LAWRENCE — Jeff Long didn't warm up before tackling the gauntlet drill at Thursday afternoon's Kansas football practice.
As the first-year athletic director sees it, that simply wasn't necessary.
"You know, I'm like a tiger. You never see a tiger stretching before he runs down an antelope," Long joked in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal. "That's me."
Donning suit and tie, Long's enthusiastic participation in the catch-and-go exercise was one of the highlights of the team's final practice session ahead of its 6 p.m. Saturday spring game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. KU enticed a few hundred students to the team's indoor practice facility Thursday for what was dubbed fan appreciation day, giving away prizes, signing autographs and allowing onlookers to do everything from fielding punts to running obstacle courses.
The afternoon also represented the latest gesture of good will from Les Miles -- if turning around the downtrodden football program has been the first-year head coach's top mission, the secondary spot has arguably been occupied by trying to engage a long-disinterested fan base, with Miles going as far as to buy students free lunches on multiple impromptu visits to The Underground at Wescoe Hall.
When Long hired the former national championship-winning coach, he stressed the importance of engaging the student body. Since that late-November agreement, Long hasn't had to issue a reminder.
"Candidly, I didn't say another thing to him about that," Long said. "Next thing I know, he has all these things on campus he's doing. He planned this (fan appreciation) event. He gets it and knows it's important for fans, to have students at events. And you know what? These kids will come back to a game, and then they'll bring some of their friends, and then here we go."
Saturday night may very well be the first look at that potential phenomenon.
The university has made drastic changes to the format of its spring game, dubbed "Late Night Under the Lights" in a nod to the wildly successful "Late Night in the Phog" event hosted by the men's basketball team. Outside of the setting sun and what is expected to be a respectable turnout for the first time in ages, the most noticeable difference will be what comes after the offense-versus-defense scrimmage, with hip-hop superstar Rick Ross set for a concert.
If nothing else, Ross' presence will deliver more eyes to Memorial Stadium, a fact rising senior safety Mike Lee realized during an interaction Tuesday with several students in a vehicle passing in front of DeBruce Center near Allen Fieldhouse.
"We asked them if they were coming to the spring game, and all of 'em said yeah. That really, like, shocked me and surprised me, because most people don't come out to our spring game because I feel like we've never really had a real spring game," Lee said. "I feel like everybody's excited for this spring game."
Among those excited is Long, who credited the athletic department's marketing wing for the well-received twists to the traditional format, and Miles for agreeing to the changes.
"Leadership says, 'We've got to do something different. We can't continue to do things we've done in football and expect different results,' that whole thing," Long said. "So we've challenged all of our people -- marketing, ticketing, whoever it is. We've got to be different. We're changing, and we've got to think differently."
With an assist to Ross, KU players appear eager to get the ball rolling in a different direction when it comes to fan interest -- the Jayhawks averaged a Big 12-worst 19,424 fans across six home games in last season's 3-9 campaign.
"I would love for anyone who could come out and support, I would love for them to come out and support us," Lee said. "I feel like we put in so much work. We improving as a team. We improving as a whole. We disciplined. I feel like if they come out, they can see for themselves. ...
"It's just a different type of energy. The energy is like, on a whole new level. We just ready to prove a lot of people wrong, that we can compete and fight with anybody that steps in front of us."
While Long stopped short of saying KU must have fan support in order to get the long-suffering football program turned around, he did indicate the former is part of the equation that can lead to what he's stated as his No. 1 objective.
"Fans in the stands helps recruiting, and it certainly helps those young people on the field play. I mean, we all play these games because we want people to watch and enjoy what we're doing, what we love to do," Long said. "So yeah, I think they go hand-in-hand, and yeah, I think we can have success before fans come back, but the fans will be the key, the students will be the key, to get this thing going. ...
"I know this: I just feel the energy level walking around our building, away from football. It's just at a higher level. They're engaged. I think we've got the beginnings of this, turning this around and breaking the cycle, as I say. I think we've got the beginnings of it. It won't happen overnight, but we have certainly begun and begun in a big way."
And it's quite likely Long felt that energy Thursday, though his run of the gauntlet wasn't flawless.
Long hauled in five of the six passes thrown his way from KU quarterbacks, unable to corral one delivered by 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior and potential starter Thomas MacVittie. The pass came in a little high, with Long lamenting it would've made for "a miraculous catch."
Luckily for MacVittie, it won't be the last pass he delivers this spring in front of an audience of KU supporters.
"I tried to get him a high ball for a good picture, but he dropped it," MacVittie joked. "Bad pass. I'll put that on me."