Editorial: The reasons to believe Travis Goff is the right leader for KU athletics

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Jayhawk fans and Lawrence residents ought to be excited to work with new University of Kansas Athletic Director Travis Goff.

There is a lot to like about Goff’s basic story. The fact that he is a KU graduate is a plus, and his roots in Dodge City also are an attribute. Lawrence can seem a long ways away from many parts of Kansas. It is good to have people in leadership positions locally who understand the rest of the state doesn’t always act, feel and look like Lawrence.

His time at Northwestern also looks appealing. He worked closely with the Northwestern football program, which for a long time was nothing to brag about. But KU fans today would gladly take anything even resembling the success of Northwestern. Prior to current Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald taking the helm in 2006, Northwestern had seven coaches dating back to 1964, and each had a career losing record at the school. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is 106-81 during his tenure.

Fitzgerald was an extremely young, first-time head coach when Northwestern hired him in 2006. But he bled purple as a former star linebacker for Northwestern, and he has rewarded his alma mater with true loyalty. He’s stayed at Northwestern despite undoubtedly having many chances to leave for bigger, higher-paying jobs with flashier facilities. While no two situations ever will be exactly the same, it seems like there are some good lessons for KU to learn from the model Northwestern has used to build its program.

One key takeaway is that Northwestern didn’t spend itself to success through lavish construction projects for the football program. Yes, Goff had good fundraising success at Northwestern, and new facilities have been built there. But the school seemed to recognize that Step No. 1 is finding a coach that creates the right culture and produces a taste of success. Facility upgrades then can become a supplement to help keep that coach and boost his efforts.

At one point, KU appeared close to getting that formula dangerously out of order. One of the successes of former athletic director Jeff Long was that he slowed down the plan of building hundreds of millions of dollars of stadium improvements that received a lot of focus from former AD Sheahon Zenger. Long instead focused on finding the right coach for the football program. Long didn’t succeed in his coaching search, but that’s a crowded boat at Kansas. Nonetheless, we should be thankful that he didn’t leave KU saddled with huge amounts of football stadium debt and a donor base that is angry and tapped out after having spent money to have a shiny football stadium but still having no shiny trophies.

Athletic directors can get led astray by people who care more about construction and too little about having a student-centric athletic department. Let’s all hope Goff steers clear of that trap.

To be frank, another thing to like about Goff is his price. His $700,000 annual base salary is the lowest in the Big 12. We’ll likely never hear Goff complain a day about that. He seems truly thrilled to be here. While $700,000 is still a lot of money compared with many of the unmet needs KU has, it is a low salary for an industry that is terribly out of whack. Goff’s salary is less than half of his predecessor’s. Chancellor Douglas Girod deserves credit for recognizing that high-priced athletic directors really haven’t produced much more success than “low-priced” ones at Kansas. Girod recognized the tensions of today’s environment and made a sensible hire in an industry that often loses its senses.

Goff will have many challenges to overcome at KU. The first one may be clearing that closet of all that Northwestern purple, which looks a little too close to another type of purple just to the west of here.

That should be a pretty easy task. The tougher one will be what Goff finds in the athletic department’s closet. There will be some skeletons in there, which is the case in most organizations. The looming NCAA situation is serious for the basketball program. It will take skilled management but also humility. KU is not blameless for the situation it finds itself in. Whether it ever utters that publicly is one thing. But the message must be sent within the athletic department.

That will be Goff’s job. For the time being, our job is to give him our support and best wishes. Mr. Goff, welcome back to Lawrence, welcome back to KU and welcome to what we all hope is the next great era in Kansas athletics.


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