On the weekends, when their friends are packing ales, lagers and stouts into giant Yeti coolers, the student managers for KU’s men’s basketball program are packing sneakers into giant shoe bags.
While the laundry at their apartments goes undone, they wash, dry, fold and store player gear, from shorts and jerseys to socks and shooting sleeves.
They’ll play a little basketball — OK, a lot of basketball. But while some might stand in with the scout team against the No. 2 team in the country, others might be tasked with giving a coach a lift to the airport.
Yet despite some long hours and the occasional stink of sweaty athletic wear, they all seem to love it.
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“Whether we’re doing laundry or wiping up after practice, we’re all part of the most amazing program,” said Emma Gordon, a 21-year-old Leawood senior in communications. “It’s a blessing.”
The University of Kansas has eight student managers for men’s basketball this season, and, if they’re doing their jobs properly, you’ve never noticed them.
Sure, on TV you might glimpse one handing a water bottle to a player. Or if you’re at Allen Fieldhouse, you’ll see a row of them standing Army-straight at mid-court during the pregame.
But that’s the glamorous side of this gig, probably when they do the least work. Or so says their boss, Larry Hare, assistant athletic director for equipment operations and one of the founders of KU’s student manager program.
“It’s from the zeros on the clock to the tip of the next one where most of the work gets done,” Hare said. “It’s in between where you have to like the job.”
The 43-year-old Vermont native has lived this life since he was a college kid himself. He went to Boston College to be a history teacher. But the 6-foot-8-inch former high school basketball player soon realized how much he missed sports, so he became a team basketball manager for the Eagles.
The story is much the same for the students he has supervised at KU the past 12 seasons.
“Most of these guys played a sport or sports in high school,” Hare said. “So they’re used to that — get up, go to class, go to practice, go home, do your homework. Then they get to college and have a lot of free time in their schedules and they’re not crazy about it.”
So they sign up for long work days and limited holiday breaks. Their Thanksgivings are obliterated, but, if they’re lucky, they get a couple of days over Christmas.
They come from all over, and the majority are from small-town Kansas. Though the program also has seen kids from Wisconsin, North Dakota, Illinois, Florida and, why yes, even Missouri.
To get to this group of elite eight, Hare and his cohorts sift through as many as 100 prospects. They whittle that batch down to about 30 to help with two weeks of 18-hour days in summer basketball camps.
From that group, they’ll fill — in a good year — two or three student manager openings in men’s hoops and perhaps filter a few others to soccer, football, softball, baseball, track and field, golf, swimming or diving.
Groupies, stalkers, creepers, butt kissers and nap takers need not apply. Neither should those who are led easily into temptation.
“I have somebody who will text me every month and a half or so, asking if I can get them tickets to the game,” said Collin Cook, a 23-year-old Piper grad and senior in sports management. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t talk to me any other time except for that.’ Things like that happen all the time.”
Friends ask the student managers to score them a pair of shoes or a game-worn jersey. They also get peppered with questions about who did or didn’t practice that day.
Sometimes, they just have to play dumb.
“Usually it’s the people you’re not close with who ask you,” said Chip Kueffer, a 23-year-old from Baldwin City who is the head student manager. “The good friends, they don’t. They know where you stand. They know better than to pester.”
The student managers are limited to working 30 hours a week when classes are in session, 40 during breaks.
The job has its perks, certainly, such as traveling with the team. Though they’re not too keen on traveling to Morgantown, W.Va., which is coming up Jan. 24.
“We’ve had a blizzard every time we’ve gone,” Kueffer said. “We’ve never won in Morgantown. Three years.”
And the WVU fans …
“They all want to storm the court as soon as they beat us,” said Jay Turnipseed, a 21-year-old senior in business administration from Houston.
The trips are divvied up by seniority, but three or four of the students go to every away game.
“A lot of feet here spend a lot of time on tarmacs,” Hare said. “There’s a lot of transitions to and from buses, to and from hotels, to and from arenas, to and from airplanes.”
The student managers also get to spend a lot of time playing basketball, whether it’s helping with the scout team or playing pick-up games while waiting for the team to finish watching game footage. They’ve been known to play games against student managers from other schools, such as in-state rival K-State.
“If you don’t like being in the gym, this isn’t the right place for you,” Hare said.
Kueffer said they’re spoiled rotten with gear. Some of the managers have enough KU clothes they can go a week and a half without doing laundry — their own laundry, anyway.
The University of Kansas athletic department’s six-year, $26 million agreement with Adidas runs through 2019 and provides an impressive array of gear for all of the university’s sports programs.
The storage area for men’s and women’s basketball shoes calls to mind a mini-version of the warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Not nearly as expansive, but no less impressive. It’s a solid wall of rolling shelves housing sneaks ranging in size from 4 to 20.
The current player with the biggest feet? Freshman Udoka Azubuike, size 19. Kueffer let me hold one of Doke’s spares, and, heel to toe, the shoe went from my elbow to the middle of my palm.
“You can fit your foot inside of that with your shoe on,” Kueffer said.
Hare and the student managers also maintain and store the players’ heavy jackets, light jackets, undergarments, socks and shoelaces.
Shower towels and bench towels are embroidered and personalized for each player to help reduce the risk of staph infection or other nasty stuff.
Each player has 11 uniforms, kept in player cubbies in the Allen Fieldhouse equipment room adjacent to the players locker room.
The uniforms come in the traditional white and royal, cream, “royal ice,” “white ice,” special Pearl Harbor Day uniforms and special Black History Month uniforms.
And then there’s the Phog, the gray jersey with red and white circus lettering and what appear to be pinstripes. But look really, really closely, and you’ll see the pinstripes are actually tiny sentences: “Rings don’t replace work.” “We are Kansas.” “The game you love began here.” “Respect those who came before you, make their legacy your own.” “In this game you don’t get what you want, you get what you earn.”
And, of course, “Pay heed.”
“The Phog is probably my all-time favorite,” Kueffer said.
Hare has input on what uniforms players wear each game, though Coach Bill Self has final say. If the team is wearing standard white or royal, Hare doesn’t bother Self about it. But the moment there’s a deviation — for example, if the seniors want to wear something special on Senior Night — Hare consults with Coach.
“Really, he just doesn’t like to be surprised,” Hare said. “And if we’ve lost in something, then we’re probably not bringing it back anytime soon.”
So is Self a little superstitious?
“We don’t use the word ‘superstitious,’ ” Hare said. “We prefer ‘Changes when necessary, no changes when unnecessary.’ ”
The KU players don’t have immediate access to any of this stuff. That responsibility falls solely to the student managers, who make sure everything is accounted for, eliminating the possibility of a player losing or selling any of his gear. Players don’t even see their uniforms until shortly before game time.
There’s a little banter back and forth as players like Joshua Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk walk past the equipment room and into the locker room. Kueffer calls the relationship with the team “businesslike.”
“We help them as much as we can, and they help us,” Kueffer said. “They show the utmost respect for us, that’s for sure.”
These young men and women show a military level of attention to detail in folding up uniforms for travel day and making sure players have all the right gear.
“It’s a lot of things to remember and a lot of things to get done,” said Riley Cobb, a 19-year-old junior from Silver Lake, Kan., majoring in supply chain management. “I’ve messed up a lot of things, but I’m just taking my mistakes and learning from them.”
Hare and his wife, a health careers teacher at Lawrence High School, have two kids: a 13-year-old son and a soon-to-be 11-year-old daughter. He says he doesn’t demand quite as much precision from his own children as he does the student managers.
“Someone once joked with me, ‘Marry an equipment manager because you don’t have to worry about laundry anymore,’ ” he said. “So I do mine, I do all our kids’ laundry, too, but how they throw stuff in their closet? Sometimes, I have to say, ‘They’re children, back off a little bit, Larry.’ ”
But it’s a different story with the students. Hare tells the story of one manager who would fold towels and throw them into a sloppy pile. He didn’t have to confront the kid, because the students took care of it.
“Our batting average is pretty good,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. We have had kids in the program who are engineers now, kids who are teaching and coaching at the college and high school level. We just had a former manager come through who joined the seminary. Some are in different parts of the business sector, they got their MBAs and now work for firms in Kansas City.”
Kueffer is looking to his own future as he approaches graduation.
“I would love to work in outfitting and apparel and equipment — that’s my passion,” he said. “If I’m scrubbing shoes with a toothbrush for Adidas, I’ll be happy.”