STORRS, Conn. (AP) — John Toner, athletic director emeritus who is credited with building the University of Connecticut into a basketball power and hiring its two best-known coaches, has died. He was 91.
UConn announced that Toner died Tuesday morning in Savannah, Georgia, where he had lived in retirement. The university said a private family memorial is being planned.
Toner, who came to UConn as head football coach in 1966, served as athletic director from 1969 to 1987. He retired in 1988 after a year of teaching.
He hired women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma in 1985 and men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun in 1986. Together, the Hall of Famers have won a combined 12 NCAA championships at UConn. Auriemma's women's team won the national title in 2014, as did the UConn men, coached by Kevin Ollie after Calhoun's retirement.
"I owe a debt of gratitude to John that can never be repaid," Auriemma said. "We become friends. I looked up to him and admired him and he'll always have a special place in my heart and in my family's heart. Everyone in the University of Connecticut, in the state of Connecticut and every single person in amateur sports owes him a debt of gratitude."
Auriemma, also coach of the U.S. women's national team, and Calhoun, praised Toner's leadership in getting the NCAA to include women's varsity sports in 1981.
"The growth of women's sports in this country can be directly related to the work that John Toner did to help push forward the Title IX bill," Auriemma said.
Toner had added women's varsity sports at UConn in 1974, and brought the school from the regional Yankee Conference into the wider Big East as a charter member in 1979.
"John Toner's decision to leave his New England neighbors and move Connecticut into the Big East conference changed UConn athletics forever," Calhoun said.
"Personally, John gave me a great start as head basketball coach at Connecticut and through the years he was always available to me for wise counsel and friendship," he said.
Toner was NCAA president from 1983 to 1985. At the end of his term, he said, "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."
At UConn, Toner also directed the planning and funding for Gampel Pavilion, the basketball arena which opened in 1990.
Toner was born in North Dighton, Massachusetts, and grew up on Nantucket. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Boston University, with a four-year break for Army service in World War II. He was BU's starting quarterback in 1947 and 1948 under coach Buff Donelli, who hired him as an assistant after he graduated.
Toner moved to Connecticut in 1955 as head football coach at New Britain High School, and won state titles that year and the next. In 1957, he followed Donelli to Columbia University as an assistant.