Southern Virginia University's director of athletics Deidra Dryden takes in a Knights athletic event. The Latter-day Saint administrator has been instrumental in the ongoing development of the athletic program at the NCAA Division III school. (Photo courtesy of Southern Virginia University Creative Media)
Trailblazing Knight: A chat with Southern Virginia University AD Deidra Dryden
Veteran coach/administrator is believed to be the first Latter-day Saint woman to direct an NCAA athletic program.
By Jason Swensen
7 Aug 2023
Pioneer Day 2023 is still a fresh memory, so it’s an apt time to speak with a Latter-day Saint athletic pioneer — Southern Virginia University athletic director Deidra Dryden.
What qualifies Dryden for pioneer status?
For starters, she has been with the Knights’ athletic program essentially since its beginnings in 1997 when she helped recruit the school’s first women’s basketball, volleyball and soccer teams.
Since then she has blazed trails that many others at the private, Latter-day Saint-influenced school have followed.
As an administrator, Dryden has been a witness to almost all that has occurred on the court, field, pool or mat at Southern Virginia University. She has also coached the Knights in women’s soccer, women’s basketball and softball.
But Dryden’s athletic “pioneering” stretches beyond the borders of the Buena Vista, Virginia, college that is guided by a mission “to gather faithful Latter-day Saints and like-minded students, lift them in intellect, character and spirituality and launch them into successful lives and careers.”
Dryden is believed to be the first Latter-day Saint woman to serve as the athletic director at an NCAA school. She was named the school’s director of athletics in 2019.
The Knights currently compete at the NCAA Division III level as part of the USA South Athletic Conference. The university sponsors more than two dozen varsity sports.
Church Ball Magazine caught up with Dryden to talk Knights athletics — and her trailblazing role at Southern Virginia University and beyond.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Church Ball Magazine: What's it been like to witness the Southern Virginia University athletic program grow from essentially nothing in 1997 to what the program has become today?
Deidra Dryden: Humbling, amazing and energizing.
I am not a great salesperson — but I could talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ and Southern Virginia University all day long. I’m just really committed to and love this university, so it is humbling to see a lot of hard work pay off.
It is also amazing because you just know that heaven’s hand has helped us out along the way.
And it’s also just exciting and energizing. We fought for so long for legitimacy and getting that NCAA label. Now we are winning in the D3 area and we hope to win more.
So, yes, it is those three words for me: humbling, amazing and energizing.
CBM: During that first year of competition, could you have imagined where the Southern Virginia University athletic program would be in 2023?
DD: Probably not — I just knew we were doing a good thing.
I don't think I could have really imagined what we would be able to do, all these years later, for the thousands of student-athletes that have come through Southern Virginia University.
The short answer is I had hope [for the athletic program], but it is completely humbling and overwhelming to see where we have come today.
I would love to say that I had this grand vision back then — but sometimes in life something just feels right, even if you don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out.
You just know you're supposed to do it and you just work at it. That's how it felt.
CBM: Tell me about your own athletic background.
DD: In high school, I could not find a sport I didn't like. I played as many sports as they would let me, so I played like five sports in high school. That probably tells you how old I am because nobody can do that anymore.
I played college tennis and basketball at a Division II school in Georgia. Then I played for two years at BYU-Hawaii.
CBM: Competing in that many sports left you uniquely equipped to coach and recruit in a variety of sports. Your own athletic history certainly served you well in some of your early responsibilities at Southern Virginia University.
DD: For sure.
It’s kind of funny, but my very first job out of college was teaching at a high school in Georgia. I was told [by my bosses], “Hey, we need you to teach three math classes — and, by the way, you are also the men's golf coach.”
So my very first job out of college was as a high school math teacher and a men's golf coach.
I later had the opportunity to coach sports that I had a lot more experience with.
Thankfully, at Southern Virginia University, we have coaches now that have a heck of a lot more experience than I did back then.
CBM: Given your tenure and success as both a college coach and an administrator, Southern Virginia University has obviously proven to be a good fit for you.
Why is that? What is it about the school and its athletic program that has made it a career landing spot for you?
DD: I believe athletics at Southern Virginia University are athletics in their purest form.
I believe athletics is a transformative experience, in and of itself. And then you take a great education and NCAA athletics and then add to those things a faith-based environment. That is powerful.
Our student athletes, for the most part, are here because they want to be here and because they have a passion for the game. I love that part. And then I just love the transformative experience of faith.
I wouldn't want to be anywhere else than in Division III athletics at a university that supports The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is a transformative experience and I just feel so grateful to be a part of it.
CBM: All students at Southern Virginia University are asked to adhere to a Code of Conduct that is founded upon the gospel of Christ.
Can you speak to the challenges and opportunities that the code presents to your athletes?
DD: It is a great opportunity to ask your typical college student-athlete to live a higher law and to expect more from them.
It's a special thing to be in an environment where people that age are willing to be kind and to be loving and to do their best to be faithful.
I suppose it's a challenge in that we're all human; the student-athletes are human and they fall short.
But I think we do a pretty good job of explaining who we are and what we expect, so that by the time students get here they know what they have signed up for.
I suppose it's also a challenge to be competing against others that play or practice on Sunday. But that's also an opportunity to rest our bodies and make the Sabbath a delight.
I feel super grateful that we're in an athletic conference that respects our “No Sunday play” policy and schedules around that policy.
It is also a beautiful thing to help these student-athletes along the covenant path.
It’s quite common for us to get students that may come from a family where no one has ever attended the temple. That was my experience. When I went through the temple for the first time, my mother and my grandmother went through with me for the first time on that same day.
So we get to help student-athletes along the covenant path that maybe wouldn't follow that path if they were to compete at another university.
I'm not saying that's our primary goal — but it is certainly a beautiful thing to be a part of when it happens.
Southern Virginia University director of athletics Diedra Dryden, center, dons the school’s crimson & white while attending a Knights game. The veteran college coach/administrator is certain the gospel-centered school will remain an attractive option in the coming years for faith-anchored college athletes. (Photo courtesy of Southern Virginia University Creative Media.)
CBM: Are there student-athletes at Southern Virginia University who are not Church members?
DD: Yes, about 10%.
We are seeing a growing population of students that want this environment even if they are not members of our faith. They want to be somewhere where they are going to find a friendly, kind and competitive environment.
Our Code of Conduct requires that we be faithful, honest and kind. That can be a little tricky, right? I want to be kind — but if you know me at all, you know I also love to win.
CBM: I’m a firm believer that being “uber-competitive” and “kind” are not mutually exclusive.
DD: I agree whole-heartedly.
CBM: The athletic program at Southern Virginia is still fairly young, but it sponsors more than 25 varsity teams.
What has allowed your school to be able to sponsor such a large number of varsity teams?
DD: Well, fundamentally, it is our belief that sports are a transformative experience.
We pride ourselves on being a university for people that want “to do” and not just watch.
We have student-athletes that are very motivated — and to be able to do what you're passionate about in a Latter-day Saint environment is amazing.
Here we can fill a need for student-athletes that have some competitive juice left in the tank but maybe don’t want to play on Sundays. There are many schools in the country. But if you want to be in a Latter-day Saint environment and still compete, your options are pretty slim.
Another factor that has allowed us to expand is geography.
We have a lot of schools close by to compete against. We don't have to get on airplanes to go compete. We can take buses and cars.
In Virginia alone, there are probably 18 to 20 Division III schools within a two-hour radius.
CBM: I believe, Diedra, that you are the first Latter-day Saint woman to serve as the athletic director at an NCAA school. That would make you something of a pioneer.
Your thoughts on that — and the role that you have perhaps assumed to lead the way and blaze paths for other Latter-day Saint women to follow in athletics?
DD: I don’t know if there has ever been another female Latter-day Saint athletic director in the NCAA…. I will just say that I’m really grateful for this opportunity.
I want people to know that I find joy in the gospel and that I find joy in this work.
I do feel a responsibility to guide my colleagues — even as I’m being guided by other Latter-day Saint women — to find joy and love in the gospel even as they find joy in being their best selves as they become leaders in the world.
CBM: College athletics are in a historic state of flux. Disruptive issues such as the transfer portal and NIL face every NCAA school.
What do you see for the future at Southern Virginia University athletics over the next five or 10 years with so much happening in college sports in real time?
DD: I see us taking on the role of helping student athletes continue to experience that purest form of athletics: Playing a sport because they love it — while also being in a professional and competitive environment. They don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Our role is to continue to create competitive, professional experiences for student-athletes. I do expect to see some NIL growth even at the Division III level, and especially here.
I also think that the transfer portal is proving to be a bit distracting for the recruiting process. We will likely find some student-athletes coming out of high school that might get overlooked because of the transfer portal. So I expect us to come out stronger because of the transfer portal and the NIL.
I'm trying to be strategic about how we recruit and what we do here because I think we're gonna come out stronger because [of the disruptions] rather than weaker.
CBM: Southern Virginia University appears well-positioned to be an attractive option for prospective student-athletes who share the school’s gospel-driven values.
DD: That is certainly true for student-athletes who have their professional goals just as locked-in as their athletic goals.
You do find student athletes coming out of high school that have those priorities balanced. We are a great landing spot for student-athletes that know full-well that they want to, say, go to physical therapy school while also having a great athletic experience.
A lot of people say academics come first — but that's the real deal here in Division III.
We don't redshirt. I want you in and out of here in four years. I don’t care how amazing you are. In four years, we want you on your way to grad school or a profession.
That’s our niche.
CBM: Last question. As an athletic director at a school with dozens of teams, how many Knights games do you attend over the course of a year?
DD: (Laughing) A minimum of three games a week — but probably more like five games each week.