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Originally published May 6, 2010 at 11:38 AM | Page modified May 7, 2010 at 11:03 PM

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Former Washington athletic director Joe Kearney dies

Joe Kearney, Washington athletic director who hired Don James and Marv Harshman, died Wednesday in Tucson, Ariz., at age 83.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Joe Kearney, the Washington athletic director who hired two of the biggest names in school history — Don James and Marv Harshman — died Wednesday at age 83 in Tucson, Ariz.

Kearney, the Huskies' AD from 1969 to 1975, had been suffering from pancreatic cancer.

"He was just a wonderful guy," said James, who was hired by Kearney as UW's football coach in December 1974.

James at the time was little known, having finished his fourth year at Kent State and was UW's third choice after Dan Devine and Mike White turned the job down.

"That was a gutsy call," James recalled Thursday morning. "Probably about 95 percent of the athletic directors in the country wouldn't have done that. They would have wanted to get a name or someone who had been there and done that. But he worked hard at the job and went through a lot of names."

James went on to turn UW into a football powerhouse, advancing to six Rose Bowls in 18 seasons.

"He was a wonderful boss," said James. "If you had a problem, you could go down and talk about your problem and he would say, 'I will work on it and you go back to work and do the things you can do,' and I would always get an answer within a few days. That's all you can ask for, to know where you stand on every issue."

Kearney lured Harshman away from Washington State in 1971.

"We had a family of coaches at that time," Harshman remembered Thursday. "We would always meet once a week with our wives over at Joe's place, and it was really fun to get together. We missed that when he was gone."

Kearney had become familiar with Harshman during a long career coaching and teaching in the state before taking over at Washington.

Kearney, born April 28, 1927 in Pittsburgh, was a graduate of Seattle Pacific, where he played basketball, and worked as teacher, coach and administrator at several high schools in the state, including Sunnyside, Onalaska and Tumwater (where he was principal). He also spent a year working with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. He first joined the staff at UW in 1964 before becoming what was then titled Director of Sports Programs in May 1969.

While at UW, he first broached the idea of allocating prime-location seats at Husky Stadium to reward those who gave the most money to the athletic department (which later morphed into the Tyee Club), and also proposed building the deck on the north end of the stadium, which didn't come to fruition until 1987.

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He later became AD at Michigan State in 1976 and hired Jud Heathcote, in part based on a recommendation from Harshman. Heathcote had worked for Harshman as an assistant at WSU. Heathcote recruited Magic Johnson and won an NCAA title at Michigan State in 1979.

Kearney later had a brief stint as athletic director at Arizona State in 1980, then became commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference from 1980 to 1994. The WAC honors Kearney by handing out the Joe Kearney Award each year to the outstanding male and female athlete in the conference.

He moved to Tucson upon his retirement, where he lived close to his successor at UW, Mike Lude.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Dory, and five children.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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