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75th Anniversary

  75th Anniversary Q&A with George E. Killian: A CHAMPION FOR THE NJCAA

November 15, 2012

The foundation for November's 75th Anniversary Feature Series article came from a man that played a vital role in the NJCAA during the 1960s -- George E. Killian. During a lengthy conversation with the former President and Executive Director of the NJCAA, George described, in vivid detail, his unique experiences and memories of the organization he helped shape for over four decades. The highlights of that discussion are below in Q&A format, which can also be read in the November issue of NJCAA Review

Explain how you became interested and involved in the national workings of the NJCAA?

When I took the basketball coaching job at Erie (Erie Community College, N.Y.), I was told we were Members of Region 15 and these are the rules. We were members of the Empire State Conference. However, at the end of the season if we won the Region 15 tournament you qualified for a national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas. This was new to me. So everyone wanted to get to Hutchinson some way, somehow.

At this time, Region 15 was big. It was made up of New England, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut – heck basically the entire northeast! I started to take an interest in things due to the fact that we wanted to split Region 15. Not everybody is interested in the details or the way rules get made! Most of us were coaches and worried about other things. When you start to take an interest in things like this, people recognize you. So when Laurence Burton gave up the duties of the JUCO Review, Mr. Allard (then NJCAA President) came to me and asked if I would do it and I was happy to. That led to me becoming a region director and many other things later.

Looking back, did you pursue these positions and responsibilities or were you recruited?

Not many people wanted to do it! It was a lot of work. You had to beg people to help and contribute to the magazine. You could get it done if you had the will to do it. My kids ended up learning all the state abbreviations because we would spread all the copies of the magazine in the living room floor and I would have them make bundles by state because the post office would give you a break if you had them all sorted out. Like I said, it was a lot of work and there wasn’t much money to do much. I guess I was one of just a handful of people that was willing to do it.

What do you remember about some of the previous leaders of the NJCAA prior to your involvement like Reed Swenson, Lawrence Burton and others?

These were much older men (Swenson and Burton) than me. I was like their son. All of those guys had been in the business for many, many years after the war. This was an older group of guys. They knew that things could continue to get better with the NJCAA but they were getting to a point where they wanted others to step in. Plus the organization didn’t have any money! During those early years, you had to pay your own way to get to Hutchinson for the annual meeting. I paid my own expenses to go to those meetings. Those guys were older and had reputations, good reputations.

What do you remember being the biggest issue in the NJCAA during the years between your stint as Editor of the JUCO Review and President (1962-1967)?

I was fighting to split Region 15 between Region 3, 15 and 21. The conflict with region boundaries and numbers was because everyone was fighting to get to Hutchinson. It all came back to basketball. We didn’t want to have to compete with the teams in New England and other areas. This was a constant battle and fight. It took many, many years to get these things changed because when you change something in one region it then affects somebody else in another region. No one wanted to move away from 16 regions because it complicated how to qualify for Hutchinson. So it did complicate things once we expanded beyond 16 regions, but it needed to be done.

You were Editor of the JUCO Review at the time when you were nominated and then elected President. How did this all unfold?

During that time, Cotton Fitzsimmons (head basketball coach at Moberly Junior College, Mo.) and I became good friends. The Region 16 director during that time was Orlin Stewart of Southwest Baptist and Cotton was his assistant. You have to remember that people in the south, especially in Texas, they didn’t trust Yankees. I can’t remember who ran against me, but someone told me if I had Stuart’s vote, I’d win. Someone mentioned this to Cotton and so I was nominated and received enough support to get the selection. Also, Homa Thomas was a big supporter of mine. (Homa Thomas, from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College was Vice-President of the NJCAA at the time.)

When the concept of establishing the Executive Director position was being discussed was this a position you were immediately interested in?

No. Absolutely not! I was a full-time professor, head coach and athletic director at Erie. I had a good job. We just opened a new gym and things were going great. By the mid-1960s, the NJCAA was getting so many members that we couldn’t continue to do business the same way anymore. During this time I was advocating the fact that we needed to hire somebody to run this organization. The high school federation, the NAIA and the NCAA all had executive directors. We needed to keep up with the Jones’.

I was President at the time and I appointed Vice-President Homa Thomas to be in charge of a committee to look at this. The first year he came to me and said, “We don’t have anyone, but we have a lot of applicants.” So this delayed us a bit and I said ‘we have to find somebody, this is important.’ A few months later I asked Homa for an update and he said, “Well, we think you should take the job.” I said, ‘WHAT!? I live in Buffalo, New York and you want me to move to Hutchinson, Kansas?! I have a good job and I’d have to move my family.’

However, I began to think about it and told the committee that I would have to be paid exactly the same as I was at the college (Erie) and that my wife would need to have a school teaching job as well. I was told that would not be a problem and once I talked to my wife and she was okay with it we were off to Hutchinson!

Were you confident you could do the job (Executive Director) well?

I was basically doing the job already anyway…and doing it on a part-time basis! Everyone knew we had to reign in things. I had the support of a lot of people in the country as most of them were basketball coaches and that is what I was, so they saw somebody like them taking the job, which I believe gave them a sense of relief.

When you accepted the Executive Director position you were still coaching basketball at Erie. Was it hard to give up coaching and move into a purely administration/executive job?

Yes, I was still coaching – and yes it was hard to leave it. I was lucky, I had supportive presidents. The first one retired, the second one loved sports. But we had a hard time competing because we didn’t have scholarships and people didn’t want to give us scholarships. I thought coaching was wonderful but I think my last year we were 3-25! With no scholarships you had to have a hell of a team to get to Hutchinson.

During this time the NJCAA had great involvement with the USOC. In 1968 the NJCAA was able to field a basketball team for competition at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Explain how that happened?

I began poking around and was told by Charlie Neinas of the NCAA (also USOC board member) that we (NJCAA) could field a team for the ’68 team trials. There was going to be competitions between all basketball groups (AAU, NAIA, NCAA, NJCAA) for spots on the U.S. Olympic Basketball team that was to compete in Mexico City. I called Lloyd Messersmith (head of California two-year colleges) and asked him if he wanted to join us and he said yes. So we did this evenly with California. We had co-head coaches, one was from the NJCAA and one was from California. It turned out that the co-head coaches were Jerry Tarkanian (Pasadena City College, Calif.) and Dick Baldwin (Broome Technical College, N.Y.). I had heard about this kid Spencer Haywood from Trinidad and when I met him at this event I was very impressed. He was a great talent and a good kid. After we selected our junior college team and went to the trials in New Mexico we played teams from NAIA, NCAA and so on. The NCAA teams had some great players like Pete Maravich. Our NJCAA team beat them in the first game. Now everybody was concerned because the team that won this tournament automatically got five of their players on the Olympic team. Hank Iba (Olympic team head coach) could select anyone he wanted, but the winning team got five players. So this was a big deal… reputations were at stake. We go into the second game and our team was again kicking butt and all of a sudden things changed. We lost by a couple points but you could tell that people didn’t want any surprises. The loss took us out but coach Iba pulled me aside and said that he wanted Haywood on the team. Iba knew that Haywood was the best player in the tournament and he needed him on the team. Haywood went to Mexico City and was the best basketball player in the Olympics.

How much of an impact did Spencer Haywood have on the NJCAA?

It was huge for us. We didn’t stop. I didn’t stop talking about Spencer Haywood. We reminded everyone, everyday about Haywood and how he was a NJCAA player. This was the best thing that happened to the NJCAA. It really elevated us and if you ran into me during that time the first thing I would talk about was Spencer Haywood. The big papers around the country would call and ask about him and I would spend hours on the phone talking about the NJCAA, trying to build upon this tremendous episode.

The topic of California two-year colleges seems to come up whenever discussing the history of the NJCAA. How did you handle this issue during the early years of your Presidency and Executive Directorship?

There were so many schools out there that wanted to become part of us. I think about California every time we talk. California hired its own executive director (Lloyd E. Messersmith) just as we did. Schools in California wanted to join and play with us, but he wanted things to stay as is. He and I had many discussions. He would claim that whoever won California were the national champions of everything. That feud that we had in those early days carries over to today. I always pursued California; I pursued them for 35 years.

You led the NJCAA for over 30 years as President and then Executive Director. How where you able to satisfy the needs of such a diverse membership?

First of all you have to be honest. Second, you can’t take sides. When there would be conflict I would acknowledge that there was a difference of opinion and then give my thoughts on how we should proceed. Sometimes the membership agreed with me, other times they didn’t. I didn’t take it personal.

How was your relationship with the NCAA during your early years as Executive Director?

I became good friends with Walt Byers at the NCAA. He did more for the NJCAA than any other person because he looked at me and the NJCAA as an equal. When we would go to meetings my vote, the NJCAA’s vote, was important and he recognized this. Byers would call me up and tell me that I needed to come over to his office in Kansas City. We didn’t have any money for spontaneous trips like this and I told him that. So, he and the NCAA would pay for my travel. That was the type of relationship we had. During that time the NCAA needed our support in dealings with the AAU, the USOC and other matters. The NCAA did examine creating a two-year college division during this time, but Byers got them away from that idea. He didn’t want my problems… our problems! Ha! He had enough of his own problems!

How do you see the NJCAA fitting into today’s sports climate?

I think you need to keep telling our story. Are we ever going to have another Spencer Haywood? I doubt it. Things have changed. Take USA Basketball for example, they’ve changed their whole way of doing things. They’ve got teams 16 and under, 17 and under, 18 and under. We used to get guys like Larry Johnson coming out of nowhere, but now they get discovered sooner. So when we get lucky with a kid like Bryce Harper we need to keep reminding everyone that he was one of ours. Some might say that’s good, somebody else might think that’s not so good. I think it’s worth talking about.

Interview conducted on Oct. 4, 2012 at NJCAA Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Top photo courtesy of FISU. 

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