Keith Carter: A Visit with Ole Miss’ Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics
Keith Carter is an Unwavering Constant in the Unprecedented Times of College Athletics
OXFORD, Miss. — Navigating the world of college athletics in this day and time takes an athletic director with a progressive mindset, one who can traverse the waters of coaching contracts, NIL, collectives, and long-term planning while managing to be personable when connecting with student-athletes, donors, colleagues, and fans.
Ole Miss is fortunate to have all those things in Keith Carter, the Rebels’ Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics since 2019.
Carter’s time at Ole Miss began as a student-athlete for the men’s basketball team, which has helped create a natural connection with athletes who represent the Rebels on their field of play.
It also means he understands more about what is required of an athletic department.
“I have the unique perspective,” Carter says, “of being a student-athlete. That was a long time ago, and things have changed, but I did learn a lot about the university’s culture and what the expectations of fans are and what those of the athletic department should be, which is to compete and win on a high level.”
Carter values his ability to relate to student-athletes and wants to make sure they have the resources they need to become successful as individuals and in their chosen sport, as well as the support they need to handle all that encompasses being a student-athlete.
Social media and athletics
When asked what impact social media has on athletics and student-athletes, Carter acknowledges social media can be a really good thing if it’s used correctly, but it can also be tough on student-athletes.
“For administrators, and myself, and the coaches, it’s not as big a deal; we are grown. We signed up for some scrutiny and for some of the stuff we have to deal with. What I really hate is how it affects our student-athletes. Back when I played 25 years ago if you had a bad game or whatever, the worst thing that was going to happen was somebody around the water cooler at work was going to say something about you or maybe send you a letter that you got five days later. But, these kids are walking back into the locker room, picking up their phones, literally in real-time after the game, and just getting all this stuff on social media. That’s really tough.”
Keith Carter on the effects of social media
The athletes care what people think about them and what they are saying about them on social media. “We try to use it (social media) in a positive way at Ole Miss to put out all our great content,” Carter explains. “But sometimes coming back in (social media comments) it’s a little negative.”
Commitment to student athletes’ well-being
Carter understands the pressure student-athletes are under and the possibility they may need extra support.
For this reason, three full-time professionals in the psychology department deal strictly with the mental health of student-athletes, and these professionals’ appointment calendars stay booked every weekday from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.
“It is a big part of the commitment Ole Miss has to student-athletes,” Carter says, “and that (psychology) department will continue to grow as the needs grow because there is a lot of pressure on our student-athletes.”
Four-year contracts in Mississippi
Many colleges have the luxury of signing long-term contracts with coaches which makes long-term planning much easier. However, the state of Mississippi’s four-year contract restriction does not allow Ole Miss or other state institutions such a luxury.
Carter explained how he handles the limits on contracts. “You have to just put in your best efforts,” he said. “In a lot of universities, you can get a six-year or seven-year deal and you don’t have to talk about contracts every single year, but we have that discussion every year at the end of each season about whether we are going to roll them back up to four years. You just have to address it program to program.”
The conversations are unique to every program and coach. For example, some years you leave coaches at three years, or in other years a coach may get a raise. Carter does not believe that’s been a problem for the Rebels. “The 4-year restriction has not been a hindrance,” he said. “It hasn’t made us lose a coach.”
For Ole Miss fans, that’s great news to hear because the world of NIL has brought enough change of its own.
The world of Name, Image and Likeness
The huge impact Name, Image Likeness (NIL) has had on college athletics will only continue to grow. We asked Carter how he views the future of NIL and the likelihood that some sort of rules will be put in place.
“Certainly, at some point, we will get a handle on it and reign it in. We will find something that will hopefully be a uniform standard across the board that everyone has to adhere to. But, I don’t know that that’s happening soon. You look around at a lot of things that are happening. It’s an interesting world for sure.”
Keith Carter on NIL
It would be great if there were some blueprint for how to handle NIL and all the idiosyncrasies it brings. Athletic directors and coaches are not afforded this option which leaves them making a game plan as they go along.
“The hardest part for administrators and coaches is that you don’t want to go too far in the space to where you might get yourself in trouble, but you want to make sure you’re being competitive in the space. So, trying to find the right balance is the tricky part. As I talk to my colleagues, everyone is dealing with the same issues. The coaches are dealing with the exact same issues….We all think NIL is a great thing for our student-athletes, having that opportunity. But, some of what it’s morphed into isn’t as healthy as it should be.”
NIL and university donations
Another aspect affected by the NIL is university donations. The university’s development committee works daily on the ‘Champions Now’ campaign and its associated projects and is on the road speaking with fans and donors about Ole Miss athletics and the plans for improvement and expansion of facilities.
Carter says the committee has, “…a lot of conversations about NIL. The donors want to know, ‘Where should we give? We have this amount. What should we give to you and what should we give to the collective?’ It’s been a real topic of conversation.”
In an attempt to get a better handle on the state of an ever-changing climate, the stadium expansion was paused for the time being.
NIL played a part in that decision, but there were other practical factors, such as construction costs, interest rates, and supply chain issues that contributed to the postponement. All of these factors combined made it a less than ideal time to embark on such a huge project.
“That should help cut back on the pressure because it cuts the campaign way back from the $350 million number,” Carter explained. “We understand discretionary income is a factor for fans, and the collectives and NIL are going to receive a portion of what would have previously gone to the campaign.”
Conference realignment and expansion
Another hot topic of conversation in college athletics is conference realignment and expansion. Carter noted that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey includes athletic directors in conversations about changes and has always allowed ADs to have a seat at the table.
We asked the Rebels’ AD if he thought the SEC would experience more expansion. “I don’t know,” he began. “It seems like there is going to be more movement. We’re seeing it in the Big 10 and around the country.”
Carter also indicated expansion would probably be a topic discussed at the SEC meeting in Asheville in August but that, “Ultimately, the commissioner, presidents, and chancellors, have the ultimate say. But, the ADs who are working and that are kind of the practitioners in this space, he (Sankey) gives us an opportunity to give our input….As we talk about conference expansion and ‘bigger brands’ coming into our league and all those things, it’s going to take all of us. So, continue to support, and I think we’ve got a really bright future ahead.”
Carter and staff focus on fan experience
When it comes to enjoying his job, Carter’s exuberance shines through, and he tells us one of his main goals on gameday is to make sure fans have a wonderful experience.
“Certainly, this goes across all sports. But to break it down to football, we want to make sure that those seven Saturdays are the best Ole Miss fans can have….When I wake up on Saturday of gameday, most people in Oxford are excited. They’re out of their hometown….They are loving life, excited for the game, and going to The Grove, and I am too. But, it’s a workday for us….and we want to make sure that everything from their experience in The Grove to their experience with concessions, getting to the restroom and not having to wait 30 minutes, there are just so many things we want to make sure go smoothly.”
Keith Carter on fans’ gameday experiences
Carter says those responsible for the fans’ experiences want to get to the game too, but at the same time, they are willing to sacrifice some things on gameday for fans to have an awesome day.
Those experiences would not be possible, nor would a lot of the aspects of dealing with Ole Miss athletics if it were not for the staff Carter has assembled.
“Really they do everything. I’m kind of the face, and I get to go out and give speeches and do fun stuff…but they do all the real work.”
Keith Carter on his staff
From the compliance department to event management to the business office and all the other departments and people in between, everyone in Ole Miss Athletics works extremely hard at what they do. They are the grassroots effort and boots-on-the-ground people who make Ole Miss athletics run smoothly and make events happen.
“I just try to make sure we keep great people that are really good at their job, and I let them do their job and try not to micromanage them,” Carter says.
“I don’t do anything compared to what they do. I may get a lot of recognition sometimes, but I try to divert that right back to them because they are the real folks who get it done.”
Keith Carter on his staff
On the personal side….
Fans usually have a rivalry game they look forward to each season. For Carter, there are two games he wants Ole Miss to win — but perhaps doesn’t enjoy quite as much as usual when the Rebs do.
Two of Carter’s best friends are athletic directors – Allen Greene at Auburn and Danny White at Tennessee – and it’s tough for Carter when Ole Miss plays against their schools.
“I know how hard it is when we lose on Saturday for the AD and our administration… So, even when you win the games, you feel bad for your pals,” Carter relates.
One rivalry game that does not garner the same emotional response from Carter is the Arkansas rivalry.
“I’m from Arkansas,” Carter says, “and I still have a lot of great friends and family that are die-hard Razorback fans. So, it was kind of fun to beat them in the College World Series and in the crazy football game we had with them last year, to win on the last play. To me, that one (Arkansas) is always fun.”
The demanding job of an athletic director could leave little time for family, but Carter made a decision not to let that happen.
“What I have learned over the years in college athletics is that if you don’t incorporate your family into the athletics world, you don’t get to see them a whole lot. So, we spend a lot of time at Ole Miss events….When my kids look back 20 years from now, they are going to remember a lot of time at Ole Miss events and the great times we had.”
Keith Carter on family
Carter does not take his athletic director title home with him. He tries to just be a normal dad who may yell at umpires at ballgames, but who does not go up to coaches and try to tell them how to run their team.
“I just want to be a normal dad to them,” he says. “And my goal, again, is when they (kids) look back they say, ‘Yeah, Dad was the AD at Ole Miss and we got to do some cool stuff, but he was also just a normal guy too.’”
One of the cool things Carter and his family got to experience this year was the road to the College World Series which took them on a trip from Coral Gables, to Hattiesburg, to Omaha, and finally home to Oxford and a celebration ceremony in Swayze stadium.
“It really takes you back to why you do what you do. I was with the baseball team during the whole postseason run…. To see when the team got in the tournament…. just the excitement they had when they saw they were in, just to see that run.”
Carter on the celebration at Swayze with fans and the team
A picture of Carter gathered with the team around home plate in Swayze hangs in Carter’s office as a reminder of the day they brought the trophy home to Oxford. He talked about what that picture represents to him.
“For me, to see the joy in those young people’s faces, and obviously for Coach B and his family, you know it recharges your batteries. There are a lot of hard things we are dealing with in our industry right now, unprecedented things, but that’s what it’s all about when you see a team and young people like that so happy. That’s why you do it.”
Keith Carter on the team’s national title celebration
Carter’s message to fans
Times are certainly different in the world of college athletics. Fans don’t always know what to expect from day-to-day. When asked if he had a message for the Ole Miss fan base, Carter replied:
“Thank you. When you watch what they did in Omaha, and we’ve already sold almost 38,000 season tickets for football, which is much more than our ending number last year; we are continuing to grow…Continue to support.
“Our Champions Now campaign is a big deal. We’re building a new softball stadium, and renovations to soccer, golf, and baseball…Let’s keep going. We’re on a journey right now. We’ve got a lot of success, but we still have a lot of work to do, and it’s going to take everyone.”
Carter’s message to fans
Carter’s Legacy at Ole Miss
One day — hopefully for Ole Miss a day far away in the future — the time will come when Keith Carter will move on to the next stage of his life and no longer be the athletic director.
Beyond any trophies or championships, we asked what legacy Carter wants to leave behind.
“I’m not sure that the individual can talk about their legacy as much. I think other people have to talk about your legacy,” he said.
“To me, that’s where, whether it’s the young people here, the people that I work with, my family, or my kids, I just want them to know that I gave it my all. I gave it all that I could in whatever I was doing, whether I was at work or home. Ultimately, I just want people to remember me as a good person. Maybe we did win some championships and maybe we did some really cool stuff. But, I just want people to remember me as a genuine person that was nice and would take time for everyone. That’s what it’s all about. The relationships over time, that’s what legacy is all about.”
In great hands….
With Keith Carter at the helm, Ole Miss does indeed have a bright future ahead because the Rebels’ AD understands the heartbeat of college athletics and Ole Miss in particular. He has an innate ability to connect with student-athletes and handle a multitude of events, projects, and people while remaining personable.
In a world where change is the norm, Carter is a constant that Ole Miss can count on, trust, and rest assured in the fact that this very capable man is preparing the way for a positive future for Ole Miss athletics.
(Feature image credit courtesy Ole Miss Athletics)
Donna Sprabery is a former teacher, graduation coach, and academic coach for boys basketball. She graduated from the University of West Alabama with a major in business education and from Arkansas State University with a MA in Educational Leadership. A native of Meridian, MS, Donna enjoys traveling, gardening, writing, volunteer work, and cheering on the Rebels.