Senior Associate Director of Athletics for Business and Operations Kyle Wills ’81 has been at Elon for a long time. Wills was 12 when his dad was hired as an athletic trainer in 1970, so he’s been here ever since. He even stuck around after he graduated and took a job with the college.
And yet, he knows his four decades cannot compare to the career of President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley ’46.
“I can’t imagine Dr. D not being around this campus,” Wills said. “He is Elon, in my opinion. I don’t know if there’s anybody in the country that’s been a part of an institution for the length of time that that man has been here.”
Wills’ imagination became a reality Tuesday morning. Danieley died at 92, succumbing to a number of health issues that hindered him in his final years.
Danieley’s impact on Elon’s campus is well-known, but within athletics, it’s clear as can be that Elon would not be near where it is today with him.
Danieley grew up just north of Elon College in rural Alamance County and went to Altamahaw-Ossipee High School, a school that didn’t have a football team.
In a 2008 interview with the Pendulum, Danieley said he had never attended a football game until he became an Elon student in fall 1941. But after World War II started in 1942, the majority of the football team went to serve, so the football coach asked Danieley to join the team.
“He had not asked, ‘Are you interested in ball? Do you anything about football?’ He just saw a healthy 300-pounder and he figured that would stop up part of the line,” Danieley said.
Danieley made the decision to try out for the team. But before he stepped on the field, the school’s board elected to cancel all sports during the war. Danieley liked to joke that their decision saved his life.
He graduated Elon in 1946 and quickly joined the faculty as a chemistry teacher, spending 10 years there before being elected president of Elon College July 1, 1957.
Making a presidential impact
The first time Jerry Tolley met Danieley was in a job interview. Tolley was being asked by newly hired football coach Shirley “Red” Wilson to come to Elon as an assistant football coach, but Danieley had to interview him first.
In those days, Dr. Danieley actually interviewed everyone that worked for Elon,” Tolley said. “He was a very impressive man the first time I met him, and back then he was a mammoth of a man. But he was very, very cordial and seem to know what he was talking about.”
As Danieley interviewed everyone who came on campus, he was the one who hired some of Elon’s most influential people. Names like Tolley, Wilson, longtime athletic director Alan White, even longer-time golf coach Bill Morningstar and many more all came to Elon during his presidency.
Wilson remembers Danieley as open, honest and quick during the hiring process.
“I knew about Elon, but I never did know much about Elon — just that it was a fine school and that they’d had a good reputation in sports and everything,” Wilson said. “They were looking for a coach, and then I met Dr. Danieley. We didn’t meet for very long, we bid each other goodbye and, within two or three days, he said, ‘We want to hire you at Elon.’”
Wilson remembers that Danieley went on the road with the team as Elon faced highly-ranked Presbyterian College in 1967, the third game of the season and of Wilson’s career at Elon. The Fightin’ Christians pulled off a 21-20 upset.
“We were not supposed to win, but we won, and I said, ‘Dr. Danieley, I want you to ride with us on the bus,’” Wilson said. “That was the first time we had ever been that close together for the length of time on that bus ride … He had a chance to observe how we work together as a team and with the other coaches and players.”
Danieley would soon name Wilson as athletic director, and throughout the time that Wilson said Danieley went well above and beyond what he could have expected to help the athletic teams.
“Dr. Danieley was doing everything he could to help,” Wilson said. “He was so generous, and he’d help us anyway he possibly could.”
Tolley, who became head coach in 1977 when Wilson left Elon and is still the football team's head coach emeritus, also remembers Danieley as a devout supporter of the athletic teams as a president, which can be seen through Danieley's founding of the Elon Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
“He was the biggest fan,” Tolley said. “He came to all the football games and all the basketball games. He was the biggest fan of athletics, but especially those two.”
Starting women’s sports
Once he became president, Danieley said he saw athletics as an area where the university could improve, particularly with regard to women’s sports.
“Elon was co-ed from day one. When I became president I was aware of the fact that in many ways women were equal in the eyes of Elon College, but in athletics they were not,” Danieley told The Pendulum in 2008. “And I thought this was an inadequacy, it was a weakness and it was something we needed to do something about. And it worked.”
It took a while once he became president, but in 1971, Danieley hired Gibsonville, North Carolina, native Kay Yow as women’s athletics coordinator and head women’s basketball coach, adding head volleyball coach to that title a year later. Wilson remembers that Danieley was the one who pushed for her hire.
“He would always come consult with me, but he hired a really fine lady,” Wilson said. “Kay was a wonderful coach and a great person who grew up just two or three miles away. We got a long quite well — I knew her dad, and I knew Kay was a fine lady, and I knew what type of people they were. You could never ask for a better fit.”
For Kay Yow’s younger sister, Susan ’76, her older sister’s arrival at Elon gave her a reason to attend the university. She remembers Danieley fondly from when she was a student, arriving just as Danieley stepped down from the presidency.
“The thing I remember most about him was how gracious he was with people and how he just made you feel very special to be in his presence,” Susan Yow said. “He was very supportive of our teams — I played volleyball and basketball, and he was very, very supportive of the teams and of Kay.”
Still felt after presidency
Danieley stepped down as president in 1973, leaving President Emeritus J. Fred Young to take over. But Danieley didn’t leave Elon, returning to the classroom as a teacher and taking over a few smaller roles.
And when President Leo Lambert stepped up, Danieley’s history with the people of Elon became especially important to Lambert's transition. Danieley's support for Lambert became especially important at the turn of the millennium, when Elon changed its mascot from the Fightin’ Christians to the Phoenix.
“I know Earl was getting phone calls from people saying, ‘You need to stop this from happening,’” Lambert said. “We have a faculty/staff golf tournament at the end of every year. Which happened, that year, just one or two days after the release. We had a big ceremony out there to release the name of the new mascot and hand out gear and all that kind of stuff.
“He showed up at that tournament wearing a Phoenix T-shirt. It was like, end of story. It was sort of his very quiet, subtle way of blessing this and saying, ‘I’m totally fine with this.’ I’ve always appreciated that act of leadership on his part.”
Lambert also remembers how much help Danieley was when Lambert was just getting started at Elon, leveraging his influence to help get Irwin Belk to donate money for both a Phoenix sculpture and a track. The athletic department honored his impact on Elon sports by inducting him into the Elon Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, the same Hall of Fame he founded in 1972.
But it wasn't just with the people of Elon’s past that Danieley connected with. Through his teaching, he was able to connect with the students — especially the student-athletes — at Elon throughout the years.
“A lot of people took his ‘History of Elon’ class,” Wills said. “Athletes took the class because of the interest over the history of Elon. Caycee [Crenshaw, assistant director of athletics for Academic Support Services] tends to put kids in that class on purpose, so they can understand where the school came from and where it’s headed.”
Bonding with basketball, volleyball
Danieley seemed to connect even more closely with the volleyball and basketball teams. Social Media Manager Adam Constantine ’10, who played basketball for Elon all four years of his undergraduate career, took Danieley's class and interacted with him frequently after games.
“He is Elon’s history, as far as I’m concerned,” Constantine said. “He uses an outline in class for him to keep track, but he doesn’t need it because if he was here and lived it, he knows it because of how much he immersed himself when he first got here and when he was asked to be president.
“The passion that he has is hands-down, and I think that’s what drew us so close. I was vey passionate for the game of basketball, so I was passionate for the name on the front of my jersey, and he appreciated that. He saw it was authentic, and his was authentic. We bonded over that.”
That bond that Constantine shared with Danieley is something that many in the basketball and volleyball programs had. Lambert sees the personal connections as the key to the love.
“That’s a big part of his interest in athletics,” Lambert said. “He really gets to know the players. He’s there for a more intimate, personal reason, which is to support the players he loves. That comes across as a very genuine thing.”
Constantine agreed, adding, “He has authentic relationships with each one, so it will be that he knows you and he talks with you. But he remembers. He knows about me, he knows about my parents, he knows what I’m doing, he knows where I was playing overseas, and he tells his family about that. Yes, he has relationships with a lot of people, but it’s authentic. It’s very real.”
An impact that carries on
That authenticity has been clear to head men’s basketball coach Matt Matheny, who remembers seeing Danieley when Matheny was an assistant at Davidson College. There, Matheny called Danieley “the towel guy” after the Elon fans' chant for Danieley after the under-eight media timeout. Once Matheny said he built a tight bond with Danieley at College Coffee, like so many before him.
“I have great memories spending time with him at College Coffee,” Matheny said. “To see him there, he could be across the way, but I’m immediately drawn to him. He’s got a magnetism about him. I remember great times when I’d just sit and learn from him at College Coffee.”
Matheny has loved hearing about the history of the institution from Danieley, learning from Danieley just like so many of the Elon students of the past. In the end, Matheny says he feels special to have spent time with Danieley, who he says “is Elon.”
“He’s seen how far this school has come, from Elon College to Elon University and from NAIA to Division II to Division I. He’s seen all of the people that have come through here, and he’s been a part of it,” Matheny said. “To sit courtside, to have the towel in his hand, to be there after games, to give our guys a hug and a handshake, it’s really really special.
“He’s been to practices, and for us to practice and have Dr. D on the sideline watching us practice, I think, ‘Wow, how fortunate are we to be able to share time with Mr. Elon.”
Until the very last day, Danieley continued his support of the Elon athletic teams, attending the men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader Nov. 14 and sitting near the students, like he had done for nearly 60 years since becoming president.
At the under-eight media timeout, the students chanted, “Dr. Danieley,” like they had so many times since the tradition began in 2005. Danieley stood, leaned over his seat, and waved his towel to applause. It was the last time he would hear it, but it certainly won’t be the last time Danieley’s presence will be felt by the athletic teams.