UPenn’s first Black athletic director, Charles Harris, dies at 71

His appointment as Penn's athletic director at age 29 made Harris both the youngest and the first Black athletic director in Ivy League history.

Charles Harris, the first Black athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1985, passed away earlier this month at age 71. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Harris, who was also the first Black athletic director at Arizona State from 1985-1995, died Dec. 7 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The cause of his death remains unclear. 

“The impact he made decades ago remains a visible and strong part of our history that includes champion student-athletes and coaches,” ASU’s current Athletic Director Ray Anderson said in a statement, Arizona Central reports. 

Charles Harris, the first Black athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania from 1979-85, passed away earlier this month at age 71. (AdobeStock)

His appointment as Penn’s athletic director at age 29 also made Harris the youngest athletic director in Ivy League history. He later served as commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference from 1996-2002 before moving to Averett University. In addition to serving as AD at Averett, he was vice president of student services and executive vice president of the university, according to a university statement. The Virginia native retired from Averett in 2021.

“From the interview process, throughout my entire presidency at Averett, Charles was a trusted advisor, confidant and a person with whom every conversation had a message not to be forgotten. He was a constant rock and loyal beyond measure,” Averett President Tiffany M. Franks said in the statement. “Mr. Harris,’ as he was referred to by so many, was an inspiration to help others see ‘their’ possible. Our entire Averett community and every organization he served — and every person with whom he interacted — has suffered a great loss. He was one in a million, and he leaves a bountiful legacy.”

Over the course of his career, Harris served as an administrator in both public and private universities for more than 30 years as well as a consultant in the private sector for more than 20 years.

He arrived in Philadelphia to a UPenn athletic program that was shrouded in financial turmoil. During his tenure, however, “the Quakers football program won a trio of Ivy League titles, from 1982-84,” under late head coach Jerry Berndt, who Harris hired, according to a university news release. Additionally, the men’s basketball team won four Ivy titles.

AJ Brodeur #25, Max Rothschild #0, and Eddie Scott #13 of the Pennsylvania Quakers celebrate a 78-75 win against the Villanova Wildcats on Dec. 11, 2018 at The Palestra in Philadelphia. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

“Overall, 13 sports won a total of 28 Ivy League championships during Harris’ tenure as AD, the UPenn’s statement read. 

During the course of Harris’ career “no less than 14” people he hired would become ADs at major colleges, according to Digital Memory. He also served on nearly 30 NCAA committees and was the recipient of numerous national and regional awards, including the Lifetime Achievement award from the All-America Sports Foundation. 

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