A Passion for “Coaching Coaches”
A.D. James Whitaker on leading CIU athletics
By Bob Holmes
The second athletics director in the history of Columbia International University learned a lot from the first one. James Whitaker took the reins of CIU athletics from Kim Abbott in December after she resigned to care for her aging parents.
He didn’t want to see her go.
“I asked her quite a few times, ‘are you sure?’” Whitaker recalled with a chuckle in his voice. “But, it was the right thing for her.”
Whitaker, who served as assistant athletics director and men’s head soccer coach under Abbott, described her as “a coach’s A.D.,” creating an atmosphere that he strives to continue at CIU Athletics.
“There are so many things you can get caught up in, in this position in terms of things that need to be done, but you don’t want the people you work primarily for to feel like they are not important,” Whitaker said. “You want the student-athletes and the coaches to feel like they are valued and you are there to help them do what they need to do to be successful.”
The athletics director position is not new to Whitaker. Before coming to CIU he served for five years as athletics director at Clearwater Christian College, and prior to that was a high school A.D. at Hampton Park Christian School in Greenville, South Carolina for 10 years. As a soccer coach he won championships at both the college and high school level, and he has also served as a head basketball coach.
“I really see (my new role) as coaching coaches, which I really like,” Whitaker said. “I’m passionate about that.”
Sports as Ministry
As A.D., Whitaker wants to make sure CIU athletics is more than sport. He wants to make sure ministry takes place.
“How do you use athletics to ‘impact the nations with the message of Christ?’” said Whitaker quoting from CIU’s mission statement. “Because really, that’s what it’s about.”
Whitaker is quick to add that he believes striving for victory in athletics is important.
“But at the end of the day if that’s all it’s about, sign me up for something else because that’s pretty temporal,” Whitaker said. “But if it’s making a difference in the life of a student-athlete, who then goes on and has an impact in their church, and their family, and their ministry, that’s important.”
Whitaker has tangible evidence that the Athletics Department reaches out to the community and the world. He produces a list of ministry activities over two pages long documenting how CIU athletes have spread the gospel in word and deed around the corner and around the world; from basketball players who shoot hoops with local inner city youth, to runners feeding the homeless in Detroit, to soccer teams taking mission trips to Central America.
So, while Whitaker stresses ministry, achieving victory and excellence on the field of competition is never neglected. Because he says a winning program gives athletes a larger platform to share their faith, he desires to make the athletics program at CIU more competitive.
“It starts with recruiting talented players,” Whitaker said. “Once you start to win some of those recruiting battles, you start to get some good players on campus.”
He says among long-term goals that have been discussed, is playing in an athletic conference, opening the door to joining the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) or the well-known National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
“Those kinds of things give you more credibility and the ability to attract better players,” Whitaker said.
Currently, CIU is only a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA).
God’s “Track Record”
As he looks to the future, Whitaker has God’s “track record” of faithfulness in his life and the life of CIU Athletics to lean on. He says that when he was hired in 2011 as CIU’s first soccer coach, “We didn’t have anything.” There was no soccer field and no name recognition among athletes.
“It strengthened my faith,” Whitaker says of those early days. “I’ve seen God work in my life and in athletics to open doors. It was God. He was all over it. To see how God has blessed it, makes me not worry about the future. He’s in control and I can rely on Him.”