You don’t expect to hear the words “incredibly awkward times” come from the mouth of a college administrator with three-plus decades of experience who prides himself on having seen just about everything.
Yet, Monday afternoon, on a Zoom videoconference from his home office, there was Kansas Athletic Director Jeff Long, still decked out in a suit and tie, trying to explain the impact of the coronavirus that basically has closed down the KU campus.
While technology has helped Long and others in the department hang on to some sense of their normal routines during the past couple of weeks — think meetings, calls and planning discussions — the energetic second-year KU leader admits to feeling out of sorts on a pretty much daily basis.
“I’m used to bounding across the hall, back and forth to a coach’s office ... and now I’m sitting in front of this computer or I’m on these phones and I’m texting and it’s different,” Long explained. “It’s a different stress level. It’s a different management challenge, one that is awkward and uncomfortable because we’re driven by the people around us who we get energy from, those coaches and those student-athletes.”
Now in his fourth stint as a major-college AD, and having filled associate AD roles at four other stops, Long has been through a multitude of challenges in college athletics. From budget crises and coaching hirings and firings to fundraising efforts, facility renovations and chairing high-profile committees, nearly everything Long has done in his career in college athletics has come with some kind of lesson that he carried with him to his next job.
But there’s nothing in his trusty notebook of experiences that prepared him for anything quite like this.
The quiet and calm of the current landscape mixed with the uncertainty of tomorrow and the need to press forward with the best business-as-usual attitude he can muster, ranks right up there among the KU AD’s most taxing challenges.
Long said Monday there were only two times in his career that felt anything like it.
“And none of them reach this level,” he said.
The first came in November 1991, with Long serving as an associate AD at Michigan, when NBA superstar Magic Johnson announced to the world that he had HIV and was retiring immediately.
The news from one of basketball’s biggest personalities did not affect Michigan athletics directly, of course. Much the same way that the spread of the coronavirus has not yet landed full-bore at KU’s doorstep. But Long recalled the same uneasy feeling then that he senses today.
“All the unknowns about that disease and all the processes that the NBA went through,” Long began. “Players concerned about playing and players concerned about competing against Magic. On some level, there was that going on (with) uncertainty about this virus. When it broke that things started canceling, we had student-athletes and coaches and staff concerned because they didn’t know how far-reaching this virus would be and how their health could be in jeopardy.”
The other period of his career that Long compared to his modern-day reality was the experience after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Again, it doesn’t compare,” Long emphasized. “But it’s a national thing we’re all focused on.”
The idea of staying focused is key to Long right now. He does not have events to go to, fundraising dinners to host or travel plans keeping him busy.
All of that is now being done with the click of a button and from inside his home.
And that might be the lesson Long winds up taking out of this challenge, regardless of how tough it becomes or how long it lasts.
Drawing on your experience is always a good way to navigate tough waters. But in today’s world, in any field, if you end up relying too much on the past, it has a way of preventing you from moving forward.
Long, both for his own sanity and the betterment of KU, appears to be doing what he can to stay engaged and keep up with the world as we now know it, as challenging and “incredibly awkward” as that may be.
“It's a different level of stress,” he said. “It’s a different level of challenge. I feel an edginess that I don’t necessarily feel when I’m in the office. It’s very, very different."
He added: “(Technology is) extraordinary. The video call we’re having right now, I had never had one of these until a week ago and now I’m pretty adept at getting around on it. This is going to be a stimulus that increases (technology) in every area, so we’ll all have to work harder to stay on top of and in front of all of this. It’s going to change athletics. It’s going to change the higher education system in the United States. It’s going to change so much that we can’t even predict.”