Though he is only 43 years old, Richmond athletic director Keith Gill has experience beyond his years. After a four-year career as a fullback at Duke, Gill spent eight years spanning two stints working at the NCAA offices as a member services representative. In between those assignments was a four-year stop at Vanderbilt as assistant athletic director, followed by a four-year tour as a senior AD at Oklahoma. In 2007 he took over as athletic director at American University before joining the Spiders in 2012. In this exclusive interview with FootballMatters.org, Gill reflects on his influential high school coach, his time working for the NCAA and how football lessons carry over to being an AD.
Football Matters: What was your first experience with the game of football and when did you grow to love it?
Keith Gill: It has always been a sport that I loved. My youngest memories are watching football with my dad. When I was a kid, once we got home from church on Sundays we would sit down and watch NFL football. We always played football in our yard, football in the street. I didn’t start playing organized football until I was in the eighth grade, but I probably have been playing football since I was 4 years old and certainly watching it even before that with my dad and my brother.
FM: As you began playing football were there any coaches early in your career that were particularly influential?
KG: My high school coach, Larry Gergley in Winter Park, Florida, is an incredible person. He had an unbelievable demeanor and was a great mentor and teacher. He was always trying to explain life lessons through football. He is one of the most successful high school coaches in the state of Florida. I really count my lucky stars that I had the opportunity to play for him and learn from him. The sport of football is a great teacher. It teaches you some unbelievable lessons. When you pair that with a really influential, inspirational high school coach, I think that’s really helpful. Coach Gergley, his demeanor is pretty quiet, pretty reserved. When he did speak everyone listened. He always had incredible things to say.
FM: Not only did you play in college, you also maintained very strong academic marks as a student-athlete. How did you balance your time on the field and in the classroom?
KG: I think one of the great things football does is help you with time management. Fortunately, I’ve always been associated with coaches and football programs that value academics. My parents were strong; they believed in academics more than anything else. They made sure before we went out and played that we did our homework. One thing about football that I think some people underestimate is you don’t miss a lot of class. You travel on Friday and you play on Saturday and you are back on Sunday. There aren’t a lot of missed classes, and I actually think the sport promotes discipline. Very rarely are you gone for the week, so you have an opportunity to tighten up on your studies and focus.
KG: My time with the NCAA was transformational for me. The NCAA is where I learned how to be a professional. It’s really where I got a chance to hone some basic skills such as thinking and analysis and writing. I can’t say enough about the value of the time I had at the NCAA and how much that has helped me throughout my entire career. I thought it was a great place to learn and grow and work with a lot of outstanding people. I certainly know that I wouldn’t be the professional I am today without all the things I learned in my time there.
FM: After leaving the NCAA you transitioned into more administrative roles within athletic departments. How did each job set you up for your next job?
KG: I was at Vanderbilt for a few years and got a sense of how things were on campus. The interesting thing is I worked for Todd Turner, who is really good friends with Joe Castiglione at Oklahoma. When I went back to the NCAA I worked with the NCAA for four years and there was a position that Joe was thinking about creating on his staff. He talked to Todd, and Todd was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got the perfect guy for you.’ That’s how I got to Oklahoma. That was an absolutely amazing experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for two of the best ADs in the country. Both allowed me to grow and develop and have lots of hands-on experience. They allowed me to make mistakes and coached me up on those mistakes. They also gave me enough authority and responsibility so that I could get some really valuable experience that I use today. I think working for those two guys on campus was an incredible experience. I use lessons that I used in my time at Vanderbilt and Oklahoma every day.
FM: As you go about your day-to-day responsibilities and your work, how does football tie in? Are there any parallels between the game and the administrative roles that you’re in now?
KG: I think so. The one interesting thing about football is no matter what you do you’re probably going to get some constructive criticism. I feel like I’m able to take constructive criticism and use it to improve every day because of football. In football you score a touchdown and you run off the field and your coach is talking about, ‘Well, you zone stepped wrong,’ or, ‘You did X, Y and Z wrong.’ You’re always getting that constant feedback. If you don’t figure out a way to build a process that uses it and applies it as a way to get better, then you can’t survive. I think that’s one thing that football taught me. I think another thing is perseverance. It’s a tough, physical, grinding sport. You’re typically trying to get three to four yards per play. You have to be patient and you have to stick to it. I think that’s administration. Nothing that we do is easy. Nothing that we do is quick. Generally we have to come up with a plan of attack and figure out where we want to go, and then figure out the basics every day that gets us there over time. I think that in a nutshell is football.
FM: What’s your favorite part of your job right now?
KG: My favorite part is the students. I really enjoy watching the students grow. A lot of times as freshmen they’ll come in and you’ll try to say hello. You’ll try to engage them and they are a little shy. As sophomores you see them open up a little more. By the time they are seniors they are adults and they are thinking about what they are going to do in life. They want to change the world. Watching that develop over four years is really special and is one of the reasons I love my job so much.