When Dr. E. Gordon Gee returned to West Virginia University in December 2013, it was intended to be temporary. Gee, who had served as WVU's president from 1981-85, was taking on a second stint in that position merely to bridge the gap between the departed James Clements and a yet-to-be-determined new hire. However, after a short time on the job, Dr. Gee and the WVU Board of Governors decided that he was the man for the permanent position as well.
Fast forward one year, and a similar situation appeared to be possible. Cunningham, now the acting Director of Athletics, was mentioned by some as a potential candidate for the job. However, she addressed that idea quickly in a press conference on Thursday afternoon.
“I have not, and I do not believe that one will be set up for that,” Cunningham said in response to a question about being interviewed for the permanent post. “At this point I don’t plan to be candidate for the permanent position, but I will work closely with President Gee to find the next candidate. I aspire to be an athletics director, and I believe everything up to this point has helped position me. But the timing of this as it relates to WVU, I have only been heavily involved in the administration and the day-to-day in the last year. When I started at WVU in 2010, that was primarily in the area off compliance. Roughly a year after that I got more heavily involved."
The Petersburg, W. Va. native has extensive experience in compliance, having served as a compliance assistant at the Big East Conference and in several roles in that area at the University of Maryland, which culminated in being named Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance in November 2005. She returned to her alma mater in much the same capacity, and was brought on board to address apparent shortcomings in WVU's compliance division. As she notes, she has branched out into other areas at West Virginia, but probably doesn't yet have the depth and breadth of experience to make her a candidate at this juncture.
Give Cunningham credit for a very realistic assessment of her current position. She could well be ready to move up to the big chair, but understands that the changing landscape of college athletics might demand someone with more experience at the present time. Still, it's clear that she's building her resume, and it won't be a surprise to see her land a job as an Athletic Director in the not-too-distant future.
"It’s important that the person embraces the Mountaineer side of it. The passion and energy and genuine interest in what you do is what sets them apart from someone who does a great job from someone who does an exceptional job"
-- Keli Cunningham
"It’s within the past year that I have seen that really broad based administrative perspective in a number of key areas. That may not be enough time. I believe any opportunity is one you grow in, and I’m not saying I’m not capable or I couldn’t do it," she explained. "But the candidates out there with extensive experience are ones we want to take a look at."Cunningham won't just be biding her time at WVU, however. In addition to helping the informal search team that will eventually make a hire, she doesn't want to be merely a placeholder.
“I don’t know how long I am going to serve, and in what capacity, weeks or months, but I plan to be as active as the situation allows me to be," she said. "I have been heavily involved in the past year, and I have four years of appreciation for what exists and a perspective on many areas. That brings value to the process, to understand exactly where we are and the things that need to be accomplished. I can help candidates understand where we are and where we are heading."
While Cunningham declined to name any candidates or identify any members of the informal search team, she did list some qualities the eventual hire needs to have.
"There are a number of characteristics that candidate needs to have. Someone action-oriented. We have a great foundation, but there’s a lot more to be done and things that need to be seen through. They need to be intelligent and able to understand college athletics and understand and be embracing of the landscape that is changing in the near future. What we see happening in the next two to three years will really shape our future. They have to understand that and know how we can begin to position ourselves, because the past 10-12 years as I knew it are very different from what’s to come."
Among those changes will be the autonomy movement for the "Power Five" conferences, wherein more self-determination and rule-making for and by those leagues alone will move forward. With national meetings looming that will shape the initial direction of the autonomy movement, Cunningham believes it is vital that West Virginia's next AD understands the landscape and can help shape it moving forward.
While Gee noted yesterday that candidates don't have to have West Virginia or WVU ties, Cunningham, who holds both a bachelor's and a master's in sport management from the state's flagship institution, believes that an understanding of the school's importance to the state is vital in excelling in the position.
"It’s important that the person embraces the Mountaineer side of it. The passion and energy and genuine interest in what you do is what sets them apart from someone who does a great job from someone who does an exceptional job," she noted.