How Jeff Long — introduced as new AD Wednesday — impressed KU’s search committee

By Jesse Newell jnewell@kcstar.com

The gathering took place in a Washington D.C. meeting room, and just minutes after it started, Drue Jennings had a sense he might be talking to the next Kansas athletic director.

This was the last week of June, and Jennings — the chair of KU's search committee — had traveled via KU's company jet with chancellor Douglas Girod to formally interview Jeff Long.

The talk, Jennings said, became "one of those pivotal moments" in the hiring process. Long started by telling Girod and Jennings about his own personal history, explaining a past where he was the first child in his family to go to college and the son of blue-collar workers from Ohio.

"He was pretty emotional describing his roots," Jennings said, "because he felt so sincere about them."

Jennings, through a lifetime of experience, had learned to trust his instincts when it came to evaluating people. That intuition, when serving as KU's interim athletic director in 2003, was part of what led him to hire Bill Self — a decision that continues to pay dividends for the athletic department nearly two decades later.

In this first meeting with Long — in the same city as a national athletic directors convention that week — Jennings felt positive vibes. Long was sociable but still tough as nails, Jennings said. He was compassionate toward people, yet spoke about not backing down from difficult situations when he was Arkansas' athletic director.

"This guy will suffer no fools," Jennings told The Star. "He's disciplined. He holds people accountable. He can handle the heat."

When the interview was over, Jennings spoke with Girod during the flight back. Jennings said "there were no disagreements" when it came to the impression Long had just made.

It all led to Wednesday's festivities, as Long was officially introduced as KU's 15th athletic director at the Lied Center Pavilion on campus.

"The challenge is what got me excited about Kansas," Long said. "For an AD, some of us look for challenges and we like to compete, as I say. I'm coming in here to compete, and I'm excited about that opportunity."

Long, who will start for KU on Aug. 1, will make $1.5 million annually for the next five years. The base salary is more than double what his predecessor, Sheahon Zenger, was making ($700,000) and also would have ranked fourth nationally last year, according to data compiled by Spencer Fane LLP.

That financial commitment, though, is something Jennings thinks is necessary.

"The chancellor knew that when we started this, he was really going to have to cinch the belt up and play for real," Jennings said. "If you want to get done what you want, which is to elevate the profile of this entire university — athletics as well — to move it up to the next level, you've got to play hardball."

As he worked alongside Girod over the past two months, Jennings also saw the chancellor as someone who was engaged in the hiring process. Jennings said Girod was available to the committee day and night and even responded to texts while overseas in Kenya.

Jennings made sure to stress to the chancellor that, in the end, this would be his choice. When helping with a previous AD search, Jennings believed former chancellor Robert Hemenway made a mistake when hiring Al Bohl, as he sensed that Hemenway had allowed the search committee to determine whom he should hire.

"When he and I worked together to hire Lew Perkins, I told him then, 'Look, I can help identify people, and I'll do everything I can to help you and give you my comments and opinions. But he's your person. You're the one who's going to live with it. Six months, and I'll be back in my life, and you'll be dealing with this,'" Jennings said. "The great thing about chancellor Girod is he already fully appreciates that."

Girod's final decision was to hire Long, believing his combination of experience, leadership and fundraising acumen should help move KU forward over the next few years.

Jennings, meanwhile, only further trusted his initial read of Long after meeting up with him before Wednesday's press conference. In the green room at the Lied Center Pavilion, Jennings noticed how Long interacted with wife Fanny and daughters Stephanie and Christina, needling them with jokes while looking for ways to make them smile.

"You can tell from body language, if you've been around people enough ... you can tell somebody who's looking for the spotlight today or who's genuinely moving a family into a job of big responsibility," Jennings said.

"He's going to be a good deal."


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