KENNESAW — It didn’t take long for new Kennesaw State president Pamela Whitten to let her goals be known as they pertain to the Owls’ athletic department.
It started with her introduction to football coach Brian Bohannon.
“She looked at him and said, ‘I like to win,’” Kennesaw State athletic director Milton Overton said.
But that’s not all, because winning obviously isn’t going to be enough.
“As someone who was watching Kennesaw State from 80 miles down the road, it’s amazing how mature this program is,” Whitten said about the second-ranked team of the Football Championship Subdivision. “It is a disciplined, serious program. It’s stunningly impressive for a team that’s only in its fourth year.
“I think we’re in a good place,” Whitten went on to add. “We are in a conference where there is a challenge. Certainly, our goal is to dominate the conference. With a continued record of dominance, other opportunities will follow.”
While this comment was referencing football, it could have been made for the entire athletic department.
Overton, the coaches, the athletes and the fans have found a friend in Whitten as far as KSU athletics is concerned. She wants the Owls to be the best of the best each time they take the field, court, track or course — and she’ll be watching.
Overton said that in just the first few months of Whitten’s tenure, he has never been around a president that makes the time to go to as many practices or sporting events as she does, and it’s something the coaches and players have already grown to appreciate.
While admittedly not athletically inclined, Whitten said her love of sports comes from a childhood of hiding behind her father’s chair.
“I grew up in a family with a father and brothers who very much watched sports and played sports,” she said. “I would hide behind my dad’s chair and watch the games, so I would characterize myself as a professional spectator.”
One of her passions is college basketball, thanks to her family and her educational and professional influences.
She has a Ph.D. in communication studies from Kansas, a master’s degree in organizational communication from Kentucky and she served as dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State.
That is not to put any undue pressure on Kennesaw State men’s basketball coach Al Skinner or women’s coach Agnus Berenato, but the programs Whitten follows seem to have something in common — national championships and trips to the Final Four.
Of course, there is a bachelor’s degree in management from Tulane. While not a basketball powerhouse, Whitten did say she remembers when the Green Wave could get it done on the gridiron.
“I’m so old, I remember when Tulane used to beat LSU in football, and pretty handily,” she said.
Bringing up LSU still stung for Whitten after the Tigers beat Georgia 36-16 last week, because while her main football focus may be in Kennesaw, one of her duties at Georgia was to serve as vice chair of the board of the Georgia Athletic Association.
It was a post that will allow her to offer ideas and be a sounding board for Overton moving forward.
“It was a great experience. I had an opportunity to gain insight into a couple of areas,” Whitten said. “(I learned about) the need for raising external funds for athletics and how and where you pursue those areas, and a second area would be opportunities to understand facilities, how they are used and how to optimize them for the students across all sports.
“It also gave me the exposure to multiple sports. I know everyone’s first thought is usually about football, but there are a number of other sports where the athletes have worked just as hard their entire lives, are just as competitive and hungry.”
However, and this was an emphasis, the “student” in student-athlete will always come first to Whitten at Kennesaw State. She already has plans to make sure athletes have the same educational opportunities as the other students on campus, which she wants to have come to fruition as soon as the university’s new provost is hired.
“We’ll have collaborations with staff throughout the athletic department so student-athletes have the same educational opportunities that other students do,” Whitten said. “Sometimes, that’s a challenge, because they have a rigor to their schedule because of practice and travel. We want to have the ability for student-athletes to have the opportunities to study abroad or to do internships that would coordinate with their schedules. That’s going to be a big piece of what we do, because they are going to walk out of here and be able to pursue that first job.”
Being able to provide that kind of experience is key on the lower level of Division I athletics. There are few exceptions for athletes who make the jump to play professional sports from the Big South or the ASUN -- unlike the SEC, ACC or Big Ten -- but is this where Kennesaw State is going to stay?
Whitten said it was a question that really can’t be answered because additional conference realignment is inevitable. She said no one is sure what any conference is going to look like 10 years from now. Right now, that’s why the Owls are competing in multiple conferences.
Overton said it was the best way to maximize the athletes’ abilities to compete.
In a perfect world, Whitten and Overton would like to see all of Kennesaw State’s teams playing in one conference at one point, but that time is not now, and with Whitten’s wish of conference domination, a move to the FBS is unlikely anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean Whitten wouldn’t like to see the Owls play FBS opponents, including ones with an in-state address. That includes a rematch of this year’s season opener in Atlanta -- a game Kennesaw State should have won, but let get away late.
“I would be delighted if Georgia State would schedule us again,” Whitten said. “It was a great game. I would invite them to reschedule us at any time.”
The Owls are already on Georgia Tech's schedule for 2021, but then there's that team down the road in Athens. Whitten wouldn't say if she would make the call to see if a plan could be devised to get Kennesaw State on Georgia's schedule, but she didn't pan the idea, either.
"I'm sure Kirby (Smart) knows we would love to play them," she said.
But that's for the future. For now, she is concerned with the next two home games.
First comes Nov. 3 against Campbell, which may be Whitten’s final opportunity to show off her pitching arm.
All year, she has gone through the student section during home games and thrown hot dogs to the crowd. It’s something she said she looks forward to each week.
“We’re so lucky to be able to interact with students,” Whitten said. “I’m old, but I’m not so old to know that students like free food at the game.
“I take (throwing the hot dogs) as a challenge to try to get it way back in the corner, but they are starting to figure it out, they are jumping in and starting to try and intercept them.”
The second home game is Nov. 17 against Jacksonville State. That will be the first football game played at SunTrust Park.
Whitten said it will be important to see the community support and turnout at the Braves’ ballpark because, as she put it, “It’s a big deal.”
Right now, when Whitten travels and mentions Kennesaw State, she said the first thing she hears is, ‘Wow. You’re that school that just started football and you’re in the top five in the country.”
A win at SunTrust could help vault Kennesaw State to its first football national championship and put the Owls on track to reach Whitten’s ultimate goal — complete and total domination of the ASUN, Big South and FCS.