection, regardless of Wilcox's experience.
"It was very clear that what (Barron) needed was somebody to come in and really run the department," Wilcox said, adding. "And I think he saw that in me, he saw that in the people that Kevin helped train that came from his tree, that these are individuals that are ready, and that they know how to run the department. And I think he felt very comfortable that he wouldn't have to always be looking over my shoulder."
Added Barbour, the former Cal athletic director who worked under White at Tulane and Notre Dame: "That speaks to Kevin's reputation. And in Eric's case, how much confidence Eric has in Kevin's recommendation. Kevin's not just going to recommend, or they're not just going to support people off his tree. But everybody in America is calling Kevin: 'Who would you recommend for my opening at the AD job?' "
Many of White's colleagues were in New York earlier this month to see him accept the John L. Toner Award, for excellence in athletic administration. The social club, so to speak, gets together often on the road at receptions and dinners, with Barbour joking that the AD with the biggest department budget -- now her -- buys for everyone.
"What's so fun about it is that at our cores, we all carry those principles and, more importantly, values, but we're really different people," she said. "Very different personalities, but we're a wide variety of principles among the group and we kind of execute it in very different ways. But when it comes right down to it, you can see Kevin's influence in every one of us."
Wilcox, who has seen a wide range of success and turmoil in barely a year on the job at Florida State, finds himself repeating quips White would often say to bring levity to day-to-day situations: That's why God made beer. Or: This too shall pass.
All of White's kids have followed in his footsteps to some degree, in the sports or education industry. In addition to Danny, the Buffalo AD, there is Mike, Louisiana Tech's head men's basketball coach, and Brian, Army's associate AD for development. His daughters, Mariah and Maureen, are studying sports law at Tulane and teaching high school English in Arizona, respectively.
As silly season winds to a close, and as new hires get acquainted with their bosses, a prevalent pop-culture axiom rings particularly true within college athletics.
"It's like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon," Wilcox said. "It's the six degrees of Kevin White."