BENNER: Unsung sports leader steps down after two decades

May 7, 2010

As the NCAA garnered nationwide attention with the announcement of its new president, Dr. Mark Emmert from the University of Washington, hardly a peep was heard as its next-door neighbor in White River State Park, the National Federation of State High School Associations, bade farewell to its leader a couple of days later.

Not that notoriety—or lack thereof—meant much to Bob Kanaby. Thoughtful, eloquent and totally selfless, his 50-year career in education and athletics has been about those he served, and not himself, reflected in his frequent use of a quote from poet/philosopher Walt Whitman: “Create good people and all else will follow.”

“It’s a pretty simple formula,” Kanaby says. “But nothing better explains our mission and purpose.”

As a reminder, given its relatively low local profile, the federation oversees 50 state high school athletic associations, determining the rules in 16 sports for boys and girls. It also oversees fine arts programs.

Those are the basics. Beyond that, however, the federation in general and Kanaby in particular support and reinforce the message that, especially on the high school level, athletics and the other extracurricular disciplines play a vital role in the development of the country’s youth.

In that regard, Kanaby, the federation’s executive director the past 17 years, has taken the NFHS to a higher calling and a higher level.

The accomplishments are many, not the least of which was rescuing the federation, founded in 1920, from financial ruin shortly after he was hired. Once on solid fiscal ground, he oversaw the NFHS relocation here from Kansas City in 2000.

“It was one of the most important things the federation has ever done because it provided us both growth and stability,” Kanaby said.

Shortly after the move, Kanaby led in the creation of the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance. Think getting the four major pro leagues, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the high school and college associations to agree to work together is difficult? Kanaby did it, and the result is the recognition that sports should be about sportsmanship, as well as sports-woman-ship.

And speaking of the latter, Kanaby also has made certain the federation serves as a major advocate for opportunities for girls in sports via Title IX. Its National Girls and Women in Sports Day is an annual highlight.

Kanaby’s leadership is the sum of his experiences: teacher-coach at his high school alma mater, Saint Anthony, in New Jersey; vice principal and principal at two more high schools; then executive director of the New Jersey High School Athletic Association for 13 years before taking the reins of the national federation. On April 29, Kanaby called his 50 years a day.

“I’ve got a new routine I have to get used to,” he said that afternoon. “It’s going to be the first time in 50 years I don’t have a packed schedule the next day.”

But he’s not going to turn his back entirely on his life’s work.

“I’m going to continue to work with young people, no question about it,” Kanaby said. “I’m thinking about going back to teaching … wherever I can serve.”

The challenges facing high school sports will not ebb. As budgets are squeezed, extracurricular activities are often at the top of the cut list. The concept of “pay-for-play” might not affect affluent neighborhoods, but it can have a devastating result for students in urban school systems.

Despite that, Kanaby said, “we can never lose sight of the mission. We’re not about earning scholarships and teaching three-pointers. We use sports to provide the skills to deal with whatever life puts before you.”

He pointed out that 7.5 million youngsters participate in high school sports. Fewer than 500,000 go on to compete at the college level. And less than 1 percent reaches the professional ranks.

As Kanaby departs, federation leadership shifts to Bob Gardner, the former Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner who has served as the federation’s chief operating officer since 2000.

Civic leader Jim Morris, who helped convince Kanaby to move the federation to Indy, summed it up best.

“Bob Kanaby,” he said, “is a man who has spent every day of his life focused on the well-being of youth.”

Walt Whitman would be proud.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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