UConn lost a very important figure today when former Athletic Director John Toner died at the age of 91.
One can make the case that everything UConn has become, both as an athletic department and, to a certain extent, a university as a whole, is owed in large part to Toner. In making a list of the most important decisions in the history of UConn, hiring Jim Calhoun, hiring Geno Auriemma, and joining the upstart Big East Conference would all be in the top five. They were all conceived by Toner.
As the story goes, when Dave Gavitt, former Providence College basketball head coach and the brains behind the Big East, began sending out invites to East Coast schools, he gave Toner three days to make a decision. UConn was a member of the Yankee Conference at the time, and there was no guarantee that the Big East would amount to anything other than an ill-conceived dream.
Whether he was a genius with superhuman foresight or just a ballsy gambler willing to take a risk, Toner decided to accept the invitation and, in 1979, UConn became one of the original members of what would become arguably the greatest college basketball conference in history.
He also hired two relatively obscure young basketball coaches to head up the athletic department's men's and women's programs, bringing in Geno Auriemma in 1985 and Jim Calhoun in 1986. Auriemma had been an assistant at Virginia and Calhoun the head man at Northeastern. Neither one was exactly a can't-miss coaching prospect.
Toner was also in charge of the athletic program when the plans for Gampel Pavillion were finalized and ground was broken.
Whenever UConn's success in discussed, conversation is rightfully focused on the program-building legacies of both Calhoun and Auriemma. That's the way it should be. Those two built something out of virtually nothing and UConn's standing in college athletics today can be traced to their success.
But all of it began with the vision and, quite frankly, the guts of Toner. It's not even worth imagining what UConn would look like today if Toner hadn't decided to take Gavitt up on his offer. It's not just the athletic department's history that would have been altered, but the direction of the school and the landscape of college basketball itself. UConn's academic excellence has risen with the athletic department's success. The school's wins on the court have translated to wins in the classroom as well.
John Toner deserves a lot of credit for that. He deserves our thanks and our never-ending respect for playing such a huge role in where the University is today.
R.I.P. John Toner.