Tennessee AD Danny White talks challenges, Josh Heupel and playoff expansion

It’s been a whirlwind seven months since Danny White arrived as athletics director at Tennessee.

After spending five years as AD at UCF, White left to take on a new challenge with the Volunteers.

“It’s a great place and there are really good people that are really passionate about it and really want to help in any way they can,” White said Wednesday. “The support in Knoxville with the donor base, and everything, it’s been absolutely phenomenal. So I’m excited about what we can do here.”

The Orlando Sentinel caught up with White as he prepares to make the trip back to the state of Florida to watch the football team take on Florida in the Swamp Saturday.

What’s been the biggest challenge since you’ve arrived at Tennessee?

White: “It was my first time serving in this role at a tradition-rich school. I kind of came in thinking that would be a big thing to get my arms around and needed to learn a lot about it. I still have more to learn about it. But what I’ve probably been pleasantly surprised about is that I think that people here are accepting and understanding and embracing the fact that we need to modernize. As I learned about our history, we built this big, prominent national brand by being innovators back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We were the first movers in a lot of different things. So in a lot of ways, we need to get back to how we used to be in terms of innovating evolving into the future. I knew that was going to be a very important ingredient for success.”

You brought Josh Heupel with you from UCF to be the Volunteers football coach. How has that transition been and has it been easier because of your familiarity?

White: “I think it’s been helpful for both of us when you come into a new set of circumstances that we have that familiarity of having worked together. It doesn’t make everything just cookie-cutter easy. But Josh is a good football coach and a good person. He’s exactly what I was wanting up here and what I thought we’d get. I think he’s done a really good job of starting to shift the culture to kind of what we had in our football program down there [at UCF]. Kids are having fun. They’re excited about coming to our building every day, and I’m seeing that the energy is really good. He’s got a big project; a big task ahead to rebuild it. I know folks here know that it’s going to take patience. We got to do it, right, so it’s sustainable.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey spoke highly of you, saying he spoke with you to get your take on expanding the College Football Playoff. What were those discussions like?

White: “We talked about my UCF experience. I was on the other side of the table. Now I’m still getting used to being on this side of the table. Hopefully, that doesn’t mean as much as we move forward because we obviously need to expand the playoff. I think it [expanded playoff] will have a profound impact on the regular season, and games in late October and November matter a whole lot more for a whole lot more teams. And for the student-athletes, they want to settle it on the field. We shouldn’t have a situation where the season is effectively over to a certain extent for half of the field three or four weeks into the season. It’s the nature of the sport that teams need to be able to grow and improve and play their best at the very end when what matters the most.”

Are you concerned that the movement to expand has slowed or stalled because of conference realignment?

White: “I don’t know that anything has happened in the last few months that would change why we all collectively agreed. I didn’t hear anybody voicing against the notion that we needed to expand the playoff when that was so heavily talked about six months ago. It was the right thing to do. It still is the right thing to do and I think we need to not get distracted. about what’s the right thing.”

Your brother, Mike, is the basketball coach at Florida. Do you guys have any sort of bet on this weekend’s game?

White: “No. He’ll be agonizing for me just like I agonized for him when we play them in basketball. It’s not fun to play against each other. I know he’s really supportive of [Gators coach] Dan [Mullen] and everything that’s going on in football.”

What did you make of [former UCF quarterback] McKenzie Milton’s comeback at Florida State?

White: “There wasn’t a dry eye in the White house. We were so excited that all my kids had their McKenzie jerseys on and everybody was screaming. We’re so so proud of what he’s overcome and excited to see him take the field. I mean, what a story. It felt like a movie being a part of that 2017 team with how everything transpired; the coaching change, the players and the leadership that they had to be able to finish up undefeated and win the Peach Bowl. Shaquem [Griffin] on his own is a movie, and for McKenzie to go through what he went through in 2018 and for him to overcome those unbelievable challenges with his recovery. I mean, that seems like a blockbuster movie that could win an Oscar.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Matt Murschel at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.