University of New Orleans alumna Kiki Baker Barnes is a consummate competitor whose tenacity pushes her to search for solutions, instead of reach for excuses. The former standout UNO basketball player and record-setting triple jumper is now the trailblazing commissioner for the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference.
Barnes, who was appointed commissioner following a 16-year stint as the athletic director at Dillard University in New Orleans, made history as the first Black woman commissioner in the 40-year history of the GCAC. She is also the first Black woman commissioner in the history of the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association (NAIA), an association founded in 1937 that includes more than 250 member institutions.
“I am most excited about being able to provide solutions that will help my athletic directors and our schools to thrive,” said Barnes who earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies and a doctorate in higher education leadership from UNO.
The GCAC is comprised of eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas. Barnes’ job is to expand the number of member schools and sports, as well as act as advocate in building partnerships, strengthening the conference brand and hosting championships.
Barnes held the job on an interim basis for three years before being selected as commissioner last year. Under her leadership, the conference has added three new schools and is looking to add additional sports next year. She recently helped to close a deal on a $1.2 million media rights agreement that includes live streaming of GCAC conference games and championships.
“It allows us to be in the space where we can give money back to schools,” Barnes said. “We’ve never been in position to do anything like that.
“I think that’s what makes me most happy about being in this role is really being able to do work that I can see actually moves the needle for our programs.”
Barnes has proven most adept at building programs. She was hired as the athletic director and head women’s basketball coach at Dillard in 2006, just months after Hurricane Katrina. Re-hired, in truth, because she—along with nearly the entire athletics staff—was let go shortly after the storm ravaged the campus in August 2005, leaving damaged facilities and financial uncertainty in its wake.
It was Barnes’ job to stitch the tattered athletic department back into some semblance of a program. She tackled the task with prayers and an innate ability to see the possible in a seemingly impossible situation.
“I would say the grace of God, because there wasn’t a road map. There wasn’t a how-to,” Barnes said. “Every day you show up at work and you’re trying to figure out what (fire) are you going to put out. I believe that God prepared me to build.
“Who I am at the core is a person who can build. I have vision, so I can see things that (other) people can’t see. If you can see a thing, you can understand how to work backwards to get there.”
Barnes is credited with not only rebuilding Dillard’s athletic programs, but also making them stronger. She added three new teams, established the university’s first athletics endowed scholarship and revived a college rivalry series with Xavier University of Louisiana that continues to draw alumni back to the campus.
Her efforts have earned her accolades such as Athletic Director of the Year honors from the GCAC, Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx’s 100 Influential Black Women in Sports in 2022. In 2021, she was named the Nell Jackson Nike Executive of the Year by Women Leaders in College Sports.
Barnes, who initially considered a career in broadcast communications, was working as a graduate assistant at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when she felt her true calling. Members of the women’s basketball team called her “Coach Kiki.”
“I was so amazed that they sought me out for advice. They wanted to know about my experiences since I’d just finished playing and that gave me all this credibility that I never knew would go over so well with them,” Barnes said. “I learned the value of when people trust you enough to listen to you, you have an obligation to do the best job, to be honest, to have integrity.”
“I remember thinking, ‘This is it, I’m going to lead young women. I know this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
Barnes later became a head basketball coach at Southern University-Shreveport before returning to UNO to obtain a doctoral degree. She has created a mentoring program to help other women who are seeking careers in the sports industry to navigate the currents.
Barnes, who has a consulting company, has also developed a professional leadership program, “So You Want A Career in Athletics,” that is aimed at connecting young women with career and mentorship opportunities in athletics.
Mentoring is a natural extension of her personality, Barnes said.
“I had been doing it already anyway. I was the captain on every team I was on. I’ve always led,” Barnes said. “People have always looked to me for advice.”
Growing up in Minden, La in the 1980s and watching Olympic track star Florence Griffith Joyner capture the imagination of the world, Barnes was not immune to the allure.
Having won her 5th-grade field day with a medal for speed in the 100-yard dash, Barnes was certain she was up next.
“I really thought I was FloJo!” Barnes said laughing at the memory.
In junior high and high school Barnes excelled at basketball and track. She claimed a spot on the varsity basketball team as a freshman and by her senior year, she was garnering interest from colleges.
Barnes also was a state champion in the high jump and finished third in the state in the triple jump her senior year.
After a two-year stint at a junior college in Texas, Barnes arrived at UNO. One of her fondest memories is beating fellow Sun Belt conference member Louisiana Tech, which was ranked 4th in the nation.
“Most people didn’t believe it was possible, until we did it,” Barnes said.
The Privateers handed the Louisiana Lady Techsters a 66-63 loss at Lakefront Arena on Jan. 11, 1997. It was an especially sweet win for Barnes who said she felt snubbed because the school, which was located about 30 minutes from her home in Minden, didn’t recruit her as high school senior.
“I intended to do that from the time I signed (with UNO),” Barnes said with a laugh. “I felt that I owed it to myself, and I owed it them to say you missed out on a good one!”
The chip on her shoulder was motivating, but Barnes said she also had a mindset to put in the hard work that she knew it was going to take to defeat them.
“The work is setting you up to compete,” Barnes said. “You’re never guaranteed success, but you increase your chance of success when you commit to doing the work. So, whether you’re tired or not, you commit to doing the work … you show up and you give your best effort.”
That is the advice Barnes, who also set a UNO record in the triple jump, shares with anyone who asks: If you are committed to a goal, you must commit to do the required work.
“And what’s required doesn’t change because you don’t feel good today,” Barnes said. “You’re either committed to the goal, or you’re not.”
You have to be committed to not only the goal, but also the learning process, Barnes said.
“You already have everything you need; you just have to commit to developing what you have,” she said. “I am the same person I was at 5—the dreamer, the seeing things—I just had to learn how to use it.”
Barnes said she took each job opportunity to learn how to use and hone her gifts.
“I built a basketball program. I built an athletics department, and now I’m building a conference,” Barnes said. “So, you have everything you need, you just have to commit to the process of being better at it.”