J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Friday, April 4, 2008

Lightning Rod Lew

Kansas' high-profile athletic director has restored the Jayhawk program's swagger, but not without stepping on plenty of toes along the way.

 

SAN ANTONIO | Lew Perkins calls them kids, and that bothers some people. They would rather Perkins, the Kansas athletic director, refer to his student-athletes as young men and women. Itís a small thing compared with most of the complaints Perkins hears -- Why did you have to kick all of the old-timers out of their seats at Allen Fieldhouse?! Why did you have to move the 2007 KU-Missouri football game to Arrowhead Stadium?! How in the world did you finagle Super Bowl tickets in Peyton Manningís suite?! -- but this complaint registers with Perkins just like any other.

 

"Theyíre still kids to me," Perkins says.

 

Itís been a good year for the kids. The football team started the season 11-0, won the Orange Bowl and finished ranked No. 7 in the polls. The menís basketball team won a share of its fourth straight Big 12 regular-season title, took its third straight Big 12 tournament title and will play in the Final Four on Saturday against North Carolina. And Perkins was front and center for every minute of it.

 

In the moments after the Jayhawksí win over Davidson in the Elite Eight, Perkins found KU guard Russell Robinson on the floor, and the two embraced for about 10 seconds.

 

Perkins was there for the bad times, too, though there have only been four losing locker rooms all year. After every football and menís basketball game, Perkins makes his way around the room and tries to talk with each player.

 

"Win or lose," Perkins says, "Iím there."

 

Perkins knows what you think. That heís all business, all about the bottom line, plain and simple. That he has a way of getting whatever he wants, however he can get it.

 

"I like that," Perkins says.

 

But he also knows itís a mystique. Perkins just turned 63, and he is just as much the grandfather of the Kansas athletic department as the godfather -- though, he acknowledges, "I do like cigars."

 

Even more than a good stogie, Perkins likes winning. And he loves the kids.

 

"Knowing the kids and being a part of their lives is very important for me," Perkins says. "Thereís no question college athletics has turned into a big business. I donít care how you cut it, it is. I made a pact with myself that as long as Iím in college athletics, I donít want to lose sight of why weíre really here, and thatís the kids."

 

***

 

Lew Perkins has a saying that just about sums up his five years as the boss in Lawrence: "You like vanilla, I like chocolate," he likes to say.

 

If only it were that easy. Around town, Perkins is a divisive figure for many. At some schools, the average fan might not even know the name of their athletic director. Thatís not the case at KU, where Perkins has been unafraid to stand out from the beginning. Kansas chancellor Robert Hemenway knows that he hired a lightning rod back in the summer of 2003 when he lured Perkins from Connecticut.

 

"He has a pretty clear vision of how things should work," Hemenway says, "and that carries forward in most everything that he does. He said early on that he wanted to put a swagger back in Kansas."

 

Before that could happen, Perkins had to find a way to put some money in the bank. When he arrived, the athletic department budget was about $23 million a year. Perkins had to increase fund-raising, and he knew that most other big-time college basketball programs were using priority seating. In other words, the more you donated, the better your seats are.

 

At Allen Fieldhouse, the core group of Kansas fans had gotten to keep the same seats for years. Fans knew the family they were sitting next to, and there was a unique camaraderie. When KU announced the priority seating before the 2004-05 season, fans were outraged. Suddenly, many of them didnít want change anymore.

 

John Tacha had been sitting in the same seats, up close and near half court, for 30 years. But there was no way he could afford to donate the $50,000 to $100,000 it would take to keep that precious real estate. Tacha tried sitting in a lesser seat for two years, but it just wasnít the same. The last two years, he has watched from home.

 

"I have no trouble giving up courtside seats that I had for 30 years for someone who wants to pay much more," Tacha says. "But I feel like the athletic department could have done that and kept Lawrence people happy as well. Part of the camaraderie was you look forward to seeing the people you sat with for 20, 30, 40 years. There could have been a place where we put all those Lawrencians."

 

The change to priority seating was the first clue that things were going to be different at KU. The Jayhawks will operate next year under a budget that more than doubles that original $23 million.

 

Perkins knows he canít make everyone happy.

 

"Reasonable people can have reasonable differences," Perkins says. "Iíve been married for 40-some odd years. We donít always agree with each other, but we love each other."

 

***

 

Lew Perkins had priorities other than priority seating. Before the first football and menís basketball seasons started under his watch, Perkins approached Mark Mangino and Bill Self about the same thing: Would it be OK with them if he came to the locker room before and after games?

 

With Self, Perkins took it even further. He wanted to sit courtside, just a few seats over from Self and his assistant coaches.

 

"First and foremost," Self said, "Lew is an administrator. He runs an athletic department. But heís also a fan. And more than anything else, he enjoys getting to know the student-athletes. Our guys love him."

 

Truly, Perkins is everywhere on Kansas basketball game days. Heís in the coachesí locker room to wish them luck. Heís doing his pregame ritual with Russell Robinson. Heís sitting feet from the floor wearing a headset so he can listen to the radio broadcast. Heís shaking playersí hands in the locker room after the game. Being visible within his program is big part of Perkinsí style.

 

"I think itís important to be seen, but not to be heard," Perkins says. "I want the kids and the coaches to know that Iím there. You listen to the kids, you hear them talk, to have the A.D. around, itís cool. Itís neat. A lot of times when we travel, I can go talk to some of the kids over a Coke or something.

 

"Iím just another friendly face. Itís not the coach. Not the academic coordinator. Itís someone whoís going to be there for them whenever they need help."

 

Itís not just football and basketball who get Perkinsí attention, either. He spends a lot of time during the day outside his office in the Parrott Athletic Center, just talking with kids. Perkins estimates that he knows most of the upperclass student-athletes at KU by name.

 

"A lot of A.D.s like to serve on all these committees," Perkins says. "I feel like I have an obligation to serve on committees, but I think too many times A.D.s are gone from their campus too much, and I donít want to be gone from my campus. I think itís more important that I spend time with my coaches and my student-athletes and our donors."

 

Hemenway has a story that connects all the dots with Perkins. It has to do with the womenís rowing team. See, Perkins had been fighting to build the team a new boathouse, but there were all these state regulations that were getting in the way. So the state liked vanilla, and Perkins liked chocolate, basically. Chocolate won, of course.

 

Well, a few weeks ago, a dedication was planned for the new boathouse. It just happened to fall on the coldest day of the winter.

 

"Just by force of will and personality," Hemenway says, "Lew had probably 250 to 300 people there to participate. The rowers were all there, and they were so excited. They gathered around and sang the Rock Chalk Chant and the alma mater. In the midst of one of the rawest days of winter, there was a lot of human warmth that was surrounding this event. Thatís typical Lew Perkins."

 

***

 

The 2007 Border War football game would bring scoop after scoop after scoop of vanilla. The miraculous 11-0 Jayhawks seriously had to move their home game against rival Missouri -- 10-1 Missouri -- from Memorial Stadium to Arrowhead Stadium?

 

Of course, when Perkins made that commitment with MU athletic director Mike Alden, KU was coming off of a 6-6 season. The national championship picture was far from Perkinsí mind.

 

What was on Lightning Rod Lewís radar, however, was guaranteed money for playing the game at Arrowhead and the national exposure that the game could possibly create even if the teams were 7-5 and 8-4.

 

The Tigers beat the Jayhawks 36-28 in front of a national television audience on ABC, and KUís dream of a national title was tarnished on the neutral field. It would turn out that KU made about $300,000 more than it would have at a normal home game.

 

There are a lot of Jayhawks out there who donít think that amount of money was worth losing out on a shot to play Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and possibly to play in the BCS championship game. But the bigger issue for the Lawrence community was the boon that home game would have been to the local economy.

 

"Iím raising a family in this community," says Rob Farha, who owns The Wheel, a bar close to the football stadium. "And there is a bigger picture when it comes to the total tax revenues that were lost for the whole weekend. Heís got a business to run, and Iíve got a business to run."

 

Hereís the thing about Perkins: He always seems to be around, so if youíve got a problem with him, just tell him. Perkins eats lunch every so often at The Wheel, and he knows Farha. So the two got to discuss their differences and move on.

 

Missouri took advantage of Perkinsí decision to move his home game to Kansas City. But Perkins would get the last laugh, as Kansas was selected to play in the Orange Bowl instead of the Tigers. Conspiracy theories flew out of Columbia -- MU supporters clearly knew $weet Lewís reputation -- that Perkins must have guaranteed more tickets than the 17,500 allotted for each team.

 

This year, Perkins couldnít stay out of the spotlight even if he tried.

 

"I wouldnít be doing my job if I wasnít out there supporting my teams," Perkins says. "Trust me, this Orange Bowl thing was totally blown out of proportion."

 

***

 

With Perkins, things just seem to take on a life of their own. Remember Super Bowl Sunday?

 

Perkins swears he didnít plan to be on TV in front of millions of people that night. He serves on a board at Gatorade, and Peyton Manning is a spokesman for the company.

 

"That was just a freak oddity," Perkins says. "(Peyton) went back there because he was hoping nobody would see him! If he wanted a drink, Iíd go down and bring it up. He didnít think the cameras would find him. We were there first. He just happened to stand behind me."

 

For those who watch Perkins work every day at KU, it wasnít all that surprising that he ended up getting some face time.

 

"Iím going to be out in front," Perkins says. "But Iím not going to be in front of the coaches or in front of the kids. This is about them. Itís not about me."

 

Itís more about guys like Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, who starred at Connecticut when Perkins was there. At the Davidson game in Detroit, Hamilton knew where to look for Perkins -- on the front row, as always. Hamilton tapped Perkins on the shoulder, gave him a hug and told him he missed him.

 

"If you donít get close to your kids," Perkins says, "those are the things that are not going to happen."

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