On a stage Tuesday at McFadden’s Sports Saloon were many faces you could expect to see for an announcement that USA Boxing will hold its national championships here in December.
At the microphone as master of ceremonies was Al Valenti, a long-time boxing promoter and USA Boxing special projects consultant. Alongside was Kathy Nelson, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission.
Behind them sat Cam Awesome, the four-time U.S. champion from Lenexa; USA Boxing president John Brown, who has coached some 10,000 boxers and lives in Shawnee; and Billy Walsh, a former Olympian and Irish national coach who is rejuvenating a drooping USA program.
Then there was … Lew Perkins, the former Kansas athletic director who has seldom, if at all, taken a microphone publicly since his abrupt retirement amid a swirl of controversy in 2010.
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“I’ve got to be honest with you: I never thought I’d be involved with another press conference,” Perkins said as he stepped to the podium.
But this is for a cause Perkins, 71, has clasped to his heart since taking a call from Brown three years ago that he initially figured was a prank by one of the childhood friends with whom he remains close.
Brown phoned seemingly out of nowhere on the recommendation of a friend that Perkins might be an asset on the board despite having no experience with boxing.
Then what Perkins called Brown’s “infectious” enthusiasm reeled in Perkins to do what he does best.
“If you need something done, he’s our go-to guy,” Brown said. “When Lew wants something done, you better get out of the way. Because he’s going to get it done.”
Perkins did just that through a long career in collegiate athletics administration that previously included being the director of athletics at South Carolina-Aiken, Wichita State, Maryland and Connecticut.
(He also was an associate AD at the University of Pennsylvania, where and when I worked as a student in the department office in the early 1980s.)
At Kansas, he helped double KU’s athletic department budget from $27 million to $55 million and presided over a department that helped fund many new and renovated facilities.
But it didn’t end well.
The football program has been in a tailspin since Mark Mangino resigned after Perkins launched an internal investigation of alleged abuses of players and hired Turner Gill to replace him.
Perkins also left amid a cloud of scandal that most prominently included the ticket fiasco that sent five former KU employees to federal prison and sentenced two others to probation.
Perkins was not implicated in that, and in May 2010 reportedly said he had missed a curveball and “we had the wrong people hired for the wrong jobs.”
The wrongs left KU reeling … and left Perkins at 65 to an entirely new life.
Now here stood Perkins Tuesday, out of context to observers but utterly in his element at a time when severe back problems that required a five-fusion, 13-hour operation seem behind him.
Even a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s has given him peace, he said, after months of seeking answers from experts all over the country about why his legs felt “like rocks.”
“It was awesome once I found out what it was,” Perkins said.
He looked down at his cane and said his treatment means “this will be gone in six months. Throw it away. I’ll get my balance back.”
He still loves living in Lawrence, he said, where he is on the board of the Lawrence Country Club and plays golf four days a week — and so well that people want to play with him now after a long period “where nobody wanted to be my partner.”
If it might seem an odd fit for him to still be there, Perkins says that’s to the contrary.
He still feels at home in Lawrence, though he and his wife, Gwen, travel frequently to New Orleans to visit the family of his daughter, Amy, including his two grandchildren.
Most of the time now, he said, he’s focused on spending time with them and making up for missed time with Gwen.
He also still attends some KU basketball games, adding that coach Bill Self “has been great to me.”
As for KU football, he’s careful to say he knows nothing of the specifics of the program right now but that he has faith in current coach David Beaty, who he knew from previous KU staffs.
“I just think the world of him, personally,” he said. “They’re going to have to give him time, and people are very impatient. I understand that. It’s hard losing like that. But I think they have the right guy. He knows what he’s doing.”
Perkins says he has never met current AD Sheahon Zenger but added, “He knows what he’s doing. Being an athletic director, I don’t care where, it’s not easy. People think it’s just fun and games. It’s a hard job.”
For a time after he left KU, Perkins formed The Lew Perkins Team, LLC, consulting to help schools hire athletics administrators and also offering strategic planning.
But that is long since behind him, he said Tuesday.
Now, he’s doing individual counseling and mentoring with coaches and athletes all over the country — and he’s all-in with USA Boxing.
Working with USA Boxing has its challenges, he says, laughing and adding that when he takes an early phone call now, his wife is apt to ask, “What’s the drama of the day in USA Boxing?”
“But it’s good drama, not bad drama,” he said, laughing again and noting that it’s nothing like the weight of running an athletic department.
In his role with USA Boxing, he said, he will serve as a “semi-spokesperson” and business advisor who has taken the stance that he will be the one to challenge ideas to make sure they’re right.
By way of minor example, he pointed out that USA Boxing had long tended to pay its bills by check.
“No more,” he remembered saying during a meeting some months ago. “We’re going to get a credit card, one credit card. And every time we take a trip, every time we buy a piece of paper, we’re putting it on the credit card.
“Why? Because you get points. And when you get points, you get (plane) tickets.”
So in the last few months, the organization was able to get nine or 10 plane flights free for international trips for boxers to compete.
Getting things done, in other words.
Which explains why he stood here Tuesday, a public figure once again but in an entirely new way.
“I don’t get paid, I don’t want anything. I’m done, I don’t need anything,” he said. “I’m doing it because I want to give back. …
“I just feel like my life has been great, sport was so good to me, now it’s my turn to try to give back.”