Delta State University Athletic Director
By Becky Gillette • Photography by Holly Tharp
Delta State University (DSU) Director of Athletics Mike Kinnison has a long, storied history at Delta State as a student, star baseball player, highly successful baseball coach and, currently, athletic director.
“In each of these roles, he has exhibited a commitment to excellence,” says DSU President William N. LaForge. “Mike is respected not only on our campus, but in the community as well. His understanding as a former student-athlete, his professional accomplishments, and his integrity and leadership make him the ideal person for such an important role on our campus.”
LaForge says during his tenure as athletic director, Kinnison has positioned Delta State’s athletic program for continued success and distinction. A great example of this occurred this past spring with their swimming program adding four national titles, for a grand total of fourteen—more than any other IHL institution, to Delta State’s record book.
“Mike has been committed to growing our athletic teams both athletically and academically and has cultivated an environment of success for students, as well as athletic staff and coaches,” says LaForge. “The leadership and vision that Mike provides are invaluable, and he has been and will continue to be a valued member of our Statesmen family. Mike is an integral and trusted member of my cabinet, and a wonderful colleague.”
Kinnison was head coach for DSU Baseball for twenty-three seasons averaging 42.5 wins per season for a remarkable record of 981 wins, 313 losses and two ties. He guided the Statesmen to the 2004 NCAA Division II national title and through six College World Series appearances. But, Kinnison sees his job as being about more than just wins and losses.
“It is a great way to positively impact lives,” says Kinnison. “Athletics provides a significant opportunity for life lessons to be experienced by all involved. Some of the great advantages are developing cooperative skills working with others, being part of a team effort and something bigger than yourself.”
Kinnison sees learning to work through obstacles as one of the greatest benefits and something that can positively change a person’s perspective.
“Perhaps after athletics, they are a little better equipped to move forward with their lives,” says Kinnison, a 2010 inductee into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. “We can always find someone else to blame rather than ourselves. Competing in sports requires you to start with yourself, and ask yourself about the adjustments and changes you need to make. I think it is one of the greatest lessons we can learn. Reengineer yourself first to make a positive difference in the group result.”
Kinnison was a gifted shortstop playing for the Statesmen from 1977-1978, and was awarded the ABCA Second Team All-American honors during the 1978 season. That year he batted .343 with twenty-five doubles and fifty-six runs batted in helping lead the Statesmen to a second-place finish at the NCAA College World Series. He was also serious about academics, earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics education in 1977 from DSU and a master’s degree in mathematics education from DSU in 1978.
His personal athletic experiences prepared him for his jobs coaching high school and then college.
“I was fortunate to have caring coaches and teachers throughout high school and college who invested in my development,” he says. “I’m thankful for each one, especially Boo Ferriss, my coach at Delta State. As I reflect back, I see the value of the role models who coached me, and how they impacted my life. The inspiration for my coaching career and becoming athletic director was wanting to give back what my coaches gave to me.”
Kinnison’s early career background was teaching math, coaching football and baseball in high school for fifteen years. Before returning to his alma mater, Kinnison was an accomplished high school coach at Lee Academy (1979-81), Jackson Prep (1982-92) and Madison Central (1993). He claimed three Mississippi Private School Association State Championships at Jackson Prep in 1982, 1990 and 1991. During his prep head-coaching career, Kinnison achieved an overall record of 292-83 (.779).
Kinnison considers a highlight of his baseball coaching years being able to coach three American Baseball Coaches Association National Players of the Year, as Dee Haynes (2000), Jud Thigpen (2004) and two-time recipient Zack Shannon (2017, 2018) earned the honor.
He sees his current job as being all about leadership, communication skills and developing working relationships with people. The chain of command goes from the athletic administration staff to the coaching staff down to the student athletes.
Athletics brings people together in a unique way.
“Athletics in its truest form breaks down many types of barriers and lines whether it is racial, cultural or financial,” says Kinnison. “I choose to have a philosophy that you individually are only as good as your teammates. The team is only as strong as its weakest link. You have to rely on those beside you. Successful athletics teaches us that we are all in a common cause together. You help the team get where it needs to go and, in the process, the team helps you achieve personally.”
Kinnison grew up in an athletic family in Benton. He watched his older brothers and sisters play. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in athletics.
“I was the kid wearing a youth football uniform around the house, playing Little League, and loving all sports through the years of junior high and high school,” says Kinnison, who took his present job in January of 2019. “I’m thankful that it was popular then to play multiple sports. Like most of my friends and classmates, we played whatever was in season and rolled right into the next one. As I progressed through Holmes Community College and Delta State University, my opportunity to play at those levels came in baseball.”
DSU has a large athletic program with a total of fourteen NCAA sanctioned sports providing competition opportunities to about 350 young men and women. Sports played include men and women’s soccer, tennis, swimming and diving, and basketball. Also offered are softball, baseball, men’s golf, football, women’s cross country and cheerleading.
As anyone who has been in Cleveland on a game weekend knows, DSU has an enthusiastic fan base that stimulates economic revenue benefitting local hotels, restaurants, and stores.
“Athletics is vital to the local campus community, the regional community and to our alumni/fan base,” says Kinnison. “Athletics should be part of a vibrant community spirit and be a shared source of enthusiasm and support. Athletics can also serve as positive recruiting sources for our university and town. Our athletic programs ‘carry the flag’ of DSU and Cleveland as they represent us in many different states and locations throughout the year.
“People who aren’t familiar with DSU and Cleveland may receive their first impression of us from our athletic representation on other campuses. Additionally, our coaches impact the lives of our athletes on and off the field. While we compete to win, we also recognize the responsibility of helping to mold these young adults to be successful in their lives long after their athletic careers are completed.”
Alumni support is critical to the success of every entity on campus and athletics is no exception. Kinnison says the best interest of their alumni, patrons, and donors is always part of their decision-making process. Their goal in athletics is to represent the university with competitive spirit, character, and class to promote a sense of pride among all Statesmen supporters.
Women’s athletics is thriving under solid leadership at Delta State.
“Based on their history of success, women’s basketball is one of our signature programs,” he says. “Our women’s swim and dive program is competitive on a national level each year and achieved two National Champions in 2021. Our women’s soccer team has continued to climb the ladder, qualified three straight years for the Gulf South Conference Tournament and is currently experiencing what may well be their best year ever. We continue to explore options to add women’s volleyball and golf in the near future and provide opportunities in those sports for prospective female student athletes as well.”
His highest priorities in the job are serving their student athletes and coaches to ensure their experiences are maximized, positively impacting their lives, and maintaining a high standard of ethics and accountability in all actions.
“I have a talented, committed staff that works with me each day to accomplish those priorities,” says Kinnison. “The thing I like the most about my job is the team aspect…being part of a unified effort for a shared mission.”
One thing he has learned over the years is that it is inevitable that you make mistakes. But, as he sees it, in both life and athletics, mistakes and adversity can be redirected into opportunities for learning and growth.
Kinnison’s wife of forty-one years, Cindy, has been in Christian education all her adult life. Their daughters are Mary Claire Parrish, who works in management with C Spire in Madison, and Kate Van Namen, who is an attorney for Butler Snow in Memphis.
“They are both career oriented, working mothers of our six grandchildren,” he says. “We are all Delta State graduates!”
For recreation, he enjoys being outside working on something or being in the woods. He and Cindy are members of First Baptist Church in Cleveland and enjoy their church and fellowship. The Athletic Department promotes volunteer and community service projects with student athletes and he enjoys being a part of many of those events.