Surprisingly, Perkins goes out with a whimper

The University of Kansas and its long-time athletics director, Lew Perkins, officially parted ways Tuesday afternoon. senior writer Jim Williamson reflects on the career of a man who was a lot of things to Jayhawk Nation – but perhaps polarizing above all else.

The first time I met Lew Perkins was KU basketball media day, 2003.

He'd been lured away from Connecticut and arrived on Mount Oread in June. I'd seen him all season at football games but never really had the opportunity to introduce myself. He was always talking to Chancellor Bob Hemenway or to a member of the football staff.

That day, at media day, he was standing at one end of Naismith Court by himself. I approached him.

Just a few weeks prior, longtime KU women's coach Marian Washington resigned her position due to health reasons. Rumor was that Perkins had pressured her to resign.

Washington held Perkins' hand during her news conference – hardly something you'd do with someone who'd pressured you to quit a job you'd held forever. Nevertheless, the rumor persisted.

Back to media day 2003: I approached Perkins and addressed him as "Mr. Perkins."

"Cawl me ‘Lew,'" he said in a thick upper New England accent. He smiled and shook my hand. His hand swallowed mine.

I started to ask a question about a possible resurgence in KU women's basketball after a number of down years.

Today, I don't remember what I was going to ask him. I do, remember what I said to get Lew started: "Lew, with coach Washington resigning under difficult circumstances…"

His demeanor changed; he stopped smiling. "What difficult circumstances?" he interrupted.

"At the news conference the other day, she…"

"There were no difficult circumstances," he interrupted again. "She retired. She's got far more important personal matters to take care of. She made that choice on her own."

I finally got a word in edgewise. "She'd been crying, Lew. She held your hand. She talked about serious health issues and how hard it was to have to walk away. You don't think that's ‘difficult circumstances?'"

It was at this point that I realized how big a man Lew Perkins is. Bill Brasky tells Lew Perkins jokes. He turned and faced me, clearly agitated. I was trying to make myself as big as possible, like you're supposed to do if you come across a bear in the woods. It wasn't working.

"You media guys already know what answers you want," he said in the same tone as when I used to use my mom's good scissors. "You ask the question and supply your own answers. You'd do a better job if you'd just ask the question and then let me answer it, okay?"

He smiled again, but it wasn't a happy smile. It was the smile that you learn in leadership seminars: always criticize with a smile. That way, when you criticize someone (or when you desperately want to squash their nuts into oblivion), the criticism (or nut squashing) doesn't seem so bad.

I abandoned my original question, whatever it was going to be, told him it was nice to meet him and went back to media day chores.

Here's where it got a little surreal: as I turned, he extended his hand and smiled what seemed like a genuine smile. He said, "I look forward to working with you!"

What the hell…?

We Kansans never got Lew Perkins. His accent, his confrontational style that tip-toed the line between aggressive and intimidation, his efforts to make Kansas Athletics "big time" – none of it.

Some of us – me included – said we got him, but we didn't.

He was ready to smack me so hard, my mom into Topeka will fall out of her chair, one minute and then smiled and said he was looking forward to working with me the next. That's a very East Coast thing to do. It wasn't personal; it was just business. You bust mine, I'll bust yours. Once it's over, it's over.

We Kansans are used to doing business with a handshake and a promise. Lew does business with a team of staff and attorneys at the ready.

Hate him all you want, he brought Kansas athletics into the 21st century, usually kicking and screaming. He did what he could so that KU athletics would be more than just a scrimmage squad Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. He raised millions and built facilities. He hired (a lot of) people. He raised academic expectations.

He even risked NCAA penalties and ordered an internal investigation of the KU athletic programs shortly after his arrival to make sure they were rules-compliant. Turns out, basketball and football weren't. They ultimately took their medicine in the form of some self-imposed minor penalties, and Lew was a champion of ethics and compliance.

The zenith was 2008. The football Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl that Lew brokered KU's way into, and the basketball squad won the national championship in what has to be the greatest sports year in the history of the University.

But then the wheels started coming off.

He fired football coach Mark Mangino for being abusive. Of course, the fact that Mangino was abusive with people was one of the worst-kept secrets in Lawrence. It only became a fireable offense after a promising season deteriorated into a 5-7 debacle.

Tickets and money – lots of money – went missing.

He traded good seats in Allen Field House for exercise equipment – the kind of cronyism that many Midwestern good ol' boy networks thrive on and condemn at the same time.

He used the University plane a lot. That is, "a lot" if you compare KU to Kansas State and Iowa State, which KU fans tend to do. If you're trying to keep up with Texas and Oklahoma, he was right in line. Comparing ourselves to Texas and Oklahoma is something we don't tend to do. But, whatever.

Finally, he never made good on the promise he made when he got here to build a top-25 athletic department at KU.

Shortly after the ticket scandal was turned over fully to the Feds, Lew announced that he'd be retiring September 4, 2011. Along the way, he'd pick up a hefty final year's salary and retention bonus, all totaling about $2 million dollars.

On Tuesday, September 7, 2010, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little cut him a check and, it would seem, said, "Take a hike." Someone decided Perkins was more trouble than he was worth. It may have been Lew himself. I'm inclined to think it was Dr. Gray-Little.

He came in bristly and grouchy and, some would say, bombastic. So the announcement that he was leaving a year early caught me off-guard. I never expected Lew to go gentle into that good night. He went out not with a bang but with a whimper.

And with more scandals than the Enquirer.

I always supported Lew Perkins, even when it wasn't popular and even when I probably shouldn't have. I contend that many Sunflower Staters never got behind him because they didn't like his attitude and style. He didn't look and sound like us. He just wasn't "one of us."

It was exactly that East Coast manner and posture, though, which made good things happen for Kansas Athletics and the University.

But in the end, people started piling up the bad next to the good and comparing the two. The bad eventually caught up.

Good luck, Lew.

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