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Archive for Saturday, April 12, 2003

Athletic director’s departure ends unpleasant chapter at KU

April 12, 2003

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Kansas University is a class institution in that the vast majority of its students, faculty members, administrators, alumni and friends try their best to behave and conduct their affairs in a manner that reflects credit on the school. They are proud of their university and they don't want to do anything that tarnishes its image.

From time to time, there are events and situations that do not portray KU in the best possible light but, overall, the record is good, one that most other universities would like to emulate.

This is why the unpleasantness surrounding the Al Bohl situation has been so distasteful to many people closely identified with the university. A great deal has been written about the controversial KU athletic director, but the fact is, the firm KU hired to recommend possible athletic directors for the school didn't do a good job. In fact, Heidrick and Struggles did a lousy job, and any school considering hiring this company to screen and recommend coaches or athletic directors should check with KU officials before signing a contract. Likewise, the KU group selected to review the credentials of those recommended by Heidrick and Struggles did a poor, sloppy job.

Even after questions arose about Bohl's record at Fresno State University and whether KU had hired the right person, some of those in leadership positions on the KU selection committee continued to defend their selection and accused the news media of being unfair in their questioning of Bohl's qualifications.

The truth is, Bohl was a poor choice. He may have many fine qualities, but he was not the man to head the KU athletic department. This was clear almost from the time he arrived in Lawrence. One person well respected throughout the collegiate athletic world told this reporter at the time, "You have no idea how shocked those in the athletic director fraternity are with the selection of Al Bohl. He is not the type of person KU should have, and it won't take long for you and others to realize the mistake you have made."

Wrong signals

The trouble is that those who gave instructions to Heidrick and Struggles and members of the KU search committee may have given the wrong signals. Former AD Bob Frederick was well known and respected by athletic directors throughout the country. He ran a clean program and is an honest, decent individual. He is a good person who conducted himself in a top-flight manner, always reflecting credit on the university.

His one weakness, which angered a number of influential alumni, friends and donors, was that he did not possess an effervescent personality. He was slow, very slow, to answer phone calls and write letters of acknowledgment or appreciation to those who had been generous in their financial support, and the department was in serious financial trouble. The football program was near, or at, the bottom of the league with far too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium. Football receipts pay the bills for a majority of intercollegiate athletic programs.

As a result, the school wanted someone with a strong, outgoing personality who could build a winning football program, which, in turn, would help pay the bills for the athletic department. What it got was Al Bohl, who at that time was the AD at Fresno State, which had a good football team.

Bohl got off on the wrong foot from the time he arrived in Lawrence. His enthusiasm and cheerleading demeanor soon wore thin, and he never got into step.

He didn't take charge in Allen Fieldhouse, he delegated to others tasks he should have done himself, and he did not have a good, direct line of communication with basketball coach Roy Williams or football coach Mark Mangino. These coaches reported to associate AD Richard Konzem, not to Bohl, and when Bohl decided to fire football coach Terry Allen, he sent Konzem to deliver the message to Allen.

Bohl lost control and leadership over fieldhouse personnel along with their respect. Insiders termed the situation as a "shambles."

John Hadl is the primary money-raiser for the Williams Fund and conditions became so bad that alumni and contributors let Hadl know they would not attend gatherings to talk about KU athletics or contributions to the program if Bohl would be present.

This negative environment continued to spread and although Bohl, in his angry news conference, tried to blame his firing on Williams, the fact is, football coach Mangino was just as concerned, actually angry, about Bohl's manner and lack of leadership, as was Williams. Mangino has been extremely upset with Bohl because Bohl had made many promises or commitments to Mangino when he was trying to lure him to KU.

Bohl made numerous phone calls and visited in person with Mangino, who then was an assistant coach at Oklahoma and a former Kansas State assistant. In the course of these conversations, he painted a picture that was quite different from what Mangino experienced when he made the move to Lawrence to try to build a winning football program.

Questions multiply

As the situation heated up, Chancellor Robert Hemenway told Bohl on a number of occasions to stay away from Williams, that Williams ran a top-flight, clean and highly successful program and Bohl shouldn't meddle. Nevertheless, the relationship between Bohl and Williams continued to sour, as did the relationship between Bohl and Mangino.

Questions started to multiply. Does Hemenway know how serious the problem is? What is he going to do? Does he realize he may lose Roy Williams if he doesn't do something? And on and on. Some of the most severe critics didn't hold back their anger and frustration. "If we lose Williams," they said, "Hemenway better start looking for another job." Others questioned whether Bohl was oblivious to the situation.

There's no question that Hemenway was well aware of Bohl's shortcomings and the growing animosity within the fieldhouse. Just when the chancellor became sufficiently concerned to start thinking about taking action is unclear, but, from the outset, he made it clear he would not allow anything to happen that might cause Williams to look elsewhere. He told many close to the university he intended to keep Williams, whom he called "the country's best basketball coach."

Making the change

When the chancellor decided a change had to be made, he said he thought it best that it be done in a way that wouldn't cause unnecessary distractions from the basketball team's effort to win the conference title and to advance in the NCAA postseason tournament. This was sound reasoning, but, as in so many cases, hindsight suggests other avenues might have been better. No one knows what the outcome might have been -- it's all second-guessing and armchair quarterbacking -- if Hemenway had sacked Bohl three or four months ago. Would it have affected the basketball team? Who knows? At least any storm of dissent would have settled by tournament time.

Hemenway's plan made sense, but in the past month or so, the question of Bohl's tenure, how it might color Williams' thinking about staying at KU, whether he might consider a move to UCLA, North Carolina or some other school, all intensified.

Hemenway was catching a lot of static, but he wanted to handle the matter in a way that reflected credit on the university. He did not want to do anything that might jeopardize Williams' feeling toward KU, but he wanted to wait until the end of the season. His intentions were right, but whether he should have acted sooner is up for debate.

Bitter end

Hemenway did everything he could to convince Bohl to resign rather than be fired. He offered very attractive incentives if Bohl would resign and noted it would be far better for Bohl's resume if he resigned rather than being fired.

Bohl was obstinate. He refused to resign and ended up holding his own news conference where he vented his anger and viciously attacked Williams. Bohl's behavior and actions presented a sad scene and did nothing to enhance his image or respect. It was obvious he had been holding his bitterness inside as long as he could, and it finally got the best of him.

With his questionable performance at Fresno State and the manner in which he ended his association with KU, many suggest he has severely damaged his chances of landing another top-flight athletic director position.

Some question Hemenway's level of interest or involvement in the school's athletic program. He wants winning teams and he wants to win by following the rules. There is no question about this. He knows a successful sports program can pay many dividends for a university. Having noted this, it is fair to suggest he may have separated himself too much from the athletic situation, placing too much faith and confidence in others doing their jobs in the right manner.

For instance, he may have placed too much confidence in the athletic director selection committee's choice. It would have been far better if he had told committee members he didn't think any of the candidates were suitable for the KU job and to start over in their selection process. This is what he did when he first arrived at KU and was given the names of several candidates to become the executive vice chancellor at the KU Medical Center. He said none was acceptable and told the selection committee to start over. This is how he landed Don Hagen, the former Navy surgeon general, for the critically important medical center position.

Again, hindsight is great, but it would have been so much better, for everyone involved, if Bohl, along with the two other finalists had been dropped and a new search initiated.

Looking ahead

All this is water over the dam. KU now is looking for a new athletic director. University students, faculty members, administrators, alumni and fans hope Williams will be coaching in Allen Fieldhouse next November. Hemenway is likely to pay much more attention to the selection of the next athletic director rather than leaving it in the hands of a far-too-careless campus selection committee. Drue Jennings will do an excellent job as the interim director. If Williams should leave, it will not be the end of the world, and KU will attract an able top-flight individual to head the basketball program and maintain its position of league and national prominence.

Nevertheless, most Jayhawk fans are hoping Williams will announce his intention to remain at KU and continue his superb coaching, his positive influence on his players and his reflection of credit on the university by his own personal behavior and standards.

The university is sure to continue to operate in a manner that merits high respect from students, faculty members and the residents of Kansas, stressing academic excellence. This is what a university is all about. As coach, Williams has played an integral part for the past 15 years in developing this positive and justified image.

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