Drexel’s Maisha Kelly is the first Black woman to lead a D-I athletics program in Philadelphia. She’s embracing the challenge, and her Philly roots.
Maisha Kelly plans to propel Drexel's athletics program forward into the future and inspire women of color with similar goals.
The exponential growth of Black women in the role of athletic director has been clear in recent years. The SEC hired its first in 2020 with Candice Lee at Vanderbilt, and Nina King was put in charge of Duke in May 2021.
Drexel’s hiring of Maisha Kelly in June is the latest example. Kelly is the first Black woman to hold a director of athletics position at one of the Philadelphia Division-I colleges. She accepted the role after previously serving as Bucknell University’s senior associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator.
“It’s intense,” Kelly said of her new position at Drexel. “It’s a special thing. I certainly am aware of the landscape of intercollegiate athletics and I’ve thought about that.”
Kelly, who earned a master’s of education degree in sport and recreation administration from Temple University, may be the ideal fit at Drexel. She’s confident and prepared, speaking freely about her plans for the athletic program, with detailed explanations on how those will be put into action.
More than anything, she’s steeped in Philly culture. Kelly grew up in West Mount Airy and graduated from St. Joseph’s in 2000 before going to graduate school at Temple. Her pride as a local has shown in subtle ways since she first accepted the Drexel post. Kelly’s first meal with Drexel men’s basketball coach Zach Spiker was at Dallesandro’s, outside at a table, for pandemic safety reasons.
“You can’t get more Philly than that,” Spiker said.
In Drexel’s athletics building, a long hallway sits right across from the open door of Kelly’s office, which only closes if she is in a meeting. Athletes walk by throughout the day and it’s not uncommon for many to give a quick wave or other greeting while passing by.
“I could tell from the beginning that the girls were excited [that Kelly was appointed]” Drexel women’s basketball coach Amy Mallon said. “You see a female leader sometimes in the D-I sports, especially in the administrative side, and we all know there’s not a lot of those roles. She’ll be a role model for our young female student-athletes.”
No Black woman had ever held an AD position at a Power Five school as recently as five years ago. A study by Global Sport Institute showed that only 11 Black women were hired as ADs between 2010-2019, out of the 248 AD job turnovers during that time.
Kelly found those numbers eyebrow-raising, even knowing the uphill climb that women of color have trying to get to the top of the board.
“Hearing someone else say it, it brings a real point of pride,” Kelly said. “I know that my pathway was formed by others who have been first. To do this here in my hometown is extremely special. I don’t take for granted what it means for the next.”
One particular significance of hiring someone like Kelly is that many student-athletes who push for growth and change can believe they have an advocate who understands their struggles. The Drexel men’s basketball team, for example, often has open conversations about how to help with social injustices. Those talks led to a team protest throughout last season.
Kelly’s track record shows that she is willing to have those uncomfortable conversations with student-athletes. At Bucknell, she started the Bucknell Athletics Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, and she led more conversations in important gender equity initiatives.
“You can feel her passion,” Mallon said. “She’s very authentic with her approach.”
Throughout her career, Kelly hasn’t forgotten where she came from. She worked in roles at Rutgers, Vanderbilt, and at NCAA headquarters before Bucknell. But there’s no place like home. Kelly has two young children, and her husband, Kevin, has now taken a track & field job at Temple.
Having an established history in Philly was a positive factor as Kelly interviewed for the Drexel job virtually and came for one campus visit. Her passion was evident to all.
“Now Drexel has a leader that’s a Philadephian and doesn’t shy away from that,” Kelly said. “I’d yell it from William Penn’s Hat if they let me up there.”
The Drexel identity
After the official announcement was made, Kelly wasted little time getting started. She spent two hours calling every head coach at Drexel. Good relationship with the coaches will be a priority for Kelly.
“I remember exactly where I was when I got that phone call,” Spiker said. “I remember hearing the voice of someone who was excited to do something special. You could tell.”
Much has changed at Drexel since Kelly’s college days. She was at St. Joe’s when Drexel was something of an afterthought locally. Even though Drexel became a D-I school in 1973, the Dragons’ athletic program didn’t carry the prestige of the Big Five programs.
“Drexel is not the Drexel it was when I was growing up and even when I was in my undergraduate and graduate years,” Kelly said. “This university has transformed University City.”
Indeed, Drexel was the only school in Philadelphia to make the NCAA tournaments last season in men’s and women’s basketball.
“In a year where people were looking for something to corral around, Drexel athletics did it best of any [Philly] institutions,” Kelly said.
Now Kelly has the opportunity to push the program forward. She was at Temple and St. Joe’s during successful periods for their athletics, so she is well aware of the details that go into building a promising athletic program in Philly.
“We’re going to focus on Drexel,” Kelly said. “We’re one of five institutions in Philadelphia. We’re going to celebrate that and shape our department with that identity. We’re going to focus on things that continue to shape our identity on being a successful Philadelphia institution.”