LAWRENCE (AP) — Embattled Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins retired 12 months early Tuesday, following a year of controversy and embarrassment for both himself and the school.
Perkins, 65, said in June that he would retire in September 2011. Instead, he and chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little announced he was leaving immediately and didn’t make themselves available to reporters to explain why.
“There is no question that Kansas athletics has benefited from Lew Perkins’ leadership,” said Gray-Little. “One need only look at the academic success of our student-athletes, at KU’s trophy cases and at our state-of-the-art athletic facilities to see those benefits. I appreciate his service and understand his decision.”
Senior associate athletic director Sean Lester, who came in with Perkins in 2003, was named interim athletic director. Spokesman Jack Martin told The Associated Press the chancellor hoped to have a replacement by the middle of the spring semester and would appoint a five- or six-person search committee.
“I am grateful that Chancellor [Robert] Hemenway allowed Gwen and me to come to Lawrence to be part of the great university,” Perkins said in the statement. “We love this community. We consider it home. This decision will give us a chance to stay involved in the community in different ways. It will also allow me to explore other professional opportunities.”
Leaving a year ahead of schedule will not cost Perkins any money. The school said he will still get the approximately $2 million package he would have received by staying until September 2011.
Associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, perhaps the closest staff member to Perkins, said the Massachusetts native had not been pushed out.
“Lew is very happy. I talked to him this morning,” Marchiony said. “He thinks it’s time to go.”
Neverthless, the announcement seemed to take everyone by surprise.
“I was shocked,” said Lester. “I had no idea.”
Perkins arrived after a highly successful stint as athletic director at UConn and took over a department that had fallen woefully behind other Big 12 schools in both revenue and facilities.
Perkins immediately began a capital improvements program that picked up steam in 2008 when the Jayhawks won the NCAA basketball championship and enjoyed an unprecedented year of success in football, capped by a victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Seizing the momentum, Perkins raised about $150 million and oversaw construction of new football and basketball facilities, renovated venerable Allen Fieldhouse and gave Bill Self a 10-year, $30 million contract that made him one of the college game’s highest-paid basketball coaches.
The primitive football facilities were given a $32 million upgrade that included new coaches’ offices, practice fields and weight rooms.
“Lew’s done an awful lot for a lot of people around here,” said Self. “He was able to capitalize on a very hot time that was here. If he had waited to do that, we would have no chance to do that right now. He’s given us a chance to basically recruit selling the same things that other schools are selling that five years from now we wouldn’t have.”
But the past year brought scandal and setback, starting when federal authorities began an investigation into a ticket scam allegedly run by members of Perkins’ staff. Five of his full-time employees and one part-time consultant have been implicated.
Perkins, while never accused of having anything to do with the scam, nevertheless admitted he had been guilty of poor oversight and said it was the most embarrassing thing that had happened in his 40-year career.
In scheme, staff members allegedly sold football and basketball tickets and pocketed the money. According to a private audit, it may have cost the school as much as $3 million. The federal investigation is still ongoing.
At the same time, another former staff member said Perkins had accepted, in violation of state law, free use of exercise equipment in his home. The owner of the company that supplied the equipment said Perkins had not granted him or his firm any favors. Perkins later wrote a personal check to cover the cost of the equipment and insisted he had done no wrong.
“Look, I can afford to buy exercise equipment,” he told The Associated Press then. “I don’t have any reason to take anything like that in exchange for favors for anybody.”
But the final straw may have been an investigative story in The Kansas City Star this summer detailing Perkins’ expensive taste in travel. The story pointed out that Perkins frequently took costly flights to games and meetings when he could traveled more frugally.
Many older alumni who lost their prime seats in always sold-out Allen Fieldhouse will probably take pleasure in the departure of Perkins, whose most controversial move was putting in a points system for seating in Kansas’ historic basketball palace. Loyal fans who had enjoyed great seats for decades had to give them up because they could not afford the hefty donations required to keep them.
“He came in at a time when some very unpopular decisions had to be made,” said Self. “He had the backbone and the guts to do a lot of things that maybe a lot of people would not have had the backbone or the guts to do.”