The athletic director is Duke’s first woman and person of color to fill the role – and one of only six women leading athletic departments among the 69 Power Five schools
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
The deafening roar of the crowd is matched only by the wail of the buzzer. Game day at Cameron Indoor Stadium is electric. Nina King is often sitting courtside, immersed in the excitement. But she says her favorite part of the workweek is getting to meet face to face with the many student-athletes who wear a particular shade of dark blue. More than a hundred Duke University first-year student swimmers, golfers, rowers, divers, wrestlers, runners and, indeed, basketball players have sat across from Nina’s desk since the start of the 2022-23 school year. Sometimes more than a half-dozen per day claim time on her calendar.
Nina, who was announced as Duke’s vice president and director of athletics in May 2021, made it her goal to meet with as many of those first-year student-athletes from the 27 varsity sports as her schedule allows. She wants to learn about their families, academic aspirations, even their latest TV show obsessions – “The Bachelor” has come up, she says. “It’s important to me to get to know [our first-year student-athletes] as people and not just players on the court or on the field,”Nina says.Cultivating similar relationships as a student manager for the University of Notre Dame’s women’s swimming and diving teams while she earned her bachelor’s degree in accountancy is what sparked her interest in working in college sports.
As these young adults find their footing at Duke, Nina’s similarly charging ahead into uncharted territory. This September, she’ll mark two years as the university’s first woman and person of color to be named athletic director – one of only six women in the role among the 69 Power Five schools. Duke’s already seen many milestone moments in that short timespan, like the retirement of men’s basketball head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the implementation of the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness policy, which reshapes the very foundation of college athletics.
Nina was quick to build a support system among the small number of her peers who are women. “We talk often,” Nina says of Carla Williams (at the University of Virginia) and Heather Lyke (at the University of Pittsburgh), the two other women leading athletic departments in the ACC. She’s also close with Vanderbilt’s Candice Storey Lee; Candice, Carla and Nina are the only three women of color in the same role within the highest tier of collegiate athletics. “The three of us are really tight … and haven’t been athletic directors that long, so we’re going through this together,” she adds.
Nina was content operating outside of the spotlight for most of the past 15 years she’s spent with the Blue Devils. Before she took on this role, she put her Juris Doctor from Tulane University to use in overseeing legal matters, human resources, and the recreation and physical education program while also managing the primary administrative duties for Duke’s women’s basketball and football programs as a member of Duke Athletics’ executive leadership team.
“I didn’t think that I wanted to be an athletic director,” Nina admits. The pressure of working in the public eye wasn’t appealing. But then she began to think about the impact she could make within the role. “There aren’t enough women who look like me [in these jobs]. Why not grab ahold of an opportunity to sit in this position of leadership where I [can] create change?”
Nina learned the ropes from, as she puts it, the “very best” – her predecessor, Kevin White. The pair worked together at Notre Dame from 2005-08 and for the entirety of Kevin’s 13 years at Duke. They still co-teach a sports business class, as they’ve done since joining the university.
“The public has an opinion on what you’re doing well and what you aren’t,” Nina says. “It can be challenging to keep the noise on the outside. I [watched] Kevin do that for 13 years, so when I stepping into this role, I knew what to expect.”
If stress or burnout creeps in, family time provides a salve. Nina often spends her weekends on another sideline – that of a children’s soccer tournament rather than a collegiate match, cheering on sons Connor, 12, and Austin, 10, with husband (and fellow Duke employee) Rick King.
It didn’t happen overnight, but Nina now possesses a steady self- assuredness that keeps the “chatter that doesn’t matter,” as she calls it, from getting under her skin. “There are still moments when [I] walk into a room and feel like I’m being treated differently because I’m a woman [and a] person of color. It still happens in 2023,” Nina says. “It takes time to build self-confidence, [and] I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care – I’m walking in the room … and leading an incredible organization.”