The culmination of a three-month process to select Kansas' next athletic director is near, and the authority now rests with Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, who has received a list of recommendations from the search committee she appointed in September, a source with knowledge of KU's search said.
Three current athletic directors are among the recommendations — Tulsa's Bubba Cunningham, Illinois State's Sheahon (pronounced SHAY-un) Zenger and Brad Bates from Miami (Ohio). The source said the committee also recommended sitting athletic directors from major conferences that automatically quality for the Bowl Championship Series, but would not reveal their names because it could potentially hurt Kansas' chances in the hiring process.
After a trying and at times embarrassing year, the KU athletic department is in need of a strong leader who can rebuild trust among the fan base and build on the fundraising successes of the former administration. This will be a job with a unique set of circumstances, and it will be up to Gray-Little to decide if the three known mid-major candidates have the right stuff or TO turn to another recommendation from the committee.
Cunningham, 48, emerged early on as one of the hottest names coming out of athletic director circles nationally. He worked at his alma mater, Notre Dame, for 15 years in a variety of roles before becoming athletic director at Ball State, where he remained for three years before taking the Tulsa job in October 2005. Cunningham is a proven fundraiser who has hired two successful football coaches — Brady Hoke at Ball State (he's now the coach at San Diego State) and Todd Graham at Tulsa.
Zenger, 44, appears to be a natural fit for Kansas because of his ties to the state. He grew up in Hays, attended Kansas State for his undergraduate degree and worked in football operations at K-State under Bill Snyder. Zenger completed his studies for a Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership at KU in 1996. During 2002-05, Zenger was in charge of athletic fundraising at K-State.
Bates, 51, has been athletic director at Miami since 2002. He hired former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood as football coach in 2008, and Haywood led the RedHawks to the Mid-American Conference championship this season. Bates is a former walk-on at Michigan who played under legendary coach Bo Schembechler. Bates worked for 17 years in athletics at Vanderbilt before taking the Miami job.
Ray Evans, the chairman of KU's search committee, would not reveal his recommendations or discuss specific candidates when asked to comment last week. But he said the common denominator of the committee's recommendations was that each candidate had been vetted to make sure there would be no concerns about character.
"The one thing we all agreed on obviously with all the issues we've had was high integrity," Evans said. "No issues of compliance problems or dishonesty. It sounds like that's a given, but what we've learned, that's not a given. That was issue number one."
Integrity will also be a priority for Gray-Little, who became KU chancellor in August 2009 — soon after the Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl and the NCAA basketball championship in 2008 — and unknowingly inherited an athletic department in turmoil.
In December 2009, football coach Mark Mangino resigned under pressure following an investigation by then-athletic director Lew Perkins into alleged mistreatment of players.
In March, The Eagle reported that federal and university authorities were investigating alleged illegal sales of KU football and men's basketball tickets. The investigations found that $2 million worth of tickets were misused and led to the resignations of at least seven top athletic department staff members, five of whom were indicted by a federal grand jury last month.
Gray-Little's office also investigated an allegation that Perkins improved basketball seating for a KU vendor in exchange for the personal use of exercise equipment. The university cleared Perkins of wrongdoing but he faces a compliant by the Kansas Governmental Ethics Committee, which alleges Perkins broke a state law regarding the acceptance of gifts by state employees.
In June, Perkins announced that he would retire effective Sept. 4, 2011. In early September, Perkins announced his retirement effective immediately — a year ahead of schedule. KU interim athletic director Sean Lester said it was a "mutual decision" between Perkins and Gray-Little.
The decision of who will lead Kansas' athletic department into the future will be Gray-Little's most important to date and will define her early tenure at the school.
The first step was to put her faith in a search committee comprised of Evans, the managing partner of Pegasus Capital Management in Overland Park and a former KU football player, and five others: KU baseball coach Ritch Price; Kenneth L. Audus, the dean of the KU School of Pharmacy; Linda Ellis Sims, account executive with ExxonMobil Corporation; Debbie Van Saun, associate athletic director/senior women's administrator; and Thomas Ward, president and CEO of Russell Stover Candies in Kansas City.
Evans said the committee started with six or seven criteria, which eventually swelled to more than 20. Among them: Have they worked in football or basketball operations? Have they hired a BCS-level coach in football or basketball? Have they demonstrated success in football? Do they have ties with BCS conferences in light of the recent realignment drama? Have they raised money for football? Have they negotiated a contract with Nike or adidas? Have they negotiated strong TV or radio contracts?
"We set up a grid with criteria and columns at the top and started counting checkmarks," Evans said. "Linda Sims and Ritch Price did a good job of setting up a scorecard for us. That was immensely helpful as we went through it."
No candidate met all of the qualifications, so the committee put an emphasis on finding someone who could help build a winning football program.
Cunningham, Zenger and Bates all have experience working within winning BCS-level programs during their careers, and there are OTHER legitimate candidates that have not been revealed. There's also a chance the next KU athletic director could come from outside of college athletics, according to the source.
But the candidates that are known have been college athletics lifers. They have put in their time at smaller Division I schools and have been devoted to trying to put their programs on the map.
Cunningham certainly meets many of the search committee's criteria. As an associate athletic director at Notre Dame, he negotiated the school's footwear contract and created marketing teams for all 26 varsity sports, helping to increase corporate sponsorship income by 400 percent. He also negotiated with Westwood One for football radio rights and helped plan and complete the $50 million renovation and 20,000-seat expansion of Notre Dame Stadium.
At Ball State, in his first athletic director job, he put that experience to use. Cunningham fundraised to get portable lights at Ball State's football stadium, which allowed the Cardinals to play their first night game. He also began the now-completed push to get the stadium renovated.
"He was amazing with our donors and with the fans," Ball State associate athletic director Joe Hernandez said. "He did a great job getting them engaged. Corporate sponsorships grew tremendously under his guidance. He brought in a different attitude than we were used to."
Most important, Cunningham hired Hoke, who delivered in 2008 with a 12-0 regular season that put the Cardinals as high as No. 12 in the BCS rankings. By then, Cunningham had already been at Tulsa for three years.
"I don't know if there's a classier, more well-rounded guy who cares about the student-athletes and their experience as much as Bubba," Hoke said. "He's a great organizer, a great communicator and a tremendous person. We hated to lose him, I can tell you that."
At Illinois State, Zenger has had similar success. He has increased fundraising by 65 percent since his arrival in 2005 and he helped to dedicate a new $3.5 million baseball facility. Zenger also secured a five-year contract with Nike and led Illinois State to start a marketing campaign across central Illinois entitled "Spread the Red."
Bates has strived to create a "Culture of Champions" at Miami, where the Redhawks have won the Reese Trophy, an all-sport award presented annually to the Mid-American Conference member with the best all-around men's sports programs, in three of his seven years. Miami's ice hockey program has become one of the nation's best since he stepped on campus.
"If Kansas can get this guy, it's a coup for Kansas," said Rod Williamson, a Vanderbilt associate athletic director who worked with Bates for 17 years. "He's a big-timer in every sense of the word."