Triumphs, disappointment and tragedy, Kevin McKinney has witnessed more than 50 years of University of Wyoming intercollegiate athletics highs and lows as a fan, a student and a department employee.
McKinney, UW senior associate athletics director for external operations and longtime color man for Cowboy football and basketball team radio broadcasts, has followed UW athletics through the terms of every athletic director starting with the legendary Red Jacoby. He is serving under his 12th UW president. He recently reflected on his career.
When did you first start attending UW athletic events?
About 1957, I was 8 years old and my dad worked with broadcaster Larry Birleffi. He would bring me to Cowboy football games and I’d sit in the Knothole section at the north end of the stadium. In that day and time, we won most of our home games, so obviously, they were heroes and I got infatuated by Cowboy football first. Then dad brought me to a basketball game. When I started going to games, the Memorial Stadium and Fieldhouse were fairly new. They were on the cutting edge.
Like any 8 or 9-year-old, I stood under the stadium and tried to get chinstraps, elbow pads and anything else that some benevolent football player would take off. They had one equipment manager because they only had six sports. Of course the equipment manager would try to make sure they wouldn’t hand out that stuff. So it was always a game for us kids.
How did you start working for UW athletics?
I was going to come over to Wyoming and study broadcast journalism in 1967. Prior to that, I was the sports editor for the Wyoming State Tribune (Cheyenne) as a senior in high school, so I came to games in an official capacity. I also had been spotting for Larry (in the broadcast booth). I got to know Bill Young (former UW sports information director, HoF 2003) through Larry and my dad. Bill indicated his office hired three student assistants and he had an opening. Scott Binning, from Pine Bluffs, and Rick Morris, from Cheyenne, were the other students. I was thrilled to be involved in it. I remember the scholarship paid $15 a month, but it also paid for books and some other things – it didn’t cost much for me to go to school.
I remember moving into Crane Hall, and my dad dropped me over at the Fieldhouse at Bill’s office. There was the sad farewell you have with your parents when you go to college. He just said, “Now remember, you will be the first McKinney to graduate from college.” That kind of pressure was almost too much to bear. I really credit Bill, Margaret Bott (athletics secretary), Scott and Rick for making college more palatable for me.
It was great to be able to come over to the Fieldhouse and think about something different, something I enjoyed, which was athletics. I was assigned baseball and men’s soccer, neither of which we have now. Hope it wasn’t because of me.
The business of sports information was archaic then compared to the way it’s done now. All the statistics were done by hand, the release was typed, folded and put in an envelope in hopes that the media would get it by Wednesday. I learned a tremendous amount from Bill, a Hall of Fame guy himself, and one of the most respected sports information directors in the country. We couldn’t have been more fortunate to be able to work with a guy with so much integrity and who was so respected.
Thanks to my time in that office during school, I was certainly able to determine that sports information was the way I wanted to go. I had gone to college thinking I wanted to do newspaper or radio. But by the end of four years of school, I felt the information business was what I wanted to do. I did almost go to work for the Cheyenne Eagle newspaper and actually began working in the information department at the Wyoming Highway Department. But Bill called while I was at the Highway Department and said he had an opportunity for a sports information assistant. I started with Bill on May 1, 1972.
What are some of the more significant changes you’ve seen in intercollegiate athletics?
Shortly after I started was the advent of women’s athletics. The university, like other institutions, added a certain number of women’s sports. I was very pleased to be on the ground floor of that. That was an awesome thing. At the time, like a many things, a lot a people had some push back about it. They were worried about the finances; they worried about if we could support all of this, facility-wise. But of course, it was the right thing to do. It was a boon to collegiate athletics, no doubt.
I was a student during the Black 14. That was an historic situation at the time, not a good situation, but as you look back on it, a very important piece of history. It was incredibly interesting to be on the periphery of it and all that went on. It was difficult for all sides. It was a polarizing event at a time when there were many polarizing events. Taken out of context, you may say “what a horrible thing,” but that was what was going on all around the country. Shoot, we walked to class with the National Guard around the flagpole in Prexy’s Pasture. There was Vietnam and the Democratic National Convention. Every night there was another tragic event in our history at the time. It was all part of a very difficult time of our country. I felt so badly about it; we were all students together. One week we were all together, the next week not all together. It was an amazing situation.
I saw the Cowboy Joe Club evolve. There were no fundraising arms or entities in intercollegiate athletics. There was push back about that – that if you got fundraising arms in these institutions, the boosters would run the farm. People were concerned about that. Look at where that’s evolved to, to the Nike and T. Boone Pickens level.
You look back at things and there were a lot pioneering efforts going on. You didn’t know that the time but there were.
Television. It has changed the entire landscape of collegiate athletics, all of sports, for that matter. Because of the tremendous money involved it dictates to a great extent when we play, who we play, the composition of the conferences. It’s hard to imagine how powerful it has become. Big money is the reason.
What event stands out to you among the many you’ve witnessed?
In terms of on the playing field, probably the most fun were the two basketball games against Utah and BYU in the Fieldhouse (in 1982). Wyoming basketball had struggled big time for a long time. Jim Brandenburg came on the scene and not in a boastful way, but in a very confident way, he said "I plan to win a conference championship here." The Lobos, UTEP, BYU and Utah were all going, "Well okay Jim, if you think you can get it done." They were all storied programs in the sport of basketball. Lo and behold that weekend, Wyoming beat two nationally ranked teams and earned the conference championship. I will never forget that.
I will never forget the atmosphere in the Fieldhouse because I’d seen games there since the 1950s, when the Cowboys would draw 2,000-3,000 fans. That weekend probably jetted Wyoming basketball into a different stratum. We didn’t consistently win championships, but we actually started thinking we could. We probably hadn’t given that much thought to winning titles for 30 years in basketball, for sure probably not since 1943 (when Wyoming won the NCAA and NIT tournaments). It was one of the most important weekends to modern Wyoming basketball.
Who are the male and female athletes that stand out in your career?
You mean among the hundreds? I would say Fennis Dembo, Flynn Robinson, Marcus Harris, Shauna Smith, and Hanna Zavecz. That’s an unfair question because there were so many. Also, Marcus Bailey, Reginald Slater, Randy Welniak and currently Brett Smith.
I realized early on how fantastic these kids are. It’s really amazing how they balance their athletic careers with their education. They also amaze me how they perform so well in front of so many people. We get upset at them when they make a mistake. But anyone of us asked to make a free throw in front of 12,000 people might miss the entire basket.
How important are athletics to academics and academics to athletics?
I think the athletics department can be a very positive aspect of the school. We always feel good when we can bring the school national attention in a positive way. Every once in a while we get to do that.
I just wrote a story about a cross-country student who wants to work to improve artificial limbs. What a terrific young man. There are so many student athletes like him around this department. These young people are just as dedicated to being students as they are athletes. Not all of them perform in front of huge crowds. That doesn’t diminish their dedication to the sport and to the training it requires. They’re great competitors.
It makes you feel terrific about the mission, and what athletics is all about. We never win enough for everyone. That's a given in athletics. But I feel good about the people in our department. I especially feel good about who these student-athletes are and who they will become.