Former Gophers football player McKinley Boston has done almost everything there is to do in athletics.
He’s played collegiately and professionally. He’s coached. He’s been an athletics director at multiple schools, including the University of Minnesota.
Through it all, Boston has focused on intangible lessons and academics as much as on-field success.
Boston, 67, has climbed the steady ladder of sports and academics to his current position as athletics director at New Mexico State.
He has a doctorate degree from New York University and serves on the NCAA Management Council Leadership cabinet, which helps with the legislative process of the NCAA.
“I measure success in terms of the growth of our student-athletes,” he said. “I think I got better at it over the years.”
Boston grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., and graduated in 1964 from P.W. Moore High School, where he was a stud defensive lineman.
Boston drew interest from colleges across the nation before narrowing his choices down to Minnesota, Michigan State and Indiana.
He chose Minnesota, where he took academics seriously, former teammate Leon Trawick said.
“People were taking a more serious look at education,” Trawick said. “Student-athletes were beginning to put the ‘student’ before the ‘athlete.’”
Boston majored in physical education with the intent to become a coach and a teacher. He said he was a “pretty good student” and graduated with honors. Boston was also an Academic All Big-Ten Selection.
Trawick called Boston “a hell of a defensive tackle” on the field, with more speed and strength than most players at his position.
Boston was a three-year starter and finished his career as a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
“I was fortunate to be one of very, very few to start every game they were eligible to start,” he said.
Despite his success on the field, he said his transition to Minneapolis from small-town North Carolina wasn’t easy.
“I was coming from the segregated South,” he said. “The percentage of the African-American [population in Minneapolis] was a small part of north Minneapolis and a small part of south Minneapolis.”
Boston said he and his teammates gravitated to three African-American communities in the area.
“You never really saw any other diversity [besides teammates] on the main campus,” he said. “We then became very close as teammates. We made a lot of friends off campus in those pockets of diversity.”
The adjustment period took a couple of years, and Boston said he lost part of his identity in the process.
However, as he matured at Minnesota, Boston said he became less focused on the dominant culture and more focused on being comfortable with himself.
Boston was drafted by the New York Giants in the 15th round of the 1968 National Football League Draft.
He played in the NFL for two years and in the Canadian Football League for three years before retiring.
“I no longer thought I was God’s gift,” Boston said of his struggles in the NFL. “I really started to understand the environment and the realities and the challenges of being a professional athlete.”
He said his professional football career became a stepping stone to the reality of raising a family and positioning himself for the rest of his life. It also provided him with many network opportunities.
“The light bulb went off,” he said. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Boston completed his master’s degree at Montclair State University, where he began working as a professor and football coach.
“Those were my real formative years in working in higher ed,” Boston said. “I was in the trenches of understanding how higher ed works, and I had really unique relationships on the academic side.”
He said his time at Montclair State helped him understand how to “move the needle” in higher education.
After more than a decade at Montclair State, Boston accepted an offer to work in academic administration. He said he didn’t like the recruiting aspect of being a football coach.
“As my family was growing, the 75- to 80-hour weeks just became not fun anymore,” Boston said.
Boston was nominated for the AD position at Division III Kean University in Union, N.J. He accepted and continued to work his way up the ladder.
Boston worked at Kean College for two years before deciding he wanted to move up to Division I.
He soon became the AD at Rhode Island, which he said was challenging but realistic.
Boston was blunt with the school president about his goals at Rhode Island.
“I told the president, ‘I expect to be here somewhere between three and five years,’” Boston said, “‘and I promise you the program will be better when I leave than when I came.’”
He stayed almost exactly three years before deciding to return to Minnesota as its athletics director in 1992.
“It was exciting because a lot of my close friends, guys that I had played with, were still there,” Boston said.
It was also another major step up for Boston. Minnesota was and still is one of the biggest Division I programs in the country.
“There was a clear line for the program,” he said. “And there was no lack of clarity with the school president or the Board of Regents.”
Former Gophers football player Lee Hutton, now a prominent lawyer in Minneapolis, said Boston made himself visible within the different sports.
“Very often, Boston invited me to his office,” Hutton said. “I would sit down and just watch him work. He had an open-door policy.”
Boston said he was satisfied with his tenure as Minnesota’s athletics director and only regretted that football didn’t turn around on his watch.
His priority was academics, and he succeeded in turning those around. Boston said the athletics department invested a lot of money into creating the expectation that academics and athletics go hand in hand.
“We had changed the culture of expectations around the academics,” he said.
In 1995, Boston accepted the job as vice president of student development and athletics at Minnesota with the goal of becoming its president.
Hutton said Boston was very professional in the way he handled his student affairs position and helped the athletes he dealt with in that role.
But Boston’s goal fell apart in 1999 when the Gophers men’s basketball team’s academic fraud scandal came to light.
Nearly 20 Gophers players had academic coursework completed by an office manager in academic counseling.
The scandal reflected poorly on Boston, who was forced to resign. “No one wants to experience that type of scenario,” Boston said. “There was nothing that I could have done differently [after the scandal] that would have made a difference.”
New Mexico State
Boston spent some time away from athletics, which allowed him to develop a lucrative consulting business, as he phrased it.
But in 2004, New Mexico State lured him out of retirement, and he accepted a job as the school’s athletics director.
Boston said he hopes to work at NMSU for two or three more years before retiring.
The Gophers and the Aggies are on the verge of finalizing a series of football games. Boston said he is proud of the accomplishment.
But which team will he root for?
“The people who pay my salary,” he said with a laugh.
“The year we’re on the schedule, I hope [the Gophers] win 11 games and lose one.”