40 Under 40 Alum Marcus Hilliard Finds Calling in Supporting UT’s Student Athletes
Marcus Hilliard (‘09) grew up with a father who coached and a mother who taught, and that drive to support and educate the next generation was passed down to the communication studies alumnus. He just found a slightly different route to that goal by working in higher education athletics, and is currently the senior associate athletics director and chief of staff for the University of Tennessee Athletics. He’s thrilled to be back in Knoxville and working at UT, and that was made all the sweeter when he found out he was named as one of the 2023 Volunteer 40 Under 40.
“I was so excited when I got the email, I couldn’t believe it! To be honored amongst an outstanding group of 39 other fellow Vols really meant the world to me. There’s a ton of people who helped me get to this point and I wouldn’t be here without their continued support,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard knew that he wanted a career centered around sports, though he initially thought he would follow more directly in his father’s footsteps and become a coach. He started out his undergraduate years at UT in sports management, but certain courses such as economics turned him off of that route. Then he thought about criminal justice, but Hilliard’s father, former UT Football Offensive Coordinator David Cutcliffe, pointed out that police officers don’t need a college degree, and if Hilliard was going to get a college education, he should make the most of it and challenge himself. That’s when he sat down and spoke to the former director and current associate professor of the School of Communication Studies, John Haas.
“John Haas is the reason I got into the major, he’s awesome. He sold me on communication studies because it’s a degree you can get and it doesn’t silo you. He said we use communications in everything that we do, if it’s on advertising or PR side of things, or sports communication, whatever field you decide to go in, you’re going to have to communicate with people. And it served me well,” Hilliard recalled, noting that it didn’t hurt that his dad reminded him that Peyton Manning graduated with a communication studies major. “If it’s good enough for Peyton, it’s certainly good enough for me.”
Public speaking was a transformative class for him, as he went in nervous and unsure about speaking in front of people and left confident in his ability to do just that. Since then, he’s been able to get up and speak in a variety of settings, which Hilliard believes would’ve been a challenge without the skills the major gave him.
Once he graduated, Hilliard worked an unpaid internship at the Duke athletics department in marketing and fan experience, then moved into a paid job at the ticket office there. He continued to move up the ranks and into fundraising at Duke when Danny White, UT’s current director and vice chancellor of athletics, hired Hilliard on as a member of his leadership team at the University of Central Florida. Athletics positions are the type that require some moving around, so Hilliard’s next stop was Austin Peay State University. When White came on as director of athletics at UT, he reached out to Hilliard and asked if he’d like to come back and work at his alma mater.
“In the back of my mind, I hoped that I would eventually have an opportunity to come back home and serve. It’s been a lot of work in two years, but it has also really been a lot of fun as well,” Hilliard said.
Now that he is back, he’s making the most of it and continuing to pursue the educator part of his DNA by working on a PhD in higher education administration from UT. He also serves on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Tennessee Valley. Hilliard said that, whatever he does with his life, it will be geared towards serving and helping students, and he’s glad that UT has given him the opportunity to do that.
“We all get into higher education because we want to impact students’ lives, and it just so happens that our students are athletes and play a sport. We’re just trying to figure out how to make our student athletes experience the best in the country and win championships at the same time,” he said.