Kenny Klein is used to putting other people in the spotlight. For 39 years at UofL, he’s been the wizard behind the curtain, promoting and elevating UofL’s studentathletes, programs, teams and wins.
His determination to showcase the best in others is what makes him one of the top sports information directors in the business. It also makes it difficult to focus the spotlight on himself.
But when Klein, senior associate athletic director and sports information director for men’s basketball, announced his retirement this spring, he found himself the center of attention as journalists, athletes, coaches, peers and the Cardinal faithful recognized his status as a Louisville legend in his own right.
“I’ve had so many people around the country just reach out and it’s been overwhelming. Completely overwhelming, but very much appreciated. When you work trying to promote others for so long, personal accolades are not something you’re comfortable with or seeking in any way,” he said. “They are nice when they come but, you know, I could walk out of here without a word said from somebody else and be happy and know that things went well during my time here.”
In Klein’s nearly four decades in sports information, “went well” is a bit of an undersell. During his time in athletics, he’s seen Final Fours, national champions, a Heisman trophy winner, Hall of Fame coaches, UofL join the ACC and much, much more. It’s a far cry from when he started in the athletics department in 1983 as a 23-year-old sports information director with one assistant and a student intern.
“Our budget around that time was probably around $2 or $3 million maybe for the whole athletic department. And when our board votes on the budget this year, it’s going to be a record $114 million budget for athletics. So just in sheer numbers that shows you where we are,” he said. “We’ve got 23 sports now that can compete for championships.”
Klein didn’t grow up envisioning athletics would be his path in life. His childhood was spent on a farm just outside Clarksville, Tennessee, where the family raised cattle and hogs and grew tobacco. He played a little bit of basketball in junior high, but he had another passion.
“I was really into science. I was planning on being a doctor,” Klein said. “I liked sports, but I wasn’t a guy that knew every stat of every baseball team or something.”
He started pre-med at Austin Peay State University on an academic scholarship. While there, he worked for the local newspaper part time and for the student newspaper. As writing began to take hold of him, he started working with sports information at the college. By the end of the year, his mentor in sports information moved to Murray State University and urged Klein to follow, selling the school’s good pre-med program.
So Klein went. But by the time he got there, he shifted his career prospects to covering sports, eventually earning a journalism degree from Murray State. After graduation he worked at Morehead State University as the sports information director before then UofL Athletic Director Bill Olsen and Associate Athletic Director Don Russell hired him as the associate sports information director for Louisville. In his career since, Klein has been named to the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and inspired countless people in his field.
Nancy Worley, an associate sports information director whom Klein hired six months into his job, said Klein earned the respect of his peers through relationships built on trust and fairness.
“Respect is a two-way street and he has established that for decades,” she said. “He treats the smallest blog to the biggest national writer with the same respect. He is like the grandparent who secretly tells each of his grandkids that they are the favorite, yet never plays favorites.”
It’s helping people, Klein said, that made him interested in – and kept him in – the business.
“That’s what I view my thing as – I’m trying to help people,” he said. “How can I do that in my role? What can I write? How can I connect these people to national media? How can I make this television announcer’s job better by providing him quality information on our guys that can make the telecast better? That in turn makes it better for our fans to watch. How can I help people? That’s really the way I view my job.”
Kathy Tronzo, a sports information assistant who has been with Klein his entire Cardinal career, saw that urge to help firsthand.
“He was always in the office before 8 a.m. and didn’t leave most days until well after 5 p.m.,” she said. “On game days, he was at the arena or stadium at least five hours before game time and stayed until the last reporter left.”
Most of Klein’s time at UofL has been spent with men’s basketball, and his memories from working with that program are some of his most dear. Asked about some of his favorite players he’s watched through the years, he demurs, though Klein admits he holds a special place for former Cards Lancaster Gordon and Charles Jones, who were the seniors on the first UofL team with which he worked.
“If I start naming names, you’d have 100 names,” he said. “It’s just because there’s so many of them through the years, and it’s not just the All Americans or the starters, it’s the backups, the walk-ons, the others, too,” he said.
One of those special players was Kenny Payne, now UofL’s head men’s basketball coach. When Payne heard Klein was retiring, he had one favor to ask – could Klein stick around? Klein couldn’t help seeing another situation where he could provide an assist. So he agreed. While Klein is retiring from his full-time position, he will stay with the men’s basketball team in a capacity to be determined for Payne’s first year as head coach.
“Whatever I can do to help,” Klein said. “ When you’ve got a first-year staff and all that, I just want to make sure they’re off on the right foot. I’m willing to be around here a little bit longer to do that.”