- Grace Bowes Deehan ’17 – Head of Brand Marketing and Communications at Mercedes-Benz USA;
- Chris Clements – Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Miami Dolphins;
- Wes Engram – President, Integrity 9 Sports & Entertainment;
- Blake Gardner '16 – VP of Partnerships for University Fancards and Voice of the Samford Bulldogs, Birmingham Squadron and Legion FC;
- Jonathan Lowery – Ronald Blue Trust, Professional Athlete Financial Planner;
- Mark Simmons – Vice President of Business Strategy & Analytics, Nashville Soccer Club.
Published on October 16, 2023 by Kevin Scarbinsky
Jean Sullivan knows what a winning team looks like. She was there every step of the way as her late husband, Pat, contributed to so many of them as a football player, assistant coach and head coach, including his 2013 Samford team that won the program's first Southern Conference championship.
Samford itself is no stranger to winning on and off the field. The Bulldogs captured 11 Southern Conference championships during the 2022-23 academic year to sweep the Commissioner's Cup as the SoCon's top all-around men's athletics program and the Germann Cup as the top overall women's program.
Professor Darin White is the executive director of Samford's Center for Sports Analytics, the team behind some of those championship teams, and the founding coordinator of the Sports Marketing & Analytics program in Samford’s Brock School of Business. When he went recruiting new members for the university's distinguished Sports Marketing & Analytics Advisory Board, it was only natural he would ask Sullivan to join the team.
"The relationships she has in the college football world are unique," White said. "She's an amazing lady. Everybody in Alabama knows the Sullivan name. Even Alabama fans like the Sullivans."
Sullivan said she is thrilled to be able to contribute in a new way to the university her husband served as head football coach for eight seasons from 2007 through 2014. The home of the Bulldogs, the Sullivan-Cooney Family Field House, bears their name.
"I'm looking forward to it," she said. "I still go to Samford games and stay involved. I've been involved in football for 50 years."
Involvement. That's the common thread that connects the more than 30 members of the advisory board, which White said "has been the backbone of our program since Day One." These diverse leaders from across the sports landscape are not merely ceremonial names on the website, although they are well-known names in their respective fields.
"It's not an honorary thing," White said. "It's who wants to come alongside us and help make dreams come true for our students. These people with big names who are running the world of sports are genuinely down-to-earth people who are willing to give back, roll up their sleeves and help."
In addition to Sullivan, the new members of the advisory board expected to bring that same spirit of servant leadership are:
In their capacity as advisory board members, they will visit the Samford campus at least once a year. They will consult with White and offer professional insight to keep current the undergraduate and graduate Sports Marketing & Analytics curriculum.
The program offers a "Fan Experience and Engagement" M.B.A. course, "and that's 100 percent because of the advisory board," White said. Its members shared the need for such a course because of a recent trend. College and pro teams have addressed declining attendance by adding Fan Engagement departments.
Advisory board members also propose and help secure real-world projects for the Center for Sports Analytics. One project saw Samford students develop innovative social media strategies to help the NFL's Miami Dolphins accomplish their goal to expand their female fan base.
One of the students on that project, Grace Bowes, is now head of Brand Marketing and Communications at Mercedes-Benz USA, working with sports properties in Atlanta. She's also one of the new members of the advisory board.
As is Clements, the Dolphins CFO, who’s gotten to know White through the years at the Daniel Summit, an annual faith-based conference for sports and entertainment executives.
“Samford students worked at the summit, and I was impressed by the professionalism, experience and aptitude of those students,” Clements said. “Enough so that I have now sent two of my kids to Samford University. I believe in the values of the school and the importance of faculty working with students and knowing your name and investing in your future through relevant team projects and job experience on campus and with industry internships.”
Connecting Samford students to internships, graduate assistantships and full-time jobs in the sports industry is the board's primary goal, and its success to date is in the numbers. Since the Sports Marketing & Analytics program was established in Brock School of Business in 2012, 69.1 percent of the program's graduates who wanted to work in the global sports industry landed a job in that field within six months.
Of the rest, eight out of 10 went to graduate school. As White noted, that's an overall 90 percent placement rate. For female students, the job placement rate alone is a perfect 100 percent.
Seeking and securing postgraduate opportunities is one area in which Mrs. Sullivan is uniquely qualified to contribute. She can pick up the phone and call countless coaches and athletics administrators who worked with her husband that are not strangers to her, either.
As she said, with the trademark Sullivan modesty, "I feel like some of them will return my calls."
"Pat stayed very connected to the football world," she said. "He had great relationships with people and programs across the country. I do, too. I had the benefit of getting to know them also."
The examples are too numerous to list them all. Before becoming the University of Georgia's director of football management, Jay Chapman worked as Pat Sullivan's director of football operations at Samford. University of Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner played at Auburn while Sullivan coached there, as did Georgia offensive line coach Stacy Searels.
Kelsey Pope, who coaches the Tennessee wide receivers, played wideout for Sullivan at Samford, where he earned All-SoCon honors for three years and his undergraduate degree in public administration.
Jean Sullivan has such a vast network of friendships with such influencers as Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney and the Manning family, White said, "some people consider her the first lady of college football."
She called her appointment to the advisory board "exciting because a lot of individuals want to work in sports." Samford has been on the cutting edge of providing opportunities for students to fulfill that dream, first by creating the Sports Marketing & Analytics program in 2012, then by adding the first-of-its-kind Center for Sports Analytics in 2017.
White started building the Sports Marketing & Analytics Advisory Board "before we ever taught a class" in those subjects, he said, because "we knew the challenge was going to be to get our students employment opportunities in this industry. It's so relationship-driven. I had to have go-to people with clout."
With established board members such as Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, Arizona Cardinals Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Walls, ZOOM Motorsports President George Dennis, and longtime Atlanta Braves executive Jim Allen, that mission was accomplished years ago, but fresh faces help keep the program and the center on the cutting edge. With new members such as Jean Sullivan joining the team, the advisory board will continue to play a vital role in strengthening Samford's reputation as the go-to national hub for students who want to work in the sports industry and the industry's largest brands and sponsors in search of talent as well as analytics-driven strategies for success.
"It's really been one of the bigger surprises for me over the last decade," White said, "how willing people with really impressive titles are to roll up their sleeves and say, 'I want to help. How can I help?' "
Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.