Killian’s vision helped JUCO become huge success story
As Friday night’s Alpine Bank Junior College World Series banquet was drawing to a close, Jamie Hamilton glanced down to the end of the head table.
“See what you started?” he said, grinning at George Killian, the former executive director of the NJCAA.
He started something no one in the late 1950s could envision happening in Grand Junction.
Killian, 88, was honored Sunday night before Game 7 of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series as NJCAA officials were introduced.
I spent about 15 minutes talking to Killian, whom I first met in 1986 covering my first JUCO Word Series. Here was this all-business guy with the thick New York accent who spoke his mind and occasionally butted heads with Sam Suplizio, the longtime tournament chairman.
Before Suplizio, though, was Jay Tolman, who, along with Bus Bergman and a handful of business leaders from Grand Junction, proposed moving the baseball national championship game from Miami, Okla., to Grand Junction.
Killian, who was then in line to become the editor of the JUCO Review, made the trip to Grand Junction with representatives of the NJCAA.
“There was a gate down here, a chain-link fence,” Killian said, motioning down the first-base line as he sat in the NJCAA booth in the Lincoln Park Tower press box. “I opened the gate and walked on the field … I looked at Jay, and I said, ‘Jay, you gotta be kidding me, this is a (expletive) cow pasture!”
But Tolman’s group won the tournament for a year, and the cow pasture started to take shape.
“Each time we came back there was more done, more done, more done,” Killian said. “And when Sam took over, he was more of a politician locally and could get things done. It grew and grew and grew.”
And in the past year, it grew some more.
“It’s really a miracle. Honest to God,” said Killian, still with that thick New York accent. “You can’t do this in many places in America, I’ll tell you that. They sent me some pictures, and it’s hard to imagine until you see it here.”
A bum left knee makes it hard for Killian to get around like he used to. He had a knee replacement a few years ago, but complications after surgery set him back and, he said, it’ll never be the same.
He became the executive director of the NJCAA in 1969 and ran the governing body of junior and community college athletics until his retirement in 2004.
He spent JUCO’s opening weekend in Grand Junction every year, then returned in 2007 for the Golden Anniversary of the tournament.
As the executive director of the NJCAA, Killian was a representative on the United States Olympic Committee, along with the NCAA and the National Federation of High Schools. And when the NJCAA offices moved from Hutchinson, Kan., to Colorado Springs in 1986, Killian got even more involved with the Olympics.
Sunday, he wore a jacket with the Olympic rings on the chest. Through his international connections came more opportunities for junior college athletes to play exhibition games internationally.
He’s been the president of FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, and was on the International Olympic Committee from 1996 to 1998.
In 1996 he received the Olympic Order, the IOC’s highest honor, and the Olympic Torch Award from the USOC in 2010, for making a positive impact on the United States’ Olympic movement.
His next honor will be his induction into the Colorado Springs Hall of Fame in October.
Much like a baseball player finding the right school, junior college athletics just fit Killian.
When a search committee for the first NJCAA executive director couldn’t find the right person for the job, it went to Killian, whose response was, “WHAAT?”
But he left his job as a professor at Erie County Technical Institution in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Hutchinson, Kan.
“That was a culture shock,” he said.
That was 1969. Three and a half decades later, he turned in his keys.
“I just wanted to do better and better every year,” he said, “that’s all.”