Back in 1977, when Jack Kaiser hosted Dave Gavitt (Providence Athletic Director), and Frank Rienzo (Georgetown AD) in his St. John’s University office to discuss the formation of the Big East Conference, little did he know that it would become the mega powerhouse league it is today.
After that meeting took place, Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel was invited to join the group. Kaiser, who was the St. John’s Athletic Director from 1973-1995, said it was a matter of survival.
“The NCAA was forcing our hand with regard to how many bids were going to be available,” he said. “We were part of the ECAC and the NCAA was demanding we make adjustments which would have weakened our strength of schedule. So Dave Gavitt gave me a call and we had the first meeting in my office.”
St. John’s already possessed a great basketball program under head coach Lou Carnesecca. With the Big East lure behind the program, everything involving the school took off. St. John’s won the first Big East championship held at Madison Square Garden in 1983.
Ever since Billy Goodwin landed on the front page of Sports Illustrated, sitting on the rim after the victory in the championship game against Boston College, the Big East tournament has remained in New York City.
Looie’s crew landed a spot in the Final Four in 1985 (the year of the sweater) and admissions went up for the Queens-based school.
“Our conference came along at a great time,” said Kaiser. “ESPN was in its infancy and looking to promote college basketball. We benefitted greatly.”
Now with the big bucks at stake in the major sports, raiding conferences seems to be as normal as a recruiting war. “Look at Boston College. Yes, there are programs there that play a national schedule, so it’s fine since they travel anyway,” Mr. Kaiser explained. “But for the other sports teams in the program, the closest school is Maryland. That has to be stressful on the athletic department’s travel budget and on the classroom time of the athletes.”
Obviously, helping construct a high-powered athletic conference would be considered one of the greatest achievements of any administrator’s career. But there is much more to Jack Kaiser’s sports life than being a big part of the formation of the country’s top basketball conference.
Kaiser began his career at St. John’s in 1952, claiming the head coaching jobs of the freshman and JV basketball teams. He was also an assistant to Walter McLaughlin, the then athletic director for St. John’s. “I was doing about nine jobs,” he said with a laugh.
Then in 1956 he was named the head coach of the varsity baseball team, compiling over a .700 winning percentage during a span of 18 years. He became the St. John’s athletic director in 1973. “I believe in the mission of the Vincentians,” said Kaiser. “The tradition is to educate the poor, give the students full support, and give them a chance to reach their full potential as human beings, prepared for society.”
The campus of St. John’s is quite different now than when Mr. Kaiser began his career as the athletic director. There is a new practice facility, a beautiful computer room, and dorms. “Every student who comes to St. John’s gets a computer,” Mr. Kaiser said.
St. John’s now has established world branches in Paris and Rome as well as many other locations in the tri-state area. And Kaiser has served St. John’s University well.
He is a kind, gentle, modest soul, who never seeks out praise for his past or current achievements. He treats the individual the same way, whether he is a student reporter or a scribe from the New York Times. And he always makes time to answer questions.
Thanks to his lasting achievements, many of which take place behind the scenes, Kaiser was given a special appreciation award by the Joe Lapchick Character Foundation which exemplifies leadership. It is unclear whether this particular award will continue to be given out. “I was truly honored,” Kaiser said in his usual, unassuming manner.
In the past, the Joe Lapchick Character Foundation has sponsored the Joe Lapchick Character Award. The past winners selected for the Lapchick Character Award have been Dean Smith, Lou Carnesecca, Pat Summitt, John Thompson, Jack Curran, and Kay Yow.
But Kaiser has never looked to be part of the headline. He has always wanted to help others surpass their goals, promote a decent way of life, and support those in need. He’s one of the school’s biggest supporters and continues to stay involved in alumni relations and student activities.
“I love St. John’s,” he said with a burst of energy. “It’s great to see the young people succeed once they leave here. It gives you a great deal of satisfaction knowing that what you do is beneficial to the young men and women who come through St. John’s University.”
*If you visit St. John's via the parking lot on the Union Turnpike side, the name Jack Kaiser will greet you on the beautiful baseball stadium. It's now called "Jack Kaiser Stadium."