Gene Budig has been practicing to be a playmaker in the big leagues since his days as a batboy for the McCook Cats.
"I made a dollar a game," Kansas University's chancellor said, reflecting on his childhood on Nebraska's high plains. "I learned a lot about people and developed a love for the game."
On Wednesday, Budig was named president of professional baseball's American League. He starts a job in August that will test his knowledge of a game that is part of America's being.
In the Big Apple, baseball's problems will be as tough to handle as a Nolan Ryan fastball. Management skills honed over a quarter century as a higher education administrator will be challenged. The politics of baseball, like the politics of government, will be a brain teaser fit for a veteran university professor.
On the other hand, for a man with a love for the game that dates back to the St. Louis Browns, the league presidency seems a perfect fit.
As an ambassador for this beloved pastime, it will be Budig's job -- no, his duty -- to attend as many baseball games as possible.
"And from the best seats in the house," said Phyllis Merhige, an AL vice president.
The Budig legacy
Budig said he will conclude the third-longest chancellorship in KU history this summer with a feeling of satisfaction and appreciation.
"Many things have been made better and it has been the highest honor to be associated with the people of KU," he said. "I want to be remembered as one who worked hard for others and who never lost sight of the university's importance to society."
Budig's years in Strong Hall were dotted with relatively few moments of controversy, and those he adroitly handled to depart the university on his own terms.
His only regret, he said, is that he should have raised more private funding for the university, especially in the early 1980s.
Budig, 55, and his wife, Gretchen, and the three children -- Mary Frances, Chris and Kathryn -- cherish their years in the chancellor's mansion, called The Outlook.
"Lawrence will always be special to our family," Budig said. "It is home."
College to clubhouse
Banker Jordan Haines of Wichita was a member of the state Board of Regents when the regents hired Budig in March 1981.
When Budig's selection was announced, Haines offered an assessment of the 41-year-old rookie chancellor: "Not flamboyant, not bombastic, not dynamic in the sense that he might be a spellbinder, but he is a fine educator."
That keen description has stood the test of time.
Budig, with three degrees from the University of Nebraska and experience as president of Illinois State University and West Virginia University, was the regents' unanimous choice from among 180 candidates for chancellor.
"If I thought he was the right man for the job in 1981. ... I feel even more strongly about that today," Haines said.
Two dozen of Budig's colleagues and peers were asked to describe the chancellor's management style.
In their words, Budig is deliberate, precise, poised, succinct, sophisticated, cautious, efficient, shrewd, distinguished, hard-working, dry-witted, organized, honest, detail-oriented and a master of the low profile.
"He probably has a crease in his warmups," joked state Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence.
These characteristics, coupled with a willingness to delegate authority and an ability to avoid entanglement in controversy, will serve Budig well in the AL.
Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, has known Budig for 27 years. He thinks his friend is ready to leave the field of education for the field of dreams.
"Budig is one of the best executives that I have encountered -- and I've known a lot of them," said Magrath, former president of the University of Missouri system. "One, he is focused and always knows the mission of the enterprise. Secondly, he promotes the institution ... not himself."
Magrath said it was amazing Budig remained at KU for 13 years. The average stint for a university CEO is about five years, he said.
"A lot get shot up, banged up. Budig survived. He's off the scale in that sense," Magrath said.
A 1981 KU graduate who hasn't been back to campus since commencement might be shocked at how KU has changed under Budig's tenure. Academic programs came and went. New buildings have altered the landscape. The student population and faculty ranks have mushroomed.
Sure, students still find Mount Oread's steep hills a hiking challenge. Faculty and staff still complain about their salaries. Alumni still demand perfection from Jayhawk athletic teams.
Certain aspects of the university's development can be documented. Here are highlights from Budig's scrapbook:
- In academics, national publications recently placed KU eighth overall among public universities and among the 20 best college educational values. Nationally, 33 of KU's academic programs rank in the top 10.
- A record $700 million has been raised through the KU Endowment Association since 1981.
- He led the fight to stop the financial hemorrhaging at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. KUMC is now one of the Midwest's best-organized teaching hospitals. It also topped revenue projections by $95 million in the Budig years.
- Budig presided over one of the most successful periods in KU athletic history.
Reflecting on those achievements, he said: "Those outside of KU give our programs high marks. So do our graduates. We have taught thousands of students very well. Our research has addressed significant questions and we have done much to advance the state through innovative service programs."
Money to accomplish part of KU's metamorphosis came from Campaign Kansas, an ambitious fund drive that raised $265 million from 1988 to 1993. The original campaign goal was $150 million.
What Budig doesn't tell many people is that one of the most difficult tasks he had at KU was was learning to enjoy asking wealthy people for money.
Jim Martin, president of the KU Endowment Association, said Budig grew into his role as fund-raiser.
"He worked tirelessly," Martin said. "The chancellor succeeded in getting about 10 years of work crammed into five years of Campaign Kansas."
The campaign will have a positive influence on faculty and students for decades, said Richard DeGeorge, university distinguished professor of philosophy.
For example, the drive helped double the number of endowed professorships and increase support for scholarships and fellowships by 80 percent.
"That helps us attract notable scholars, which we might not get otherwise. Outstanding faculty allow us to get better students," DeGeorge said.
KUEA elicited the largest donation in KU history at the start of the drive, a $10 million gift from Lied Foundation trustee Christina Hixson that enabled construction of the Lied Center, a showcase for the performing arts.
By the end of Campaign Kansas, 48 gifts of $1 million or more were in hand. Another 43 donations ranged between $500,000 and $1 million.
"That campaign positioned the university well for the future, but much remains to be done," Budig said. "The campaign showed the way."
Indeed, groundwork for the next fund-raiser is being laid.
Ed Meyen, KU's executive vice chancellor, recalls Budig's inaugural speech. In that talk, Budig pledged to make KU one of the top 10 public universities in the nation.
"He's carried through and positioned the university as a strong academic institution," Meyen said. "You can always say we might have done this or that, but if you look at the history, when there were opportunities to make gains, we made gains."
And, in the eyes of library dean William Crowe, the chancellor was there in times of disaster. When the average cost of a scholarly journal subscription increased 20 percent in 1991, Budig came up with money to bolster the library's purchasing power.
"It's a cliche, but you can't have a great university without a great library," Crowe said. "He has kept this library in the first rank, which is no small achievement these days."
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Deanell Tacha, who was a vice chancellor for academic affairs under Budig in the mid-1980s, said the chancellor's emphasis on academic excellence came at the right time.
When spending cuts were mandated by the Legislature, Budig ordered funding cut from facility and service budgets before harming the academic budget.
"That was an incredible statement of his values," Tacha said.
Del Brinkman, another former KU vice chancellor for academic affairs, said Budig wisely left fine-tuning of academic programs to the faculty.
"He did not meddle or interfere ... in the way it happens on some campuses," Brinkman said.
Still, Budig made the decision to seek the dismissal of two tenured KU faculty members. Both professors -- Dorothy Willner in anthropology and Emil Tonkovich in law -- were eventually fired.
Defenders of Willner and Tonkovich charge Budig permanently weakened tenure rights for KU faculty. Supporters of the chancellor's decision argue the opposite.
"Tenure is strengthened when complaints are acted upon, found to be justified and action taken," Brinkman said.
Ann Weick, dean of social welfare, appreciated Budig's demand that KU faculty seek more research funding. KU now receives $90 million annually for research projects.
"Chancellor Budig has a very strong commitment to enhancing KU's reputation as a major research university," Weick said.
Making the grade
An assortment of KU faculty and staff, including those critical of him in the past, were asked to assess Budig's KU career.
Don Marquis, professor of philosophy, said it was hard to appraise Budig's legacy because the chancellor did so much delegating.
"I guess Gene Budig has done a good job given the constraints," Marquis said.
Government professor Alan Cigler said separating the chancellor's accomplishments from institutional achievements was difficult.
"My guess is we blame the chancellor too much when things go wrong," he said. "When things go right, we give him too much credit."
However, Cigler was impressed with Budig's support for faculty. Budig fostered the endowment of Chancellors Club teaching professorships to honor exceptional classroom instruction.
"These both reward faculty members (who are) doing a good job and are a cue to the external audience that teaching is important at the university," Cigler said.
Sandy Wick, assistant director of the college honors program, said the university hadn't done enough to tell the KU story to Kansans under Budig's leadership.
"If you have a study, a public policy report or some pharmacy research, what are the benefits for Joe and Jane Doe in western Kansas?" Wick said. "KU must do a better job of reaching out to ordinary Kansans."
Joe Collins, a Museum of Natural History staff member, was in the classified employee ranks for many years. These folks often felt frustrated by the lack of support from previous chancellors, he said.
Under Budig, he said, collegiality on campus improved.
"He very much wanted everyone involved and looked at everyone on campus as his colleague. That was refreshing," Collins said.
Budig kept a promise he made when hired to meet regularly with faculty, staff and students. He did so Monday mornings.
Although the chancellor made an effort to be accessible, some faculty don't think he was able to connect.
"You never were 100 percent certain there was a real person there," said Betty Banks, associate professor of classics. "The chancellor, as a person, was closed to personal contact. There was a real dimension missing from his leadership."
Brinkman said Budig's public persona obscured another side to the man's personality.
"When you're in the trenches working day to day on something ... you do see a person who has a tremendous sense of humor," he said.
Burdett Loomis, KU professor of political science, said the chancellor was a shrewd operative when it came to toiling with governors, state legislators and other political types.
"He's a sophisticated player. I don't think he has ever put all his eggs in one basket," Loomis said.
Loomis said Budig will enter a league where professionals with large egos play political hardball.
"Some might say (state Sen.) Gus Bogina is tough, but I'm not sure he's in the same class with George Steinbrenner," he said.
Wint Winter Jr. of Lawrence, who served for 10 years in the state Senate during Budig's tenure, gave the chancellor high marks for coordinating the lobbying work of KU faculty, staff, students and alumni. Budig's performance obviously wasn't perfect, Winter said.
"Using a baseball analogy, his batting average was very good."
He said some legislators initially questioned why Budig didn't spend much time in hallways or smoke-filled rooms in the Capitol.
"I realized that was not a weakness of his. That was his style. I couldn't have asked for more from him in doing my job on behalf of the university," Winter said.
Stan Koplik, former executive director of the state Board of Regents, said the chancellor's legislative strategy was one of "enduring effectiveness."
"I've seen a lot of presidents with sparkling agendas," he said. "They turned out to be a flash in the pan. They don't have a capacity for genuine leadership from the soul."
"Gene was different," he added. "He had a determination for effectiveness. Slow and steady wins the race."
During a quick drive through campus it's easy to see how KU has evolved.
A campus visitor starting a tour on Jayhawk Boulevard can zip past the renovated Kansas Union and the refurbished Snow Hall. Of course, Hoch Auditorium is gone, but about $20 million has been secured to rebuild the central campus landmark.
Down on Sunnyside Avenue is the new Dole Human Development Center. Nearby are Anschutz Science Library and the addition to Malott Hall.
The Anschutz Sports Complex on Irving Hill Road has been expanded. A parking garage sits north of Allen Fieldhouse.
University Press has a new office on 15th Street. It's west of the Lied Center, which soon will be joined by a recital hall.
"The most notable addition to campus has been the magnificent Lied Center," Budig said. "It is one of the finest concert halls in the country."
In all, more than $425 million was spent on building improvements during Budig's chancellorship.
In intercollegiate athletics, the Budig years were marked by some of the Jayhawks' finest moments. There were also problems.
There was an NCAA national championship in men's basketball, the football team won a bowl game and the baseball team made it to the College World Series.
Meanwhile, the football program was hit with probation in 1983 and the men's basketball program was placed on probation in 1988.
John Stauffer, chairman of the KU Alumni Association's board of directors, said Budig, as CEO of the university, had to shoulder the ultimate responsibility for blemishes on KU's athletic image.
"As CEO of the university, yes, as anyone would (be) in that position," he said.
Winter said whatever the problems at KU, fingers shouldn't be pointed at Budig.
"It's so hard in big-time college athletics, a monster unto itself, for any chancellor or president to know all the details," said Winter, who played football for the Jayhawks. "They've just got to make sure the whole tone of integrity is spread through the system."
The university's student-athletes have excelled in the classroom as well as in competition in recent years, Meyen said.
"Just look at the quality of student recruited, the level of competition, the facilities. When you look at the whole program, the right things have happened," he said.
Budig said the three most prominent KU athletic department leaders -- Athletic Director Bob Frederick, basketball Coach Roy Williams and football Coach Glen Mason -- have brought honor on the university.
He also said intercollegiate athletic programs nationwide should be held to higher standards.
"We can expect stiffer academic standards despite criticism from angry coaches," Budig said. "More alumni may become concerned about the state of athletics; those who do will, most often, side with coaches. The situation for presidents will be uncomfortable."
Baseball to the core
Budig's predecessor in the president's office, Dr. Bobby Brown, is a former New York Yankees third baseman. He was in the pros from 1946 to 1954. He played in four World Series, and his .439 average in the series ranks first all time.
Budig tried to play the game, and has a finger to prove it. Displaying his index fingers side-by-side, the left one is decidedly bent in comparison to the right.
"Foul tip," Budig said with pride.
He tried his hand at writing about baseball, working as a reporter for newspapers in Lincoln, Neb. For a time, his beat was McCook's minor league baseball team.
After becoming chancellor at KU, he played second base for a recreational fastpitch softball league. His number was 00.
"Hitting the ball is not my problem," he said at the time. "Getting to first base is another story."
Diminishing athletic skills over the years didn't reduce Budig's appreciation for baseball's greatest competitors.
He's assembled an astounding collection of autographed baseballs. The pile includes Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Bob Feller, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays.
Budig has been a loyal fan of KU Jayhawk and Kansas City Royals baseball.
Floyd Temple, KU's longtime baseball coach, found out in 1982 how much Budig liked baseball.
Just six months after taking office, Budig became the first chancellor to toss out a ceremonial first pitch before a KU baseball game.
"In my 28 years," Temple said then, "there may have been a chancellor in the stands, but I never saw one."
Budig also became a regular at Kauffman Stadium during the past decade.
His friendship with and the respect he enjoyed from the late Ewing Kauffman, founder of the Royals, culminated in his appointment to the team's board of directors in 1993.
1994 and beyond
Budig said KU has a solid academic reputation upon which to build.
"The real challenge will be to keep it, and that requires increased state and private support," he said.
Meyen, the No. 2 administrator on campus, said Budig's habit of delegating authority will benefit KU during the transition to a new chancellor.
"I think the chancellor was always very effective in creating a team approach, delegating responsibility. I think we're prepared to move ahead," he said.
Steve Jordan, executive director of the Board of Regents, which is responsible for hiring Budig's successor, said KU's 15th chancellor won't be known for at least six months. It might be a year before the person is on the job.
"KU's national standing will attract a parade of qualified candidates for chancellor," Budig said.
He said KU chancellors should be ultimately judged by the people they appoint to key positions.
"KU has never had stronger leaders than it does today," he said. "Their impact on the future will be profound. KU is in very good hands."