LAWRENCE — It took Jeff Long just three hours to come to a conclusion that the new Kansas athletic director admitted hasn’t always been true at his past stops.
This, the well-traveled administrator told wife Fanny on Wednesday morning, will be a good fit.
Not unlike scores of students throughout the college town, Wednesday represented move-in day for Long, his first official opportunity to get to work as the university’s athletic director. Fielding a phone call ahead of an interview with reporters, Long was asked by his wife for an update on his whirlwind day and whether he was gelling with the dozens of unfamiliar faces throughout campus.
Long delivered the good news.
“I’ll just tell you honestly: My response to her was, ‘You know, it feels really good here,’ “ Long said. “As you meet people, as you’re in the town, as you’re on campus, it just feels really good. In my career I’ve got some campuses that I’ve said, ‘What did I do?’ But not here at Kansas.”
Pleasantries and good vibes aside, Long appeared eager to get his hands dirty.
An immediate opportunity to hire his first head coach at KU was atop Long’s to-do list for his first month as athletic director. Former softball coach Megan Smith left that position last week to take the same role at Marshall, and much of Long’s morning was dedicated to analyzing the situation alongside associate athletic director of student athlete development Jane Widger-Fulton, a former Division I softball coach.
“That is certainly a priority in my mind,” Long said.
On a big-picture scale, Long said he already has begun meeting with his administrative team. He hopes to look beyond job titles to gauge exactly what each upper-level staffer does on a day-to-day basis.
The last item Long outlined in his August outlook is perhaps his most important task -- building relationships with the university’s donors, from the big-money givers on down.
“(Fundraising) is like recruiting for the coaches -- it’s the lifeblood for athletic directors,” Long said. “We have to get to work. Again, that’s a difficult one too because that’s about relationships. Fundraising is relationships. My team has to have good relationships (with donors), and I’m sure they do, but as athletic director I have to start to build those relationships and that does take a little bit of time.”
Long confirmed he’s already had a “great conversation” with mega donor David Booth, whose $50 million donation last September stands as the largest in the athletic department’s history and led in part to the renaming of David Booth--Kansas Memorial Stadium.
“I’m paraphrasing now, but I think he said it in a way that, ‘I’m a low-maintenance person.’ He probably didn’t say it that way, but that’s what I took from it,” Long said of his conversation with Booth. “And I’ll have more conversations with him because when you make an investment like that in our program, I want to learn from him and why he made it, why it was important for him to do that, and that’ll help me understand how we use those funds.”
The question of how KU will use those funds, Long revealed, is an open-ended one.
KU unveiled its ambitious $350 million “Raise the Chant” campaign last September with $300 million of those funds allocated for renovations to the team’s football facilities. Construction of the program’s indoor football practice facility is already underway, but beyond that Long admitted he will need to re-evaluate the entire effort.
“I think I have to,” Long said. “I need to understand how and what the initial launch was and the reasons why and behind (them), and then with my coming in decide where do we take it from here? How does it move forward? So I need to look at the plan that’s in place and take from my experience, maybe add something to it or adjust course a little bit.”
The “Raise the Chant” fundraising website has been down for several weeks, but Long said that isn’t an indication the project is on hold. Rather, the decision was made to create a “pause” to give Long a chance to get settled and decide how best to move forward, he said.
“They’re continuing to fund-raise, continuing to raise money, but we’ll look at it and maybe there’s a different course we take or something,” Long said. “But it is definitely active.”
A self-described “football person,” Long is of course eager to get a firsthand look at KU’s football program and how fourth-year coach David Beaty operates. That process will begin Thursday when Long visits with the team’s players, who are set to report for fall camp.
Perhaps Long’s most interesting statement came while answering a question about the challenges of fundraising for a struggling program and how unexpected success often catches athletic departments off guard.
“What our team will need to do,” Long said, “is work hard to make sure that we have the plans in place, the forethought of when we have success -- and we anticipate having success this year -- that then we have the things in place to be able to build upon it.”
One might be surprised to learn Long anticipates success for a program mired in a 15-81 stretch across the last eight seasons. Asked to expand upon that statement, Long stressed his unconditional support for the program and its coaches.
“I’m an optimist,” Long said. “It’s the old thing: You’ve gotta believe in success before you can have success. I believe in this team. I believe in the coaching staff. Let’s go and see what we can do.”