Not long after Kansas fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger in May, University of Missouri freshman Christina Long texted her father, Jeff, who was pondering his next move after being let go as AD at Arkansas last fall.
“Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you took the KU job?” she recalled writing him in what she termed a “half-serious, half-kidding” inquiry.
As it started to become a real possibility, the father said, “We bantered about it.”
Last week, it officially became a reality … and remains a point of amusement — and bonding — for each.
That was on playful public display with some of her recent posts on Twitter, including one in which she observes having noticed the Jayhawk icon has what look like pilgrim shoes: “how cute.”
And it was plain Wednesday at a news conference for Long, who introduced her thusly to the crowd at Lied Center: “She attends a university in a bordering state,” Jeff Long said, smiling, “and that’s where I’ll leave it.”
As it happens, Long has enjoyed many recent visits to the school he didn’t name.
Those trips have included helping Christina move from a dorm to an apartment and watching a game at Mizzou Arena when she was taking photographs for Mizzou athletics: “I’ll hang out” at the game, he told her when she offered to try to get someone to take her place so they could be together.
He also toured the Mizzou softball facility with MU AD Jim Sterk during the Southeastern Conference tournament.
“He likes to go places, see how other people do things,” she said by telephone. “He loves learning from other places. So (the visits) were an excuse to kind of check out another place, see how other people do it — and also hang out with me.”
Even having at his disposal a plane bearing a Jayhawk logo on its tail that picked her up Wednesday at Columbia Regional Airport, who knows how often that will happen now that he’s otherwise occupied in the camp of the historic rivalry gone dormant?
“I think I won’t be able to walk the (MU) campus unnoticed now,” Long said.
As for her time in Lawrence on Wednesday, Christina wrote on Twitter, she repeatedly was asked, “Are you the one that goes to Mizzou?”
“For real though, we’ve had an awesome day in Lawrence,” she later wrote. “So, so grateful to everyone here for their kindness and enthusiasm. All four of us (including her mother, Fanny, and sister Stephanie) are SO excited about a new chapter in our lives, myself especially. Thank you, KU!”
Enjoy the day as she did, don’t expect that means the father will try to lure her to Lawrence or that she’s tempted to transfer. In fact, he is proud of her interest in studying sports journalism at MU, which he notes she entered last year as a renowned Walter Williams Scholar.
“And it’s not like I was going to Arkansas (which competes with Mizzou in the SEC and where he was AD for nearly a decade) before,” said Christina, whose sister graduated from Arkansas with separate degrees in biology and psychology and now is pursuing her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience there.
So you can figure on some ongoing jesting between them over this. Even as she notes that students at Mizzou these days generally have a more subdued feeling about the rivalry unless they grew up in it, she understands the context.
“You will find my youngest child has quite a personality; we get after each other pretty good,” Long said at the news conference. “So there will be competition right here in the Long family between KU and Missouri.”
Whether that lays groundwork for any return to competition (beyond the sold-out basketball exhibition game last year at Sprint Center and potential postseason matchups), only time will tell.
But it’s hard to assume any thaw ahead amid KU’s ongoing institutional stance that the rivalry ended when MU joined the SEC in 2012. The bitterness lingers over the reality that something meaningful has been lost.
“You know, that is the question,” she said.
Reflecting the maturity and wisdom her father sees in her, she continued, “I think obviously it would be cool, a storied rivalry, the drama. There’s a lot of history. But there’s a lot more to it than, ‘Hey, guys, what if we play again?’ He really wants to get in there and see what the perspective is (at KU).”
Calling the implications of conference realignments “a shame,” she added, “he has to look at it from a business and leadership perspective, not just a personal standpoint.”
And any such evaluation will take awhile.
“I would not come in with a preconceived notion of how I should look at this situation,” said Long, who wants to learn the positions of “true Kansans” by way of fans, coaches, athletes and staff. “As an outsider looking in, I might have some views. But I’m wise enough to know that from the outside you never know what the feelings are.”
Moreover, with questions looming about the future of the football program, stadium renovation and an FBI probe of college basketball, Long will have plenty to occupy him for the foreseeable future when he begins work on Aug. 1.
“I think (KU-MU questions are) much further down the list for me as I come in and assess things,” he said.
This is clear, though: The situation will only make their relationship stronger.
“I look up to him so much; he’s the reason that I want to go into sports,” Christina said, noting that as much as they joke around they have many serious talks about sports matters.
As a reporter, she added, she would think their story is “really cool. It’s an extra look at this person in the news.”
As for the father, he’s impressed with how “professionally” she has handled this — especially since she was bursting to tell people before it became public.
“We love each other so much,” Long said. “We do have fun with sports. We chide each other. We’ll continue to do that.”
Apparently toward that end, as he finished the call, Long laughed and said, “Rock Chalk!”