Fuller, Vivian L. 1954–
Vivian L. Fuller 1954–
In a time that preceded the WNBA, women’s professional boxing, and women’s Olympic soccer teams, there was a woman who dared to prove she could do anything a man could do. Though Vivian L. Fuller is not known as an athlete, she broke ground as a pioneer in sports. Fuller shook up the sporting world as the first African-American woman to become an athletic director at a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I school with a football team. Her success did not come without controversy, though; but when life threw her a curve ball, she proved that there was power in her swing.
Born October 17, 1954 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Fuller enjoyed participating in recreational sports like softball and volleyball. Fuller, who was also a runner, told Contemporary Black Biography that one of her biggest accomplishments was running in Nashville’s Music City Marathon. It was no wonder that she decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education at Fayetteville State University in her home state of North Carolina. After graduating, Fuller decided to continue the pursuit of education—a decision that was likely driven by the motivation of her mother. “Education was the forefront of discussions and made a priority in my household,” Fuller told CBB. After earning a Master’s degree in Education and a doctorate in higher education administration, she put her degrees and knowledge to the test.
In 1978 Fuller began her career at Bennett College, an institution for women in Greensboro, North Carolina. She played a dual role as Bennett’s director of intramurals and a physical education instructor. In 1984 she moved on to North Carolina Agricultural &Technical State (A&T) University to become the school’s assistant director of athletics, as well as the women’s volleyball and softball coach. Three years later, Fuller packed her bags and left for Pennsylvania, after accepting a position as associate director of intercollegiate athletics at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She told CBB that Frank Cignetti, who hired her for the position, inspired her to accomplish even more through his belief in her capabilities.
As her career developed, Fuller demonstrated a genuine concern for student athletes and programs. She often voiced the needs of women’s athletics to educate college administrators and coaches. Climbing the ladder of success meant that her eyes were glued to positions that were traditionally held by men. As a result, she was often met with opposition and even curiosity by people who wondered why she chose that path. “I felt that I always had to justify why I was there,” she was quoted as saying on www.momentummedia.com. Fuller’s determination pushed her above the questions and doubt raised by her peers and observers. In fact, it appeared that the negative inquiries may have turned out to be nothing less than motivating.
In 1992 Fuller joined the ranks of a select few when she took over the role of director of intercollegiate athletics at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. According to Athletic Management, she became “one of
At a Glance …
Born on October 17, 1954 in Chapel Hill, NC Education; Fayetteville State University, BS in physical education, 1977; University of Idaho, Masters’ of Education, 1978; Lowa State University, 1985.
Career; Bennett College, 1978–84; North Carolina A&T University, 1984–87; Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 1987–92; Northeastern Illinois University, 1992–97; Tennessee State University, 1997–99; University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, 2000-.
Awards: Atalanta Award, Athletic Management, 1995.
Member: National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Princess Anne and Salisbury Chamber of Commerce.
Address: University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, William P. Hytche Athletic Center, Physical Education Department, Princess Anne, MD 21853.
eight women in the country [to] hold the title of Athletic Director at a school where the majority of sports compete at the NCAA Division I level.” Athletic Management noted that having the opportunity to head a program with a football team was very important to Fuller. “Women are always being told that it’s something we can’t do, that we don’t know enough about football,” she was quoted as saying.
A member of the NCAA Gender Equity Task Force, the NCAA Council, and the National Youth Sports Program, for which she served as chairperson, Fuller stayed in the forefront of sports issues. In 1995 she was recognized for her efforts when she received Athletic Management’s Atalanta Award in the category of Role Models. Fuller pointed to her mother as her inspiration. “… I always told people if there was a person I’d like to be like, it would be her,” she was quoted as saying on www.momentummedia.com.
Two years later, Fuller won the biggest fight of her blossoming career. The woman who was known for speaking out on topics like gender equality and women in management placed her name in the hat for the athletic director position at Tennessee State University (TSU). At the age of 41, she beat three other candidates for the position, becoming the first African-American woman to hold this position at a Division I school with a football team. “I don’t think gender makes a difference in how you do your job, so I’m going to be coming in here to evaluate this program and see what it takes to move into the next millennium,” Fuller was quoted as saying in The Commercial Appeal. She took the bull by the horns, and in her first full season with TSU, the Tigers football team finished the season 9–3 and walked away as winners of the Ohio Valley Conference (OVU) championship—an accomplishment that, according to Athletic Management, had not been achieved since the mid-1980s. Unbeknownst to Fuller, her fervor would be short-lived.
On January 29, 1997, nearly 15 months after the Onnidan Online News quoted him as stating “Dr. Fuller brings to us remarkable organizational ability, excellent marketing skills, and a broad base of experience,” university president James Hefner abruptly fired Fuller. The firing shocked many. The decision was met with plenty of “controversy and speculation”—so much so that it prompted Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Smith to request a letter of explanation for Fuller’s release.
According to the Commercial Appeal, Hefner adhered to the request, citing 24 reasons for firing Fuller. Among those reasons were accusations that Fuller cost the school more than $1, 500 in penalties for missing a state tax filing date and that she failed to respond to student requests for scholarship reinstatements. Hefner stated that Fuller caused additional loss of funds by failing to schedule games in the Tennessee Oilers’ new stadium—an agreement that was reached between the university and the state to help fund the arena. The letter accused Fuller of reprimanding an assistant coach for filing a complaint with the government’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and he claimed—in contradiction to Hefner’s earlier statement in the Onnidan Online News —that Fuller lacked organizational skills.
Fuller sued the university. According to Jet, Fuller claimed she was fired without explanation, and that Hefner and other university officials “obstructed her efforts to help women’s teams and ‘ignored and diminished’ the contributions” she made to the university. The case was settled, but the details were not disseminated to the public. On www.thepost.mind-spring.com, Fuller was quoted as saying that she was often “second guessed” by her co-workers and that she faced “backstabbing” in her position at Tennessee State. She did however, tell Athletic Management that she had “no ill feelings against TSU,” and wished the university “the best in their future.”
In an interview with Athletic Management, Fuller revealed that some soul searching was required to determine the next step in her career. She realized that she had been doing what was in her heart, and in June of 2000, she stepped back up the plate. Soon she accepted the athletic director position at University of Maryland-Eastern Shore—another Division I school.
According to Athletic Management, her recent concentrations have been on providing opportunities for underrepresented athletes, advancing women’s programs, improving recruitment programs, and finding more role models for females in sports. Despite the fact that Maryland-Eastern Shore does not have a football team, Fuller felt right at home. “I feel like this is the place where I’m supposed to be,” she told Athletic Management. “University of Maryland-Eastern shore has given me a second chance.” Her second chance is one that she hoped would encourage other women to strive for their goals, despite roadblocks. She told Athletic Management that she hoped the story of her life featured “… A woman who was dynamic and quite accomplished, who all of a sudden fell off her horse and then rebounded.…I’m very positive about the situation. I can live with it. I’ve learned from it. I’ve grown from it. And I’m a better person. Although, two years ago, I never thought you would hear me say that.”
Athletic Management, October/November 2000.
Jet, September 20, 1999, p.8.
The Commercial Appeal, October 2, 1997, p. D5; February 18, 1999 p. D5.
Biography Resource Center, Gale Group. www.educ.iastate.edu/awards/alumni/1996/fuller.html
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on January 9, 2001.
—Shellie M. Saunders
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