While Wednesday’s news conference introducing KU Athletic Director Jeff Long offered insight into where he came from, where he’s going and how he plans to get there, it also provided a more complete look at the make-up of KU chancellor Douglas Girod, the man who hired Long.
Now 13 months into the job of leading the university after a wildly successful run as the executive vice chancellor of the KU Medical Center, Girod has had limited exposure to the athletic world during his first year on the job.
Although Girod and former KU Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger worked well together and were in regular contact on a number of issues affecting Kansas Athletics, Girod himself surfaced in the public eye on matters pertaining to sports only occasionally, speaking when KU kicked off its “Raise The Chant” fundraising campaign for a renovated Memorial Stadium and offering a vote of confidence for Zenger and KU football coach David Beaty after the Jayhawks’ road loss at Texas last November.
To date, Girod’s decision to fire Zenger in May and execute a search to identify Long as his replacement represent two of his biggest athletic decisions. And by nearly all accounts, Girod scored big with both moves.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” said KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self of Girod. “One thing I found out about him, which you guys know if you’ve talked to him, even though he hasn’t had experience in athletics, he’s a quick study. Regardless of what room he’s in, he’s going to be one of, if not the, brightest guy in the room.”
Girod on Wednesday said he took advantage of Self’s experience and status as one of the faces of KU sports during the search to hire Long, often bouncing ideas off of Self and picking his brain about what it takes to win and what a good AD looks like.
“Coach Self brings so much experience (and) expertise,” Girod said Wednesday. “He is very present on the national level and brings a lot of perspective and obviously has a lot of connections, as well.”
Self, who was equally flattered by Long’s claim that the KU coach helped “recruit” Long to Kansas, said he appreciated Girod reaching out to him along the way.
“He had Jeff figured out right from the get-go,” Self said. “But I think it’s cool when somebody like that, who hasn’t had a lot of experience in this area, would try to get ideas on certain situations.”
Self noted that his conversations with Girod throughout the hiring process were mostly of a theoretical nature and stayed away from specifics.
As a man who has seen his share of university presidents and chancellors during the past 20 years, Long, too, found Girod to be a man much more in tune with athletics than many have let on to this point in his career.
“He will admit that he doesn’t know a whole lot about athletics,” Long told the Journal-World during a Thursday morning phone call from his Arkansas home. “Yet, I would tell you, sitting across from him, that I know he’s learned a lot about athletics and has the ability to learn much more.”
Long, who is in the midst of his fourth transitional period as a new athletic director — he also saw five more in a 10-year span as an assistant AD at Michigan from 1988-98 — said Thursday that he learned a long time ago that, no matter how great an opportunity seemed, it ultimately was only as good as the man behind it.
“There’s nothing more valuable to an experienced AD than to make sure you know who your chancellor is and to know who you’re going to be working with and for,” Long told the Journal-World. “It’s always a two-way street with this kind of thing. They (Kansas) needed to be sold on me and, quite frankly, I needed to be sold on them.”
Girod’s personal strengths and professional philosophy played a huge role in making sure that happened.
“He just has that kind of down-to-earth sincerity that you can only sense and feel when you’re sitting face to face and eye to eye with someone,” said Long of his new boss. “He’s very personable and I just enjoyed talking with him. And he’s highly intelligent and a great communicator. Just his personal demeanor, his personal warmth, his personal commitment to help me do my job made a big impact.”
While it’s clear that Girod utilized every resource and made all the right moves on the way to helping KU land Long, his versatility as a leader might have been the most notable aspect of the Long hire.
Some days, Girod flashed his gentle side and worked from a more personal perspective. Other days, he talked numbers and showed a strong desire to make real progress.
Whether illustrated by the firing of Zenger or the hiring of Long, Girod’s efforts during the past couple of months demonstrated to those at KU whose opinions matter most that operating in the world of college athletics is not only somewhere he’s willing to be, but also an area in which he’s comfortable working.
He may not be in line to become the next chairman of the College Football Playoff Committee — a job Long once held — and doesn’t figure to be signing up to lead the NCAA the next time that job comes open. But Girod today has something on his resume he didn’t two months ago. And, in an ever-changing era of college athletics, with conference realignment always a threat to rage, big-money contracts climbing and input from university leaders becoming more common, Girod's athletic acumen figures to serve KU and Long well in the future.
“This chancellor means business,” search committee leader Drue Jennings said Wednesday. “As pleasant and human as he may appear, which he is, he does indeed mean business.”
For the next few weeks, Long will balance the business at hand with a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park. He said Thursday that he and his wife, Fanny, already had begun the process of looking for a house in Lawrence and that both were still smiling from Wednesday’s festivities and looking forward to calling Lawrence home.
“The overall reception from the people in Kansas has been incredible,” Long said of his whirlwind eight days. “And it’s just what you’d think from Midwestern folks. It’s just been heartwarming to receive the messages and the comments and the support. That’s really special. And Wednesday really was a special day for me and my family. It was incredible. It really was.”