Because I grew up in suburban St. Louis in the 50’s, my sports heroes were athletes like Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks and Stan “The Man” Musial of the Cardinals. I believe it was around my senior year in high school when Pettit scored 50 points against the Celtics and brought the first and only NBA title to St. Louis.
I have clear memories of warm, summer nights and playing catch in my backyard with my dad while Harry Caray and Gabby Street described Cardinal games from the radio in our screened-in porch. Later, it was Jack Buck’s voice that painted the picture for us. Both Caray and Buck are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
My dad was a major influence on my involvement in sports, particularly in baseball and basketball. He really enjoyed sports and took interest in teaching me how to play. Dad was a pretty good basketball player and I remember watching him shoot underhanded free throws with success.
Dad worked with me in baseball and made me a left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower with hopes it would contribute to a possible professional baseball career. I was a fairly good baseball player up until my freshman year in high school. At that point, I concentrated more on basketball and football.
Without question, the biggest influence on my life in sports was my high school coach, Denver Miller. He spent 43 years at Kirkwood High School and was an individual of great character and values. He placed an importance on education and I can easily say that I never would have achieved the opportunity to be an athletics director had it not been for Denver Miller.
I was a good enough athlete to play both football and basketball. I was a tall, six-foot-four, quarterback and I could pass the ball down the field. There were about six of us being recruited to play at Missouri. As it turns out, the other five all ended up playing at Missouri. They backed off me by the time my senior season had ended.
Basketball turned out to be my best sport in high school. Early, during my senior season, Dean Smith started to recruit me to attend the Air Force Academy. Coach Smith was an assistant coach there and he came to St. Louis, visited with me and my family in our home, and took us to dinner.
I had not been serious about attending a military academy, but decided to try that route. I did get accepted and was all set to play basketball and attend Air Force.
Then, about four weeks before I was scheduled to report, we received a telegram from the Surgeon General’s office informing me that I was ruled physically unfit to enroll at the Academy. It had turned up during my physical examination that I had an astigmatism in one eye and that I would be near-sighted by the time I was in my mid-20’s. They had a rule in place at that time – which was changed just a few years later – that denied enrollment to students with this condition.
I think coach Smith felt bad about the situation and placed a phone call to his old coach, Dick Harp, suggesting they take me as a walk-on in basketball at KU.
The Jayhawks had been on my radar screen as a possible college choice. I had been to the campus several times because my older sister, Susan, was a student there.
During my first year, I was a starter on the freshman team and we often scrimmaged against the varsity. That was good team that ended up being co-champion of the Big Eight. Harp had a roster that included Wayne Hightower, Bill Bridges and Jerry Gardner among others.
It was obvious I would have to pay my dues to earn playing time as a sophomore. Hightower, Bridges and Gardner were back and we also had Nolen Ellison and Al Correll. The coaches affectionately referred to the backups on the bench as the “slugs” or “slug nuts.” We ran the opponent’s offense and defense in practice and always took a pretty good beating.
As it turned out, I got into one game – very briefly – during the first semester and I believe it came against North Carolina. Little did I realize that would be the extent of my college basketball playing days. I was outside running during the semester break, stepped in a low place in the ground, and severely twisted my knee. It required surgery in the spring and my playing career was basically over.
I was considering transferring to Washington University in St. Louis but coach Harp encouraged me to stay involved with the program. I told him that I had interest in coaching and he suggested that staying a part of the basketball program would be best for me for my future as a coach.
By the time I was a senior, I was working as a team manager. Coach Harp later brought me back as a graduate assistant coach and that’s how my 20-year coaching career got started. Coach Harp used to send me on the road to recruit and I went to five of the seven Negro League State Tournaments around the country. I saw some great players.
Like any young assistant, I worked my way up the coaching ladder. I worked two years for Ted Owens, spent three years at Russell High School, and one season at Coffeyville Community College. I came back to KU for one season and then worked in the mid-1970’s as an assistant at Brigham Young and later at Stanford.
I decided that I wanted to come back to Lawrence and start work on my doctorate degree at KU. I was hired as basketball coach and chemistry teacher at Lawrence High School.
During the spring of 1981 Tom Hedrick, who was broadcasting the KU games on radio, talked with me about taking over the Williams Educational Fund in the athletics department. He arranged a breakfast meeting for me with Bob Marcum, the new athletics director.
It was the three of us at Perkins Restaurant and I’ll never forget that Marcum told Tom to take care of the tab and Tom had it in his hand as we approached the cash register. He leaned over and whispered in my ear that he had forgotten his wallet and could I slip him enough to cover the charge. Of course, Tom promised to pay me back (I’m not sure he ever did). Thus, I ended up paying for my meal at my own interview!
I worked four years as assistant athletics director in charge of the Williams Educational Fund under Bob Marcum and Monte Johnson. That experience opened the door for me to become athletics director at Illinois State (Normal, Ill.) in 1985.
After two years in Normal, then KU chancellor Gene Budig asked me to come back to KU and be athletics director. I had a decision to make because I had befriended the chancellor at a university in the Big 10 — which I’ve never identified — and he told me that if I hung on for a few weeks longer he wanted to hire me as the athletic director.
But, coming back to the University of Kansas had more appeal. I took the job in 1987 for a salary of $74,000. My first year back at KU was a busy one. I made a difficult decision to change football coaches and after early negotiations with Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State coach broke down, we hired an upcoming coach from Kent State named Glen Mason. Midway through the basketball season we were contemplating the possibility of hosting an NIT game. But the basketball team caught fire and won the 1988 NCAA National Championship and I found myself shaking hands with Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden in early April. Immediately after the game, the whole episode of Larry Brown going to UCLA dominated our life and keeping Larry continued to be an issue.
Meanwhile, Dick Harp was now on Dean Smith’s staff at North Carolina and he was already in my ear about a young assistant coach there by the name of Roy Williams. This was before we even had an opening.
Finally, coach Brown decided to return to professional basketball. NCAA investigators were on the campus and I had to find someone qualified to absorb the challenges of a storied basketball program, fresh from a national title, but under the dark cloud of serious NCAA sanctions. We went through a long search process and the rest of the story, as they say, is history. We hired that unknown assistant from North Carolina who coach Harp was promoting to be our basketball coach and a short time later faced the jolt of the NCAA penalties.
It was certainly an eventful way to launch my 14-year tenure as athletics director.
I wouldn’t trade those years at KU for anything. I’ve always been amazed at the emotional attachment that people have to the University of Kansas. I’m not sure there is another public university that has such a strong emotional attachment for alumni as this one seems to have. From my observation, it’s tied to both the athletic and academic traditions. I believe they are unique and set us apart from most other public universities.
Walking down the hill for graduation is a memorable experience. Just like going to a basketball game in Allen Fieldhouse or seeing the fans wave the wheat at Memorial Stadium.
People don’t forget about this place. It becomes part of their life forever. It certainly has for me.