Larry Brown had just won it all, leading Kansas University’s Jayhawks to their first national basketball championship in 36 years.
So Red McCombs climbed into his Learjet, flew to Kansas and landed at Lawrence Municipal Airport, where a tradition of solid customer service ended up being a little too convenient.
“They wanted to know if they could use the pilots lounge,” said Lloyd Hetrick, who still runs the airport. “That’s where they interviewed Larry, in there. It wasn’t an all-afternoon thing. They just interviewed and talked.”
Just to be clear: McCombs wasn’t dropping by to chat with Brown for a story about his latest win, or even a book about Brown’s revered coaching methods.
Instead, the owner of the San Antonio Spurs wanted to sell Brown on the promise of a return to coaching in the NBA, to build yet another champion while pulling down a salary that would make him among the league’s highest paid coaches.
Brown bought it, announcing his decision soon thereafter and crushing — temporarily, anyway — the spirits of a community whose self-esteem had climbed to unprecedented heights with an NCAA title.
“They made use of the pilots lounge. … We do that for everybody,” Hetrick says again, chuckling slightly at the thought of such high-stakes negotiations taking place in a modest room down a ways and across a two-lane highway from the Airport Motel. “(Turns out) that was a departure, not an arrival.”
McCombs isn’t the only big-timer to close a deal with help from Lawrence’s general aviation airport.
From corporate executives to traveling dignitaries, former presidents and popular entertainers, Lawrence Municipal has landed its share of big names.
Among those who have taken advantage of the airport and its services:
• Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, for visits to KU’s Dole Institute of Politics. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole himself also has made several trips.
•l T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman-turned-energy-plan crusader, to conduct a round-table discussion at KU.
• Alan Mulally, former head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and current CEO of Ford Motor Co., who stops in to see his mother in the town where he grew up and attended college.
• Dwight Yoakam, country singer, who needed to unload a bit before taking off to continue his tour a few years ago. “He was playing at Sandstone,” said Rick Bryant, chairman of the city’s Airport Advisory Board, who is leaving after 11 years on the board. “When he came back, I unlocked the building and let him go inside to use the bathroom.”
Airport officials even talk about how Orville Wright — half of the famed first-to-fly Wright Brothers — stopped in at Lawrence Municipal in the 1940s, during a visit to Lawrence that included a stop at KU.
“He was a very nice guy, I do remember that,” said Rich Clarkson, who, as a junior journalist, interviewed Wright.
While the expected horde of auto-racing teams flying in for races at the nearby Kansas Speedway — the so-called NASCAR Air Force — hasn’t materialized, the airport still picks up about two dozen racing-related flights each September.
Airport supporters arrange to have rental cars and other vehicles available as soon as a plane lands, so that passengers can walk five steps from their plane to waiting cars.
Such service is more than simple courtesy. It also has a way of paying off.
Bryant recalls how Best Buy executives were flying into Lawrence for three years before the company decided to open a store in town, and Bryant is confident that the airport’s relaxed atmosphere and convenient services will be able to land even more business — from executives and others — in the years ahead.
“We spoil them,” Bryant said. “We try to make it as pleasant and as easy as we can, and make them feel welcome. It leads to repeat business.
“We are the front door to the sky for the city.”