LAWRENCE — The first time University of Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins announced his retirement, the timing seemed questionable. It was mid-June, the Big 12 Conference was on the verge of extinction and Perkins' athletic department was being investigated by federal authorities because of a ticket scandal that cost the school at least $1 million.
Perkins' second retirement announcement, which occurred Tuesday afternoon, raised more questions than the first.
Perkins is out as KU athletic director, a full year before his originally agreed upon retirement date of Sept. 4, 2011. Sean Lester, who will serve as interim athletic director, said Perkins and KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little came to a "mutual decision."
A university official said Gray-Little could not comment on her part of the decision because it was a personnel issue. The university did reveal that Kansas Athletics Inc. will pay Perkins the approximately $2 million he would have made if he had remained athletic director for the next year. That figure includes the $600,000 retention bonus Perkins was due if he stayed until June 30, 2011.
KU did not retain Perkins, but he will get the money anyway. Perkins, 65, was not available for comment on Tuesday but said in a university release that he considers Lawrence his home and hopes to stay involved in the community. He said he would also be allowed to "explore other professional opportunities."
Perkins leaves a conflicted legacy in Lawrence. His official retirement came three days after Kansas football suffered an embarrassing 6-3 loss to North Dakota State, a team that plays in a lower division than KU. Jayhawks football coach Turner Gill was hired by Perkins to replace Mark Mangino, who resigned in December amid controversy after Perkins launched an investigation into Mangino's treatment of players.
But KU football's fall from grace is only the tip of the iceberg for Perkins during a turbulent final year in charge of Kansas Athletics.
A difficult year
In late September 2009, the Kansas football team was ranked No. 20 in the country, and the basketball team was a year removed from a national championship. The donations to the athletic department were rolling in, and Perkins was viewed as one of the best athletic directors in the country.
The perception of Perkins' department began to change on the morning of Sept. 23 as members of the football team and basketball teams were seen fighting each other in the middle of campus. Perkins said in the aftermath that he was "embarrassed and very hurt" by what had happened.
In November, as KU football was on the way to losing its last seven games, Perkins announced that he was investigating Mangino, who had allegedly poked a player in the chest during a practice in October. Media reports alleged numerous incidents of physical and verbal abuse by Mangino during his time at KU, and Mangino resigned in early December with a $3 million settlement.
Within two weeks, Perkins made his first big hire as the KU athletic director — Gill, a players' coach who could erase any negative vibes left over from Mangino.
At that point, things seemed to be in order again. The basketball team — always the darling among KU faithful — was ranked No. 1 in the country and would eventually earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the fun stopped when Northern Iowa upset Kansas in the second round.
Later in March, it was reported that federal authorities were investigating Kansas Athletics and its fundraising arm, the Williams Educational Fund, for possibly selling men's basketball tickets illegally. The university then announced that it would begin an internal review of KU's ticket procedures.
In late May, after high-ranking Williams Fund officials Rodney Jones and Ben Kirtland had resigned, the university released the results of its investigation. Six former KU employees had sold or used almost 20,000 men's basketball and football tickets worth $1 million to $3 million during 2005-10. The report said the KU ticket office functioned like a "candy store."
Perkins was not personally implicated in KU's report. But within a week, he was accused by a former KU employee in the Topeka Capital-Journal of using $15,000 worth of exercise equipment loaned to him by a Kansas Athletics vendor in exchange for improving that vendor's seats at Allen Fieldhouse.
A KU investigation found no wrongdoing by Perkins, but the matter was sent to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission for review. By law, state employees are not allowed to accept gifts. Perkins sent a $5,000 personal check as a back-rental payment to the co-owner of the vendor, the now-defunct Medical Outfitters, to try and remedy any ethical concerns that existed.
In June, with the future of the Big 12 up in the air due to conference realignment, Perkins announced that he would retire effective Sept. 4, 2011.
On Aug. 15, The Kansas City Star reported that Perkins charged the athletic department more than $150,000 from July 2008 to May 2010 for 22 flights on university-owned and leased planes. That figure, totaled after a review of Perkins' travel vouchers, did not include 23 other private flights Perkins took in that time.
Perkins said he did not consider his use of private planes a luxury and that it was the "price of doing business." But The Star found that Perkins' travel, including flights to Columbia, Mo., Wichita and Pittsburg was excessive compared to athletic directors at rivals Missouri and Kansas State.
On Aug. 19, Gray-Little announced that Perkins would no longer serve as the chairman of the advisory board for Kansas Athletics. On Tuesday, she announced that he would no longer be athletic director.
"There is no question that Kansas Athletics has benefited from Lew Perkins' leadership," Gray-Little said in a release. "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."
Gray-Little didn't address her part in the decision to have Perkins retire Tuesday morning, but she made it clear that a plan was in place for the future.
The university will conduct a nationwide search for the next athletic director. Since June, she said, she has been reaching out to coaches, faculty, alumni and donors and asking for their input. Gray-Little said in a statement she would announce a search committee of no more than five to six members by the end of next week.
"Our goal," Gray-Little said, "is to name a new athletics director by the middle to latter part of the spring semester, if not sooner."
It is unclear whether Lester, who was KU's associate athletic director for internal relations, would be a candidate for the full-time role. Lester said at an afternoon news conference that he was open to it, but Gray-Little said in a statement later in the day that Lester expressed to her that he was not a candidate.
Lester, 43, a native of Storrs, Conn., has worked under Perkins since 1996 and came to Kansas along with Perkins from Connecticut in 2003. Lester said Perkins had been giving him extra responsibilities recently but said he was "shocked" Tuesday morning when he got the news from Gray-Little that Perkins had officially retired.
Lester has spent his seven years at KU working to generate revenue through fundraising and capital projects. He said he is embracing the chance to run the department.
"It's an excellent opportunity for me," Lester said, "and I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity."
A year ago, no one could have foreseen Perkins retiring under these circumstances. Perkins was the guy who wanted to bring KU its "swagger back," and he was willing to make unpopular decisions to make it happen.
Perkins implemented a priority points system through the Williams Fund, a process that alienated many longtime fans who could no longer afford premium tickets. Perkins also angered some fans when he agreed to move Kansas-Missouri football games off campus to Arrowhead Stadium.
But those moves and others helped Perkins double KU's operating budget from $27 million to $55 million. Under Perkins, KU has raised funds at what was once an unthinkable level for a school of its size.
"I said this to our chancellor: The athletic directorship at the University of Kansas is a far better position than it was eight years ago," KU coach Bill Self said. "I do believe we should be able to attract the perfect fit for us and what we're looking for."