No, it doesn't feel like 15 years have passed, Donny White said, but perhaps that's because being in charge of Virginia Military Institute athletics never felt like a job.
When White announced last week that he would retire as VMI athletic director, effective this November, he did so after the same consideration from which he's made every decision since he took the position: the betterment of the school and the program.
"It's a good time for me to step away," White said. "I think it would be helpful to have new energy here. They might not find anybody that loves it any more than I do, but to find new energy, that for sure would be good, and it would probably be good for me."
White turned 70 last November, which doesn't seem possible to those who know him and attempt to keep up with him. The Hampton native is one of the giant figures in VMI athletic history, a man who made his mark as an athlete, a coach and finally, an administrator who will leave the athletic department in better shape than he found it.
"I think he's done a magnificent job," said Marshall Mundy, a Roanoke attorney and Board of Visitors member who has chaired the athletic committee for the past eight years and worked closely with White.
"Until I became chairman, I didn't have a real understanding of what the job entails," said Mundy (VMI Class of 1956). "It's a very demanding job and Donny does it with real class. He's so highly respected by the alumni. I believe he's one of the all-time good guys."
Greg Cavallero, the CEO of the Keydet Club, VMI's athletic fundraising arm, said, "Without a doubt, Donny White, from the very beginning, had nothing but the best interests and the best intentions for VMI athletics."
White's 15-year tenure as AD is the second-longest in school history, behind Bandy Clarkson (1926-46). He runs the athletic department at one of Division I's smallest schools (1,600 undergraduates), with the rigors of military and "rat line" training, as well as top-shelf academics and the school's exacting standards.
"We want to compete and we want to win," White said, "but we're going to do it the VMI way. We'll never compromise that."
Stewart MacInnis, VMI's director of communications and marketing, said that taken in total, White's tenure must be viewed as successful.
"Wins and losses, that's one metric, but perhaps not the most appropriate one here at VMI," he said. "It's about the young men and women who come out at the end, the type of people you produce. There have been times when athletes weren't as well integrated in the corps of cadets as they are now. That's a real strength that Donny brought here."
The two hallmarks of White's tenure were the addition of women, and women's sports, and the school's move from its longtime home, the Southern Conference, to the
"In my judgment, he handled both tremendously," Mundy said. "He did his homework and he was well prepared."
White takes pride that VMI fields seven women's sports, despite the fact that there are only 160 female cadets on post.
The decision to change conferences was done with an eye toward aiding the struggling football program, which routinely found itself outmanned against SoCon powers and against non-conference rivals such as
Despite the move, football continues to have a tough time gaining traction.
"It's a challenge to win more than you lose," White said. "You're measured on that, for sure. I think I've always been interested in athletics from the time I was a little kid for the competition part of it. You play to compete and you play to win, and when you come up short it wears on you."
White said that the highlights for him are too numerous to mention, though one particular night stands out. White and his wife, Betty, were in New York attending the play "Mamma Mia" on Broadway on Nov. 14, 2008, the night before the Keydets' football team was to play at
When they came out of the theater and White turned on his cell phone, he had a slew of text messages. He turned to Betty and said, "I bet we beat
He and Betty and a couple of the wives of football coaches who attended the play with them took the short walk to
Sweet as that moment was, White immediately mentioned a football game against Davidson two years earlier. The Keydets won 20-19, defending a Davidson two-point conversion attempt on the last play.
"Winning that game, to me, was just as great as coming out of that theater in New York and learning we beat Kentucky," White said. "It was a win. It's euphoric, because the (losses) wear on you."
White has hired all 18 head coaches. Basketball coach Duggar Baucom and baseball's Marlin Ikenberry have the most wins in their respective sports in school history. White believes that basketball's present run is the program's best since the Keydets'
Baseball has registered five winning seasons in the past eight years after a mostly fallow period dating back to White's playing days in the 1960s.
"I'm proud that we have been competitive in some sports that haven't been easy for us to be ultra successful in, traditionally," White said.
"He's awesome," said Ikenberry, also a VMI grad. "I owe him everything. He gave me a start at age 30 when a lot of other people wouldn't. … VMI is his passion. You have a guy like that as your boss, it makes it fun to go to work every day. You want to be around people with that type of energy."
Said Baucom: "He took a chance on a guy from a Division II school. He saw something in me that no Division I athletic director did. For that, I'm forever indebted to him. … I hope I've repaid his patience in me."
White was a somewhat surprising choice to take over as athletic director in 1998. Though he played and coached at VMI and was in the athletic Hall of Fame — he was a three-time all-conference shortstop and football co-captain — he had no college administrative experience. He was athletic director at Patrick Henry High in Ashland for the previous six years.
"Being a VMI man and having coached here for 15 years," White said, "I felt confident that it would be a good decision to accept that job offer, because I wanted to be the one who would make decisions. I wanted to be the one to have the opportunity to try to make athletics better at VMI."
White demonstrated early that he wasn't afraid to make difficult decisions. Just months into his tenure, he fired football coach Ted Cain with one game remaining in the 1998 season because he didn't like the direction of the program. He served as interim head coach for the final game before embarking on the search that landed Cal McCombs.
The decision to leave the Southern Conference was extremely controversial, but White felt it necessary.
"There was no shortage of opinion," Mundy recalled. "The conference landscape seems to be ever changing, and the Southern Conference had changed over the years. The Big South, in my judgment, was a better fit at that time.
"Now, the Big South is a different conference than it was when we joined it, and we could wind up going back to the future."
Indeed, the Southern Conference and VMI are considering each other, as the league seeks to replace four schools. A return to the SoCon could be the last major decision on White's watch.
Beyond November, White said that he has no concrete plans. He and Betty are healthy and active, with a 10-acre spread in Hanover County and children and grandchildren in different parts of the country. Regardless of where he is and what he's doing, VMI will never be far from his thoughts.