clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Dream home: Mike White's family explains his life, and the lifelong pull of Florida

Florida's new head coach was destined for the Sunshine State.

From Brian’s wedding in 2013. From left to right: Michael, Maureen, Kevin, Brian, Jane, Mariah, Danny.
The White family poses at Brian White’s wedding in 2013. From left to right: Michael, Maureen, Kevin, Brian, Jane, Mariah, and Danny.
Photo courtesy of Mariah White.

When the phone rang on May 7, right around four in the afternoon, Jane and Kevin White were far too busy. Dozens of people would soon walk through the front door of their North Carolina home, and not just your normal dinner guests: Kevin, vice president, adjunct professor and athletics director at Duke University, was set to entertain the school's board of trustees, among others.

But the call was more important.

"I'm in a cold sweat anyway, because of our whole house. I've got caterers and people coming in. Jane and I came home from the office early to kind of settle all that in and then the phone rings," Kevin said. "Mike said, ‘Dad, I'm going to Florida.' Then Jeremy [Foley] jumps on, and then I have 80 people walk in the front door. I'm not sure I've recovered yet."

The catch: They couldn't say anything to anybody. Gag-ordered for more than three hours, before Florida issued a press release announcing their son's hiring to replace Billy Donovan, Mike White's parents hosted their guests, and were quietly the happiest people in the room. (They weren't the only ones who knew: Steven Scott, both a Duke trustee and chairman of the board of trustees at Florida, knew the news as well, approaching Jane to offer help with "anything [Mike] needs.")

Their son's dream was coming true.

You could say coaching runs in Mike White's blood. While Jane was pregnant with him, she was coaching track and field alongside Kevin at Gulf High School in New Port Richey. Shortly after his birth, the White family moved north: Kevin had taken a job coaching track at Central Michigan. After five years in Michigan, the family moved to Missouri so Kevin could be a track coach at Southeast Missouri State.

From there, Kevin's career in administration began: Four years as AD at Loras College, then two more as VP of student development; four more years as AD at the University of Maine, then five in the same role at Tulane. By then, Mike was in high school, and the White clan had swelled to five children. Maureen was first in 1974, preceding Mike in 1977, and Danny and Brian followed in 1979 and 1983, before baby sister Mariah rounded out the family in 1991.

If we ever got a victory ... you were afraid of Mike, because he just lost. — Brian White, younger brother, on childhood basketball games.

The Whites moved around so much that Mike would tell his friends that he was an Army brat. It was easier than explaining his father's jobs in collegiate athletics.

One constant? Competition. According to Brian, now an associate athletics director at Army, "Everything was a competition growing up" in the White family, and their early lives seemed like a persistent game of their iteration of tag, called "Gotcha Last" — and played, much to their mother's chagrin, in grocery stores.

But competition in the White family didn't just take place on Aisle 6.

"We'd always play basketball, and I was little bit younger, so Michael would play left-handed or he'd play against two of us, me and one of my friends," Brian said. "And I just know if we ever got a victory — and we wanted to, more than anything, but 99 percent of the time we lost — but if we were to ever get a win you weren't gonna stay around and celebrate. You were gonna run inside because you were scared to death and wanted to get in front of the parents. One, to tell them, and two, because you were afraid of Mike because he just lost."

Every member of the White family describes Mike as competitive. His father called him arguably "the toughest SOB that I know." His youngest sister Mariah, a former swimmer at Duke, said he gets that competitive nature from Jane, the only person that can match him where a will to win is concerned. "Mike is the most competitive child I've ever known in my life, hands down," says oldest sister Maureen, now an English teacher in Scottsdale, Arizona with 20 years of experience dealing with kids and a family of her own.

"It's really funny: I have a lot of funny stories about how obsessive he can get about something until he figures out how to do it or he wins at it," she told me. "And just in the competitive vein, I can remember, when he was a toddler, wanting to be the fastest kid in his pre-school. When he was in kindergarten, he had to be the fastest runner in his class."

At the family's beach house, games of pool and shuffleboard can get heated. He isn't above talking a little trash to his kinfolk, either, though it's all done in good fun.

White loved all sports, as many young boys do, but according to Maureen, his obsession with basketball began around third grade. She refers to the sport as his "calling." Years later, Mike and his mother went to lunch shortly after his college basketball career at the University of Mississippi came to an end. Jane told him to follow his heart: If that led him to become a coach, then that is what he needed to do. He was apprehensive because of his hatred of losing.

"'One thing that scares me, though,' he says, 'is I can't stand to lose.' And I said, well, that will make you a better coach," she recalled. "If you hate to lose that much, then you're gonna fight harder to win. And that's a key to his mentality."

Mike's nature steered him away from the family business. While his dad and two brothers headed to offices and boardrooms after coaching — Danny is now Buffalo's athletic director — Mike stayed on the bench. And his father tried to get young Mike out of athletics altogether at one point.

One thing that scares me, though, is I can't stand to lose. — Michael White, to his mother.

Kevin sent his first-born son to Wall Street one summer, and to Maine during another to see if a different career field would pique his interest. "It didn't rub off — zero," was the verdict Kevin reached about Mike's white-collar prospects. Instead, he indulged his obsession, playing basketball in the corporate leagues and the playgrounds of New York City.

Since he was the first man in the family to finish school, forgoing the stability of corporate America for coaching was a "leap of faith," according to Danny. But the other White men would follow their brother's lead.

As a former senior associate athletics director at Mississippi, Danny and Mike worked together from 2009 to 2011, before the latter took his first head coaching position at Louisiana Tech. His brother Brian worked with Mike while at Tech, and describes him as the type of coach that has a good relationship with players, finding the right balance between friend and boss.

Maureen thinks it's fair to call her brother a micromanager, someone who would rather hone in on one team versus an entire university's athletic program. It is that difference in personality that sets him apart from the other men in the family.

"He's always been so passionate about basketball, so competitive. And I think good coaches get almost to a micro-level — completely focused on their team." Danny said. "And I think that's where we're different. He's a very detail-oriented person and I'm more of a big-picture thinker, and that's probably a descriptor of what an athletic director's job is and what a head coach's job is. That's probably why we're in the positions that we're in."

Jane says that while Mike looks like an altar boy, he's really a fighter. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a softer side.

Mariah calls him a great dad, someone whom his oldest daughter Rylee "idolizes." He tries to be as hands-on as he can, juggling five kids and the busy life of a head coach at a Division I program. The intensity he displays on the bench translates to how he parents, and the family spends time trying to get him to loosen up.

He told me the state of Mississippi didn't sell Milk Duds. — Mariah White, younger sister.

"He's a little bit like Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music. Sometimes we tease him like he's a little bit too hard on them. But I think it's in a very loving way, he's just not laid-back," Maureen said. "Even if he's not working, even if he's on vacation, he's not a very laid-back person, which is similar to my dad. He's a very hard-working, high-energy person."

When it was time for Mariah to decide whether or not she wanted to be a student-athlete, it was Mike who was there to give her pointers on things like time management. He gave his sister practical advice based on his time with the Rebels, tips on how to develop a consistent work ethic — and a big brother she could lean on throughout the entire process.

That softer side of White is tinged with goofiness, too, including a long-running practical joke played on his baby sister.

"When he went to college in Mississippi, we lived in Louisiana. And he told me that the state of Mississippi didn't sell Milk Duds," Mariah said. "And I was like six. So every time we'd go to the grocery story I would tell my mom that we had to send Mike Milk Duds because I was worried about him — it's his favorite candy!"

"And when I was like 15, I still believed it. I found out and he totally mocked me."

Although White only spent the first two weeks of his life actually living in Florida, the far-flung and itinerant natures of the White family means their house on Indian Harbour Beach, just north of Melbourne, is as much home base as anywhere. During the summer, as the athletic year comes to a close for the four White men and Mariah and the academic year wraps up for Maureen, that's where the Whites get precious family time.

"It's really fun, it's my favorite time of the year. It's like the middle of the summer — the only time when everyone can take a break — around the Fourth of July, for however long you can get down there," Maureen said. "I think my favorite people to watch are my kids and Mike's kids and Danny's kids and now Brian's baby this year. To see all the little kids together, they just have so much fun together. It's just really fun to watch them all really enjoy each other."

Mike is known to surf or boogie board to unwind, and the family enjoys Florida's Atlantic coast because the waves are better there. He picked up guitar shortly after finishing at Mississippi — never the type of person to sit around on idle hands, strumming strings helped him relax in a way lounging around did not. He doesn't play often these days, thanks to his schedule, but Maureen claims he will with his family every now and then — and that he's a pretty good singer, too.

We knew it was a whale of a job and a perfect fit for him. — Danny White, on Florida.

The beach house can get as packed as Kevin and Jane's house in Durham was on that fateful Thursday: Their family now consists of five kids, their spouses, and 12 grandkids, and any number of close family friends and extended family can drop by. Kevin's sister has a house nearby, too, and it's not an exaggeration to see the number of guests swell to over 100. Because of that, the family has a reputation on the beach: "It isn't great," Kevin jokes.

There is comfort to be found in Florida for Mike White, and it helps explain why it was a natural fit for him to come back for the long term. Whether it was summers with family, or meeting fellow Dunedin native named Kira Zschau, his future wife, while in college, White was always being pulled back to the Sunshine State.

When the Florida job came open, Brian said it popped up in his mind that his brother could be the one to take the opportunity there. Jeremy Foley came calling, and in a matter of days Florida had its 19th different head coach in school history.

"I think he knows enough about me to know — and I know enough about him — where we didn't have to ask each other if it was a good job. We knew it was a whale of a job and a perfect fit for him," Danny said. "That was the first thing I thought about when I saw the news that Coach Donovan had taken the opportunity in the NBA and I was just hoping that Jeremy Foley would head in his direction. I think he's a perfect fit there and I've known for quite a few years that he's had a lot of admiration for that job at the University of Florida."

That job, which his mother referred to as his "dream job," now belongs to Mike White. It's been sinking in for his whole family since that phone call to his parents.

Maybe he won't be able to convince his own children there are no Milk Duds in Florida, but he told reporters at his first press conference that he told them about a guy named Mickey Mouse while explaining their move to Florida. And if he succeeds at Florida, there will be no need for his children to tell little white lies as they grow up in Gainesville.

Maybe he's not the kid who needed to be the fastest in kindergarten anymore, or the older brother whose siblings feared his post-loss fuming, but his Gators should push the pace, and compete with ferocity. His attention to detail should translate, too: White's first real effort as Florida's head coach, the re-recruitment of Arkansas guard KeVaughn Allen, has already proved a great success, thanks in part to White staying in touch on a daily basis.

And maybe White's not Captain von Trapp, or the young man who never escaped basketball's gravitational pull, or the kid playing "Gotcha Last."

Or maybe he's all of them. And maybe Mike White is home.