In the end, Hemenway finally grasped importance of sports at KU

Say this for Bob Hemenway. It took awhile, but he finally wised up about the importance of athletics in Kansas University’s big picture.

When Hemenway first arrived on Mount Oread from Kentucky University in 1994, few realized he hadn’t dealt directly with UK’s athletic program, so his laissez-faire attitude toward sports caught some boosters by surprise.

No one doubted Hemenway’s academic credentials, yet his low-key demeanor suffered in comparison with Kansas State counterpart Jon Wefald, a Type A personality who made it clear he had his fingers on every piece of the KSU pie.

Hemenway’s naiveté about athletics first surfaced after the KU football team’s splendid 1995 season. That was the year the Jayhawks went 9-2 in the Big Eight and earned a bid to the Aloha Bowl.

Before the trip to Honolulu, however, head coach Glen Mason had accepted the head job at Georgia. Then a week later, on the eve of the bowl game against UCLA, Mason changed his mind and decided he wanted to remain at Kansas.

Did Mason go to Athletic Director Bob Frederick? No, he went straight to Hemenway, and the KU chancellor, without consultation, granted Mason’s request.

Bad move. Mason had already burned several bridges among boosters and, while his popularity remained high among the rank and file, many of the True Blue — the ones with the deep pockets — considered the Georgia fiasco the last straw.

Essentially, then, Mason was a lame-duck coach in 1996 and, in retrospect, he was lucky to land the Minnesota job coming off that 4-7 season.

Mason’s last year at Kansas was also the first year of the new Big 12 Conference. The addition of four Texas schools to the Big Eight meant additional revenue, mainly from television rights, yet KU was slow to recognize how the extra money would affect the league’s level of competitiveness.

Hemenway turned the hiring of a new coach over to Frederick, who chose Terry Allen, a nice guy who had been successful on a lower NCAA rung at Northern Iowa. Allen wasn’t a disaster, but it soon became obvious he was in over his head.

Allen should have been fired after his fourth season, but Frederick wouldn’t do it and Hemenway lay low. Later, Frederick would retire and Hemenway would appoint a search committee to find a successor. The committee settled on Al Bohl who, it turned out, had been poorly vetted.

Finally, in 2003 after nearly a decade as KU’s chancellor, Hemenway took the bull by the horns. He fired Bohl and announced he would seek a new AD all by himself.

Probably not without coincidence, Hemenway was chair of the NCAA Board of Directors at that time and his interaction with bigwigs from around the country must have made him realize KU’s athletic department was still operating in the 20th century.

So Hemenway opened the coffers, lured Lew Perkins away from Connecticut and turned Kansas Athletics Inc. into a thriving corporation.

All the better, say the pragmatists. Traditionalists may not agree, but you can’t win an arms race by sticking with conventional warfare.