KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas athletic department officials acknowledged the enormity of the task new athletic director Jeff Long inherits during his introductory news conference Wednesday in Lawrence.
In addition to the typical qualities every NCAA Division I athletic department seeks for a leader — integrity; business, organizational and management acumen; hiring and fundraising experience — there was one extra quality the Jayhawks’ search committee sought.
“And we added the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” joked Drue Jennings, a former KU interim AD and the head of the search firm who assisted with hiring Long. “I firmly believe we checked all the boxes except one. We were unable to determine Jeff’s vertical leap. That remains to be demonstrated at his choosing.”
Don’t expect to see Long scrimmage against coach Bill Self’s perennial champion basketball program given his response.
“I don’t think Coach Self is going to like my vertical jump,” Long said to laughter.
Of course, that’s not the skillset for which Long was hired and importantly he’s got a strong supporter in Self, who is the most powerful figure in Long’s athletic department.
“I think Jeff will make our place better,” Self said. “I think people should be very excited about that.”
KU Chancellor Doug Girod called Long “one of the most seasoned athletic directors in the country” and also lauded his “national profile and national expertise,” qualities he hopes will be critical in reversing the flagging fortunes of the Jayhawks’ football program.
After describing his overall vision for the department and his “unwavering commitment” to student-athletes’ health, safety and wellbeing as well as working with coaches to remove obstacles to success among other talking points, Long singled out the football program.
Kansas hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2011 and hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009.
“It’s time to break the cycle,” Long said. “’It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to need all of your help to do it. Coach (David) Beaty is our coach, and we all need to support this program and we need to support the young men that play the game.”
KU is 15-81 during the last eight seasons, including a winless 2015 campaign, and a dismal 5-74 record in Big 12 play. KU hasn’t won multiple conference games in a season during that span and went winless four times in Big 12 play (2011, 2012, 2015, 2017).
“My job is to see if we can do things better,” Long said.
Long’s predecessor, Sheahon Zenger, never could get the football conundrum figured out and it cost him his job in May.
Meanwhile, Long hired Dave Wannstedt during his tenure as Pittsburgh’s athletic director and helped Arkansas reach national prominence under Bobby Petrino before hiring Bret Bielema, who strung together three straight winning seasons in the ultra-competitive SEC West.
Both Long and Bielema were fired in November as Arkansas’ progress on the gridiron stalled during a 4-8 clunker of a season, but make no mistake that fixing football will be Long’s primary job and biggest challenge.
“Big picture-wise, I think for our program, it’s first our goal is to reach a bowl game,” Long said. “So, we’ll strive to reach a bowl game and once we reach that level, we won’t stop there. Then, we’ll move on to more games and, ultimately, I’m not shy about saying someday we’re going to win the Big 12 championship. We’ve done it here at Kansas in the past and it’s something we’re going to work every day and night to do.”
Long said he’s had “good” conversations with Beaty and will begin assessing his program immediately after taking the reins Aug. 1.
“We’ll really start to know the progress of the program on Sept. 1, when the season begins,” Long said.
Long cautioned not to read into football coach David Beaty’s absence from his introductory news conference. They’ve spoken several times by phone and he said he insisted Beaty not change family vacation plans to attend the news conference.
Aside from evaluating Beaty, Long also inherits a $350 million campaign to renovate Memorial Stadium, including the construction of an indoor practice facility. He successfully led a $160 million renovation of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium during his Arkansas tenure.
“It’s obvious to me that my job will be to go out and to raise more money and find new revenue streams for our program,” Long said. “… You have to be within a range, you’ve got to be within striking distance on resources to be able to compete.”
Kansas isn’t currently there and Long acknowledged the need to do more with less, but he also said “a challenge of mine” will be to get those resources in the proper range.
Among the other potential landmines Long must negotiate in the near term is the FBI’s investigation into corruption in the world of college basketball recruiting, for which KU reportedly has been subpoenaed.
Former Jayhawks recruits Josh Jackson, Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston reportedly all have been named in the probe, but KU officials shrugged off any concern.
“I’m very confident that, Kansas, we’re going to work through this process and we’ll be just fine,” Long said. “That was something I certainly considered as I took the job, but I’m very confident that we’re going to work through this.”
There’s a clause in Long’s contract, which extends the term an equal number of years “should the University be placed under any federal, state, NCAA or Conference investigation leading to restrictions or probation for its football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, or women’s volleyball athletic programs for matters occurring prior to” his hire.
Girod said KU added the language as a form of reassurance and it wasn’t requested by Long.
“We wanted to demonstrate our confidence in where we were with this and our ability to work through this and our belief that we are not at risk in this,” Girod said. “That was really our doing.”
Long agreed last week to a five-year contract worth $1.5 million per year, which would have made him the nation’s fourth-highest paid AD last year.
Long was joined by his wife, Fanny, and two daughters — Stephanie, who is studying cognitive neuroscience at Arkansas, and Christina, who is majoring in journalism at Mizzou.
That provided one of the more lighthearted moments of the afternoon.
“She attends a university in a bordering state, and that’s where I’ll leave it,” Long said of Christina as the room erupted in laughter.