Danny Morrison knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
As an athlete, he never played for a bad coach. And in a career that has taken him from high school math teacher to college coach, athletic director, conference commissioner, NFL team president and university classroom professor, he has been fortunate to love his jobs and find mentors every step of the way.
“Every boss I ever had was not just great. They were off the charts,” Morrison says.
The students in his University of South Carolina classroom know they are pretty lucky, too.
Cadie Bates Koppenhaver, for example. After graduating as a student-athlete at Duke University, she had just started USC’s master’s program in sport management when she introduced herself to Morrison after her first day in his class. She now works for Morrison as director of operations at the Charlotte Sports Foundation, a nonprofit that hosts high-profile sporting events.
“It’s funny because some people may be intimidated by him because of the positions he’s held and who he is. But once you talk to him, you know right away he’s just the nicest man on the planet,” she says. “And since then, I’ve looked at him as a mentor and somebody I could really learn from.”
That reaction is common from students in the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management, where Morrison has taught since 2017. His students learn lessons in the classroom on in-the-news topics including NCAA conference realignment, the transfer portal or name, image and likeness rules. They also get high-level hands-on experiences. Morrison splits his USC duties with his job as executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation. That means students in his classes are also on the field at events such as the Duke’s Mayo Classic and the Jumpman Invitational, where Morrison gives them plenty of responsibility – and guidance.
Mani Madala is one of those graduate students whose class worked events in Charlotte last year. He enjoyed the experience so much, he volunteered to work again at the USC-UNC football game this fall. Morrison, of course, welcomed him back.
“He’s one of the most important people at the event because of his background and because of his organization. But he always makes sure whenever we cross by in the hallway or on the stadium field, he gives us a fist pump, checks on us and says, ‘Is everything good? Are you doing OK?’ I mean, as a beginner, as an international student, those words were really affirming to me,” Madala says. “A man of that stature, a man of that experience is coming to you and making sure everything’s OK. It just boosted my self-belief.”
Madala says after each event, Morrison calls the students in for a team huddle.
“We all come together and he asks us what we learned and also asks us what could have been done better,” he says. “I learned that it’s one of the most important things for a leader and a professor to do with the students.”
From math teacher to coach — and beyond
Teaching, mentoring and helping young people succeed comes naturally to Morrison, who still thinks his first job — as a high school basketball coach – is one of the best. “I don’t think anybody makes more of a difference on young people than high school coaches,” he says.
But each stop on Morrison’s career journey has brought lessons about mentoring, management, sports and life.
Morrison played basketball at Wofford College in Spartanburg, but says he wasn’t very good at it. He was good in math, and after graduation he returned to his high school alma mater in Burlington, North Carolina, where he taught geometry and was the JV and assistant varsity basketball coach. It was the first stop on his lucky streak – the varsity coach became the athletic director and Morrison took over coaching the varsity team.
“I thought I would be one of those coaches that coaches the father, son, grandson — one of these 40-year coaches, which I could have been happy doing,” he says.
But other opportunities presented themselves. He moved to Elon University, where he was a coach for the basketball and tennis teams, taught in the math department and was an assistant athletic director. Then he had the chance to return to his other alma mater – Wofford – as the athletic director.
His career took him to be the commissioner of the Southern Conference, an experience that helped him change his perspective about sports, allowing him to see things from a more global and macro way. It taught him about communities, operating efficiently and the importance of building trust.
That led to what he again thought would be his final job – athletics director at Texas Christian University, the first time he’d worked outside the Carolinas.
"They treated us like gold there. Texas people wrap their arms around you. They want you to love Texas as much as they do,” he says. And he did love the job, the campus and its chancellor.
Then he got an unexpected call from Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, offering him the job as president of the NFL team. It, too, became a job he loved.
“The thing I was most nervous about was what would it be like working with the NFL players every day. You only hear about the ones that mess up, but on a day-to-day basis, they were spectacular. There’s nothing more competitive than the NFL, where you have a draft and a salary cap and everybody basically has similar resources.”
Along the way, he earned his master’s from UNC Chapel Hill and his doctorate from USC.
The USC connection
After the NFL, Morrison retired to the beach, where he planned to relax, enjoy life and maybe do a little consulting.
Retirement didn’t last long.
“I got a call really a day or two after I had left the Panthers to see if I might be interested in teaching at the University of South Carolina. And I jumped at the opportunity. It was just a perfect fit,” he says. “When you have opportunity to work with such a talented faculty and one of the best programs in the country, that’s attractive.”
He especially likes how the program combines research faculty with instructors who have worked in the industry.
“You need the cutting-edge research along with the experience of having actively applied some of that in the field,” he says. “And when you have both perspectives, the outcome generally gets to a good place.”
But he wasn’t out of the sports industry yet. After a couple years of teaching, Morrison was offered a job in 2019 as executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation. He took it, continuing to teach at USC — and also using his new job as a way to offer experiences for graduate students at Charlotte venues each semester, including the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
“They get to be in the action and they get to apply things that they’ve learned throughout their undergraduate and graduate classes,” Morrison says. “Responsibility grows at each one of our events. And by the time we get to bowl week they’re here for four days and they have a lot of responsibilities. So, they’re getting a taste of everything that goes on in operations around events.”
By the time they graduate, his students go on to careers in a variety of fields in the business, operational, marketing and other sides of sports.
“It’s very difficult to get your foot in the door in a lot of these sports-oriented businesses and this kind of real-world experience gives people a leg up as they’re looking for their first job,” Morrison says. “And we’ve been able to help and place a good number of the students.”
That includes at his Charlotte Sports Foundation, where his eight-person staff includes a few Gamecock alumni. Koppenhaver, who played volleyball at Duke and USC and earned her master’s in sport and entertainment management in May 2019, first went to work for Morrison as an intern. She has been the director of operations since 2021.
“I think one of my biggest lessons that I always try to implement is to wear my Danny glasses. He wants everything super clean, he wants things to go smoothly. So I always put my Danny glasses on and try to look through his lens of how he would want things,” she says. “I just really want to do my best for him. And that’s one of the best traits you can have as a coach — your players should want to play for you and make you proud. And that’s how I feel our staff is and how I am. I want to make him proud as my boss.”
And what are some of the things Morrison wants for his students?
“I tell my students that as I’ve gotten older, things have gotten simpler. It really comes down to fundamentals. Hard work. Integrity. Doing what you say you’re going to do. Being smart enough to connect the dots; you don’t have to be a genius, but you got to be able to see how things connect. Get along with people. Make the job you have the best job instead of being fixated on the next job. So that’s pretty simplistic. But I don’t think those values change.
“I guess as we all get older, there’s a tendency to say, ‘I'm not sure about this younger generation.’ But what I see is they have a different volume of knowledge than we did at that age and they want to learn. What I’ve seen in our classes is that they are hardworking, they want to get better. I love this younger generation, and I’m encouraged by them.”