Keith Gill realizes his new role comes with a significance that he’s both appreciative and in awe of it.
Gill was announced Tuesday as the next commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, set to replace the outgoing Karl Benson on May 1. Gill will become only the sixth commissioner in the Sun Belt's 43-year history. But more importantly, he becomes the first black commissioner of an FBS conference.
Gill, a former Duke football player, has been the athletics director at two universities — American (2007 to 2012) and Richmond (2013 to 2017) — and spent the last two years as the executive associate commissioner for the Atlantic 10 Conference. In his introductory teleconference, Gill admitted how powerful his new position really is.
“As I kind of think about my career trajectory, my parents are my heroes. And so when I think about certainly all the advantages they didn’t have — growing up in Jim Crow South Carolina as it relates to access to education,” Gill said. “And the sacrifices they made so I could go to Duke and that my brother and sister could go to college, it just humbles me to think about some of the opportunities I had that my parents, who are these two wonderful, hardworking, great people, have never had the opportunity to have.
“It means a lot to me from that perspective, but I also think that coming through — I’ve had mentors. I’ve had a diverse pool of mentors — men, women, of all different nationalities — and ethnicities, is important. But I do think it’s also important to have role models and folks that look like you. I think that is an important piece, so I’ve had that as I have come through the business.
"And I look forward for the opportunity to serve that for others and make sure they understand there are opportunities there and they can achieve them if they work hard and focus and have folks who help and support them along the way.”
Gill inherits a conference coming off one of its stronger football seasons in recent history. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Troy each won at least 10 games, including their respective bowl games. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 25 in the middle of the season, becoming only the second team in the history of the Sun Belt to earn a spot in the rankings. The conference had six bowl-eligible teams for its five bowl slots.
But the conference has also pushed to beef up its standings in men’s basketball, indicated by both Gill’s hire and previous decisions. Last year, the Sun Belt rolled out a strategic plan for the men’s basketball schedule, which included both a scheduling alliance to play against peer conferences, as well as a 20-game smart schedule. It did so with the goal of garnering a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament for its conference champions while also shedding the notion that the Sun Belt is a one-bid league.
In Gill’s role with the A-10, he oversaw community relations with men’s basketball championship, among other items. The conference will put that plan into action for the 2019-20 schedule, and Gill is excited to see how the changes can morph and grow as the Sun Belt learns from the results.
“I’m looking forward to kind of getting started and so I can really get a clear sense of what the anticipated aspects would be and try to build a system so we can evaluate whether or not we’re achieving those outcomes and whether we should continue down that path or there are some tweaks we should do or some additional initiatives to add,” Gill said.
Mark Becker, president of both Georgia State and the Sun Belt, said the decision to hire Gill did not come down to basketball alone. In Gill, Becker said, he found a strong option to continue pushing the conference forward.
“We were looking for a commissioner that certainly understands, at a very high level, men’s and women’s basketball, but also football,” Becker said. “Football is very important to the Sun Belt Conference, as is basketball. So what we were looking for was somebody who had the experience to be able to lead the conference forward across all areas of intercollegiate athletics, to be able to be well versed and experienced and demonstrate a record of success and student athlete welfare, somebody who will work very collaboratively and constructively with all the ADs, presidents and chancellors to take the Sun Belt Conference to a higher level.”
After graduating from Duke in 1994, Gill served as a membership services representative to the NCAA from 1995 to 1999. He became assistant athletics director at Vanderbilt for a year after that before returning to the NCAA as director of membership services from 2000 to 2004. He went from there to Oklahoma, where he was associate athletics director from 2004 to 2007.
The A-10 doesn’t sponsor football, but Gill contended it wouldn’t be an issue getting back into a conference that sponsors the premiere sport of college athletics. On top of working with the football programs at Oklahoma and Vandy, he was on the NCAA’s Football Rules Committee for three years. Gill hopes to keep the Sun Belt’s football standing on a positive trajectory.
“For me, I will continue to focus, and as a league we’ll continue to focus, on improving football everyday,” Gill said. “Can we get someone preseason ranked on a regular basis? Can we get our champion to be the highest ranked so that they play in a New Year’s Six Bowl? There’s plenty of things that we can be doing in a football space to help us grow.
“I think at the same time though, equally as important, is trying to continue to improve basketball. So I think that we’ll be working on both of those things, really at the same time, and spending a lot of our time and effort in trying to make sure we continue to improve with both of those sports.”
Other notes from Gill
Gill on Duke, where he played running back from 1990 to 1993: “My inspiration for getting into college athletics was my experience at Duke. Duke was a transformational experience for me. I met Tiffany (Speaks, Gill’s partner) at Duke, I learned how to write at Duke, I learned how to think, I learned that I could have impact on the world, took my first trip abroad, I did all these unbelievable things that I never thought I could do when I was at Duke. And I thought it would be a gift and an honor if my life’s work was trying to help students have an impactful experience like I had. That’s why I got into college athletics, it’s why I get excited about it every day when I wake up, and it does impact every decision I make in terms of trying to make sure we’re doing things, to make sure we’re supporting the students whether it’s their health and safety, whether it’s their academic or competitive opportunities. I think it’s really important that we put our students in the best place to be successful and our decision should be focused in that regard, and that really all kind of comes from my undergraduate experience. That’s where that inspiration comes from. “
Gill on guaranteed or money games, like App State's trip to Penn State last season: “When I was at Duke, when I was a sophomore I think, we played at Tennessee and that was a great experience (Duke played Tennessee in the 1993 season, Gill's junior season, a 52-19 loss). But you know, having a 100,000 people, having a press box that was 100-yards long, all those things that kind of go along with playing in those SEC stadiums and in that environment. I think it’s great. I think it’s a good learning experience, I think those are good experiences just general. That’s something that, to this day, we lost the game and I still remember that. I think there’s a role for those games to be played. But the question is, if you play too many of them, how does that impact you in terms of some of your long-term goals?”
Gill on his start in college athletics: "Back in 1994, I got my start in college athletics through one of the NCAA’s diversity enhancement programs, and that was an internship program specifically for women and ethnic minorities — people of color. ... [Without it] there’s no way I would’ve gotten my start in collegiate athletics, and I wouldn’t be here. And so I’m so appreciative to the NCAA and its diversity efforts and do everything that I can to support those going forward."