Marcus Hilliard is one of the rising stars in the world of college athletic administrators. Hilliard, the son of former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, has already built an impressive resume, including a stop in Orlando with Tennessee’s new Athletics Director, Danny White. White hired Hilliard at UCF, and he discusses working for him and how he handles his daily activities and coaching hires with VR2 on SI.
Hilliard said on the time he spent with White, “I was his Asst. AD for Administration for over two and a half years before taking my current role at Austin Peay. I was essentially his chief of staff and helped run the administrative ops for the dept at UCF, working with him on development, corporate sponsorships and other special projects.”
The two have a fascinating history because White’s father, Kevin, serves as the Athletics Director at Duke, where Hilliard’s father, David Cutcliffe, is the head football coach.
That helped Hilliard land the job at Central Florida. “Our paths crossed previously while I was working at Duke. Our families (my mom, pops younger sister and his mom and dad) both attend the same Catholic Church, so I would see him and his family during the holidays when they came to Durham. I also stayed in touch with him while he was at Buffalo as well,” he stated.
When he approached me about the opportunity at UCF, it was pretty straightforward. He told me what he was looking for in the role and thought I would be a good fit, along with having an opportunity to learn from him and grow. I shared the same sentiment,” Hilliard said. “Took a visit there, fell in love with Orlando and the campus, and I became a Knight! Having worked for his father for a while, I knew working with him would be like working for a younger version of Kevin White, and he’s a mentor of mine, so it was a no brainer,” Hilliard added.
Hilliard spent valuable time under White, including UCF’s undefeated 2017 season. He said on what it’s like working for and with Danny White, “It’s great because he cares about you both personally and professionally. He wants you to pour everything you got into the opportunity, and he returns it back. It’s a grind; please believe it! But it’s super fun and rewarding because you get to work for someone who genuinely cares about you and your success as well. He challenges you just as he challenges himself to be better each and every day and his energy becomes infectious.”
After Danny White was hired at Central Florida in late 2015, the University’s athletics programs have thrived. That started with White bringing in Scott Frost to be the head football coach. Hilliard reflected on this by saying, “He understands what it takes to build and grow a department, so it’s pretty transferrable to a football program. He did extensive research on candidates and identified Scott Frost for the job at UCF due to his style of play(uptempo, RPO game, exciting brand of football that blends extremely well with the pool of talent that’s in the state of FL) and supported the program holistically. We needed to grow the resource investment in the program (from all external constituent groups, i.e., fans, donors, season ticket holders). We had a commitment from university leadership to help us, and it worked flawlessly. After Frost left for Nebraska, he went through the same process, and (Josh) Heup(el) kept it rolling.”
Hilliard added on what White looks for in the process of hiring a coach, “It’s a lot, but it all starts with integrity - he’s not looking at you if you take shortcuts and aren’t honest and have great character. From there, you have to have been successful and have a good record as a coach, be a great recruiter and developer of people. It’s all about the student-athletes, so if you can’t develop them into great people (athletically, academically, socially and spiritually) the X’s and O’s aren’t going to matter. The full choice was decided after all of the extensive research was compiled on candidates and he received input from the student-athletes on what they want in a head coach as well. He makes extremely well-informed decisions in everything that he does, so he thinks about it and goes with his gut!”
Hilliard, a Tennessee alumni and continued fan of the program, said on White’s future hire, “As a fan and alum myself, I have ZERO worries that Danny will find the absolute best head football coach for the program. The best thing Tennessee fans can do is to trust him and let him work his magic!”
It has been reported that White intends to hire an offensive-minded head coach. Hilliard discussed if White has a preference in coaching styles. “Not necessarily a specific style or coach really; it’s all about fit. At UCF we went with two offensive-minded guys in Frost and Heup, but that was what we needed at UCF at those particular times. If there’s a defensive coach that plays a brand of football that’s an aggressive style and he’s the right fit for both the program and institution, he will go that direction.”
White’s rise as an Athletics Director is more than just getting coaching hires right. He has been successful in all areas, and bringing Tennessee back to relevance in other areas is essential. Hilliard said on what White will look to do outside of the playing field, “To get Tennessee back to having consistent overall success on the national stage. Success is defined by more than just wins and loses - being innovative and modernizing the department if needed (finding and incorporating new streams of revenue generation, premium seating, student-athlete development/welfare, etc.) When Tennessee is having consistent success in all of those areas, the institution realizes its rightful place in the college athletics stratosphere.”
White has excelled in building culture, something Hilliard reiterated, saying, “The culture at UCF was awesome. We all wanted to do our part to be victorious. It was an environment that fed off of support. We were all one big family. That’s where the athletes supporting athletes came into play. It was never uncommon seeing a group of athletes from different sports at a women’s soccer game, or the men’s basketball team at a softball game, just to give a couple of examples. The synergy was built largely by the culture that was created.”
The most significant skepticism White has faced since being announced as Tennessee’s Athletics Director is if he can be successful at the SEC level. Hilliard said, “I’ll agree, one school is in the American Athletic Conference and the other is in the SEC. But the tenants of running successful athletic departments are the same, no matter the level: academic and athletic success, NCAA compliance, Fiscal Management, Revenue Generation, Facilities Enhancement and Student-Athlete experience. The scale may be different, but so far, he’s 2-0 and batting 1.000. I like his chances.”
All eyes remained focused on Danny White as he continues to run an almost silent coaching search.