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McQuilkin moves up

When he’s hiring a coach and checking out references, Whitworth athletic director Scott McQuilkin has what he calls “the 20-minute wall test.”

At Pirates basketball games, McQuilkin will normally position himself under the clock along the southwest wall of the fieldhouse, where he’s “open for business.” Maybe someone from the campus or community will need his ear; maybe a coach from another sport has a problem.

So after confirming an applicant’s coaching bona fides, McQuilkin asks the reference, “If I see this person coming up to me and I know I’m going to be sharing a wall for the next 20 minutes, am I going to enjoy it?”

Not a bad tip for the search committee tasked with finding McQuilkin’s replacement.

Get a guy who shares good wall.

Yes, the other cleat dropped Thursday at Whitworth University. It didn’t carry the aftershocks of school president Bill Robinson’s announcement a few days ago that this would be his last year on campus, except perhaps in Graves Gym and Westminster Hall and the fieldhouse – or any of the fields where the Pirates have become the most successful broad-based small college athletic program in the Northwest.

After 15 years as A.D., McQuilkin is answering Robinson’s call to become Whitworth’s acting vice president of institutional advancement, the point person for fundraising for capital projects like a planned science building. It’s an appointment with a built-in do-over: If either Robinson’s successor or McQuilkin isn’t comfortable with the fit, he can go back to being the public address announcer at track meets – one of the many duties not spelled out in an NCAA Division III athletic director’s job description, but which fall to him anyway.

But it’s likely permanent, and in its own way as unsettling a change at Whitworth as Robinson’s leave-taking.

Certainly, at least, for McQuilkin himself.

“Outside of the three years I spent at Penn State (where he took his doctorate), I’ve been on this side of campus for 29 years,” he said. “I courted my wife here, I played baseball, coached, taught. My kids have grown up on the sidelines of Whitworth athletic events. My office has always overlooked our fields – and we have nice fields, and I’ve had a great view. So there’s some risk in moving away from that.”

For the department, too, where the stability has replaced the relative chaos of two decades ago.

Previous to McQuilkin’s appointment in 1995, there had been 10 athletic directors in the previous 26 years. In 1985, at the age of 22, McQuilkin was named interim baseball coach … under an interim A.D. … working alongside interim coaches in men’s basketball and volleyball.

Now, the average head coach’s stay is 12 years, but McQuilkin didn’t bring them in only because they passed the wall test. All but one coach with a tenure more than a year has won a Northwest Conference championship, and the school has won the last two NWC all-sports trophies. Despite some of Division III’s mystifying selection decisions, the Pirates are starting to be a postseason player, as well.

“Our coaches,” McQuilkin said, “feel valued. That’s not true everywhere, even at this level.”

And the school has given its athletes places to excel. A softball/soccer complex and a tennis bubble went up on McQuilkin’s watch. Arnie Tyler, who goes into Whitworth’s hall of fame this month, somehow coached 25 All-Americans when the Pine Bowl “track” was an impassable weed patch; now the Pirates have a beautiful all-weather oval and were third in the nation last year.

Somewhere along the line – and Robinson’s arrival cemented it – the school finally realized athletics enhanced both enrollment and campus life, and could further the educational mission. Carrying out that mission has been McQuilkin’s grail.

“There are higher values than winning,” McQuilkin said, “but we’ve been very clear that we want to hang championship banners. There is a notion out there that if you’re great in athletics somehow you may have compromised yourself intellectually and I flat out don’t subscribe to that.”

Nonetheless, he enjoys a healthy perspective as necessary at Whitworth as a good pre-meal blessing. As much as he enjoys the banners, he admires how often his coaches are invited to their athletes’ weddings. And he’ll caution his eventual successor – the Pirates will appoint an acting A.D. soon – that he will wear many hats.

“This is how it is in Division III: If a 2-year-old throws up in the bleachers, I’m the guy with the towel,” he laughed. “There’s no way you’ll ever get a sense of self-importance.

“It’s a small shop. And that’s a good thing.”

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