Sunday, April 27, 2003

Mayer: News events now spectacle


Some reflections on the evolution of the athletic "news conference" at Kansas University -- and the drastic changes in remuneration packages over the years.

That massive Monday media session for the Bill Self basketball coach announcement was the biggest cattle call anyone could recall. Just about everyone was there except Howard Hughes, Carry Nation and Amelia Earhart. A 15-year coaching wizard was being supplanted by a charismatic new personality with big credentials. The Jayhawks handled it with aplomb and dignity. Drue Jennings is more impressive each time he projects his in-charge persona as the interim athletic director.

When the incomparable Phog Allen retired, under protest, in 1956 after 39 years, athletic director Dutch Lonborg's office had publicist Don Pierce mimeograph a handout. It was up to reporters to run down the proper people for reaction. No big gathering with cameras, lights and such.

Assistant Dick Harp was boosted into Phog's chair; same type of routine notification. Doc never made more than a $12,500 base salary and Harp started out, with Wilt Chamberlain in the wings, at $7,500. Honest.

Kansas hired Jack Mitchell from Arkansas as football coach on Thanksgiving Day in 1957 for $15,000 on a five-year deal. More mimeographs and phone calls. It was up to the media to make the contacts; no mob scene.

(When Mitchell was released from his "lifetime contract" in 1966, he got a four-year, $56,000 package. Jack, of course, is the last KU grid boss to leave here with a winning record. Recent athletic director Al Bohl, with his $255,000 whopper, will get about $300,000 on a 14-month settlement. Roy Williams terminated April 14 and on April 15 would have received a $225,000 kicker. Should he get it? Chancellor Bob Hemenway is inclined to award it.)

When Dick Harp resigned under pressure after the 1964 season, press release, no media bash. Assistant Ted Owens was quietly moved up after a brief announcement at the Kansas Union. He started at around $10,000 and was drawing an $11,200 base for his second season. When Ted was ousted in 1983, he'd worked his package up to six figures -- a 19-year climb.

Onetime athletic director Monte Johnson (1982-87) figured in the first three really big media events. By far the biggest, of course, was the Larry Brown basketball coup in 1983.

Don Fambrough was KU football coach from 1971-74 and stepped out when athletic director Clyde Walker wouldn't guarantee him the contract extension Don felt he needed to recruit well. There was the 1975-78 Bud Moore experiment, then Fambrough was brought back for 1979-82. AD Johnson decided to change to Mike Gottfried; that opened the door to wide-open media gatherings. That and the ouster of Owens in 1983, another "conference" event.

"The situations with Don and Ted were sensitive for a lot of us and I felt there needed to be an open forum," recalls Johnson. Then Monte popped the top on a gigantic can of worms by pursuing Larry Brown of the New Jersey Nets, and landing him.

Boy, did that bring out the throats and ink-stained wretches!

"There's a tendency to think everything's about money, but with Larry it never was," Johnson stresses. "Larry really wanted to coach at Kansas and he gave up a lot to come here and give us five tremendous years."

An expert fund-raiser and financial manager, Monte scraped up all he could for a $57,000 base salary for Brown. Then Johnson managed to arrange another $53,000 or so in perks bringing the bundle to 100 thou. Since Larry got here too late to run a summer camp, another $10,000 was assembled to compensate.

"Consider this," adds Monte. "Larry had a $200,000 payout with the Nets and got another $50,000 for leading them into the playoffs. If it had been about money, we never would have had a chance. But Larry liked what he saw and it was one of the best investments we ever made."

By the time Larry left for the San Antonio Spurs after the national title year in 1988, he had something like a $750,000 basket of goodies. Now he's raking in a cool $5 million per, or more.

Roy Williams was hired July 8, 1988, on a seven-year starting salary of $78,000 a year (Brown's base would have gone to $85,000 for the 1989 season). Williams, who along with Brown created one major media event after another, left here April 14 after something like a $1.2 or $1.3 million annual bundle. He's supposedly getting $1.5 million plus at North Carolina.

Bill Self comes in with a reported $1.1 million-plus income. There's never been a media session bigger, warmer or more enthusiastic than his presence generated.

As a footnote, Monte Johnson says he's been taken aback at the negative reactions after Larry Brown and Roy Williams chose to ply their trades elsewhere.

"Here's one guy who gave us a tremendous five years and a national title and another who devoted 15 sensational years to KU and Kansas," Monte told me recently. "That's a 20-year period where KU has been projected wonderfully onto the national scene because of its achievements and its athletics. Further, people don't realize all the financial assistance Roy (and wife Wanda) have given to KU. (Monte didn't tattle; I know it's well over a million bucks.)

"All of us have to realize that people often have good reasons for doing what they do and give them the credit they deserve for what they have accomplished," Johnson said. "I hope people quickly adjust to an attitude that allows them to realize just how blessed we were to have these guys and what they gave us. We need to make clear our appreciation so that we won't seem hostile and scare off any good people like Bill Self in the future."

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