May 28, 2023

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A Good First Step

Up until Monday morning it was clear the future and/or good health of Kansas University depended to a large degree on the level of generosity of 20 or so individuals who gathered in Phoenix several weeks ago.

The purpose of the meeting, called by KU athletics department officials, with the blessing of KU administrators, KU Endowment Association officers and perhaps KU Alumni Association board members, was to get these individuals to agree to provide the bulk of the $350 million package needed to renovate KU’s David Booth Memorial Stadium as well as a few other less costly projects for baseball and women’s volleyball.

University officials have stated the $350 million project is the University’s number one priority. A remodeled stadium, they claim, will revive the KU football program which in turn will save the University from all kinds of bad things:

  • Particularly, being dropped from one of the so-called “power five” athletic conferences (note they are called “athletic conferences”, not academic conferences).
  • Likewise, the school would probably lose the enrollment of a good percentage of the out-of-state students who elect to come to Mt. Oread.

In a recent news story KU chancellor Doug Girod said roughly 40 per cent of KU students come from outside the state of Kansas and that in some ways this out-of-state enrollment has become a necessity due to Kansas’ stagnant population growth.

Girod noted Kansas does not have the mountains or sea coasts to attract these out-of-staters and the school needs something to encourage these young people from Chicago, Omaha and China to come to KU.

The chancellor protected himself by saying it is hoped these prospective students are motivated by “KU’s academic pedigree” but the school has to get them on the “showroom floor” and that’s the KU sports program….The Jayhawks.

“You can’t buy the type of advertising that having the Jayhawks on national TV provides right now”, Girod said.

This probably is true but for years KU athletics has been BASKETBALL, not football, and it is unfortunate the academic excellence of the school is not the driving factor in attracting students. What kind of a signal does Girod’s message send to KU faculty?

It would be interesting to learn what really happened at the Phoenix gathering.

Based on Monday’s announcement that Girod fired KU Athletics Director, Sheahon Zenger, it may be the financial big hitters made it clear that before they were willing to pledge millions of dollars, the chancellor had to get rid of Zenger and football coach, David Beaty. They had little confidence a new stadium would make any difference if the Zenger/Beaty team was running the football program.

Girod says Beaty will remain coach for this season but it appears he, too, will be looking for a job at the end of this season.

The easiest way to transform the KU football program would have been to fire Zenger and Beaty at a fraction of the cost of a massive re-do of the stadium. Hiring a good, $4-6 million football coach would attract good high school and post-high school players which, in turn, would develop a winning program.

A fancy stadium and a poor and embarrassing team still will result in an embarrassing number of empty seats.

A good, well-paid coach with a winning team will fill stadium seats, even in what some call an old, out-of-date and embarrassing Memorial Stadium.

Girod has fixed one major handicap by firing Zenger. Is the writing on the wall that Beaty also will go at the end of the season? Is this the message of those at the Phoenix meeting? How will this affect this year’s team and recruiting efforts?

It will be interesting what the search team comes up with as a replacement for Zenger, and eventually Beaty. Based on past KU search efforts for administrative and athletic positions, there doesn’t seem much justification for high hopes.

Those trying to fill the AD vacancy have a weak, spotty record and they are going to have to have something far more powerful to sell than the JAYHAWK emblem, the past record of KU football and the past record of KU search teams.

Prospective candidates will be glad to hear there are a number of big hitters willing to put up big dollars to support the program but even more important to them is the stance of the chancellor. Will he do and/or approve what is necessary to develop a winning program?

He already has said the stadium is the school’s number one priority and in so doing sent a fairly strong message to the academic/research side of the University. He dug a deep hole for himself and now he faces a challenging task to gain the support and enthusiasm of his teachers and researchers.

He might learn a lesson from how former Kansas State president, Jon Wefald, handled the situation. He inherited and rebuilt the school’s miserable football team but made a commitment to provide just as much help to the academic side of the school as he did for the football program. This helped appease those who thought too much money and emphasis was given to football.

Consider how the KU academic side of the school would benefit if an additional $350 million in private monies could be earmarked for teaching, research and facilities.

It might even cause prospective students, and legislators, to think the academic excellence of the school does matter and would serve as the “showroom floor” to address the fragile enrollment matter. It would be a more powerful message to assure continued membership in the Association of American Universities….which is far more important to the future of the school than the “power five” athletic conference fraternity.