Thursday, October 20, 2005

Your New Kansas Jayhawks

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No one likes to lose. I know, I know, that is akin to saying, “No one likes to be gored by a bull!” or, “No one likes to see the State Trooper hiding on the side of the road when they’re doing 90 in a 65.” But, don’t those things really come back to the essential difference between winning and losing? When that bull tosses you 10 feet in the air and gives you an instant, built-in ventilation system, you are the loser. The bull is the winner. When you are sitting in your car waiting for your ticket and hoping no one you know drives by, you are the loser. State trooper Buff McHugeLarge, who thinks he’s Eric Estrada from CHiPs, is the winner. It’s no fun. It hurts. It makes you angry. It makes you sad. It makes you want to get even with whoever put that sign around your neck that says, “LOSER.”

Now, contrary to popular belief – at least in sports – not all losses are created equal. I understand the need to minimize some losses so that the players don’t get snowed under in an avalanche of despair and self-pity, but those sports experts who say, “It’s just one loss” are, close your eyes mom, full of it. Some losses hurt. A lot. The University of Kansas men’s basketball team endured one such loss last spring. A season ender. With the entire college basketball world watching. To a team they had no business losing to – or even trailing, for that matter. And yet, at the end of the night, the Jayhawks were headed back to Lawrence and the Bucknell Bisons were marching on in the NCAA tournament. It was a crushing blow to a team that had struggled all year to meet expectations. The 2004-05 Jayhawks were full of senior leadership, but assumed they could survive on talent, then flip the switch and win any game. In stead, their season ended with a last second shot that rimmed off.

That shot set off as tumultuous an off-season in Lawrence, Kansas, since Quantrill’s raiders burned the Eldridge Hotel. Just two weeks after the Jayhawks were sent packing, much of Lawrence watched with envy as former coach Roy Williams cut down the nets with his North Carolina Tar Heels. With four seniors ready to try their fortunes in the pros, the new team was already facing a void in leadership and scoring. Next came the decision from freshman Alex Galindo to transfer closer to home. Then the ugly incident at the Moon Bar in Lawrence that eventually led to J.R. Giddens leaving Lawrence for good. Suddenly, six of the top eight players from the year before were gone. The off-season excitement ended with the odd recruitment and eventual commitment of Brandon Rush to wear crimson and blue. Rush talked of the NBA, then pulled out and flirted with several schools, then started attending classes at KU, though not officially enrolled as a student. Finally, his name was added to the roster as a Jayhawk, no matter where his brothers played.

Suddenly, the outlook for the new year wasn’t so bleak. The Jayhawks will be young, there is no doubt about that. But with the addition of Rush to an already strong freshman class that includes Mario Chalmers, Micah Downs and pre-season Big 12 freshman of the year Julian Wright, this recruiting class is now ranked number one or two in the land. The four freshman join a strong group of sophomores, including C.J. Giles, Sasha Kaun and Russell Robinson. The team still has a void of veteran leadership, with Christian Moody and Jeff Hawkins the returnees with the most experience. But, even after the Bucknell loss and all that followed, there is a sense of hope and excitement in Jawhawkville. The team will be fast. The defense will be tough. The pressure is off with the Jayhawks picked to finish third in the league. I see good things in their future, with excitement this year, followed by big time expectations in the seasons that follow. Bill Self already has a high profile recruit, point guard Sherron Collins, committed for next year. The program has sent notice to the rest of the college basketball world that, despite all that has happened in the last seven months, the Kansas Jayhawks are still a college basketball power.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I think the Jayhawks will be good this year and potentially great next year and the year after. Though I believe they will flirt with double digit losses, I think they’ll make the tournament as a six or seven seed. With little pressure on them, they could even make a run to the round of 16. But, here’s the thing. This isn’t the University of Kansas men’s basketball program that I grew up on. Things have changed at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, and I don’t just mean the new seating arrangements. I’m not even saying things have definitely changed for the worse. That all depends on how you quantify good and bad. Judged by wins and money generated by the program, the changes are probably good. Judged against the old tradition of Kansas basketball, I don’t believe the verdict is quite as kind.

The change began a little over two years ago, when Williams bolted for UNC. Now, I’m not one of those conspiracy theorist KU fans that believes all that has gone wrong over the last two years is Roy Williams’ fault. I think he made a business decision that paid off for him last year in St. Louis. However, when he got on that plane and left Lawrence, the innocence of Kansas basketball went with him. Just a short time later, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway made a decision that, for all its subtlety, couldn’t have been more obvious. The decision to hire Lew Perkins as Athletics Director meant one thing and one thing only: Kansas was ready to step up and join the world of big time college athletics through big time financial success.

The rewards for this decision are clear. First, more money generally equals better facilities which often translates into better players which should become more wins. It is also a huge step forward for Kansas football. When this season has ended and, barring a miracle, the Jayhawk football team is 0-8 in Big 12 play, Perkins is going to wave goodbye to Mark Mangino. You see, Lew wants a football program that will look good on the national scale and the uncomfortably large, ever-scowling Mangino does not qualify. There are rumors that the two don’t get along and Perkins has the power in his corner. I think Mangino would have been gone last year, but he was able to knock off both K-State and Missouri, and earned himself another year. After the stinker in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago and playing behind an offense that hasn’t seen the end zone in nearly a month, the Mangino supporters better start praying for divine intervention. I don’t see it happening. But, with Mangino out of the way, Perkins will be able to hire either a big name or a young up-and-comer that will be the new face of Kansas football. Because Lew understands that the real way to make money is by putting rears in the seats at Memorial Stadium. Basketball may be sacred in Kansas, but football generates dollars.

Step number two in the transformation of Kansas athletics came with the hiring of Bill Self as men’s basketball coach. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe Bill Self to be a great coach and as a fan of Kansas basketball, I think he is the perfect man for the job. But he also fits the profile for a national power. Self is a tireless and very successful recruiter. He is a tough coach with a winning record. He is a passionate coach with a desire to win early and often. He is going to win big with the Jayhawks, despite last year’s set back. But there are some things that Bill Self is not. He is not the “aw shucks” Roy Williams good ole’ boy. Far from it. He’s going to lay it on the line. He’s going to play straight up with the media. He’s going to do things his way and if you’re not with the program, he’ll assume you are against it. He seems to have that edge that Roy Williams never had at Kansas. He’s not as worried about being a friend to all as he is about doing his job and doing it well. And, again from the Lew Perkins perspective, he puts the “right” face on Kansas basketball. Young, energetic, cut-throat and ready to win. These aren’t your daddy’s Jayhawks.

There have been other indicators that times are changing on Mount Oread. The handling of the J.R. Giddens – Moon Bar fiasco, for one. In Bill Self’s house, Giddens had to go. I think he stays under Williams because he’s one of the family. The transfers of Padgett last year and Galindo this year are signs that if you can’t take it, the door is always open. Self’s philosophy seems to be, “If the parts don’t work or don’t want to work, remove them.” Williams was always worried transfers reflected poorly on his ability as a coach/father-figure. I think the NCAA infractions in football and men’s and women’s basketball were handled to in a way that would look bad for the “old regimes”. No, I am not surprised that the problems in Mangino’s football offices were lumped in with the relatively minor infractions by Williams’ and Marion Washington’s staffs. After all, in a year, Mangino will be part of the “old regime”. The Brandon Rush recruitment never would have happened with Roy. He didn’t want risky players that might not buy into his schtick. And, of course, the big one for fans with men’s basketball season tickets: the decision to change how those tickets are assigned. In a nutshell, the new policy is, the more you give to the program, the better your seats will be. Sure, the stories of the 60-year season ticket holders being pushed towards the rafters are generating some negative press, but the department will hold firm. After all, it’s a money issue.

So, here’s where I’m having trouble. I don’t want to sound like another rabid fan that has no soul. I love the feel of Lawrence and the hominess of the Fieldhouse. It doesn’t bother me that KU is a “basketball school”. I think that’s great. But, deep down inside, only coming up for air after really bad losses, there is this: I want the Jayhawks to win. I want more banners hanging from the rafters. I want to be the featured team on CBS broadcasts. I want recruits to dream of playing for the Jayhawks because they know they’ll have a chance to win it all. I want to go to the victory parades and wear the championship t-shirts and buy the commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated. My rational self tells me to settle down, there are more important things than wins and losses. These are only kids. It’s more about the community. It’s the education that matters. But, for what it’s worth, I truly believe that ship has sailed and I don’t know if the school or the department can ever bring it back. Nor do I believe they want to.

So, things have changed in Lawrence. Next time you’re there, check it out. For the most part, it all looks the same. But the feel is different. The new Kansas family is not as loving, not as friendly and not as warm. This family is more likely to frisk you at the front door than offer you a loving hug. But, on the other hand, the new Kansas family is dedicated to winning and you, too, can be an integral part of the team by contributing your hard-earned dollars to the cause. So, if you want to get a word in to Coach Self, you can buy a plate at the next fundraising dinner. If you want the new training complex and locker rooms, there are plenty of good season ticket packages still available for next year’s football schedule. If you want a seat closer to the floor or a covered parking space, you’ll need to dig a little deeper in your wallet, your bank account, the cushions of your couch. And, for goodness sake, when the next heartbreaking loss comes, just remember you probably didn’t give enough to deserve the win. Welcome to the team.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Trouble with Jobs

So, I started a new job this week. Well, when I say started, I mean I started the training process – the slightly vague but all important “learning curve.” This is my chance to create a wonderful first impression for my new boss, an individual that could have an inordinate amount of influence over my future in this group, our division and even the company as a whole. So, as you might expect, I have yet to meet this person.

You see, my current employer is in a bit of a transitory state right now. To make a long and boring story only slightly shorter, and yet just as boring, this company recently merged with another company to make one really big company. (Those of you who know me, know where I work. Those of you that don’t know me can start trying to figure it out. It will be a fun game.) Now, attendant with all the joyous talk of mergers and executive bonuses and stock options and becoming the third largest provider in the industry, there is the internal struggle of constantly wondering if you are going to have a job, if there is someone from the other company who does the same job as you, only infinitely better, if the dreaded “o” word will be spoken about your group. That’s right – outsourcing.

Add to that this fun little wrinkle – about six to twelve months down the road in the life of this gigantic company, a portion of the business will be “spun-off” to form a new, smaller company – completely disconnected in every way from the big company. The theory being that the two parts of the business have different objectives and would be working against each other, so they will be split and go their separate ways. In the meantime, the new, huge, merged company will be expounding to the world how wonderful they will be and how good their executives, customers and employees will have it, with the full knowledge that at least one third of those employees will be gone in six months. At the same time, internally to the big company, executives are being named to the new smaller company, and they will be crying from the rooftops how good the small company will be and that the big company is getting in over its head. As an employee not yet assigned to either company, it’s like watching a football game when you’ve bet your wife a month of foot rubs, but not determining who needs to win for you to get the foot rubs. You want someone to win; you’re just not sure who.

From a personal perspective, all this was going on while my wife and I were trying to determine how we could generate additional income as we recently had to purchase a new car. (Our old minivan kept slipping from Drive to Neutral while we were moving. That makes driving just a bit dicey and we decided to get something a little more reliable. Of course, reliable often equates to expensive.) At the same time, my work car died in the middle of a busy intersection during rush hour and will not be rejoining our stable of vehicles, which means we need to save some money for a second car sometime next year. Point being, we needed cash. As a short aside from my short story, that is why there is now an advertisement at the top of my blog. Remember, simply by clicking on said advertisement, I make money. At least, that’s the theory. We’ll see if it works – if you would start clicking!

Okay, back to the wonderful world of corporate America! We chose not to depend solely on the ads on this site, so I began searching for another position – a promotion even. I was told in no uncertain terms that, though I was the strongest candidate for management in my current group, no advancement opportunities would be available for at least 12 months. So, doing what I know was out the window. Fortunately, I was recommended for a promotion to another group that, though much different than what I had been doing, could use some of my current job skills while also offering new opportunities for growth. (That sounds like I stole it right out of the job description, but it’s actually true.) The new job was in the Finance group, but I persevered. It was an assured position in the new, spun-off company, which was a real plus because I seemed to believe those executives more than the executives for the big company. And, they offered me 6% more annually plus a greater yearly bonus opportunity, which assisted with our economic crisis. So, here I am in a new job, learning new things and trying not to screw anything up and lose the chance to make a great impression that will carry me to the top, which apparently is middle management.

But, that takes me back to my new boss – you remember – the one I haven’t met yet. When I initially interviewed for the job, the hiring manager basically said, “I’ll be hiring this position, but I’m about to take a job in another group and someone else will be your manager.” He spoke highly of the new manager and assured me that the job was secure. So, we get to the start date, and I learn that my new manager is going to be on vacation for the entire week. No big deal, though. We can use email for big questions and have the sit-down meeting next week. Well, this morning, the new manager calls and says she has taken a job in another group and that there will be a new, new manager. So, three days into my new job and I have never actually met my boss. Everyone says he’s a good guy, and I’m sure he is. Everyone says the job is secure in the new, smaller company, so I’m pretty confident that we’ll be fine. Personally, I would just like to meet the man.

But, it’s all part of the fun of working in corporate America. In all truth, this job and even the last four plus years as a whole have been a huge blessing to me and my family. In 2001, we chose to leave the exciting world of local television news where I had been laboring as a local news producer extraordinaire. The job was interesting and there was a certain feeling of power that comes along with determining what stories make it on the air and what stories don’t. You’d be surprised at how much goes on in your community that you just never hear about because the newscast is only 30 to 35 minutes long – unless you’re watching a morning show, in which case the newscast is three hours long and you get to hear every story multiple times. But, the problem with television news is there is really no money in it until you get to the top twenty markets or the network level. Even then, the money isn’t what most people think it will be. Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m all about the money. Television news also boasts terrible hours, the opportunity to work most holidays, and, in general, a group of co-workers that have pretty much given up on humanity and are simply looking to make snide remarks about those with even a touch of faith, hope or optimism. So, in 2001, with a brand new baby and the desire to let my wife be able to stay at home, we made the jump to Big Business.

The transition hasn’t always been smooth, but it has been well worth it. Now, with three kids at home, my wife works the most underappreciated job on the earth – full time mother. She is really good at it. Her days are really long and, just because I get home and start helping, she’s still doing many of the same things until the kids are in bed. However, the perks are unbelievable. The kids love the fact that she’s there with them. They have a relationship with her that is impossible to replicate. In fact, I strongly believe that two-parent, single-income families ought to get a huge tax break if they can prove that one parent is at home, taking care of the kids. The research department tells me a study was done recently that tried to place a job-market value on the role of at-home-parents. In the business world, they would be earning six figures. I don’t doubt that for a second. Two years from now, the kids will be in school. Will my wife go back to work then? I hope that won’t be necessary. I would love it if she could have that quiet time during the day that she will have been without for six years. And, I think we’ll be okay. I can always get a second job. I’m sure the quickie-mart down the street is hiring. Maybe by then I’ll actually have met my boss.