John Kasser, the UCSB athletic director who brought both financial viability and gender equity to Gaucho sports, passed away on Thursday in the San Diego area due to a heart-related issue. He was 82.
Kasser served as UCSB’s A.D. when it was the Cinderella story of college basketball, from August 1989 to December of 1993. The Gauchos got their lone NCAA Tournament win during his tenure, in 1990, and he even worked behind the scenes to bring the NIT to the Thunderdome in both 1992 and 1993.
“He was our A.D. during the first and only time that our men’s basketball and baseball teams went to the NCAA Tournament during the same year (1990),” assistant A.D. Bill Mahoney pointed out.
Kasser arrived on campus when the Gauchos were drowning in red ink and ranked near the bottom of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (now the Big West Conference) in athletic budgets, scholarships and coaching salaries.
“John developed a very good relationship with our chancellor at the time, Barbara Uehling, and he helped athletics get through those tough times,” said Mahoney, who has worked in UCSB’s sports information department since 1984. “He was a real people person and had a very hands-on style of administering.
“He’d come into our office and talk for hours, and then do the same thing in the equipment room and the training room.”
Kasser’s accomplishments at UCSB included the construction of Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, which opened for its first Gaucho baseball game barely a month after Kasser left Santa Barbara to take the A.D. job at the University of California.
Uehling sent him off to Berkeley with high praise.
“John’s ability to establish and maintain excellent relationships across the campus, to maintain a broad campus-wide perspective on issues, as well as his honesty and integrity, have served UCSB very well, and Cal is fortunate indeed to gain his proven leadership,” she said.
Kasser led the Golden Bears until 2000, overseeing the construction of Haas Pavilion and fund-raising more than $100 million for Cal’s athletic programs. He also served as chair of the Pac-10’s committee to develop a men’s basketball tournament and then left the university to market that event as one of his many duties as the new executive director of Pac-10 Properties.
He was also a mover-and-shaker in the Big West. He helped renegotiate the league’s television contract with ESPN to include the conference in that network’s Big Monday basketball telecasts which began in 1990.
“It took him only a few days to figure everything out,” basketball coach Jerry Pimm said. “He knew exactly where we were as a university. After he studied the budget, he got a good handle on who we were and where we had to go.”
Kasser concocted a new, cost-cutting league called the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation which consolidated the Big West with other regional conferences for several non-revenue sports. The league thrives to this day.
“We do it with mirrors around here, but our mirrors are shining now,” Kasser said at the time.
He had previously served as A.D. at Long Beach State, from 1984 to 1987, when the 49ers emerged as a national power in such women’s sports as basketball, volleyball and softball. He insisted that UCSB bring the budgets of its own women’s programs more in line with those of the men.
Hall of Fame volleyball coach Kathy Gregory once described him as “very open, which also means that he’s firm and tough. I like his honest and direct approach. He supports me, but he also tells me when I’m wrong.”
Kasser’s support helped coach Mark French take a thread-bare women’s basketball program to its first two NCAA Tournament appearances in 1992 and 1993. He even lobbied the NCAA Tournament Committee to have the lower-seeded Gauchos play host to first-round games both years.
The ninth-seeded Gauchos beat No. 8 Houston at the Thunderdome in 1992. They were even bigger underdogs in 1993 at No. 12 when they stunned No. 5 BYU in Santa Barbara.
Kasser also put a premium on academic performance, increasing the graduation rate of Gaucho student–athletes from 60% in 1989 to 74% in 1993. He got Pacific Beverage Company’s Pete Jordano to sponsor a new scholar-athlete program called “Golden Eagles” as a way to ingratiate Uehling to the athletic department.
“I was sitting around with Pete one day and said, ‘I’m just concerned that the new chancellor doesn’t realize what good students we have here on our teams,’” Kasser once said. “He told me, ‘We’ve got to do something about that … Let’s have a dinner to honor the top academic athletes each year … What can we give them?’
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t think we can give them a six-pack of Bud.’”
To this day, Jordano and his wife, Gerd, have been providing awards to the Golden Eagle in each sport as well as gold rings to both the Gaucho male and female with the highest grade-point average.
Kasser did make some hard decisions during his tenure at UCSB. He mandated that the student body fund an increased budget of $500,000 for the football team to make its required upgrade to I-AA status. A student referendum went down to a narrow defeat, prompting Kasser to drop the sport after the 1991 season, five years after its revival in 1986.
One UCSB assistant football coach said their program was being treated like “the bastard child of Gaucho athletics.” Head coach Rick Candaele questioned why football couldn’t be funded like every other UCSB sport.
“There never was a willingness to bring football into the athletic program,” he said.
Kasser, a lanky 6-foot-6 in height, had played both baseball and basketball at Inglewood High. He continued on to play basketball at Pepperdine, leading the Waves in rebounding one season with an average of 11.0 per game. But he had a typically self-effacing view of his collegiate career, once insisting that he’d fouled out of nine games during his sophomore year.
“That’s still a record,” he added with a laugh.
He graduated from Pepperdine in 1959 and coached basketball at Downey High from 1960 to 1964. He became the athletic director at Fountain Valley High in 1964 but also helped a young coach by the name of Lute Olson who had just taken over the basketball program at newly opened Marina High.
In his book “Lute! The Seasons of My Life,” the Hall of Fame coach wrote, “As my assistants one season I had John Kasser, who’d learned Hall of Fame coach Henry Iba’s motion offense while playing for Duck Dowell at Pepperdine … I spent hours asking questions, learning from my assistants the drills their great coaches had used.”
Kasser worked as a sales manager for Chevrolet from 1969 to 1978 before returning to athletics as an assistant A.D. at UC Irvine for two years. He spent the next four years at the University of Houston, first as assistant A.D., and then as athletic director during the Cougars’ Phi Slama Jama days as a national basketball power.
His tenure at Long Beach, from 1984 to 1987, was followed by a stint as associate executive director with the College Football Association.
He had returned to the auto industry in 1988 as vice president of MacPherson Enterprises in Orange Country when the siren call of athletics beckoned him again just one year later. He beat out former Illinois A.D. Neale Stoner for the UCSB job to succeed Stan Morrison as the Gauchos’ director of athletics.
Kasser, a devout family man, heeded the advice of his two daughters to get back into sports. Once, while in New York working for the CFA, he flew to Orange County to watch his daughter Sharon play in a high school volleyball match. He then took a red-eye flight back to Miami that night to help coordinate a CBS telecast.
“They like me back in athletics and they know how happy I am in it,” Kasser said of his daughters. “It’s my life.”
Sharon Kasser Stephens, a former volleyball All-American at the University of Pacific, preceded her father in death when she succumbed to cancer in 2012. Kasser is survived by his wife, Carol, and daughter Karen.
“He was a good man,” Mahoney said, “and he was real fun guy to work with.”