Kilkenny’s Success and Eugene’s Search

Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Nine months ago the University of Oregon hired Patrick Kilkenny as its Athletic Director. They’ve carried this baby to term, so it’s time to hold that decision at arms length and have a good look at it. Eugene City Council should pay special attention.

Patrick Kilkenny was not a conventional choice. He’s been a generous donor, a rabid Duck, a successful businessman, a one-time UO student (but not a graduate). What he had not been was an athletic director, or anything like it. He agreed to do the job for two years. Since February, he’s been what managers call “a young man in a hurry.” Not yet halfway through his tenure, let’s recount what’s happened:

– The men’s basketball team went to the Elite Eight, securing a first-round draft selection for Aaron Brooks.
– The football team rose to Number Two in the nation before quarterback Dennis Dixon fell to injury. The team placed five players on the All-Pac-10 team, including Dixon as the unanimous choice for quarterback and most valuable player in the league.
– Associate Athletic Director and Director of Track & Field Vin Lananna was named coach of the year after the cross country team came home as national champs. The women’s cross country team placed second, their best finish ever.
– Wrestling was dropped from the slate of competitive sports to make room for the return of baseball in 2009. Competitive cheerleading was added on the women’s side.
– Baseball head coach George Horton was hired away from former national champs, despite the university having no program, no team, no stadium.
– Other key hires have included Chip Kelly for the football team, Joe Giansante in public relations, and Jim Bartko in (ahem) private relations.
– Phil Knight has given the program a $100 Million legacy endowment, the largest Oregon donation ever.
– The state of Oregon has endorsed the university’s arena project, authorizing bonds and eminent domain authority.
– Recruits are flocking to the teams. Men’s basketball boasts one of the best recruiting classes in the country.
– Planning continues apace for Eugene ‘08, the return of Olympic Trials to Eugene for the first time since 1984. A new video scoreboard at Hayward Field leads a list of infrastructure improvements involved.
– A nouveau riche training facility was built this year to follow the state-of-the-art locker room last year. The baseball stadium and the basketball arena are expected to be built to similar standards.

A winning three-pointer swished at the buzzer or a training facility with underwater treadmills don’t come directly from an athletic director’s office. But restored and increasing confidence do. Nobody can say Kilkenny has been easing into retirement. You’d offer him a raise, except he doesn’t need or want the money.

And that’s the point. Kilkenny has worked for love. Eugene City Council, take note.

Eugene’s mayor and councilors meet today in executive session to review the list of candidates for city manager. Kilkenny’s productivity argues for a finalist who is not a careerist in the city manager profession, but somebody whose greatest qualification is an unbounded love for Eugene.

Eben Fodor made the point on this page last week that “we have a ton of talent” in Eugene. He’s right. My list starts with Hugh Prichard, who created a stir in last Sunday’s Commentary section. He showed that the downtown development code has grown into an unworkable hair ball. Prichard is retired now. He knows this city. He doesn’t need the money, or the work, or the friends. He’d like Eugene to be a better place. He could be the city’s Patrick Kilkenny, setting the city on a better course for a permanent replacement in 2010.

Eugene Symphony uses the “catch a rising star” model for its conductor searches, but in return they don’t expect longevity. Kilkenny proves a “young man in a hurry” needn’t be young. But for this scheme’s greatest benefit, look again at the university.

Nobody knows for sure, but 2010 may be the year that UO President Dave Frohnmayer retires. The city and the university could then couple their top executive searches, hiring a “dynamic duo” to permanently lead us. Imagine the “2020 Vision” those leaders could produce together for this College Town.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a freelance writer and a management consultant. Careful readers will note that Kahle offered a very similar idea on this page almost exactly six years ago. Readers may rate and comment on past and future columns (including this column’s precursor from December, 2001) at his blog, right here.