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Canzano: Give this guy the best seat in the house
Pat Kilkenny and the Oregon Ducks sit two wins from Omaha.
Pat Kilkenny is a big-time University of Oregon donor and booster. He and his wife, Stephanie, have given millions to the school. But Kilkenny’s greatest contribution was the two-plus years he spent on the job as the UO athletic director.
This was 2007 — and in a lemme-roll-up-my-sleeves moment — Kilkenny assumed the job as AD to help the university fast-track the construction of Matthew Knight Arena.
There were bonds to secure and plans to be made for the basketball arena. But in his first few weeks on the job Kilkenny noted that his calendar kept filling up with people lobbying to resurrect the school’s long-defunct baseball program. The program shut down in 1981.
The Oregon Ducks will host Oral Roberts today at 5 p.m. (ESPNU) in Game 1 of a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional series at PK Park. The winner goes to the College World Series. Tickets are sold out. I couldn’t let the moment pass without giving a nod to the guy most responsible for making it happen.
That would be Kilkenny.
He should get the best seat in the house today.
Kilkenny, 71, grew up in Heppner — a tiny ranching town in Eastern Oregon. He’ll tell you “it’s the kind of place where you leave your doors unlocked and your keys in the car.”
He grew up and made his fortune in the insurance business, building an empire and selling several companies. But anyone who knows Kilkenny will tell you he’s a visionary entrepreneur unafraid to take calculated risks. In recent years, for example, he bought a tequila company and invested in a podcasting enterprise.
Back in 2007, though, Kilkenny slid into the AD chair at Oregon.
“It’s not as sexy a job as people think,” he told me.
Kilkenny got a flurry of things done in his two-year run on the job. The arena project was fueled by Phil and Penny Knight. The construction exhausted UO’s bonding authority with the state, however. There wasn’t funding left over for a baseball stadium.
“We had to get creative on the financing to get it done,” Kilkenny said, “we went to a private-sector bank and did something fairly unusual.
“It was very difficult.”
There was opposition on campus. Some of the academics didn’t like the oversized investment going on with football and basketball. The pseudo-AD found himself in meetings with critics, trying to explain how success in athletics would help fuel enrollment and gift giving on other parts of campus.
In the end, he realized, some of them just didn’t get it.
“They try to do things they can’t spell,” Kilkenny said.
Matthew Knight Arena got built on his watch. The baseball program got a rebirth. The construction of PK Park — named for him — came along with it. Also, in one of his final acts as AD, Kilkenny hired men’s basketball coach Dana Altman, who eventually took the program to the Final Four.
The hiring process that netted Altman was an eye-opening marathon. Kilkenny used his private plane to take 28 flights to visit with different candidates. He offered the job to Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon and Mark Few. They all turned him down. In the course of talking with some other prospective coaches Kilkenny was reminded that Oregon’s brand didn’t move the needle nationally.
“One of the basketball candidates I talked to didn’t know if we were in Corvallis or Eugene,” Kilkenny said. “We didn’t have an identity at that point in time. We have a national brand now. Everybody knows the University of Oregon — and that came off the back of our athletics program.”
I asked Kilkenny what it would mean to see the Ducks win this weekend’s Super Regional and advance to the College World Series.
“You just gave me goosebumps,” he said. “Like when I walked into the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1995 and saw ‘OREGON’ painted in the end zone. When you’re young those things aren’t going to happen.”
A men’s basketball Final Four.
A women’s basketball run that should have been.
Two trips to the national-title game in football, a golf national championship, and a pile of track-and-field success.
“There’s so much good that has gone on,” Kilkenny said, “but this baseball thing is new. We didn’t play it for 27 years.”
Oregon (40-20) needs only two victories to get to Omaha.
Coach Mark Wasikowski’s team won the Pac-12 Tournament last month. Then, went to Vanderbilt and won the NCAA Regional. The UO coach told me this week that he looked up in the stands at both events and saw Kilkenny.
Said Wasikowski: “We wouldn’t be anywhere without that guy.”
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