An historic hire: Small named Valparaiso University's first African-American Director of Athletics
VALPARAISO -- In the end, Dr. Charles Small was hired as Valparaiso University's Director of Athletics based on his qualifications.
The fact that Small will be the first African-American among 16 people to serve in the position only adds to the significance of the moment.
"It means a lot for me personally, for there to be access and opportunity," Small said. "There were people before who fought for there to be access for underrepresented groups in leadership positions. The way I look at it is, it's a really big responsibility for me to do a really good job so we can continue to have opportunities for other people. It's not just about race, about gender, it's about anybody who has not had opportunities. I think it's great that, as a society, that wasn't a factor in the process. It was who's the best person. That speaks a lot."
Jose Padilla broke ground in December 2020 when the Mexican-American Catholic became president of the Lutheran university. While he didn't set out to specifically make a diversity hire, he made sure it was a consideration.
"We're making history here with him being our first African-American Athletic Director," Padilla said. "We really encouraged our search committee as well as Parker Executive Search. We wanted a diverse pool because it's a reflection of our country. Charles was definitely the best person of all the candidates. We had 45 individuals who met the minimum qualifications, and nine were sitting A.D.s. Diversity is a strong bonus. We have a lot of diverse athletes playing for us. We wanted to make sure there was someone there who understood what they were going through, in addition to him being a former D-I athlete. He brings all of that to the table."
Like Padilla and outgoing Valpo A.D. Mark LaBarbera, Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Jeff Jackson, lauded the hire being made purely on qualifications.
"I think it's great. It shows an open-mindedness," said Jackson, an African-American. "You hire the best person, regardless of creed, ethnicity or religion."
Jackson, who actually recruited Bryce Drew for Stanford when he was a basketball assistant there, worked with Small when the two were both in the Big 12. Jackson oversaw men's basketball for the conference, while Small did the same at Iowa State under highly-respected A.D. Jamie Pollard.
"I'm excited about Charles' future," he said. "He's very sincere. That makes a difference. He and President Padilla both talk about servant leadership, the understanding of caring and nurturing development. They will walk hand in hand together to create a really nice alignment for the future of Valparaiso athletics. It's a great institution, a high-end academic school that cares about its student athletes."
Padilla described Small as 'thoughtful and deliberative,' noting that he sent out a 120-day plan right after his interview.
"We didn't want an athletic director who was a bull in a china shop who thinks he knows everything," Padilla said. "We have a family here at Valparaiso University and there's a lot of institutional memory in this department. We want to cultivate and take advantage of it. That's the way I acted when I started my president. I went around campus and listened."
In a profession of show horses and workhorses, Padilla sees Small as the latter.
"I'd rather have a workhorse who treats his people with respect, who engages them, shows them that respect by saying, I'm going to take the time to hear what your vision," Padilla said. "He is the kind of person who will show love to his people, whether it be staff, student athletes, coaches. We're a Christian university. We're supposed to love each other, right?"
There was no epiphany moment in the process for Small, who wasn't actively looking to leave his senior staff position at Iowa State. In Valpo, he saw a totality of factors that added up to a perfect fit.
"Most important is the alignment of values," he said. "You get in a space where people are talking about core values and that's driving conversation, that's intriguing for me, especially in our industry. That doesn't happen very often. I was looking for a position that had great leadership. President Padilla really values athletics. He understands it's important. Being in the MVC, seeing sports that have the opportunity to excel, I thought I could add value to that."
By the time Small got to the virtual interviews, he had done enough homework on Valpo to know it was a place he wanted to go.
"The tradition, people who care, the opportunity to get better -- that's something that motivates me," he said. "Get folks together on a common vision and go compete. It's a collective process of building relationships, a culture. It'll take a little time. I can be in a role of a builder. I can have an impact, say we started at this space and this is what we were able to accomplish. I get motivated by that."
Valpo's qualities as a faith-based school with high-end academic achievement can be a challenge when it comes to building athletic success, but Small embraces those distinctive characteristics.
"It's a strong conference, a unique environment," Small said. "It's hard to replicate this environment. To me, that's an edge in recruiting. We can find student athletes who are a good fit. There has been success at Valpo. There are some gaps where we have to get better. You have to be able to adjust. Change is good sometimes. There's a balance of humility and togetherness but also aspirations to achieve high levels of success. When you get that, you can do some great things. That's where I feel I'm the best fit."
A product of Detroit's famed Police Athletic League, where he was coached by his dad, Small played at Martin Luther King High School. Rather than go to a smaller school, he chose to walk on at Pittsburgh for coach Jamie Dixon. He was part of NCAA tournament teams that included future professionals in Brandin Knight, Sam Young and Aaron Gray. Though he never saw much action, he had a memorable moment as a senior when he was on the floor at the end of a win in a tourney game played in his hometown.
It was at Pitt where Small started his career in college athletics in 2006.
"I'm OK with rolling up sleeves," he said. "That actually motivates me."
Small officially begins his Valpo tenure July 1.
Dr. Charles Small was introduced as Valparaiso University's Director of Athletics last week. The Detroit native is the first African-American to serve in the position at the school.