LAWRENCE — University of Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins announced Thursday that he will retire in 15 months but left others with the task of trying to explain the timing of his decision.
KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and men's basketball coach Bill Self said they were surprised when Perkins told them the news. They could only speculate on why Perkins would decide to retire in the midst of an attack on the university that's coming from multiple fronts — in the form of a federal investigation into an athletic department ticket scandal, ongoing questions about the university's internal review of Perkins' acceptance of exercise equipment from a vendor and — most pressing for KU's future — the predicted demise of the Big 12 Conference.
Perkins declined to address reporters Thursday — he said in a statement that turning 65 in March and wanting to spend more time with family were factors in his decision — but Gray-Little tried to make one thing clear.
"I did not ask him to resign," she said at a news conference.
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Self said the one positive to come out of Perkins' announcement is that he will be around until Sept. 4, 2011, to lead KU through the conference realignment scare that currently has the Jayhawks in a position of being reactive instead of proactive. Perkins, whose contract pays him $900,000 annually and runs through June 2015, is due a $600,000 after-tax retention bonus if he remains athletic director until June 30, 2011.
Certainly, Perkins has had plenty going on. Two weeks ago, an independent review paid for by the KU athletic department disclosed a ticket-scalping scheme that could cost the department up to $3 million. The review didn't implicate Perkins, but five former employees — including top Perkins lieutenants — have been accused.
Gray-Little confirmed Thursday that Perkins missed out on part of last week's Big 12 meetings in Kansas City, Mo., to deliver testimony on the ticket scandal in front of a federal grand jury in Topeka.
On Wednesday, Gray-Little cleared Perkins of wrongdoing after an internal university review found no evidence of an exchange of exercise equipment for premium men's basketball tickets between Perkins and the co-owners of now-defunct Medical Outfitters, which loaned the equipment to Perkins for personal use at his home in 2005 at no cost.
On Thursday, details emerged that called the thoroughness of the review, described as "comprehensive" by Gray-Little, into question. There was incorrect and missing information.
According to KU athletic department records, Medical Outfitters and its parent company made about $78,000 in sales from KU in 2006, one year after Perkins received the loan, an increase of nearly $50,000 from the previous year. In 2007, the same year Medical Outfitters filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it made about $300,000 in sales to KU.
Gray-Little said she had only heard of those documents on Thursday afternoon, after the university review had already been completed.
"We were not aware of it at the time of the report," Gray-Little said. "Whether it constitutes the conflict of interest depends on the reason for the spike in business. That occurred during a time of expansion in athletics and there might have been a need for more equipment or services."
The university review also referred to a whirlpool that was donated to KU by Medical Outfitters. The report said the gift was not credited to Medical Outfitters co-owner Patrick Carpenter's priority points account for the 2004-05 season and, when it was corrected, Carpenter's seats improved. Former KU sports medicine director William Dent had asserted in the Topeka Capital-Journal that Carpenter's tickets got better because of the free loan of $15,000 worth of equipment to Perkins.
The review said investigators reviewed seating records to check into Dent's claim, which was the center of a blackmail case filed to Lawrence police by Perkins on April 16, but those records were not included in the review when it was made public Wednesday.
The Eagle also asked the chancellor's office for documentation related to the whirlpool donation and where on campus it was in use. Later in the day, the KU university relations department issued a correction to the report, stating Medical Outfitters donated a combination electrical stimulation and ultrasound device valued at $6,190 — not a whirlpool. The device is now located in KU's aquatic rehabilitation center.
The university review also did not address a possible violation of state ethics laws by Perkins, which is being looked into by the Kansas State Ethics Commission. Medical Outfitters co-owner Mark Glass said last week that Perkins sent him in April a $5,000 personal check as a back rental payment for the loaned equipment. Perkins' lawyer, Steve McAllister, said Perkins was trying to ease any ethical concerns that existed.
Perkins arrived in Kansas in June 2003 from Connecticut, announcing that KU needed to get its "swagger back." For a while, Perkins' plan was working.
To get there, he had to find ways to generate revenue. His first task was to implement a priority points system through the Williams Educational Fund, a process that alienated many long-time fans who could no longer afford seats. Perkins further damaged his reputation with locals when he agreed to move Kansas-Missouri football games off campus to Arrowhead Stadium.
Over the past seven years, 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, which has led to numerous facilities upgrades including the $31 million Anderson Family Football Complex, the Booth Family Hall of Athletics, the recent renovations to the concourses at Allen Fieldhouse and a new basketball-specific practice facility.
"During his time here, he's done some things that have given us a chance to move forward for the next 20, 30, 50 years," Self said. "Can you imagine (having) no facilities and not knowing what league you're playing in? This guy has gotten some stuff done while he's been here."