Nothing Personal – It's Just (Big) Business

I have a friend (as hard to believe as that may be) who sometimes refers to athletic director Lew Perkins as "Fish," after the deadpan sitcom character played by Abe Vigoda.

I can see it, I guess, but if Lew Perkins puts me in mind of any Abe Vigoda character, it's Sal Tessio, caporegime (along with Pete Clemenza) of the Corleone Family in "The Godfather."

Powerful. Gets what he wants. Doesn't worry about what others think. Maybe just a little intimidating.

If I learned anything from the Mangino-Perkins saga that finally wound down last week, it was that a lot of Kansas sports fans have a problem with the way Perkins wielded his power as AD. Just look at the Phog's Gridiron Room or the comments in any of the local newspapers. I even heard a mildly disturbing amount of vitriol around the break room at work.

There was a lot of grousing about Perkins' East Coast background. "He isn't one of us," I was told. "We don't do business that may here in the Midwest," people told me when discussing his handling – or mishandling – of former football coach Mark Mangino. A lot of folks I talked to had issues with the secretive way he's conducting the search for a new coach and the amounts of money that he's allegedly willing to spend.

This piece isn't so much about Lew Perkins and his management style. Rather, it's a commentary about having your cake and eating it, too.

I guess I was a little surprised at the home-grown, grass-fed Kansas resentment at how Perkins' runs the KU athletic department. I'd have thought Jayhawk fans would have become more sophisticated than that. Just because we outlawed evolution doesn't mean we have to be naïve about other things.

It would be nice if life really was like a pick-up truck commercial, where leathery men in checked Western shirts and Stetsons shake hands in meaningful ways about important things. But it isn't.

Kansas fans say they understand that college athletics are a business, but I don't think most of them really understand what that means, what it entails.

Corporate America can be a really lousy place sometimes. We've seen that a lot in the last 10 years. Infighting, agendas, self-interests, territoriality, alliances, divisions and, yes, deceit and plain ol' fashioned lying happen sometimes in big business. It's true. In fact, show me a successful multimillion dollar corporation and I'll show you a CEO that 90 percent of people think is a real SOB.

Successful college athletic departments are no different. College athletic administration is a big boy's game. It's not not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes a real SOB to shake down donors after a disappointing season or to sit across a desk from a coach and tell him or her, "Get it done...now."

Athletic directors talk about winning games and championships, both conference and national. They talk to players about them. They talk about them with boosters and media. That's fine, because that's the job of a coach or A.D.: putting a successful product on the court or field.

In reality, however, they're just as concerned – maybe even more concerned – with the bottom line. That's right: dollar signs.

Had the Kansas athletic department continued to go the direction it was before interim athletic director Drue Jennings and then Perkins stepped in, KU would likely have far fewer non-revenue sports than it does now, and the University might be fielding one of the most competitive football teams in the Missouri Valley Conference.

It's time we all realized that Division I athletics is no longer about the old college try and raccoon coats at the freshman mixer. They're about television rights and licensing fees and luxury suites and $15,000 courtside seats. When it's all said and done, college sports are a multi-billion entertainment industry.

Success at that level is rarely, if ever, achieved by nice people. Success in big-time intercollegiate athletics is achieved by professional men and women who understand that sometimes, people end up getting left at the side of the road – sometimes standing, sometimes not.

What's happened at KU since Lew Perkins took over is not new. Kansas was struggling to get out of a 1980', pre-Big 12 mindset prior to Perkins' arrival on campus. The kind of fund raising and ticket incentive plans he has instituted had been going on at other colleges for years. As usual, Kansas was catching up to the rest of the country.

And that's where the rub comes in. I keep hearing how many people want the KU chancellor to can Perkins. They want him to retire. They just want him to take his East Coast sensibilities right back to the East Coast. A lot of fans think he's ruined KU sports.

Of course, those same people turn right around and tell me they want an 8-4 or 9-3 football team every year and a perennial top 10 basketball team.

I will submit that in today's college sports environment, the two are as close to mutually exclusive as you can possibly get. I don't think that's good or it's bad. I think we, as fans, just need to understand it and decide: do we want to continue to support our favorite Division I college teams in these relatively-new surroundings, or do we want to cheer for teams and schools who do it the way it used to be done before the money got big? In other words, a nice Ivy or Patriot League team. Maybe a Division III team like Wisconsin-Whitewater or Lindenwood College needs a new fan.

When I go out for a few beers with those friends I told you about earlier – remember them? – my lovely wife will invariably say, as I'm headed out the door, "Have fun! Be careful!"

My response is always the same: "Damn, woman, make up your mind."

I want to say the same thing to a lot of Jayhawk faithful.

"We want someone nice running the athletic department! We want winning teams!"

Damn, KU fans, make up your mind.

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