When Davidson athletics director Chris Clunie first met with his staff last summer, his Power Point presentation included a famous photo of boxer Muhammad Ali standing defiantly over Sonny Liston, Ali’s defeated opponent who was lying prone on the canvas.
It was an image – as well as a state of mind – Clunie wanted to make sure everybody in the room understood and was ready to buy into.
“Our brand, we’re too humble,” Clunie said later. “We need to be bold. For too long, Davidson has been known mainly for having moments of David slaying Goliath. It’s time we change that. I’m challenging the athletics department and the institution in that way.”
Clunie, 34, replaced Jim Murphy, who left the athletics job after 23 years and is now a senior adviser to Davidson president Carol Quillen for finance and operations. A Davidson alum who was once a walk-on on coach Bob McKillop’s basketball team, Clunie understands the ethos at his alma mater.
Among the smallest schools in the country playing Division I sports, Davidson competes athletically with the stated goal of not sacrificing its lofty academic ideals to do so.
It’s an admirable ideal, and one to which Davidson sticks faithfully. But Clunie thinks it can be limiting. He says there is no reason why Wildcats teams – while not compromising their high academic standards – can’t do more than just compete. Winning on a consistent basis and in all sports is the goal.
McKillop’s nationally prominent basketball program is a prime example of how that can work at Davidson. Under McKillop, the Wildcats have played in the NCAA tournament nine times and made a seamless transition to the Atlantic 10 from the Southern Conference in 2014.
But Clunie offers up the Wildcats’ Stephen Curry-fueled run to the 2008 NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight as an example of Davidson’s “David” image in college athletics. He adds the Wildcats’ baseball team’s run to the NCAA tournament’s Super Regional in 2017, the golf team’s appearance in last season’s NCAA tournament and the men’s soccer team’s run to the College Cup in 1992.
“There are moments like that that Davidson is known more for nationally,” Clunie said. “We become a great national story and then go away. But we don’t want to be known as just a story; we want to be known as having a great overall program.”
23 career points
Clunie arrived at Davidson in 2002 not as a basketball player but a student. A decent enough high school player in the Baltimore suburb of Bel Air, Md., he had interest from schools like Quinnipiac, Navy and Colgate.
But his interest in Davidson was piqued by a guidance counselor, who recommended he take a visit to the campus. Clunie loved the place and, after receiving an academic scholarship, enrolled. It was only then that he heard about Davidson’s basketball program. He tried out for the team and made it as a walk-on.
Clunie had a true walk-on’s career: playing mostly mop-up duty in 44 games, starting one (on Senior Night) and scoring a total of 23 points.
Among Clunie’s unsung achievements while at Davidson: He helped McKillop recruit Curry, then a little-known high school basketball prospect, to Davidson in 2006, the year Clunie graduated.
Clunie played a pickup basketball game with Curry during a recruiting visit and offered McKillop this assessment of Curry, who went on to become an All-American and NBA MVP: “He’ll be pretty good and contribute.”
Graduating with a political science degree, Clunie applied for and received a Watson Fellowship, a program founded by IBM and given each year to 40 college seniors.
“They gave me $25,000 and told me to put together a program and go out there and do something that I love, that’s impactful,” Clunie said. “Basically whatever I wanted for a year.”
Clunie wanted to see how basketball impacted other cultures.
So he went to Japan, where he said the sport was more tied into the country’s subculture as a street game.
He went to Argentina, where he saw how a basketball academy prepared players for pro careers in places like Italy and Spain.
He traveled to South Africa, where he worked for a nonprofit called PeacePlayers International. He even briefly played pro ball there, but because of a stipulation in the Watson Fellowship rules, he couldn’t be paid.
He finally went to Italy, where he took multiple basketball jobs. One of them included waking up pro player (and future Charlotte Hornet) Marco Belinelli “and getting him to breakfast on time,” Clunie said.
Clunie’s year as a Watson fellow allowed him to narrow his career choices. “I knew I wanted to work in sports before the Watson,” he said. “After the Watson, I knew I wanted to work in basketball.”
Clunie had established a relationship with San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, who in 2007 hired Clunie in the team’s business office. Clunie learned about the business side of the sport, and also coached a middle school basketball team in San Antonio.
After one year, the NBA called.
Clunie’s year abroad made him a natural for the NBA’s efforts overseas. He rose through the ranks quickly and ended up being the league’s director of international operations.
“My job was to really grow the game of basketball internationally, but to also complement that with the business of basketball,” said Clunie, who eventually became operations director for the NBA’s all-star weekend and draft combine.
He was a natural, said Kim Buhony, the league’s senior vice president of international basketball operations.
“It obviously helps if you come from a basketball program, which Chris did,” said Buhony. “But he grew so quickly into his role. He grew into the executive he’s become not just because of his natural leadership instincts, but because he thinks on both the macro and micro levels. A lot of people don’t have that ability.”
Clunie’s eye never wandered far from Davidson. He was named the Wildcats’ athletics director last May.
Fighting for Davidson
Much of the impetus for Clunie’s vision for Wildcats athletics came from the man for whom he once played.
“I’ve talked to Bob about being bolder, stepping out into the spotlight,” Clunie said, adding that he’s still getting comfortable with the idea of calling McKillop by his first name. “That’s something he’s done for a number of years. He’s dared for his basketball program to bigger and bolder.”
Said McKillop: “It’s confidence with humility, Chris has used that expression. If we step on a stage, we want it to be a Broadway stage. But you have to understand what kind of vulnerability that brings. That in itself is boldness. I don’t believe Chris will be a proud peacock today because you can be a feather duster tomorrow. He knows we don’t want to strut our feathers. We want to be confident, but remain humble. That can set us apart from so many in today’s world.”
Clunie has sent the “confidence with humility” message throughout the entire athletic department.
“He is fighting for each sport and for Davidson,” said women’s lacrosse coach Kim Wayne. “He knows Davidson is not a world-renowned school with just one or two teams. There’s more to it than that.”
Wayne said Clunie is trying to help her program get up to speed in the Atlantic 10 by increasing the number of scholarships they currently offer about 2.5 (including one that is endowed). The conference allows women’s lacrosse programs a maximum of 12.
“I’m not saying we need or deserve 12, but he’s fighting for our program,” Wayne said.
Clunie is also bullish on the Wildcats football program, which went 6-5 in 2018 under first-year coach Scott Abell.
“When I first talked to the football team, it didn’t look like Davidson,” Clunie said. “It was one of the most diverse racial and socio-economic rooms I’ve ever been in. That’s one of the values of football alone. It’s one of the hardest-working groups we have. I think football has a really important place at Davidson.”
That group put together Davidson’s first winning season in football since 2007.
“Chris said he’s found our community to be too humble,” Abell said. “We don’t shout from the mountaintop who we are, but it’s important people know what we’re about, what we’ve accomplished. Our job is to become a national brand; our own brand. That’s what Chris is about.”
Clunie never wants to lose sight of the academic side of his vision for Davidson.
“(McKillop) has said this before and I agree with it,” Clunie said. “Davidson doesn’t need the NCAA; the NCAA needs Davidson. Look around the country at all these schools and the things going on. It’s an opportunity for a school like Davidson, with strong academics that’s competing at the highest level of athletics. People don’t think we can do both. We’re saying we can. We want to step into the gap and say we can do it right.”
Clunie, whose wife Lauren recently gave birth to their first child, goes back to the bout between Ali and Liston in 1965.
“I don’t want to be the University of Muhammad Ali; that’s a little too brash and too arrogant,” said Clunie. “But I also don’t want us to be the University of Sonny Liston, on our back, underselling ourselves, not realizing our full potential. Let’s be somewhere in between. That can be a great place.”