Joe Kearney's last day is tomorrow. On Friday he turns over the commissionership of the Western Athletic Conference to Karl Benson and reports to the first tee, or the boat dock, or wherever he pleases. If the NCAA calls, tell them he's in the middle of his backswing.
The soon-to-be ex-commissioner and his wife, Dory, have one retirement cottage on an island in the Puget Sound, another on the fifth fairway of the Tucson National Golf Club, and five children (and seven grandchildren) scattered around the world, including one son who lives in Vienna. There are worse ways to leave office. Commissioner Kearney has places to go, people to see, and a career to gloat over.It isn't every college administrator who retires with high honors. Even NCAA executive directors seem to have a difficult time pulling it off. But Dr. Joe Kearney is an exception. He spent a lifetime in college athletics and neither one of them changed very much. In his chosen profession there are few higher epitaphs, or compliments.
The hard part about seeing Joe Kearney retiring is wondering if there are any replacements. Do they make them like him anymore? Is he the end of an era? Will it be possible, in the future, to tell a college man from the spin masters on Madison Avenue? Joe Kearney didn't wear a raccoon coat, but it wasn't hard to imagine him in one. He was as Joe College as ivy on the walls, a 1:30 kickoff, leather patches on a tweed jacket, and a rumble seat. He looked and acted a lot more like Knute Rockne than Peter Ueberroth. You could picture him, if worse came to worse, teaching Chaucer on the quad.
He was a student and an athlete before he became a leader of student-athletes. He knew his turf. He walked the line.
He was an athletic director at the University of Washington, Michigan State University and Arizona State University before he took over the directorship of the WAC in 1980. And every time he left someplace they wished he wouldn't. Under Kearney they did it right or they didn't do it. None of the schools he worked for was ever accused of anything other than trying hard.
The same went for the WAC. In 14 years under Kearney's direction the league stayed in business and also stayed honest - not an easy double in the '80s and '90s. Name a league with a better reputation for integrity than the WAC. Teams take on the personality of the coach. Leagues take on the personality of the commissioner.
Kearney championed all of the best parts of college athletics. He was not nearly as interested in whether you won or lost as he was in how you played the game. He treated all schools equally and with dignity. He treated the media with dignity, he treated officials with dignity, he treated student-athletes with dignity.
He didn't see the college game as a mere extension of the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and Major League Baseball. He didn't promote the schools shamelessly, and he didn't promote himself shamelessly, either.
Joe Kearney could lose himself in a crowd and feel just fine. His demeanor personified the line in Kipling's "If": "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings nor lose the common touch." That point was driven home to me one night at the Salt Lake airport when the commissioner and I, after disembarking from the same flight, walked toward the parking lot together. When he saw me getting into an open-air Jeep to drive home he asked, "Would you mind dropping me off at my hotel?"
Such a grass roots style kept Kearney from elevating either himself, or his league, beyond what they were. Consider that despite the instability of the times during which he led - a time when leagues were disintegrating, when schools were going on death row, and when school presidents were in revolt - no one ever asked for Kearney's scalp, or criticized his leadership.
He was always a college man, pure and simple. That was his gimmick. The colleges could use a lot more just like him.