Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Long before becoming a leader in college sports, Dr. Tamica Smith Jones was a stand-out athlete with a magnetic personality, copybook stats and a work ethic that left nothing undone. But, she’s the first to admit her journey to becoming the chief operating officer of the athletic department at Kennesaw State University has been anything but perfect.
As a college player, she scored high athletically and performed well academically, but as a minority student in the 1990s, she often clashed with cultural norms on campus at Troy University. Sophomore year, she walked away from her full-ride scholarship at the Division I school after a fellow student hurled slurs at her in a cafeteria squabble. In that moment, Smith Jones slapped the other student. In hindsight, she says she realized the slap was reactionary and immature.
“But I didn’t give up because my grandmother reminded me that I was ‘falling up the path.’” She says that meant all was not lost. It was up to her to find a way to get herself back on track and back in school.
A second chance quickly followed thanks to a former coach. Smith Jones got a tryout with Alabama A&M University and delivered stellar performances both on and off the court for two seasons at the HBCU before making another impulse move that, again, would cost her her scholarship. And this time, she was just one semester away from graduation.
“It was like I was single-handedly destroying my own dreams one at a time,” she says. The experience was so life-changing that she detailed her strategy to stay in school and graduate on time in her book, A Ball and a Dream.
“The lesson is to understand that no matter where you come from or what you’ve got going on, you can absolutely make it,” Smith Jones says. “You just have to figure out your next bold move.”
Figuring out the next move is Smith Jones’s superpower, and it’s carried her through the good times—most of her career, marriage and the birth of her children. But it’s also been key during the not-so-good times—divorce, unemployment and rumors of questionable employment practices designed to disrupt or discredit minority leaders.
Her most recent move was taking on her position at Kennesaw State. “They actually created this opportunity during the pandemic,” the COO says. “Everything I do here is based on strategy.”
In her new role, Smith Jones runs the internal day-to-day operations of the athletic department and oversees strategic planning, policies, game operations, budgets, facilities and capital projects, and serves as program administrator for men’s and women’s basketball. All of these responsibilities are a culmination of her experience from a 20-year-career as a coach and administrator in collegiate athletics.
“It seems like a lot, but I’ve been trained, I’ve got a rhythm and I work from a genuine place of love for what I do,” she says, adding that she and her team of coaches and administrators approach each day with a student-first philosophy.
“Our mascot is the owl, so our student success team developed a flight plan to make sure our student athletes get everyday support to balance out their academic, social and personal lives. That’s part of what we offer as a comprehensive institution,” Smith Jones says. “We make sure they get access to tutors and learning specialists. We connect them with career development and leadership training. The coaches are in charge of their performance on the field or the court, but they’re also very in tune to when student athletes start to burn out and may need to talk with a sport psychologist or counselor.”
Smith Jones says she’s also got her own personal “commitment to connect” initiative to ensure her athletes enjoy a holistic college experience outside of sports.
“That’s very important to me,” she says. “I pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. when I was in school, and I was able to get involved in other student-leadership programs. We really try to promote more quality of life activities outside of the four hours NCAA rules allow us to have with them each day.”
Based on her reputation, Smith Jones is poised to make big things happen at KSU. She broke new ground in her last position as an athletic director at UC Riverside, where she was the first Black woman hired as a full-time director at the D-I level in the state. Under her guidance, UC Riverside celebrated its most winning academic year in D-I history, and reached its highest finish in the Big West Conference Commissioner’s Cup standings and fundraising goals as part of the university’s first comprehensive capital campaign, “Living the Promise.” She also championed the university’s initiatives to address important issues impacting today’s college athletes, including advocating for social justice and an increased focus on mental health and wellness.
Smith Jones’s presence in collegiate athletics can also be felt off-campus. She most recently served on the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Sport Committee and the Women Leaders in College Sports Board and Foundation Sub-Committee. She is also one of the founding members of the executive board for the newly formed Black Athletics Directors Alliance and chair of the Race and Social Justice Taskforce.
“I can multitask like nobody’s business,” Smith Jones says. COO, college administrator, coach, mentor, author, mom—her list of accomplishments runs long. It also begs the question: How does she get it all done?
“Faith,” she says. “My life is like an illustration of hope. I came up in a Christian home where faith and religion were very important. So, even though I’m a public figure, and I’m very outgoing, I’m humble, because I know I can’t do any of this on my own.
“After 20 years in this industry, I know a lot, but I don’t believe I’ll ever get to a place where I know it all,” she continues. “I have this hashtag that I live by that says, ‘I’m a person, not a position.’ And that means I try to show up every day, in all my identities, to help other people tap into their own abilities and be their best without compromising who they are at their core, or their values or beliefs.”
Madelyne Woods is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.
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