‘Calm amongst the storm’: Remembering John Kasser’s legacy, impact on Cal Athletics

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Imagine being transported back to 1983 and watching the Phi Slama Jama Cougars, the University of Houston’s renowned men’s basketball team, have their 26-game winning streak snapped in the NCAA finals by a dunk from North Carolina State forward Lorenzo Charles that decided the unexpected 54-52 victory for the Wolfpack.

The suspense in the stadium must have been palpable, with fans screaming cheers, Houston coach Guy Lewis holding his breath and future Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon watching in dismay as their team suddenly toppled from its No. 1 ranking.

In the midst of all the chaos was Houston’s athletic director, John Kasser, sitting in the stands, calm and stoic with a reserved expression on his face.

“As an athletic director, he never reacted during a game. He never showed any emotion. He wouldn’t cheer, he wouldn’t clap, he’d just sit and watch the game,” said Carol Kasser, wife of the late John Kasser. “He didn’t comment on it because he felt people were watching him and it was best not to influence either way what was going on on the court.”

As the Cal athletic director from 1993 to 2000, Kasser was conscious of the weight of his influence on others. He died April 30 at the age of 82, but spent his whole life competing and working in college athletics and was constantly thinking about how to improve the program he was working for.

Kasser’s long career in sports started with his time spent playing basketball and baseball for Pepperdine University. After graduating, he became a high school teacher and basketball coach.

He took a brief interlude from working in sports to sell Chevrolet cars, like his father had before him, and honed his marketing skills, which would serve him well in his future athletic directing career.

“John was a born salesman. If he loved something, if he was passionate about something, he sold it,” Carol Kasser said.

His introduction to athletic directing began in 1977, when he was hired as an assistant athletic director at UC Irvine. From there, he worked at four more college campuses, ending his stretch of athletic directing with UC Berkeley.

“His natural salesmanship, understanding of athletics, his organizational skills, his creativity worked to make (athletic directing) a perfect job for him,” Carol Kasser said.

Kasser was only at Cal from 1993 to 2004, but he had a far more lasting impact than 11 years’ worth. He hired 14 head coaches, including Steve Mariucci, who went on to coach the San Francisco 49ers, and Ben Braun, who won the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award while with the Bears.

Robert Driscoll, the athletic director at Providence College, previously worked at Cal for more than 14 years in athletic administration. He vividly remembers when he and Kasser convinced Mariucci, who was the quarterback coach for the Green Bay Packers at the time, to return to UC Berkeley, where he had served as receivers coach and offensive coordinator years prior, as head coach.

“We had a relationship with a great donor who let us use his plane, and we flew into Green Bay in the middle of the night. It was snowing and we didn’t think we’d be able to land,” Driscoll said. “John and I were sitting up in the co-pilots spot, and I was a nervous wreck thinking we weren’t going to make it. Meanwhile, John had all the confidence in the world, thinking it was no big deal.”

The plane did land, and Kasser and Driscoll were able to convince Mariucci to return to Cal. Driscoll remembers Kasser as the “calm amongst the storm” on that and many other restless occasions.

Alongside some impressive hires, Kasser fundraised more than $100 million for Cal athletic programs and oversaw the renovation of Harmon Gym into what is now the much larger Haas Pavilion.

“It’s light-years from what it was back in the day,” said Chris Dawson, a former associate athletic director for Cal and retired Pac-12 commissioner.

Fundraising and organizing were some of the things Kasser did best, and the renovation of Haas Pavilion was a huge project that required both of those skills. His relationship with the Haas family — Walter Haas Jr. donated $11 million to the project — and the momentum of the Cal men’s basketball team at the time were also crucial to breaking ground on the restoration.

While Kasser was at Cal, Carol Kasser worked for the school as a writer for the development office. She remembers how her husband’s dedication to the job meant his work was never truly over, even when he left the office at the end of a long day.

“I would go into work and take a change of clothes because I knew I would have to do something having to do with athletics after, either a game or an event or something,” Carol Kasser said. “I sometimes had to leave in the middle of the day, but most of the time, after work. One year, John and I counted, and we did over 200 events in a year — raising money, selling the program.”

Fundraising and hiring aside, arguably one of the most noteworthy things Kasser did while at Cal was oversee the addition of three women’s sports teams to the athletic department: women’s golf, women’s lacrosse and women’s water polo.

“John was definitely an advocate for women in sports,” Dawson said. “I think it came from the fact that he had two daughters and he had a wonderful wife, and I think their influence helped.”

Kasser’s daughters, Karen Kasser and Sharon Kasser Stephens, were both passionate about sports like their dad. Kasser Stephens was an All-American volleyball player at University of the Pacific, but died from cancer in 2012.

“They called him the women’s athletic director. He was very much attune to women’s sports. He also felt it was the fair and the right thing to do,” Carol Kasser said.

Kasser concluded his fruitful career by working for the Pac-10 as chair of a committee developing men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as serving as the executive director of Pac-10 Properties.

To Kasser, being an athletic director was always more than a 9-to-5 job — it was his passion and source of connection to his community. He was a college athlete who never stopped being involved in college athletics, fostering growth and a successful work environment everywhere he went.

He was devoted to equality and fairness in women’s and men’s sports alike, and he used his natural talent for sales to fundraise hundreds of millions of dollars over his lengthy career.

But most importantly, his love of sports was something he shared with his family. From analyzing basketball games with his two daughters to supporting his younger daughter’s collegiate volleyball career, sports brought the family closer and expanded its horizons.

Kasser’s career took him and his wife all around the world. They traveled for away games, went on frequent trips with alumni donors to fundraise and even visited Japan twice during his time as Houston’s athletic director.

Carol Kasser views her time with her husband as a great adventure, one that certainly wouldn’t have been the same without his involvement in collegiate sports.

“John and I were married for almost 60 years, but have been together for longer than that. It was an incredible life. We were able to do so many interesting things, meet so many wonderful people,” Carol Kasser said. After a pause, she added: “It was a wonderful, wonderful life.”

In the words of Driscoll, Kasser “was the right person at the right time for Cal.” And his time at Cal made a lasting difference — Kasser continued to shape the world of college sports throughout his whole career, and Cal athletic programs are better off because of it.

Mia Horne is the deputy sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].