On one of the biggest news days in the history of Kansas University, a spotlight shined on the three defining faces of the institution and exposed them for what they were Thursday.
Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little: out of touch.
Athletic Director Lew Perkins: out of time.
Basketball coach Bill Self: out of this world.
As news hit that Colorado had left the Big 12 for the Pac-10, one day after Nebraska moved to the Big Ten, it didn’t take long for word to spread that Gray-Little dined Wednesday night with Colorado Chancellor Philip DiStefano, in town to evaluate university administration. They spent part of Thursday together as well. Yet, DiStefano didn’t share his school’s move with Gray-Little. Even if DiStefano was sworn to secrecy and didn’t want to jeopardize Colorado’s standing with the Pac-10, it paints KU’s chancellor as out of touch with her Big 12 peers.
When asked, Gray-Little said at her news conference Thursday that conference affiliations are decisions made by presidents and chancellors, who bank on the guidance of the experts, the athletic directors. Well, I find it difficult to believe that Perkins advised his boss to be schmoozing alumni in England when the Big 12 meetings were taking place in Kansas City. Perkins has been talking up the potential for conference realignment for months.
Whichever adviser told the chancellor it was fine to blow off the Big 12 meetings — after all, it’s just a sports deal and who really cares about sports, right? — needs to advise the chancellor to find a better adviser. Similar to her previous university, North Carolina, the basketball team plays a huge role in marketing the school. It’s not good when a chancellor or president places too much importance on athletics. It’s even worse when not enough importance is placed on it because in the long run that hurts the academic standing of the institution. Gray-Little should have maintained regular contact with her peers from the Big 12 and with peers from other possible future conferences for months.
Perkins missed part of the Big 12 meetings as well, but he had an excuse, an embarrassing one for KU Athletics. He was testifying before a federal grand jury about the ticket scandal, although he was not a target witness.
Perkins did the university a service by announcing his retirement Thursday. Otherwise, speculation about his job status in the wake of the ticket fraud under his watch — as well as the exercise equipment installed in his house and paid for in the form of a $5,000 rental check a year after it was returned and while he was getting blackmailed — would have divided the focus of everyone who needs to concentrate on the pressing matter of finding the right conference affiliation.
Many alumni grateful to Perkins for elevating the budget through aggressive fundraising felt betrayed by the ticket scandal that took place under his watch. Too many customers paying for prime seats felt cheated. Others wished he had kept popular football coach Mark Mangino. The trust some alumni had in Perkins began to wane, and the exercise equipment mess did nothing to restore that trust.
By staying another year, Perkins can try to guide Kansas into a big-time conference, leave when the kitchen’s not so hot and collect a $600,000 tax-free retention bonus. With the extra year, he can be judged by his full term, not by his department’s 2010-2011 mine field of a year.
After that, Perkins can enjoy his family, his golf and his cigars on his own schedule.
With a chancellor out of touch with the earthquake of a conference shakeup and an athletic director announcing his retirement in the midst of so many controversies, the university badly was in need of a strong, confident force to make the sun shine through the clouds. Enter Self, the basketball coach who forever diverts attention from what an extraordinary mind he has by disarming his audience with Southern charm.
Self’s words are a tonic similar to the tail-wagging dog who greets you at the door after an absolutely miserable day at work and makes you realize you aren’t as worthless as you thought you were, makes you understand that although things seem hopeless, nothing’s really changed. Your dog still loves you unconditionally, and nobody’s cooler than your dog.
“We are going to be in a BCS league,” Self said at a news conference. “I’m totally confident about that.”
So began the emotional healing for Jayhawks all over the world. Uncertainty is unsettling, Self acknowledged, but KU has too much going for it for anybody to panic.
“From my vantage point, there’s not an option,” he said of landing in a big-time conference. “There are absolutely no other options. You’ve got to keep your doors open, but this university has too much to sell to rush into doing something just to find a home, because in our opinion, the aftershock or the trickle-down hasn’t even begun to occur.”
He’s dead right.
“We are at the first level of it,” Self said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen on the second level, third level, fourth level, fifth level. What’s the Big Ten going to go to? Are they going to 12? Are they going to 16? Certain leagues may not be as open to expansion, unless maybe another league does something to kind of force their hand.”
A revamped Big 12. The Pac-10. The Big East. Nobody knows. Hearing Self talk made it difficult to believe Kansas is on its way out of the big-time.