Wayne Duke once told me that as the teams were about to take the floor for the 1963 NCAA championship game at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., everything was in place except for one small detail.
The officials looked at Duke, in charge of running the tournament then and signaled to him, “Where’s the ball?”
Indeed the game ball had been left in a back room. Duke hustled to retrieve it, and the game started on time.
Duke tackled issues many times greater than a missing basketball. But the conclusion was often the same. Whether it was in his role as the first employee hired by the NCAA in Kansas City or as commissioner of the Big Eight during some of its most successful years, Duke found solutions.
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The veteran administrator who helped shape Kansas City as a college sports town died this week. He was 88.
The NCAA opened its national office in Kansas City in 1952 at 11th and Baltimore, above a saloon, without air conditioning. Fumes from city buses would fill the open-window rooms.
NCAA executive director Walter Byers put Duke in charge of the NCAA basketball tournament, which sharpened his administrative skills. In 1963, at age 34, Duke was named commissioner of the Kansas City-based Big Eight, and that football season Duke was confronted with a difficult decision.
President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, a Friday. Most college football games scheduled for the next day were postponed. Oklahoma was visiting Nebraska that weekend for the Big Eight title.
That night, Duke and Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson, called Bobby Kennedy and received his blessing to play. “He said the country needed a pick up,” Duke told The Star in 2013. “We were criticized by some.”
Eighteen years later, Duke would be in a position to make a similar call. North Carolina and Indiana were prepared to play in the 1981 NCAA basketball championship game. But early in the day, President Reagan was shot.
The Oscars, scheduled to be presented that night, were postponed. Duke was the commissioner of the Big Ten and was serving in his final year as chairman of the basketball committee. Once again, the sports world awaited his decision.
He remained in contact with the hospital, and when Reagan’s wounds were no longer considered life-threatening, the decision was made to play the game.
Duke was on one side of one of the great divides in college sports. When the Supreme Court in 1984 ended the NCAA’s control of televised college football, Duke was concerned. For the first time, the formation of conferences wasn’t about collegiality where schools in a geographic area shared similar academic missions. It was about marketing football games for television.
“I worked with Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Bob Knight, some of the strongest personalities in college sports and we had our differences,” Duke said. “But they believed in equal partners.”
But NCAA Tournament growth is Duke’s strongest legacy. While he ran the event for the NCAA and served on the basketball committee, the tournament changed in many ways. Under his watch, the event started to allow at-large teams, seeded them, televised all the games, allowed more than one team per conference on the bracket, started using three-man officiating crews, developed the RPI, went to domes, and was part of the TV bidding that today is worth billions of dollars.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who succeeded Duke there, recalled one of college sports great agents of change.
“Wayne was a giant in the world of college athletics administration during times of great change,” Delany said. “He was a champion of the student, and was responsible for many of the academic, athletic and social initiatives that our students today benefit from.”
Many of those ideals were shaped in Kansas City.