Just seven months ago, Kristene Kelly was plenty happy in her job as one of the lead administrators with an Ivy League college’s athletics department.
Then a chance congratulatory message eventually led the Fredriksted, St. Croix, native to her next career move — with a school in one of the nation’s top athletic conferences.
On Monday, Kelly was named deputy athletics director for internal affairs at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., one of the founding members of the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
“Can you tell that I’m excited about this?” Kelly said in a Zoom interview Thursday. “I’m so fired up about being here. … I’m definitely excited to be here.”
At Vanderbilt, Kelly — the daughter of Christina Brathwaite and the late Neville Brathwaite — will be the athletic department’s No. 2 administrator behind Candice Storey Lee, the Commodores’ vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and the college’s athletics director.
Kelly will also be the school’s senior women’s administrator.
“There’s a lot of different factors that came into play,” said Kelly, who had spent nearly two years in Dartmouth College’s athletics department before making the move to Vanderbilt.
“First of all, it is the SEC, and I did go to graduate school at the University of Tennessee, so I already had some familiarity with the SEC. Two, Vandy is a high academic institution, which is very similar to Dartmouth and Ivy League schools. Three, my husband [Jonathan Kelly Sr.] is from Mississippi, and in his adult life he’s never been this close to home; now, he’s gonna be 5 ½ hours from home. Plus, our son [Jonathan Jones Jr.] is a high school senior now, and New Hampshire only had three state institutions of higher learning; in Tennessee, there’s 13 or 14.
“Then there was the opportunity to work under the first and only Black female athletics director in the SEC. It’s a historic hire, and if I can be candid, women — in particularly Black women — we don’t get opportunities to screw up; if you don’t do well, you’re not going to get another opportunity. That’s why I thought it was important for Candice to have the help, experienced help.
“There’s the opportunity for me to grow as an individual and as a professional, to be in an environment I’ve never been in. But knowing that there’s a lot that I can take off of her plate to help her. All of those factors together made the decision not a hard one to make.”
Last February, Kelly was promoted to Dartmouth’s executive associate athletics director after nearly 18 months as the college’s senior associate athletics director for varsity sports. That earned her a congratulatory message from Lee.
“She follows me on social media, and she sent me a personal message saying ‘congratulations on your promotion,’” Kelly said. “Then we got to talking about both being members of the same sorority and all of that, but that was it.”
Lee was Vanderbilt’s interim athletic director at the time, but when she was given the job permanently in May, Kelly sent her a congratulatory message.
“Being the first and only Black female AD in the SEC was a pretty big deal, so I reached out to her,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t much more than that.”
However, two months later, Kelly heard through the grapevine that Lee was looking for personnel to fill out the athletics staff at Vanderbilt.
“One thing led to another,” Kelly said. “That’s how I wound up here.”
Now that she’s made the move to Nashville, Tenn., Kelly is ready to tackle the challenge.
“No, this is not new, but it is different,” Kelly said. “It’s obviously a Power 5 [conference school], so it’s a much higher level. However, at Dartmouth I oversaw 16 teams; I’m looking forward to only supervising five teams here.
“There are differences, but it’s still athletics. We’re here for the student-athletes, we’re still here to see them walk across that stage, get a degree and become productive citizens in society. But also, we want them to have a really strong, competitive experience when they’re here. Hopefully, they’ll leave with some championships. Then I feel that my job’s been done.”