College Sports a Meaty Topic for Someone Who Knows
By Fred Dickey
October 3, 2016
Pat Kilkenny got rich in the insurance business. I mean, really rich.
Then he took all that talent and deployed it to help one 19-year-old beat another 19-year-old into the ground.
A strange way to amuse oneself, you might think. But this was not fun and games. It was games, all right, but it was all business, but maybe kinda fun.
Kilkenny was once a journalism major at the University of Oregon. He dropped out to make his fortune, and guess what? He did.
When he sold his companies in 2006, he realized every dropout’s dream: His school begged him to come back. Well, maybe not begged, but it was eager for the business acumen he didn’t learn in Newswriting 101.
Kilkenny, suddenly free of everyday nuisances like making a living, volunteered to become Oregon’s athletic director in 2007. It was a half-million-dollar job he took on for nothing.
It was what every corporate drone fantasizes — a “go to hell” job, meaning that he could utter the golden phrase of freedom at any time. But he stayed on for three years.
Kilkenny is now 64 and living in a kind-of retirement in Del Mar with his wife, Stephanie. The “kind-of” is in deference to the couple’s active philanthropy, especially their Lucky Duck Foundation, a nonprofit that supports volunteerism and other forms of charity.
Kilkenny did not take the Oregon job to josh with the jocks and toss a football on the sidelines at practice. Athletics for big-time schools has become a mega business, much larger than many good-sized corporations.
Football, especially, can prop up an entire athletic department’s budget or drain it, which at Oregon is now $100 million annually. Also — and this is a big “also” — sports are a major recruiting tool for the student body.
Kilkenny says, “At Oregon and places like Gonzaga (University) that have had great sports success, the admissions office will tell you that not only does the quantity, but the quality of applications goes straight up.”
A student might eventually graduate from college at age 24 as a Phi Beta Kappa, but at age 19, he could easily be swayed to attend a school with a great football team. And the thousands of alumni who love their Oregon Ducks might give 50 bucks to the biology department that prepared them for a livelihood, then turn around and give thousands to their alma mater’s sports booster fund.
The problem with fielding a great football team is that most other schools want to do the same. And doing it requires recruiting the guys who can get it done but may not be Rhodes Scholar material.
They might be kids from places such as Oakland or Carson to whom an Oregon redwood forest is more spooky than inspiring, and a cold winter rain makes them shiver. It’s not often that they check out the math department to make sure advanced calculus is offered or want to sign up because they’ve heard good things about the biotech major.
Getting these students enrolled and keeping them at Oregon is the whole ball game, so to speak. It requires recruiters who can sweet talk a mother into believing you can turn her callow child into a good man, or at least get him to turn the bill of his baseball cap around. You also need classwork tutors and “advisers” to hand-hold and help the student fit into a college culture.
The business side must have fundraisers, budgeters, diplomats and a boss to tie it all together — an athletic director.
The “AD” used to be a retired coach who made out schedules, kibitzed with rich old alumni and fielded questions over pregame cocktails like, “I remember Bronco Galoot tearin’ up Stanford back in ’78. Whatdya suppose ever happened to the ol’ Bronc?”
Times change, and that old coach is now turning scrapbook pages in robe and slippers while guys like Kilkenny play with flow charts and computer projections, and can discuss wine merits with high-powered execs to whom Bronco Galoot might sound like a Ford truck or a malt liquor.
So, how to attract these young athletes who can make or cost your school millions and earn or deprive you of that sacred spot on ESPN?
You convince them that they’ll be winners. Arizona State, say, offers everything Oregon does, except it doesn’t win as often. And winning is the beast that has to be fed.
The Oregon Ducks have something else that provides a big edge: Phil Knight. He’s the zillionaire (at the very least) main man at Nike. He has pumped shoe boxes full of money from his sports-equipment empire into Duck athletics.
His largess provides cool uniforms and facilities that pamper the body as well as the ego, and maybe even the soul, depending on your religion. Nike, the winged goddess of victory, is a big part of what makes the Ducks fly.
The water birds also have the advantage of being the only show in town — actually, the main one in the state. Kilkenny says, “The state of Oregon deemed us to be their pro team. There are a lot of eyeballs, a lot of interest and little sports competition.”
(Oh-oh. Just when the sports hate against Oregon State might be easing off, that last phrase will probably stir it up again. You can’t be too careful with what you say.)
Another job Kilkenny had was to keep the program safe from abuses of the NCAA rule book, which is as thick and confusing as a nuclear test-ban treaty.
He says, “It's like other things in America: Everything that's good gets to be overwrought. All things that are really, really good ultimately evolve, and sometimes they become not as good.
“But as long as you never compromise anything that's core to solid character, you’re OK. Without naming names, there are schools that win at all costs. They just don’t care.”
Kilkenny wouldn’t outright say it, but if we were to ask him to name the schools that run programs representing the best about college sports, the Southeastern Conference might be last on the list to be praised.
A big problem for athletics departments is Title IX, he says. That’s the federal mandate essentially requiring equal treatment of men’s and women’s sports programs. “Title IX was a great idea because females wanted to compete. But then, as it has morphed over the years, it doesn't make any damn sense,” Kilkenny says.
He cites the annual Pac-12 basketball tournaments as an example from his tenure. The men’s games drew full houses. The women’s games were played to much smaller crowds, but in an equally large arena, as spectators were surrounded by a sea of empty seats. Even so, Kilkenny says, the sparse crowds didn’t reduce the rent on the cavernous stadium.
It was presented to the players that if they would move to a smaller on-campus arena, the crowds would be larger and the rental savings would be donated to a homeless charity.
The girls were all for it, he says, but the Title IX powers-that-be declined, feeling that agreeing to a smaller site for the women would be a step backward.
Another problem with Title IX, in his opinion, is one that many others have complained about: the imbalance between men’s and women’s scholarships because of the big bite of football.
Even though at some schools football revenue foots the bill for other sports, the effect of all those scholarships means that some women’s teams are padded just to make sure their scholarships are used. Consequently, some men’s sports have to be cut. An obvious solution would be to exempt football scholarships from the gender-equal equation.
Kilkenny tells of having to call in the men’s wrestling team members to tell them their sport would be cut to maintain Title IX balance.
“It was one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life, because we broke a promise. We asked them to come to Oregon and be student-athletes and then we told them that we weren't going to do that anymore. Even though they kept their scholarships, they were angry. And I don't blame them.”
Though Kilkenny served his three years at a major sports power, he believes the lessons learned can apply to San Diego State University.
Because he’s befriended many on staff there, he’s developed a rooting interest. For one, he regrets the loss of athletic director Jim Sterk to the University of Missouri because he considers Sterk a top-quality administrator.
“Jim created real momentum and pride. People feel very, very good about a lot of things happening at State. To lose the momentum of that good work would be disappointing.”
Regardless of who the boss might be or how good the teams are, Kelkenny thinks Aztecs football will struggle until it gets a new, smaller stadium on or near campus.
“Staying at Qualcomm Stadium is not sustainable, regardless of what happens with the Chargers. It’s not the college experience. It’s horrible. You can't put 30,000 people in a 70,000-seat stadium. There's no energy. There isn't anything about it that feels right.”
He says another problem of playing in a facility where there will always be open seats is that fans can “cherry pick” games and buy single-game tickets instead of season tickets.
“I think State will have to build their own stadium if they want to continue to compete in football. If they can't do that, then I don't know how they can play football for a lot longer.”
You mean at all, or at a high level?
“I'd say at all.”
Kilkenny loves college sports, and I have no doubt he’s been much honored by Oregon his for his hard work and generosity. But as a savvy businessman, he knows success has to be controlled like a headstrong teenager.
The ancient Greeks knew that, too. They developed a syndrome called hubris and nemesis. It boils down to: What goes up, comes down. In other words, will college sports be consumed by its success?
Two problems facing college sports that have to make Kilkenny lose his smile are steroids and concussions. Being big-time is not without its risks and consequences.
For a problem-fixer like Kilkenny, dealing with the ones that defy solution is like being caught in traffic — helpless and impatient.
It’s tough for colleges to deal with steroids because of the enormous cost of detection and the fact that the problem largely has to be dealt with on an individual school basis. North Dakota State, for example, is ill-equipped to do battle with sophisticated steroid labs that dance teasingly one step ahead of the chemistry cops and which will happily sell their wares to an underweight lineman.
The best detectors are still when a linebacker gains 40 pounds of muscle over the summer, or the female volleyball star starts shaving. Education on the health perils is still the best defense.
Concussions are another matter. The day is coming when lawsuits, even class-action ones, will hit the courts. You’re going to see lawyers holding news conferences on behalf of college athletes who banged their head too often wearing a helmet bearing the name of not-so-dear old SDSU on the side.
You might complain about the propriety of the sacred halls of learning being obsessed with winning football games. Sorry, but that ship has sailed. In fact, its mast has dipped below the far horizon. What rough seas, shoals and sandbars it will encounter will certainly be interesting.
It’s a rare person who has the resources and the loyalty to give selflessly to a school they love, as did Kilkenny to Oregon. But we can hope there will be more, because as college sports’ problems remind us, not everyone who serves a church is a saint.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org