It is undeniable. There is something — perhaps a mystique, perhaps an aura, perhaps a word so awesome that it hasn’t yet been invented — that hangs from historic Allen Fieldhouse.
D.W. Acker roams the halls of this venerable barn on an almost daily basis. Head women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson gives him high-fives, secretaries give him hugs, and locked doors pop right open with Acker’s powerful access code. Yet even Acker can’t quite pinpoint the word to describe what hangs from this Cradle of Champions.
But chances are, he knows how it hangs: from a French cleat.
Come to find out, much in Allen Fieldhouse hangs from a French cleat. There are Jayhawks that hang from them. There are team message boards. There are Jayhawks. There are team photos. There are Jayhawks. There are plaques and pictures from more than 100 years of Kansas athletics. And, did we mention, there are Jayhawks.
So, thank the French. Thank Cleat. Thank them both because after a four-hour tour of Allen Fieldhouse, this visitor left convinced French cleats are incredible. Compact, easily hidden, really a marvel of design when it comes to picture and display hanging.
What’s that? You hadn’t noticed French cleats as you soaked in the ambiance of Allen Fieldhouse? Well, maybe you need to walk around with D.W. Acker. Signs of greatness in Allen Fieldhouse will take on a whole new meaning.
If you don’t quite see Allen Fieldhouse like Acker does, it might be because you don’t start your day in such prime Allen Fieldhouse real estate. Well, it used to be prime anyway. Just a few steps from the arena, Acker has an office in space that was once so sought after that lines formed to simply see it: the women’s restroom.
Yes, in the corner of Acker’s office, there’s still a concrete stall that used to house a handicapped-accessible toilet. Much else in the office has changed, we male visitors can only assume. There’s a lighted drafting table, mock-ups of motivational signs attached to the wall (surely those weren’t there), and a large color chart that makes a rainbow look a bit boring.
Acker uses it all for his job as a graphic designer for the Kansas University athletics department. A graphic designer at KU can mean everything from somebody who designs business cards to someone who figures out how the diplomas ought to look. But when it comes to Bill Self wanting a better looking picture of James Naismith hanging from the halls of the basketball office, there’s probably only one graphic designer that’s going to get that call.
And trust him, Acker said, he gets that call.
“Coaches definitely care about this stuff,” Acker said of all the signs, photos and displays that grace KU athletic facilities. “When the coaches want something from me, it is kind of like they are in a game. They’ve got a plan and they want to get it done.”
How many Jayhawks are there in Allen Fieldhouse? Geez, that’s like asking whether a Missouri Tiger is uglier than it is dumb or dumber than it is ugly. There is really no good way to fathom it.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse. Some are grand and often seen, like the Jayhawk in the terrazzo floor of the main lobby. Some are grand and seldom seen by the general public, like the 24-foot tall Jayhawk that is woven into the carpet of the men’s basketball locker room. Some are in neon. Some are covered in a protective vinyl, like the ones constantly sweated upon on the floor of the athletic department weight room.
And, of course, there are many Jayhawks that are hung by French cleats. You know this because Acker will stop in midsentence and pull a picture off the wall — sometimes in a coach’s office, no less — to prove it.
But perhaps the most interesting Jayhawks are the small ones. Acker makes signs and displays for a host of things you would never think about. There’s a sign that counts down the days to the Big 12 Basketball Tournament and the Final Four. There are at least three walls full of KU basketball players who have made it to the NBA. There’s a display in almost every sports office detailing the program’s number of wins and conference championships. Those keep Acker busy all summer as they need to be updated every year (or at least they’d better, right Dr. Zenger?)
Then there are hand-painted Jayhawks that go onto basketballs and footballs and baseballs and you name it to signify conference championships or other special events. There are even shovels for Acker to design. Special Jayhawk-themed shovels were used to break the ground for the Booth Family Hall of Athletics. And, yes, somebody actually had to take the time to figure out what they were going to look like.
“I remind people that none of this happens with a magic wand,” Acker said.
But sometimes the end product might feel a little magical. Acker admits that there is one project that stands out for him. Outside Memorial Stadium, near the football offices, there is a bronze Jayhawk statue. Acker has produced a lot of Jayhawks over the years. A lot. There have been Jamming Jay, Diamond Jay, Robotic Hawk, and Acker thinks he was the first designer to put female breasts on the Jayhawk. (In case you are wondering, it was a promotional piece to make the Jayhawk look more like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who was participating in the Kansas Relays.)
But there is no other Jayhawk quite like the one the KU football team touches as it enters Memorial Stadium. Former athletic director Lew Perkins decided there ought to be a 3-D version of the “Sandy” Jayhawk, the 1946 design that has become the standard for Jayhawks. Officially, no one had ever seen the Sandy Jayhawk in anything but its flat, two-dimensional form. Acker said it was a “privilege” to have been chosen to lead the project for the athletics department.
But, it was challenging. He teamed up with an Oklahoma-based sculptor who would fire the piece. But the two soon discovered they had a problem. Neither of them knew how big a Jayhawk was.
“That was one of the toughest things to figure out,” Acker said. “How big a chest does a Jayhawk have? Nobody knew.”
Now they do. The sculpture was installed in September 2011. University officials took a recommendation from Acker to install the piece near the southern end of the stadium so that a picture of the Jayhawk would have the Campanile in the background.
But there’s something else that pleases Acker about this statue. Maybe its setting has more significance than just being picturesque. Acker started his career down here at the stadium about 35 years ago, but not as a graphic artist. He was part of the maintenance crew, and the only art he got to do was the occasional painting of a hallway or a hurdle. But word eventually got out that this Acker fellow could draw. He long had loved to draw the Jayhawk. In fact, a drawing of a Jayhawk he made more than 25 years ago — one that tried to add some more realistic feathers and mass — ended up being the inspiration for the statue.
Now, when Acker looks at the piece all these years later, he hopes others take inspiration.
“The way it turned out,” Acker said, “it looks like the Jayhawk could possibly pull those wings back and fly.”
While taking a visitor on a tour, Acker was stopped by a Kansas University basketball assistant who asked him some details about an upcoming meeting on changes to the displays in the hallways of the men’s basketball offices. The meeting is on everybody’s calendar because coach Bill Self has asked for it.
In the detailed world of college coaching, even the details of the pictures on the wall don’t escape a coach’s attention. There’s good reason they shouldn’t. When you are trying to sell yourself and your school to 16- and 17-year-old recruits, you had better have more than a speech. You’d better have something to show them.
“We live in such a visual world,” said Jim Marchiony, associate athletic director for KU. “The work D.W. does for us gives us a chance to put our best foot forward. You want everybody to feel like you are a part of something special. D.W. has been a terrific asset. He really helps us do that.”
Come to find out, he maybe helps others too. Not long ago, former KU standout Jerod Haase was back in Allen Fieldhouse. At the time, Haase was an assistant on Roy Williams’ North Carolina staff. Haase was walking down a hallway that he surely had been in many times before. But maybe something about being a coach had changed his eye, because he now keenly noticed the pictures that hung along the wall telling the long history of Kansas basketball.
The story isn’t what caught his eye. He knew that well. What had him interested is how straight the photos were and how if you bumped a frame as you were walking down the hallway it didn’t move. He needed to know how that worked. North Carolina needed to tackle its crooked picture problem. Acker at first thought it was just Haase’s way to pay a compliment, but no, he really wanted to know.
So, let the record show that Kansas University — sometimes referred to as the birthplace of North Carolina basketball — once again gave another gift to the Tar Heels.
You guessed it: the French cleat.
— City reporter Chad Lawhorn can be reached at 832-6362. Follow him at Twitter.com/clawhorn_ljw