After spending the first 16 years of her collegiate athletic career at Jacksonville University, Donna Kirk is finding new fulfillment at a cross-town rival, the University of North Florida.
In the summer of 2013, UNF director of athletics Lee Moon recruited Kirk to join his staff as the senior woman administrator (SWA). “This was an incredibly difficult decision for me because my roots were so very deep at JU after 16 years,” she recalls. “But, I was grateful for Moon seeing potential in me to serve in this leadership role and provide this opportunity for growth in athletics administration.” In August 2013, Kirk assumed the role of senior associate athletic director for compliance and academic services.
Kirk always knew she wanted to work in sports. She had participated in cross country, track, and basketball before a heart ailment sidelined her in high school. “I felt a career in athletics could help me live that experience vicariously in a different way,” she says.
Her opportunity to break into the compliance niche came as the result of a little bravery. After completing her master’s degree in sports management at Georgia Southern in 1995, Kirk had accepted an internship in the ticket off for Jacksonville’s new NFL expansion team. She was able to parlay that experience working with the Jaguars into a position as ticket manager at Jacksonville University in 1997, and worked there for three years. During this stay at the ticket office, Kirk had become extremely interested in NCAA compliance.
“By the summer of 2000, JU was in the midst of a major transition,” she explains. “Both compliance professionals had left for other opportunities, and there was an interim athletic director in place. Although I didn’t have the specific experience for the compliance position, I walked down the hall and asked the interim AD for the job. Hugh Durham took a chance on me when the conference office advised him to search for a more seasoned, veteran compliance administrator. I can never thank him enough for seeing that potential in me and putting so much faith in me.”
Over the 13 years that followed, Kirk was promoted from director of compliance to assistant athletic director for compliance, and ultimately, associate athletic director for compliance. She built comprehensive NCAA compliance and academic services programs before the rival Ospreys came calling from North Florida.
As senior associate athletics director and SWA at North Florida, Kirk oversees four NCAA Division I women’s sports – golf, tennis, soccer, and swimming. “As the sport administrator, as well as overseeing compliance and academic services, my calendar tends to be filled with meetings and looming deadlines,” she says. “However, the beauty of collegiate athletics is that no two days are ever the same. I enjoy meeting biweekly with the head coaches of the sports I oversee and attending their competitions.”
Kirk also acknowledges the inherent pressures that accompany a compliance role in college athletics. “The most challenging part of the job is trying to come to work every day and not make a mistake,” she says. “Even the slightest oversight or inaccuracy could result in a violation or render a student-athlete ineligible. It is a daunting task to try to be perfect every day. It’s essential to have administrators who have perfectionist tendencies and high attention to detail to work together to provide checks and balances.”
Despite the hefty nature of her responsibilities, Kirk finds tremendous satisfaction in watching her student athletes develop into good adults. “The best day of the year is the end of the year student athlete awards banquet where academic and athletic achievement is recognized and celebrated,” she says. “It is extremely rewarding to watch the growth of student-athletes, not only as competitors and students, but as productive citizens in the community. Our coaches and department are focused on developing the whole person and providing the best Division I experience possible during their career at UNF.”
Kirk gives some of the credit for her own professional progression to Pennie Parker, who is now the director of athletics at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. Parker preceded Kirk in the compliance office at Jacksonville University before Kirk was given her shot at the task. “Pennie has always encouraged me in my intercollegiate athletics journey,” Kirk recalls. “She provided me much positive reinforcement and support when I took the leap from ticketing to compliance.”
When Kirk finds time away from athletics, she is an avid dancer. She says her “specialty” is the country two-step, but she’s also an accomplished east coast and west coast swing dancer. When she wants a change of pace, she turns her feet toward Latin – salsa, merengue, cha cha. “The best form of exercise is when you’re having so much fun you don’t realize you’re exercising,” she says. “For fun one night, I wore a pedometer and was shocked to see I had danced five miles!”
In terms of her personal sports loyalties, Kirk is a fan of the Florida State Seminoles, having earned her undergraduate degree from the school. She recalls fond memories of watching two-sport standout Charlie Ward, who won a Heisman Trophy in football and went on to a long NBA career. She’s also a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, noting that folks around the country might be surprised how rabid the fan base is for the Jags. “My favorite sports memory is traveling with my daughter for her 16th birthday to see the Jags’ season opener at the Metrodome in Minneapolis versus the Vikings,” she says. “The game ended in an overtime loss, but we loved being away from home and cheering on the Jags!”
Looking to the future of her industry, Kirk hopes that student-athletes will maintain a proper perspective on the opportunities they are given. “I’m afraid it’s trending toward an expectation that athletic participation is a right and an entitlement,” she notes. “Student-athletes should be reminded of the privilege afforded them and the unique opportunity to experience college through the lens of a student-athlete.”