By John Grennan
First Full-time AD McKillip Spearheaded Sports Renaissance
If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep after World War II and awoke today, he’d assume Saint Mary’s was always a sports-savvy school.
After all, the Galloping Gaels of the 1930s and early 40s were a football powerhouse, challenging USC and Cal for West Coast gridiron supremacy and winning the 1939 Cotton Bowl. And now, the College has 14 Division I teams, including a men’s basketball squad with recent victories over ranked teams.
But like Rip Van Winkle, Saint Mary’s athletics slumbered for decades.
By the late 1960s, the Gaels were easy prey for rivals USF and Santa Clara. That is, until Don “Doc” McKillip remedied the situation.
“What McKillip inherited at Saint Mary’s in fall 1970 was a weak interscholastic program,” recalls former president Brother Mel Anderson, who hired McKillip as the College’s first full-time athletic director.
McKillip had a strong record of turning out winning teams and quality student-athletes in Nebraska and Colorado from high school through the NCAA Division II level. He and his wife, Eunice, were initially wary of moving to California, but the professional challenge was irresistible.
“I was eager to move to a college that was Division I in all sports,” McKillip recalls.
The recipient of a doctorate in education (and thus the nickname “Doc”) from the University of Utah, McKillip was not only the AD but also started the College’s Health and Physical Education Department, forerunner of today’s Department of Kinesiology. He taught in the program until 1998.
McKillip brought the same attention to fundamentals that he showed as a coach to his job as the College’s top athletics administrator.
“I quickly realized that there are two big things to being an athletic director — the schedule and the budget,” explains McKillip.
The schedule required some juggling during McKillip’s tenure, with the WCC welcoming Gonzaga, San Diego and Portland as Nevada-Reno and UNLV left the conference in the 70s.
As for the budget, McKillip raised money through summer youth sports camps and cultivated relationships with alumni and boosters. He helped raise the College’s annual athletic budget from $78,000 in 1970 to more than $2.5 million in 1990.
“When I arrived, Madigan Gym was the only facility on campus,” McKillip says. He and Brother Mel courted donors for such venues as Saint Mary’s Stadium in 1973 and McKeon Pavilion in 1978.
The Athletic Department changed dramatically in 1972, when the NCAA passed Title IX stipulating equal funding for male and female athletes. McKillip expresses pride in the school’s first women athletes.
“There were five or six of them that did a magnificent job in the early days,” he says.
When McKillip stepped down as AD in 1989, women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball were all playoff-caliber teams. The College inducted him into its Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997.
Don and his wife, who live in Brentwood, are still among the Gaels’ most avid fans.
“We’d go to every game if we could,” Eunice says.