Why Marcus Hilliard, son of David Cutcliffe, is 'a rising star' for Tennessee Athletics

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Ask Marcus Hilliard’s friends and colleagues what makes him suited for a leadership position in college athletics, and they’ll tell you about how genuine he is. He’s empathetic. He’s loyal. He builds strong relationships.

Also, he knows the value of a box of doughnuts.

Hilliard showed up for his first day as an unpaid sports marketing intern at Duke in 2009 aiming to make a good impression. So, he brought doughnuts.

“You got to be careful when it comes to doughnuts, because everybody likes their own special thing,” Hilliard said. “Some people are chocolate people. Some people are strawberry. So, what I did was, I took the diversity approach. I got an assortment. My go-to would be to do at least half glazed, because glazed are the traditional ones, and you’re never going to go wrong with a good glazed doughnut, but also throw in a mixture in there.”

Hilliard, a Tennessee alumnus, knows how to connect with people, a handy skill in his role as an associate AD and the chief of staff for Vols athletics director Danny White.

“The chief of staff title, it’s symbolic of what I want to be an extension of my office,” said White, whom Tennessee hired in January. “If I could be everywhere at one time, I’d love to be, but I obviously can’t – and I’m probably not as likeable as Marcus is, so I’ll be leaning on him.”

Hilliard, 34, is the son of Duke football coach and former Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He's one of four senior staff hires White announced in February as he reshapes Vols athletics.

Hilliard aims to be “the glue” for the athletic department while working closely with White and UT’s deputy ADs.

Hilliard will oversee the athletic department's human resources, and he will help build relations with alumni letter winners. He’s also involved with strategic planning, and he will lead a team that will steer Tennessee into the evolving landscape of how athletes can use their name, image and likeness.

Hilliard worked in White’s athletic department at Central Florida after starting his career at Duke, where White’s father, Kevin White, is the AD.

Hilliard was Austin Peay’s senior associate AD for external affairs before returning to his alma mater.

“It feels great to be back home," Hilliard said. "It really does.”

How Marcus Hilliard became part of the Cutcliffe family

Marcus Hilliard, photographed on the University of Tennessee campus on Thursday, March 11, 2021, is the Tennessee Athletics’ Chief of Staff. Hilliard is a Tennessee graduate and the son of former Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.

Hilliard joined the Cutcliffe family after his biological mom, Genevieve, died in September 2001 from lung cancer. At the time, Hilliard was a freshman at Oxford High School in Mississippi, and David Cutcliffe’s son, Chris, was his best friend.

Hilliard bounced between a few homes after his mom died, and he frequently spent weekends with the Cutcliffes.

“It just got to a point where one weekend, I just felt like, I really don’t want to leave. I really don’t want to go,” Hilliard said. “My now-mom (Karen) said, ‘David and I talked, and if it’s comfortable with you, we don’t want you to leave. We want you to stay.’ I was excited. I was ecstatic. I was overjoyed.

“They’ve always been like family. They are my family.”

Hilliard and Chris Cutcliffe struck up their friendship in the sixth grade after Mississippi hired David Cutcliffe as its coach, and the family moved to Oxford.

Hilliard spotted Chris as a new kid in the school hallway who was having trouble finding his class, so he introduced himself and reviewed Chris' class schedule to help direct him.

“The first time we met, he just recognized that somebody was lost and needed help, and he stepped up to the plate to see if he could help him,” Chris Cutcliffe said. “It all just flowed from there. That’s just who Marcus is.”

They bonded over sports and wrestling.

“Every weekend, I was either at his house or he was hanging out with me at mine,” Hilliard said. “We just got really tight. That’s still, to this day, my best friend.”

Hilliard and Cutcliffe attended Tennessee together, where they became student equipment managers for the football team. David Cutcliffe worked his second stint as the Vols’ offensive coordinator from 2006-07 while his sons attended UT. They graduated after he’d become Duke’s head coach.

During the summers while he was an undergraduate, Hilliard worked in the football recruiting office under Gerald Harrison.

“He had a smile that never stopped no matter what was going on and a good personality,” Harrison said. “You could see a person who was very passionate about athletics and learning the business. He was one of those kids that always asked why.”

When Harrison earned his first athletics director position at Austin Peay in 2018, he hired Hilliard for a wide-ranging role that included working with corporate sponsors and donors, marketing and fan experience. He was also the football program's sport supervisor.

“I wanted somebody I could trust, and Marcus is one of the most loyal people you’ll ever meet,” Harrison said. 

Danny White improves Tennessee Athletics’ diversity

Former Lady Vols basketball player Kara Lawson, a member of the UT Board of Trustees, criticized her alma mater last June for a lack of diversity in its athletics senior staff. Tennessee has no Black head coaches.

Hilliard joined Marshall Steward, assistant provost and assistant AD for academic services, as Black individuals on Tennessee’s athletic department senior staff. Steward became a member of the senior staff in July.

Hilliard said athletes deserve diverse representation in athletics leadership positions.

“Here at Tennessee, I know we can be better,” Hilliard said. “We’ve had some challenges in the past and everything, but … I’ve worked with Danny White before, (and) representation matters to Danny White. I know diversity and inclusion and having a level playing field for everybody, it matters.

Marcus Hilliard, photographed on the University of Tennessee campus on Thursday, March 11, 2021, is the Tennessee Athletics’ Chief of Staff. Hilliard is a Tennessee graduate and the son of former Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.

“You have diversity in thoughts by getting people that don’t look the same together."

In addition to Hilliard, White hired Mónica Lebrón, who is Puerto Rican, as deputy AD for championship resources. The senior staff also includes Joe Scogin, who is Hispanic, as associate provost and senior associate AD. Scogin joined Tennessee in 2013.

“I think particularly working in intercollegiate athletes, where we have a student-athlete population that’s pretty heavily represented by ethnic minorities, I think it’s very important in the coaching hires that we make and certainly in leadership hires in the athletics department that we have representation and we have role models for those kids,” White said.

“I’ve done it everywhere I’ve been, and we’re going to continue to make that a point of emphasis here at Tennessee. I think it’s going to be a big part of why we’re successful here.”

Marcus Hilliard ‘a rising star’ in his profession

Hilliard met Kevin White while a UT student after David Cutcliffe had become Duke’s coach.

Hilliard was considering a college athletics career, and White told Hilliard that Duke would find a role for him if he was interested.

Hilliard started his Duke internship days after graduating from Tennessee. His early tasks included printing flyers to try to attract more fans for Duke’s Olympic sports, and he did public address for women’s soccer games.

Hilliard worked seven years within Duke’s athletic department, including a role as White’s executive assistant in which he worked closely with White – very close.

“He was about 9 feet from me for about 15 hours a day,” Kevin White said. “He was an invaluable asset, and he earned the right to be an oversized player in our respective sitcom. He came in, and he grew like a weed.”

Before departing Duke for UCF, he oversaw sport-specific giving for Duke’s athletic department.

The Duke AD dubbed Hilliard “a rising star within athletics administration.”

“On a 10-point scale, this young guy is like a 12. He’s terrific," Kevin White said. "He is going to be such a wonderful asset for Danny at the University of Tennessee, and it’s going to be fun to watch his career continue to soar.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.