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Former AD, Football Coach John Toner Passes Away

John Toner passed away on Tuesday morning.
Sept. 23, 2014

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STORRS, Conn. - Former University of Connecticut Director of Athletics John L. Toner, a major figure regionally and nationally in the world of collegiate athletics for more than five decades, passed away on Tuesday morning at the age of 91 in Savannah, Ga.

Toner came to the UConn in 1966 when he was named head football coach, a position he served in for five seasons until 1970. Toner's teams won Yankee Conference championships in 1967 and 1970 and had a five-year conference record of 17-6-2.

Toner was named Director of Athletics in 1969 and held the dual role as head coach and AD until 1970.

As Director of Athletics, Toner served until he stepped away from the post in June of 1987. He continued with the university as a Professor in the School of Education, Department of Sport and Leisure Studies until his official retirement from university service in 1988. He continued to hold the title of Athletics Director Emeritus.

During his nearly 20 years as UConn's Director of Athletics, Toner was the prime architect in the development of the intercollegiate athletic program. He added women's varsity sports to the intercollegiate offerings at Connecticut in 1974, he steered UConn from its days as a Yankee Conference member into the Big East Conference as a charter member in 1979, he vaulted UConn football into the Division I-AA ranks and he hired women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma (1985) and men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun (1986) and those two coaches would go on to become Hall of Fame head coaches, winning a total of 12 combined NCAA National Championships.

In addition, in his final years as Director of Athletics, Toner personally directed the planning, funding and design for Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, which opened three years after his retirement in January of 1990 and has become one of the country's most famous on-campus arenas.

In addition to his numerous accomplishments at UConn, Toner was one of the most respected and influential figures in the nation on all subject matter related to intercollegiate athletics.

Toner's numerous national activities were highlighted in January of 1983 when he was elected to a two-year term as President of the NCAA. In other NCAA duties, Toner was appointed to the NCAA Council in 1977 and served with that steering group until being elected NCAA Secretary-Treasurer in 1981. He also chaired several NCAA committees, and, after stepping down as NCAA President in 1985, he was Chairman of the NCAA Committee for the Development of a National Drug Testing Policy.

In 1978, a speech by Toner at the NCAA Convention addressing women's athletics was the driving force behind the NCAA adding women's varsity athletics programs under the NCAA banner in 1981.

"All of us have to continue to search and strive for ways we can all help to make the total collegiate athletic experience something to be proud of," said Toner, upon concluding is two-year term as NCAA President. "We've got something very special and very unique in college athletics and all of us need to get involved in the process--because it works."

In other activities during his tenure as UConn's Director of Athletics, Toner served as President of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), the Eastern College Athletic Association (ECAC), and the Eastern Intercollegiate Football Association.

Numerous regional and national level awards were bestowed on Toner including: the "Distinguished American Award" from the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame; the "James Corbett Award" from the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics; a "National Citation" from the National High School Athletic Coaches Association; a prestigious "Gold Key" from the Connecticut Sports' Writers Alliance; and being named an "Honorary Alumnus" by the University of Connecticut. He was also honored by his alma mater Boston University as a Distinguished Alumnus.

In 1997, the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame honored Toner as the first recipient of the "John L. Toner Award", given annually in his name to an athletic director who has demonstrated superior administrative abilities, especially in the area of college football.

At UConn, Toner is the only school administrator inducted into the school's basketball "Huskies of Honor" program that recognizes the all-time key members of the institution's basketball program

Toner made two of the greatest hires in college athletics history within a 12-month span---when he hired Auriemma in the spring of 1985 and Calhoun in the spring of 1986.

In May of 1979, although he would always say many university leaders were involved in the decision, Toner had approximately a 72-hour window to accept an offer from Dave Gavitt, founder of the Big East Conference, to have UConn become a charter member of the Big East Conference.

Toner made the difficult decision to leave his long-time New England neighbors and move from a regional athletics program to a national level athletic program. Some 35 years later, boasting18 NCAA National Championships in four different sports, Toner's vision proved most astute.

Toner was also largely responsible for the introduction of Divisions I-AA, I-AAA, II, III in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Born May 4, 1923 in North Dighton, Mass., he moved to Nantucket, Mass., in his youth. Toner was a graduate of Boston University with an undergraduate degree in 1950 and a master's in '53. He left school for a 42-month tour with the United State Army in the European theatre before returning to BU and was the starting quarterback in 1947 and 1948.

Following graduation from BU, Toner served as an assistant football coach with the Terriers, from 1950 to 1954, under his college coach Buff Donelli.

He came to Connecticut in 1955 as head football coach at New Britain High School and led the program to state championships in both 1955 and 1956.

In 1957, Toner rejoined the college coaching ranks, joining Donelli as an assistant coach at Columbia. He remained in that post until being named the UConn head coach in 1966.

Toner is survived by his wife Claire and their six children: Susan Dagley and husband Tom, Jack Toner and his wife Mindy, Bill Toner and his wife Bev, Sally Collins and her husband Bill, Mike Toner and his wife Glenna Holtby, Richard Toner and wife Aimee, in addition to 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Toner is also survived by two sisters - Betty Cody and Eileen Drummond.

A private family memorial is being planned.