Year of change for Jayhawks

Self, Perkins replaced Williams, Bohl during tumultuous times

Little did we know a year ago. Little did we realize as 2002 ticked inexorably away that 2003 would be the most iconoclastic year in the history of Kansas University athletics.

Back in the post-Christmas days of ’02, KU sports fans were wondering …

  • why football coach Mark Mangino had received a one-year contract extension in the wake of a 2-10 season;
  • why the men’s basketball team had already lost three games;
  • and why Al Bohl was still athletic director amid further revelations of improprieties at Fresno State, his previous stop.

No one had a clue, of course, that in four months the world of KU athletics would turn upside down, or that in 11 months the Jayhawks would be playing in their first bowl game in eight years.

Will there ever be another month on Mount Oread like April 2003?

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self watches players work out during the preseason. Self replaced coach Roy Williams in April. KU's athletic department experienced a major overhaul in 2003 after AD Al Bohl was fired and replaced by Lew Perkins.

April may have seemed like the cruelest month to some and perhaps the happiest to others, yet one fact is indisputable: Never had so much KU news been crammed into so few days.

The first domino toppled on April Fool’s Day when basketball coach Matt Doherty resigned under pressure at North Carolina, leading to immediate speculation that Roy Williams would leave Kansas after 15 years to take over at his alma mater.

KU advanced to the NCAA Final Four, and the North Carolina rumor hung over Williams’ head like an albatross in New Orleans. So intense was the pressure, in fact, that the KU coach used the S-word on live TV when asked for the umpteenth time about the Tar Heels’ opening.

After burying Marquette, 94-61, in the semifinals, Kansas tangled with Syracuse for the national championship on April 7 in the Louisiana Superdome. Syracuse won, 81-78, as the Jayhawks unaccountably went dead-stick at the free-throw line, missing 18 of 30 charities to negate a sizable 52-36 advantage on the boards.

Suspicions confirmed

A week later, an emotional Williams confirmed in an impromptu media session in an Allen Fieldhouse stairwell that he was indeed leaving for North Carolina.

Most Kansans were stunned. They couldn’t believe Williams, already a large part of KU basketball lore, would turn his back on the school that had given him his first opportunity to be a head coach and a place where he was surely headed for immortality.

In a sense, the hurt was compounded because they had been lulled into a false sense of security by an incident that had occurred just a few days earlier — the firing of Bohl.

Everyone knew Williams and Bohl had a stand-offish relationship. When Bohl was fired, most people figured Williams would be pleased and would probably play a large role in naming Bohl’s successor.

Kansas University football players and fans celebrate after a Jayhawk victory this season. Kansas went from 2-10 in 2002 to a berth in the Tangerine Bowl this year.

In the meantime, Bohl had perpetrated one of the most bizarre post-mortems in the history of college athletics. Denied the use of a KU facility to issue a rebuttal, Bohl met with the media in the driveway of his home on Wimbledon Drive and accused Williams of orchestrating his dismissal.

In a speech that seems likely to live in infamy, Bohl compared himself to a dove and Williams to a human hand.

“He had the choice to either crush me with his power of influence,” Bohl said, “or let me fly with my visions for a better total program. He chose to crush me.”

The truth was that Bohl was crushed by his own inadequacies.

In just 20 months as the man in charge of Kansas athletics, Bohl had lost the confidence and respect of coaches, donors, media and ultimately Chancellor Robert Hemenway.

As 2003 came to an end, Bohl was living in St. Augustine, Fla., and reportedly penning a book about college athletics.

Awkward position

Back in mid-April, Kansas University found itself in an awkward position. It had neither a men’s basketball coach nor an athletic director. The common course in such a circumstance is to name the new AD first.

However, Hemenway sensed the urgency of securing a coaching replacement quickly so he gave unprecedented power to interim AD Drue Jennings, a retired CEO at Kansas City Power & Light Co., who identified, wooed and hired Bill Self away from Illinois University in less than a week.

KU volleyball player Josi Lima blocks a shot against Pepperdine during the NCAA Tournament.

Looking back, in a whirlwind stretch of 14 days, Kansas had played for the NCAA men’s basketball championship, lost its athletic director, waved bye-bye to its men’s basketball coach and hired his successor.

The search for Bohl’s replacement would take longer, but not much. On June 9 — exactly two months after Bohl’s dismissal — Kansas hired Lew Perkins away from Connecticut. The 58-year-old Perkins had spent 14 years at UConn where he had presided over men’s and women’s basketball powerhouses and the transition of the Huskies’ football program from Div. I-AA status to the top rung.

Perkins didn’t come cheap. Hemenway lured the former Wichita State AD back to the Sunflower State with a $400,000 salary that made him the highest-paid AD in the Big 12 and one of the most richly compensated in the country.

Perkins didn’t pinch pennies in hiring senior staffers, either. His top cadre contains five employees with six-figure salaries. He also flaunted the state nepotism law by hiring his son-in-law, Brandon McNeill, for the newly created position of director of strategic planning at $95,000 a year. Perkins said he skirted the nepotism statute by having McNeill report to Jim Marchiony, senior AD for external operations.

Changes inevitable

Perkins let it be known, too, that changes were inevitable under his watch and he proved it by ruffling the feathers of many men’s basketball season-ticket holders when he announced a priority points system would be implemented for the 2004-2005 season.

In the meantime, Perkins revoked the free tickets of many former KU staffers and relocated a handful of ticket holders who had fallen behind in their contributions to the Williams Fund.

All the while, the KU football team was opening eyes around the country. After dropping their opener to Northwestern, the Jayhawks won four in a row, including a 35-14 triumph over Missouri in the Big 12 Conference opener. After a win over Baylor two weeks later, KU was one game away from qualifying for a bowl with five games remaining.

Then quarterback Bill Whittemore went down with a collarbone injury and the Jayhawks lost four in a row. However, Whittemore was able to return for the regular-season finale against Iowa State and the senior signal-caller guided the Jayhawks to a 36-7 bowl-qualifying victory.

A few days later, Kansas earned a trip to Orlando to meet North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl. However, the Wolfpack prevailed, 56-26, as N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers riddled the Jayhawks’ pass defense for 475 yards.

Soccer, volleyball shine

Football wasn’t the Jayhawks’ only fall surprise. Both the soccer and volleyball teams qualified for postseason competition — a first for volleyball and only the second NCAA appearance for soccer.

Led by standout sophomore Caroline Smith, who set school single-season and career scoring records, the Jayhawks’ soccer team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament before bowing to perennial power UCLA, 1-0, on the Bruins’ field. Coach Mark Francis’ club wound up with an 18-6-1 record — the best mark in nine years of KU varsity soccer.

Coach Ray Bechard’s volleyball team traveled to Malibu, Calif., where the Jayhawks blanked Long Beach State, 3-0, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to regional host Pepperdine, 3-1, and finishing with a 22-11 record. The 22 wins were the most by a KU volleyball team in 12 years.