June 10th, 2012
Louisville's Klein Honored With SID Award
Klein recipient of prestigious award for Sports Information Directors
This is my story and I’m sticking to it: The University of Louisville made last season’s Final Four in New Orleans because the players wanted to make sure Kenny Klein had a cheering section when he accepted the Katha Quinn Award for outstanding service to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the writers who cover college basketball.
When I mentioned that theory to Klein, he rolled his eyes, shook his head, and laughed. He’s modest to a fault. But he admits it was nice to have his team in the Final Four when he received the prestigious award named after the former St. John’s University Sports Information director who died of cancer.
“I didn’t know Katha well,” said Klein, “but did work with her during the 1987 Pan-American Games trials (in Louisville) when I was the media contact for the USA Basketball team and she was working at the site.”
The award was named in Quinn’s honor because she embodied the qualities that college sports information directors are supposed to have. She was a terrific ambassador for her school, one who invariably made writers and broadcasters look forward to covering her team’s games.
She was “old school” and so is Kenny Klein. I mean that a compliment of the highest order. If you’re an “old school” SID, you believe your job is to serve and help the media instead of trying to manipulate it. You try to make the media’s job easier instead of throwing up roadblocks. You treats every journalist the same, no matter where he or she is from.
Fortunately for Kenny, nobody appreciates this more than his boss, Tom Jurich, U of L’s vice-president for athletics.“He’s my man,” Jurich says. “Kenny’s the best, that’s all. I don’t even want to think of what we’d do without him.”
Jurich and many of his staff members were present when Klein accepted the Quinn award at the USBWA Awards Breakfast the day of the NCAA championship game. Although the Cards had been eliminated by eventual champion Kentucky on Saturday, Jurich held the team plane over a day in honor of Kenny’s award.
Going back to the early 1960s, when the marriage between television and big-time college sports was in its infancy, the role of the sports information director became increasingly important. The easiest part of the job was providing news and statistics for writers and broadcasters. The hardest part was being the middle person between the athletic department and the media.
The best SIDs were able to be loyal to their athletics director and coaches while also gaining and maintaining the trust of the media. This required an SID to be a diplomat, politician, and arbitrator. Whenever a dispute would arise between an egotistical coach and an equally egotistical reporter, it was the SID’s thankless job to put out the fire and mend the fences.
If there were a Mount Rushmore for SIDs, it would be impossible to pick the four faces who belong on it. But the list of nominees surely would include the likes of Roger Valdiserri of Notre Dame, Don “Fox” Bryant of Nebraska, Charley Thornton of Alabama, Haywood Harris of Tennessee, Norm Carlson of Florida, Jones Ramsey of Texas, Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins of Vanderbilt. Rick Brewer of North Carolina, David Housel of Auburn, and Kit Klingelhoffer of Indiana.
Writers would look forward to covering games at their schools because they knew they would be treated royally. The SIDs would set up interviews, make dinner reservations, and get golf tee times if necessary. They also would provide anecdotes that would help a writer flesh out his story. Heck, they even would offer to set up an interview with the head coach instead of acting like he was too important and busy to be bother with a mere visiting journalist.
Today, sadly, some SIDs seem to regard the media as the enemy. They have inflated titles and egos to go with it. They use access to reward friendly media types and punish ones who ask tough questions. They try to bully young reporters and favor the national outlets over the locals.
Kenny Klein doesn’t operate that way. He’s old school. He walks the tightrope between the athletics department and the media as if he’s a Wallenda. The result is that everybody who works with him – coaches, players, writers, broadcasters – respect him. Old school is all about integrity and professionalism.
A 1981 graduate of Murray State – which had a rather nice season in 2011-’12 – Klein learned how to be an SID from Doug Vance, who went on to become an outstanding SID at the University of Kansas. “Doug was a great teacher,” Klein says. “I was more of an apprentice than a student when I was with him at Murray.”
After graduation, Klein went to work at Morehead State and was there when Jurich’s predecessor, Bill Olsen, picked him to replace Joe Yates in 1983. At the time, of course, Denny Crum was crafting the career that would give him two NCAA titles (1980 and ’86) and put him in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
In 1985, Dave Cawood, then the executive director of communications for the NCAA, invited Klein to be part of the SID “all-star” team that helped him every year at the Final Four. One of Kenny’s main jobs was to supervise the U of L statistics team, which began working the Final Four in the 1960s because NCAA executive director Walter Byers was impressed with their efficiency and accuracy.
“Back in 1985,” Klein said, “Dave Cawood made me swear that these new computers would work. We appreciate the NCAA continuing to invite us back every year – from Dave to Bill Hancock, Jim Marchiony and now Dave Warlock. Our crew takes a lot of pride in its work.”
Easily the most difficult time of Klein’s career came early in 2001, when a feud between Jurich and Crum spilled over into the public arena. Jurich thought it was time for the Hall of Fame coach to retire; Crum strenuously disagree. Feelings were hurt, angry words were exchanged, and the U of L community became a house divided.
Although Crum had led the Cards to their greatest victories, Jurich was right in saying he had reached the point where he was hurting the program more than he was moving it forward. The Cards were on NCAA probation when Jurich came aboard in 1997, and Crum’s recruiting pipelines in Louisville and the Deep South had dried up.
For weeks, the usually upbeat Klein had a hard time mustering a smile. He was torn between two men he loved and respected. When Jurich finally resolved the impasse by seeing to it that Crum walked away with a huge severance package, nobody was more relieved than Klein.
Another difficult time came three years ago, when Pitino revealed that he was being extorted by a woman with whom he had once had sex. It was the sort of lurid scandal is relished by the big-city tabloids and their counterparts in radio and cable news. For weeks, Klein had to deal with questions that had nothing to do with basketball. His professionalism was tested to the max, but he survived. Says Klein now, “I wish everyone had the chance to know Coach Pitino as I do.”
Asked to compare Crum and Pitino – one already a Hall-of-Famer and the other certain to be one sooner or later – Klein demurs. He will only say that he has learned much from each. “Coach Pitino keeps it enjoyable and interesting for me,” Klein says.
Although basketball is Klein’s No. 1 priority, he also has supervisory responsibility for football, women’s basketball, and all the other varsity sports. As the university’s facilities and national profile have exploded under Jurich, so have the demands on Klein’s staff. Many times, while one Cardinal team or another is off competing in a national tournament, a championship event will be taking place simultaneously on the U of L campus or in the KFC Yum! Center downtown.
After being one of Jurich’s most trusted assistants for almost 15 years, Klein is qualified to become an athletics director at a D-I school. He has the talent and experience to follow the example of Scott Stricklin, the former SID at UK who’s now AD at Mississippi State.
But Klein seems content to remain at Louisville. Jurich sees to it that he’s well-compensated and has complete control over his domain. On his 50th birthday, Pitino surprised him by giving him a new Lexus. Had Pitino ever seen how Klein drives a golf cart – he once collided with a car in a country-club parking lot – he might have chosen another gift.
When word got out that Klein was to receive the Katha Quinn award, he was inundated by calls, e-mails, tweets, and text messages. The fact that he was surprised speaks volumes about his modesty. He thinks it’s no big deal to treat the media fairly and politely. As Kenny Klein sees it, that’s just how an SID is supposed to do his job.