LAWRENCE — Jeff Long is no stranger to, well, being a stranger.
Kansas’ new athletic director will officially assume that position Aug. 1, and while his familiarity with the university is admittedly limited at this point, Long has an extensive history settling into administrative roles at some of the top institutions in the country — Arkansas, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Michigan, to name a few.
In a recent interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal, the well-traveled Long discussed the mental timetable he uses when arriving at a new stop — and how that applies to whatever judgment he will make on KU’s beleaguered football program.
Long said his first step will be getting to know the staff and coaches already in the department.
“I’m not one that believes you just pick up and bring a bunch of people with you as an A.D.,” Long said. “Some people do that. I want to work with the people I have and see if they have the skillsets and tools that we need to be successful. If they don’t, maybe we’ll find a place for them elsewhere in the department, or if not, then it might be in their best interest to seek out another position. But I believe in working with people.”
Starting Aug. 1 leaves Long in an “interesting” position, he said, with the athletic department’s fiscal year budget already set and rosters and coaching staffs in place for most of the school’s programs.
“Now, I will make tweaks and look at the organizational structure as I work through the next three months, six months — I kind of look at it, every three months I’ll have a better feel on things,” Long said. “But it’ll be a year or two before we have the full program implemented, from my point of view.”
Long’s first three-month chunk will end just weeks before the football team wraps up its regular season, which represents embattled coach David Beaty’s fourth at the helm. Beaty has gone 3-33 over his first three seasons in Lawrence and has just one victory against an FBS-level opponent, leaving outsiders to speculate about his job security. But given Long’s earlier comments about preferring to give coaches and staff members a fair shake rather than simply bringing in his own people, a Beaty firing doesn’t appear a preordained event.
Asked if he foresees any scenario where Beaty doesn’t get a full season to work while Long assesses the situation, the new athletic director indicated he isn’t thinking along those lines at the moment, though he does have a general philosophy on midseason terminations.
“To me, I think changes are best made at the end of the season,” Long said. “But I’m not really focused on that at all. I’m focused on that Sept. 1 (home opener) date and getting in Aug. 1 and helping coach Beaty. As I mentioned again in that (July 11) press conference, our job is to remove obstacles. I don’t know what obstacles are there now or if there are any, but I’m sure there are, and our job is to get in and remove as many of those as possible to help this team be successful.
“I think the season is important, and I’ll be evaluating throughout the entire season.”
The statistics surrounding the football program’s near decade-long lull are staggering — a 15-81 record and three full-time head coaches in the eight seasons since the departure of Orange Bowl-winning coach Mark Mangino; no road victories since 2009; an average 29-point margin of defeat across 11 losses to FBS-level opponents last season.
Long said he caught a number of KU games in recent years as part of his responsibilities on the College Football Playoff selection committee, but he did a deeper dive on the Jayhawks’ woes before agreeing to his five-year, $7.5-million contract. He discovered what Beaty inherited from previous coach Charlie Weis — just 39 true scholarship players on the KU roster when Beaty took over in December 2014 and 54 at the beginning of Year 1, Beaty revealed recently — and came away sympathizing with that dire situation.
“You know, when you change coaches as quickly as we did, I think two in a row there, you’re going to have those scholarship issues. You can only make so much of it back with a max of 25 a year,” Long said. “That’s a big challenge. People don’t realize it, and Coach doesn’t want to use it as an excuse, and neither will I, but it’s definitely a factor. You can’t ignore the factor of the personnel drain we had at the beginning of his tenure, and it takes years to overcome that.”
Still, it’s Year 4 for Beaty, who expects somewhere around 70 true scholarship players on a roster that features 26 seniors. Moreover, the Jayhawks start their season with three winnable nonconference games. While Beaty won’t publicly state a win total he expects he’ll need to hit to retain his job, he did address the subject at last week’s Big 12 media days — “I bet around Christmas time we know,” he said.
So how much will wins and losses factor into whatever decision Long makes with football? He acknowledged it’s how success is gauged in sports and will therefore be “an important part of the evaluation.”
It won’t, however, be the only factor.
Among other considerations, Long said he will evaluate the character and academic progress of players in the program, strides made in recruiting and inroads on incoming prospects, and how the coaching staff utilizes its resources and whether the athletic department is providing enough of them.
Long will also, of course, simply seek a better understanding of the man in charge of his football program.
“We’ve got to break that cycle of losing and turn this thing around,” Long said, “and I’m excited to see coach Beaty’s team roll out on Sept. 1.”