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Former Michigan State Athletics Director Joe Kearney Passes Away

Dr. Joe Kearney

May 6, 2010

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Dr. Joe Kearney, Michigan State's Athletics Director from 1976-1980, passed away Wednesday, May 5 at the age of 83. Kearney died at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., after an eight-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Kearney served as Commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference from 1980-94.

In April 1976, Dr. Kearney was named the Director of Athletics at Michigan State University. During his tenure, the Spartans claimed 11 Big Ten championships, including football, men's basketball and baseball during the 1978-79 year, and won the 1979 men's basketball NCAA title.

Kearney hired football coach Darryl Rogers, Hall of Fame men's basketball coach Jud Heathcote and hockey coach Ron Mason, who went on to become the winningest coach in college hockey history with 924 career victories.

Kearney moved from MSU to Arizona State in January 1980, where he remained until his appointment as WAC Commissioner on July 1, 1980.

Prior to arriving at Michigan State in 1976, Kearney had been the Athletics Director at Washington since 1969.

"Joe Kearney made a dramatic impact at Washington, Michigan State, the Western Athletic Conference and the Olympics," said MSU Director of Athletics Mark Hollis, who worked with Kearney at the WAC office after graduating from Michigan State in 1985. "He was also a leader in organizing the National Football Foundation. "Joe provided my framework of intercollegiate athletics with the focus being on the student-athletes and coaches. He cared about people who dedicated their lives to working in this business. He understood the meaning of both hard work and loyalty and how the two go together with regard to team and staff."

"Joe Kearney was not only a great guy but also a great administrator," Heathcote said. "He was very proud of his hiring record. Not only did he hire me, Darryl Rogers and Ron Mason at Michigan State, but also Don James and Marv Harshman at Washington. Believe it or not, he was even proud of hiring Mark Hollis when he was the WAC commissioner. He was always pleased to follow the careers of the guys he hired. Joe was also instrumental in the basketball olympic committee. So he clearly had a lot of pluses on his resume. But the fact that he hired me and brought me to Michigan State will always mean a lot to me."

"Joe was the guy that hired me and even though he wasn't at Michigan State very long, I'll always be grateful to him for the opportunity," Mason said. "He was a great guy, and he'll certainly be missed."

Kearney served 14 years as WAC Commissioner and took great pride in the direction the conference took during his tenure in which he enabled the WAC to obtain its first national television package in basketball when it signed a multi-year agreement with ESPN; crowned its first national football champion; earned its first Heisman and Outland Trophy winners; merged with the High Country Athletic Conference to form a single administrative structure for men's and women's athletics in 1990; and oversaw expansion with the addition of Fresno State in 1992.

One of the nation's more respected administrators, Kearney earned one of his profession's highly acclaimed honors when he was named the 1991 recipient of the prestigious Corbett Award, given by the National Collegiate Athletic Directors Association annually to the collegiate athletic administrator who through the years most typified former LSU athletic director James Corbett's devotion to intercollegiate athletics and worked unceasingly for its betterment.

Kearney was a former member of NACDA's Executive Committee (1981-85) and was active in several areas. He was also the former chair of the NCAA Insurance Committee, former President of the Collegiate Commissioners' Association, a former member of the NCAA Public Relations Committee, NCAA Television Committee and CFA Board of Directors. Kearney was also the Chair of the NCAA Special Committee on Amateurism and a NCAA Representative to the United States Olympic Committee's Executive Board.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on April 28, 1927, Kearney graduated from El Monte High School (Calif.) in 1945. After a stint in the Navy where he served during World War II, Kearney earned his bachelor's of arts degree from Seattle Pacific University. He then began a teaching and coaching career at Paradise High School (Calif.) in 1952.

Following graduation, Kearney held positions as an assistant basketball coach at Washington (1953-54); teacher, counselor and three-sport coach at Sunnyside (Wash.) High School (1954-57); principal and three-sport coach at Onalaska, Wash., (1957-61); principal of Tumwater (Wash.) High School (1961-63) and Assistant Executive Secretary for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (1963-64). Kearney earned his master's degree from San Jose State University in 1963 and received his doctorate in higher education from the University of Washington in 1970. He was named Director of Athletics at the University of Washington in 1969 after he had been the Assistant Athletics Director for Operations for three years.

A member of several NCAA Committee during his tenure at Washington, Kearney also gained recognition as a special delegate to Congress and the office of health, Education and Welfare on the topic of Title IX.

In 1994, Kearney retired to Tucson following his appointment as WAC Commissioner. Since then, the WAC has annually given out the "Joe Kearney Award" which goes to the top male and female athlete in the conference.

Kearney is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Dorothea Kearney, along with five children and 11 grandchildren.

Portions of this release courtesy of the Western Athletic Conference.

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