To many, Duncan McKenzie is Mississippi State’s second-highest ranking official in the athletic department, the Executive Associate Athletic Director who runs (among many other things) State’s growing budget. To others, he’s a former MSU tight end, playing for the Bulldogs from 1974-77. Similarly, many in these parts know him as the Starkville native who starred at running back for the Starkville Academy Volunteers in the years preceding his college career.
Most of that ends next week, though. Duncan McKenzie, after 28-plus years in MSU’s athletic department and several more as a student-athlete, is retiring to live full-time as what he’s known to only a handful of people: a husband and a father.
“It’s been great here,” he said. “I’ve been extremely blessed. I work with great people. The people in my office are just the most wonderful people in the world. It just came to a point where I want to spend more time with my family.”
Namely, he wants to spend more time with his wife Tinna. His two sons, Matthew and Johnathan, are out of the house, both having graduated from MSU with engineering degrees. A man who always knew how to work a budget, McKenzie is certainly prepared for retirement in the financial sense, too.
Parts of retirement, however, are harder to measure and far more important to him. The primary goal of his professional life has been maintaining the health of MSU’s athletic budget, a job he’s done very well, helping MSU perform at a high level despite having one of the SEC’s smallest budgets to work with. In personal life, however, his pillars are faith and family. In all he does, he will happily share, he wants to be a beacon of his beliefs, an example of his faith. All work put in over decades of accounting and number-crunching were with his family in mind.
That’s the man I grew up knowing, “Mr. Duncan” to me. His son Matthew and I were in the same kindergarten class, the same graduating class and the same freshman class at MSU the next year. My most specific memories from elementary school field trips aren’t the places we visited, but the mother – Tinna McKenzie – who signed up as a chaperone to help with every single one, snapping pictures and taking video along the way.
Mr. Duncan and Mrs. Tinna were my Sunday school teachers one year, and they had all of us on the soccer, basketball or whatever-sport teams over to the house on free weekend afternoons every year. We’re technically co-workers now, but the person I grew up seeing, Mr. Duncan, is the person McKenzie is retiring to permanently become.
“Tinna and I, we prayed about this for a while,” he explained. “You plan for it in a lot of different ways. The time away from your family, especially your wife – I’m so blessed with a wonderful wife. It just got to the point where I’m tired of giving that up and wanted to spend more time with her and maybe do something different.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t fully enjoyed the work side of things the last three decades, though. He has, in fact, had a great deal of fun performing one of the toughest jobs in the department and in the conference as MSU’s CFO. His ability to stretch one of the SEC’s smallest budgets enough to keep MSU at or near the top of the conference in seemingly every category has been equals parts valuable and impressive as so much growth has occurred in recent years. New facilities, new staff positions, ever-growing coaching salaries and always-expanding sport budgets have all been handled quietly and intelligently in McKenzie’s office.
“The thing that’s kind of interesting at Mississippi State, and what I really enjoyed, is trying to compete in this league with not as many resources as everyone else,” he said. “Stretch the dollars as far as we can. I’ve enjoyed that part. It’s stressful at times when you’re saying no a lot, but at the same time, that’s been a fun part of it.
You’re doing it to protect the university, to protect the athletic director, to protect our coaches. While it’s sports and it’s entertainment, it’s still a business, and it’s a big business, so I’ve tried to approach it from that side. It’s neat being a former athlete and being able to do that.”
His confession to often having to be the person to say ‘No’ is something of a running joke among his colleagues, and one they say he always takes in stride. It’s one of the harder parts of the job, certainly, but it is absolutely necessary, as Athletic Director Scott Stricklin explained.
Stricklin knows that, despite what he would prefer, people don’t like telling the athletic director bad news or things he doesn’t want to hear. He is their boss, after all. Stricklin finds that McKenzie’s willingness to be honest, along with his tact in delivering those messages, is among his greatest assets, one of many reasons he will miss having McKenzie around.
“Duncan has always loved Mississippi State and this community. You see that in how he goes about what he does. More than anything, Duncan’s just a great person. Not a good person. A great person,” Stricklin said. “There are few people I trust, if anyone, more than Duncan McKenzie. He’s honest. He’s not going to blur any lines or cross any lines. His integrity is impeccable.
“I happy for he and Tinna, but selfishly, I’m going to be sad not seeing him down the hall anymore,” Stricklin continued. “Mississippi State’s not in the position we’re in financially if it’s not for Duncan McKenzie … It’s not easy being responsible for a budget the size we have. I’m going to miss having them there because I have so much trust and faith in him.”
McKenzie will miss being down the hall, too. But for any bittersweet emotions he feels about leaving his office of 28-and-a-half years, he knows that what waits on the other side is better than anything he leaves behind. His relationships with co-workers, with former teammates, with current student-athletes and with all people who crossed his path at MSU will be valued for the rest of what he hopes will be a long life of retirement.
Now, however, he gets to go full-time with his most cherished relationship. He couldn’t be more excited to spend the rest of his days with Mrs. Tinna.
“She’s my best friend,” he said. “Some people say they’re scared of retirement. To me, the most exciting part of it is just being able to spend time with her. We like to camp, so we’re going to go camping. Since both boys have moved out, we’ve just gotten closer. I’m just really looking forward to spending more time with her.”