By: Sam Thomas ’20
The Davidsonian had the pleasure of sitting down with Davidson’s new Athletic Director, Chris Clunie ‘06, earlier this month for an exclusive interview. Clunie, a Terry Scholar during his time at Davidson and a Watson Fellow following graduation, received his Masters in Public Affairs from Columbia University. He worked with the San Antonio Spurs as a Corporate Development Project Assistant before taking over as the Director of International Basketball Operations in the National Basketball Association (NBA) League Office.
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ST: Hi Mr. Clunie, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me for an interview.
CC: Thank you for having me.
Let’s get started. Davidson has a different look than most schools in its balance of athletics and academics. In your experience, what did your time here mean to you as both a competitor and as an athlete?
It’s pretty well known that the student comes first in a student athlete, and that’s never going to change. It’s who we are. It’s in our fabric at Davidson College; I was grateful for that. I came to Davidson on a full academic-leadership scholarship, the William Holt Terry Scholarship, and I walked on the basketball team. For me, academics always came first, and to be able to compete at the highest level athletically and still not sacrifice in the classroom was incredible. It’s something that we do second to none in the world, really.
Describe your experience on the Watson Fellowship. What did it mean to you to travel the world and for you personally?
So the Watson changed my life. It forced me out of my comfort zone… and it forced me to widen [my] perspective. For me, I tried to put together a project that showed how basketball impacted different cultures. So I went to Japan, Argentina, South Africa, Italy, and Spain bouncing around.
Japan was awesome. I was very much alone just trying to see how basketball fit into their culture. It wasn’t one of their big-time sports; despite having the FIBA World Championships going on there it was more of a subculture. It really only became popular through a comic book series, which made sense, but had to be explored.
Argentina was totally different… basketball is in their DNA. It isn’t as big as soccer, but it’s the next biggest sport. I lived in a basketball academy where kids were trained and were coached to try and get pro contracts overseas. It was different in that it took the role of trying to better their lives from a socioeconomic standpoint.
In South Africa, I worked a nonprofit called PeacePlayers International. They used basketball as a tool to teach about HIV/AIDs, post-Apartheid racism, and such, and I was there as a program director to help them see the world in a different way. I was also fortunate enough to play professional basketball in the South African PBL – it was awesome.
In Italy and Spain I just bounced around working at different clinics and camps. That was humbling because it was my last role with the NBA on my Watson, so it came full circle. For me, the Watson became a job. Getting to work with basketball overseas and with international development led me to the San Antonio Spurs organization and six months later I was back with the NBA doing exactly what I had been doing on the Watson. It was truly the launchpad for me going into my NBA career.
You had mentioned that basketball takes different roles in different countries. How does that compare to athletics at Davidson?
First of all, Davidson is a very international institution. That’s one of the things, from a diversity and inclusion standpoint, that we should be proud of. It really makes us who we are in a lot of different ways, having that perspective and different cultures. I love how, at Davidson, we don’t separate the athletic and academic spheres. We’re all together. We’re all intertwined. We all eat in the same places, live in the same places. So for us, when you talk about athletics living in the fabrics of what we are, it is something that does and really should support the institutional mission. I feel like Davidson athletics fits really well within the mission that President Quillen has set out for us, and athletics can be used to promote our brand, our mission, our story. The Davidson student, the Davidson athlete are all part of who we are.
How has your experience with three universally respected organizations – Davidson Basketball, the Spurs, and the NBA – informed what it means to lead Davidson’s athletic program?
First of all, it’s incredibly humbling and exciting at the same time. It’s a little surreal being back here after being a student and an athlete. It is really a great opportunity and I am very excited about that. It’s also definitely a privilege not a right. It’s really important to me and I wanted to give back to Davidson everything that it gave me.
That brings me to my second point. I really wanted to be involved and be engaged – not necessarily come back, but serve Davidson as I felt it had served me. So when this opportunity arose, it was humbling and exciting, and I’m starting to grasp the impact that I can have and we can have in the athletic program, both internally and externally, on this school, the institution, and the community. That’s what I’m really excited about.
I mean, I learned a ton and had a lot of really great experiences. If you look at being a part of Davidson, being on the Watson, with the Spurs, and with the NBA, culture is at the foundation of everything. We really do have a great culture here in terms of students and student athletics. My job is really just to enhance that. I want to push everyone to make the most out of this place because, as great as Davidson Athletics are now, I know we can be better. We’re really only on the cusp of where I think we’re headed and where we’re capable of going, so that’s incredibly exciting.
To build on that, where do you lay the hallmark of success for the athletic department in five or ten years down the line?
I no longer want to be seen as the Ivy League of the south or the Stanford of the south. I want people to be the Davidson of the west or the Davidson of the north. I want people to be us. There’s this incredible opportunity for us to step into this void in college athletics and to be leaders there because we do athletics the right way. We don’t sacrifice what we do academically. A lot of folks will say that you have to separate the two, and that’s just not the case. Here we are as an example that that’s not the case. We are building complete, holistic human beings and that’s what makes Davidson, not just the athletic department, so special, and we don’t sacrifice that. So for me, especially with the way college athletics is facing a fair share of issues, I feel like Davidson can show that a small, liberal-arts institution can really have a big impact not just in college education, but in athletics, and that’s what I want to build goals toward.
What is your personal take on the one-and-done rule, having worked with the NBA and now being the head of a Division 1 athletic department?
The one-and-done rule probably doesn’t have a huge role for us here. There has probably only been one player that comes to mind in recent memory and I think we all know who that is. To tell you the truth, if you ask him, he would have told you he wasn’t ready after a year. But, look I came from a world where the one-and-done rule was always at the front of our minds, and I’m really ready to shift gears here. We’re not worried about building professionals. That’s great if it happens, but we’re here to allow people to compete at the highest level athletically without sacrificing the standards we have set with academics and academic integrity. Again, the one-and-done rule really isn’t my focus because our goals here are across a multitude of sports and a lot broader than that.
If there is one thing about Davidson Athletics that you were to focus on, what would that be?
A huge part of what we can do here boils down to accountability. I need coaches to be able to hold their student-athletes accountable, coaches to be able to be vulnerable enough to be held accountable by their student-athletes, and I need to be accountable to be able to listen to the voices around me because I’m not perfect and all of those help all of us grow and make the most of what we are trying to do here.
Is there anything you would like to say to the general student who may not be an athlete about your role and what you look forward to on this campus?
Davidson is a very, very special place. Like I said, it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to come back. People want to be associated with… Davidson College and Davidson Athletics. We have done so many things as an athletic department really well and we’re only going to get better, which is what I’m most excited about. From a support perspective, the more support we can have internally – support from students for our athletics – because, again, we’re one in the same, we want Davidson athletics to continue to tell the Davidson story. When our athletics are successful, our students are successful, and I’m excited to help tell that story here.