Those shocked at the way athletic director Lew Perkins has handled the Kansas University football coaching change haven’t paid close attention to the way Perkins handles most things. In the end, what he does generally is far better received than how he does it.
Perkins is shopping for a football coach, and two factors make it probable he will end up with one who can enjoy more success than Mark Mangino did during his eight years at the helm.
First, the $2.3 million annual salary Mangino was awarded for the final phase of his leadership sent a message throughout the coaching fraternity that KU means business in upgrading its football program. Second, the $31 million Anderson Family football complex, built largely with generous pledges made by KU alumni Dana Anderson and Tom Kivisto, vaulted Kansas from the bottom of the pack to near the top in terms of facilities.
If those two improvements don’t result in a home-run hire, it will only be because Perkins swings and misses. With the help of John Hadl raising so much dough, Perkins has worked himself into a favorable home-run count. He’s not batting with two strikes the way Mangino was after getting his pay raise and the new facilities. Those improvements turned up the pressure on Mangino, whose lack of diplomacy (read: lack of phoniness) gave him less leeway than a less dictatorial type might have been granted.
Once the losing streak hit and Mangino looked bad during it — especially given the way he handled the Todd Reesing injury by not acknowledging it — those who didn’t like his fear-and-intimidation coaching style felt emboldened, complained to the A.D., and Lew, not averse to using fear and intimidation himself, was all ears.
Perkins authorized a meeting with the players, encouraging them to air their concerns about the coach’s abrasive style. Perkins didn’t leak the story, but by holding the meeting had to know it was going to go public. I told Perkins’ spokesman, associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, I had enough confirmation to break the story of the meeting with or without the cooperation of the athletic department. He gave me a say-nothing statement from Perkins that was only slightly more informative than “no comment.”
And then Perkins never had another word to say about the internal investigation conducted by his assistant, Lori Williams, until the night Mangino “resigned.” Once it became known Mangino was being investigated for his treatment of players, news hounds went in search of stories revealing how Mangino treated players. In some cases, the hounds didn’t have to search very hard. Former players volunteered stories.
During his two weeks walking the plank, Mangino reinvented himself from the intimidating tyrant to the coach who led with grandfatherly concern. At one point during the game at Texas, after receiver Johnathan Wilson was smoked on a play, Mangino approached Wilson and said, “Did you get the wind knocked out of yourself there, son?”
Mangino, a very intelligent man who is quick on his feet, conducted himself brilliantly at news conferences when asked about his situation. Without mentioning Perkins by name, he made it clear that he thought many of the questions he was being asked should be directed instead at the man not talking, and there was no disputing that point.
Once the investigation started, the question shifted from whether Mangino would coach Kansas in 2010 to when he would be fired and how much of the $6.6 million he had left on his contract he would get to keep.
Mangino declined Williams’ request to meet with her in the week leading up to the Missouri game, another thriller, this one lost by Kansas, 41-39.
Mangino made it to Thursday, a day that started with a report that KU had a 4 p.m. news conference scheduled. How did that story gain so much traction when it never happened? Here’s my guess: Perkins and/or his people told Mangino and/or his people that if they didn’t come to the table he was going to gather the media at 4 p.m. and tell them that Mangino was being fired with cause and he would tell the media why and try to keep every penny of the $6.6 million. The two sides then agreed on a buyout, agreed to keep the findings of The Williams Report confidential and agreed to call the end of the Mangino era a “resignation,” instead of the firing that it was.
Another guess: Perkins, or someone carrying out his order, contacted Joe Schad of ESPN to tell him the Mangino resignation was going down, and the evidence he could use to back that up was that the A.D. was meeting with the football players at 6:30. Perkins knew this would bring reporters to the parking lot outside the complex, where he could answer a few questions and make for his get-away car, thus removing the need for a news conference where he would have been grilled more intensely. He would have had to answer whether he felt the athletic department failed the football players through the years by not having greater oversight of Mangino and his coaching tactics. And he would have had to answer why he didn’t act upon complaints during winning seasons, as well as why he didn’t just fire Mangino without cause. The last one’s an easy one: Doing so would have caused different but pretty much equal unrest from the alumni and would have cost more because the coach would have gotten all $6.6 million. Wanting more wins was Perkins’ main motivation for making the move, and wanting to spare money drove how he made the move. Are we supposed to be shocked that Perkins is driven by winning and money?
Some perceive Perkins’ decision to use a spokesman to handle questions from the media as arrogance. In truth, it’s just the opposite. He lacks confidence in front of the cameras with good reason. He’s not very good at it. When asked why he felt the need to change football coaches, Perkins answered with the worst two-word combination he could have chosen: “Coach resigned.” Sure, that’s what the lawyers wanted him to say, but you just can’t say it and expect that not to hurt your credibility. You can’t say something you know that nobody is going to believe.
Perkins also ruffled some alumni feathers with the timing of the investigation and the perception that it was a witch hunt. As for the timing, it seems as if Perkins had limitations. Once he took the complaints from parents upstairs, the lawyers surely told him that he couldn’t sit on the investigation until the end of the season. After all, if a liberal-arts major complained about being mistreated by a professor, would that student be told to wait until the end of the semester for an investigation? Consider the liability issues.
Enough on how Perkins has done what he has done. Now look at what he has done. He has maneuvered himself into a position where he has a $2.3 million annual salary, probably more, and vastly improved facilities with which to shop for a new football coach. Perkins does his best work in the shadows, and that’s where football coaches are hired. His two football hires at UConn, Skip Holtz (now at East Carolina) and Randy Edsall, are highly regarded coaches who could be on the verge of upward moves.
Bottom line, ask yourself this question: If you had an annual salary of greater than $2 million and a new facility to offer a coach, would Mangino be on your short list? If the answer is no and you don’t mind the athletic department paying two football coaches, you have to like what Perkins has done, even if you don’t care for how he has done it.