Why KU's athletic director hire Jeff Long makes sense for school, new chancellor

By Jesse Newell jnewell@kcstar.com

Jeff Long is the new Kansas athletic director, and though no one can be sure how this will turn out, it's not difficult to understand KU chancellor Douglas Girod's thinking.

This is the biggest move that Girod has made — and perhaps the biggest one he will make — as the new man in KU's top position. And if we examine what he was looking for with his next hire, the fact that Long is headed to Lawrence makes some sense.

Let's go back. Girod fired previous KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger on May 21, explaining to The Star then: "Football’s most certainly the most prominent challenge that we have right now. But it’s also getting excitement behind a vision, getting a fanbase moving behind a vision to really take athletics to the next level. We had lost some momentum there.”

This spells out two of the main attributes Girod was looking for in the next KU athletic director: an ability to build a football program and also energize a fanbase that will need to give money if KU Athletics hopes to raise its proposed $350 million for a Memorial Stadium renovation.

Long appears to check both of these boxes.

During his 10 years as athletic director at Arkansas, Long earned respect in the college football community. He was the first ever College Football Playoff selection chairman — a title only he and Texas Tech's Kirby Hocutt have had so far — and also was a member of Division I football oversight committee.

In terms of fundraising, Long spearheaded a $320 million project at Arkansas and also completed a $160 million section of that, with that money used to renovate the team's football stadium.

It's only natural to believe Girod was looking for someone who would provide strengths where Zenger had weaknesses. Though Zenger was well-respected in the athletic department and deserves credit for KU's construction of facilities like Rock Chalk Park, he also seemed to never enjoy the attention or spotlight that comes with being the head of a Power Five athletic department.

Long should definitely provide a face for the program. He has extensive Power Five experience — working previously as athletic director at Pittsburgh and also previously as an assistant AD at Oklahoma — and brings with him a reputation of being a recognizable name in the industry.

Thursday's financial numbers only further reflect his standing. KU will pay Long $1.5 million per year for five years, an annual salary that would have ranked fourth in total compensation last year according to numbers compiled by Spencer Fane LLP. In addition, Long has a clause that puts additional years on his contract if any of KU's major programs are put on probation or found to have committed violations before his arrival; this likely can be read as a safety valve in case the men's basketball team, which appears to be safe at the moment, has any future fallout from the FBI's probe into college basketball.

In any case, Long's strong reputation is most likely to help KU if — or when — the athletic department has to search for a new football coach.

Long previously pulled off one of the most unexpected college football hires this decade, bringing Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas in 2012 after Bielema had won the previous three Big Ten championships. Though Bielema did not have success in Fayetteville, that fact also could help Long in the future; the AD stood behind his coach after a 4-6 start in 2017, and partly because of that, Arkansas chose to fire Long before later letting go of Bielema.

It begs the question: If KU has another football opening, could Long potentially be able to open doors that other ADs couldn't? And if a candidate was interested, would he be reassured knowing that Long has a history of supporting his coaches, even to the point of losing his own job?

Long, obviously, will have more work to do than football. Perhaps most important of all will be getting along with Bill Self, as KU fans don't need reminding that a hall of fame basketball coach can potentially leave Lawrence if he doesn't respect his new boss.

For Girod, though, this makes sense in a few ways.

It's hard to make a splash with an athletic director hire, but the chancellor should be able to do that here. Any KU fans Googling "Jeff Long" this week won't have any problems learning more about their new AD and his extensive past in college athletics.

Long also has been able to raise money in the past, appears to be comfortable in the public eye (his Twitter account has 122,000 followers) and knows the college football world well.

It's too early to know how this will turn out. Long might be great at KU. He might not be.

One can understand, though, Girod's thought process here. He went with someone different from whom he'd just fired, hoping to bring in a candidate with the expertise and experience needed to take on KU's "most prominent challenge."

The rest, from here, will be up to Long.


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