Like many student-athletes, Keisha Dunlap was not quite ready to make the transition from college to the real world and wanted to make that athletic experience last for as long as possible.
Fortunately, some strong advice and good timing helped the former Eastern Illinois track athlete remain attached to both college and athletics as she now serves as the Senior Associate Commissioner / Chief Operating Officer at Conference USA.
Dunlap graduated in 2000 from EIU with a degree in economics and double minor in both business administration and recreation administration and remained at EIU, completing a master's in sports administration.
"After I finished my undergrad degree, I wasn't quite ready to enter the workforce, and Coach John Craft offered me a graduate assistant spot to coach throwers. It was a great experience, but I knew coaching was not my long-term future. As a graduate assistant, I got heavily involved with the compliance part of athletics, building a strong relationship with Betty Ralston, the compliance director at the time. I needed an internship to complete my master's degree and obtained a position at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. That was the start of my now 15-plus year career in college athletics."
Dunlap quickly moved from her internship at Loyola College to a full-time job at Arkansas working in compliance and life skills. While at Arkansas, Dunlap was able to work in several event management functions, notably the 2003 and 2004 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. That exposure to a sport she was familiar with and the championship experience sparked the next phase of her career.
"While at Arkansas, we hosted the NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships for two consecutive years, and that sparked my interest in championship administration and event operations," Dunlap said.
That spark helped Dunlap land a job with Conference USA as the assistant director of championships. Since that time, she has worked her way up to her current position, holding several NCAA leadership roles along the way. She previously served four years on the NCAA Softball Championships Committee, working as the committee chair her final year. In 2017, she was named to the NCAA Division I Oversight Committee.
Dunlap credits some of the lessons learned as a student-athlete in helping prepare her for the career path she has taken. As a track athlete at EIU, Dunlap ended her career with the school record in both the indoor weight throw and outdoor hammer throw. Those two records have since been broken, but to this day she ranks on the EIU career top-ten list in four total events, a sign of the hours of hard work and preparation put into her craft.
"I think my most significant job experience I ever received came from my experiences as a student-athlete. Being a student-athlete at EIU taught me time management skills, the ability to multi-task, how to be a team player while also working independently and most importantly, hard work," she said.
The hard work and ability to work both by herself and as a group are evident when Dunlap talks about some of the most memorable moments on the job at Conference USA.
"I don't think I can single out one moment, but collectively I get the most joy out of pulling off successful C-USA championship events. Two instances do come to mind. First is a basketball event in El Paso where we transformed a volleyball playing facility and built a women's basketball venue. The second is an upcoming project we have with the Dallas Cowboys practice facility in Frisco, Texas. We will be the first conference to conduct their conference basketball championship in a football facility, playing men's and women's games at the same time in the same venue. It's an exciting yet scary venture, but once we pull it off successfully, it will be one of my proudest moments to date!"
When asked to compare those career moments to the ones she experienced as a Panther student-athlete, Dunlap again remembers teamwork and camaraderie.
"During my days at EIU, our men's track team was very successful, seemingly winning the OVC Championship every year. I believe it was during my senior year our women's team posted one of our highest finishes, coming in second or third place. You would have thought we had won it by the way we responded. It was such a great accomplishment for our team to share because we had improved so much over the past few years. I remember the men's team being more excited for our finish than they were about another conference championship. That is the sort of bond you build as a student-athlete."
Now living in the Dallas area, the Champaign, Illinois native reflects on the special bond teams build in the trenches.
"I think for most former student-athletes, you carry that competitiveness over to what you do after your athletic career ends. I built a brotherhood/sisterhood with my teammates, and it's hard to recreate that once you graduate and move into the workforce. Some of my best friends to this day are relationships I built as a student-athlete at EIU."
Now 15-plus years into her own athletic administration career, Dunlap still carries with her some of those life skills and attributes learned during her student-athlete career. What drives her now is the ability to share some of that knowledge with the next generation of student-athletes who want to follow their dreams after the lights go out on their careers as student-athletes.
"When I finished up my athletic career at EIU, I just couldn't imagine sports not being a part of my everyday life. I love having the ability to influence change among the 14 different institutions in Conference USA and be a resource to their staffs and their student-athletes."