Why OSU football alum Darnell Smith took his first athletic director job at a school with no facilities, no coaches and no athletes
Darnell Smith always wanted to be a college athletic director.
Over the past decade or so, he had opportunities to fulfill that goal. Several schools wanted to hire the former Oklahoma State football player. They made nice pitches. They offered compelling reasons. But something he’d heard from his mentors kept popping into his head.
“You’ll know it,” they would say, “when you know it.”
None of the schools felt quite right — until Texas A&M San Antonio.
Never heard of it?
Texas A&M San Antonio is a relatively young university, only a decade old. And athletics? The school hasn’t fielded a team yet. It doesn’t have facilities. Or coaches. Or players. Smith, who was hired in December and formally introduced last week, is its first athletic director.
He is building the program from scratch.
“I love the challenge,” he said late last week via telephone. “Every opportunity is a learning opportunity, and the idea of trying to do — I’m not going to say the impossible — something that I never even conceived was very, very appealing to me.”
University president Cynthia Teniente-Matson said last week when Smith was formally introduced, “His experience as a talented administrator and a strong advocate for the long-term success of ethnic minorities and women … make him a uniquely suited leader to oversee the implementation of our athletics plan.”
After Smith exhausted his football eligibility in 2006 – he was a two-year starter for the Cowboys at defensive end – his first full-time job in college sports came at New Mexico. He worked as the director of compliance as the Lobos were coming off serious NCAA sanctions from academic fraud in the mid-2000s.
He then moved into compliance at the University of Central Oklahoma in 2010 as it dealt with the aftermath of major infractions, too. The NCAA had slapped the Edmond university with numerous sanctions after the football program broke several major rules, including impermissible inducements and extra benefits to players.
Smith learned lots in both places.
“Problem solving. Working with campus constituents. Having a plan in place to ensure that you can move forward as a unit,” he said.
But as much as anything, he learned patience. Everything couldn’t be fixed in a flash. Steps had to be taken every day to reach the ultimate goal.
He knows he'll need a similar approach at Texas A&M San Antonio.
Building facilities and hiring staff are big-ticket items Smith is focused on now. Texas A&M San Antonio, after all, plans to field its first teams this fall. They will compete at the NAIA level and play in the Red River Athletic Conference. Even though no new facilities are likely to be completed for practice or competition, Smith believes several teams taking the field later this year is possible, namely men’s and women’s soccer.
“It’s very, very big in the conference,” he said of soccer, “and especially here in San Antonio, especially the south side of San Antonio.”
Smith knows that, by the way, because San Antonio is his hometown. He grew up a military kid, and after attending school on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, he graduated high school from Taft on the north side of the city.
He still has lots of family in San Antonio.
“I believe the good Lord was just kind of guiding the order of my steps,” Smith said. “I felt like as long as I just had faith … I’d end up in the place He wanted me to be. It worked out that it’s in my hometown with my family, my friends.”
He feels like he left friends at UCO who became family. Being in Edmond for a decade created strong bonds and made the move bittersweet, but Smith knew Texas A&M San Antonio was why he never felt the time or the place was right to become an athletic director before.
“It’s a surreal moment,” Smith said, “but it’s one of those when you feel like you’ve reached a goal and you worked so hard to get there, you just can’t believe that it’s done.”
Now don’t misunderstand — he doesn't believe he's arrived. He knows he has lots to do. In addition to his work, he and wife, Candace, had a baby in December. They now have two sons, a 4-year-old and a 1-month-old, and if that weren’t enough, Smith is working to finish his doctoral dissertation.
When does he sleep?
“Whenever my kid lets me,” he said. “I make it about two or three hours.”
“Some people may say, ‘Darnell, you’re crazy to try to take on all of this.’”
Darnell Smith doesn’t see any of this as a chore. He believes this is why those other job options didn’t feel right. He believes, too, being at this place at this time in his life is nothing but blessing and opportunity.
“As I’ve become an athletic director, it is my duty and responsibility now to then help someone else get over that hump,” he said. “Being African-American, it’s important for me that I’m a good role model, that I can therefore help others and blaze that pathway.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.