The Searcher

Posted on Jul 13, 2018 in Alumni News, News, and Sports

Jeff Long's introductory press conference July 11 | Drue Jennings
Jeff Long vividly recalls the moment he decided he wanted to join KU as the next athletics director. It wasn’t about the chance to renovate a football program, or wins and losses, dollars and cents, academic reputation or even quality of life in Lawrence.

All played a factor, but only came into play after he’d met two men dispatched to make KU’s pitch: A. Drue Jennings, d’68, l’72, who chaired the search process, and Vice Chancellor Reggie Robinson, c’80, l’87, who served as Chancellor Doug Girod’s representative.

Drue Jennings at Jeff Long's introductory press conference July 11“From the moment I met them, I knew I was meeting with two men who have deep love for Kansas, deep love for this University, and it had an immediate impact on me,” Long said at his July 11 introductory news conference. “I thought, you know what, if these are the type of people who are at Kansas, then this is the kind of place I want to be.”

Jennings, former chairman and CEO of Kansas City Power & Light, said at Long’s news conference that he learned early on in the search that “this chancellor means business. As pleasant and human as he may appear, which he is, he does indeed mean business.” Which is exactly the signal that Girod sent when he told the University community—on the day he relieved Sheahon Zenger, PhD’96, of his duties—that he’d already asked Jennings to lead the search for Zenger’s replacement.

He means business.

Filling the void

Even a cursory summary of Jennings’ honors and volunteer service to the University and charitable organizations throughout Kansas City would run for pages. Suffice, then, to note that when Jennings was awarded what was then the University and Alumni Association’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Citation, in 1999, he had yet to lead even a single prominent leadership search on KU’s behalf.

Four years later, in 2003, Chancellor Robert E. Hemenway asked Jennings to fill a leadership void and step in as interim athletics director, and Jennings promptly hired Bill Self to coach men’s basketball. “I don’t think they had a search when they hired me,” Self says. “Just Drue.”

When Hemenway announced his retirement, the Kansas Board of Regents in 2008 asked Jennings to lead the search for KU’s next chancellor, which culminated in the hiring of Bernadette Gray-Little. And now he’s done it yet again, responding to Girod’s call to find the next leader of Kansas Athletics.

“He literally dropped everything,” Girod said.

“Unwavering steadiness”

So who is this Jayhawk behind the scenes, and why have the Regents and University repeatedly turned to him in times of transition?

Robinson cites Jennings’ “unwavering steadiness.” Deputy Athletics Director Sean Lester, who served as interim director until Long’s hiring, says Jennings delivers “instant integrity, instant command, instant credibility.”

Says Robinson, “We trust not only his talent and his expertise, but also the way that his heart is leading him in a way that aims to do what’s best for the University. He clearly, to the benefit of whatever process he’s leading, conveys this sense of real gravitas to candidates we’re talking to. They know that they’re meeting with somebody of great substance, and that helps us. You look at the kind of people KU tries to attract, having somebody like Drue sit on our side of the table, with all of the capacity and gravitas that he brings, it’s hard to beat.”

Rising through the ranks

After graduating from Argentine High School, Jennings came to KU on a football scholarship, and eventually moved back to Kansas City to put his education degree to work as a teacher at Wyandotte High School. He returned to KU for law school, and in 1974 joined KCP&L as an attorney, advancing through the ranks to become CEO in 1988 and chairman of the board in 1991. After his retirement from KCP&L, Jennings was named senior counsel at the Kansas City law firm Polsinelli, from which he has since retired.

His service to KU has included five years on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors; three years as chair of the KU Medical Advancement Board, of which he was a founding member; and four years as chair of the KU Endowment board, which Jennings continues to serve as a trustee.

“I tend to trust my gut”

Jennings concedes that technology has, in some respects, changed the nature of executive searches: “In today’s world of information access, you can find out amazing things about people. It doesn’t matter who they are. And, frankly, anyone who wants to do that type of exploring can do it.”

But, after the “measurable and visible data about the person and their life” have been gathered and closely studied, the next step is decidedly old school.

“Meet them,” Jennings says. “There’s nothing quite like looking into the eyes, visiting and reading the body language of a person. And that’s been true my entire life. I tend to trust my gut, trust my instincts.”

A solid person

As he tried to exit the Lied Center Pavilion and catch a flight for a recruiting trip, Self found himself swarmed by reporters, friends and colleagues; he was reluctant to pause even for a second to answer any more questions, but stopped and smiled when told the subject of this final query: For Drue Jennings, Bill Self has all the time in the world.

“The thing with Drue is, he knows this place probably about as well as anybody over the last four or five decades,” Self said. “I think he understands the business aspect of it, and he certainly understands the athlete experience aspect of it. And, to me, what Drue brings to the table is, he’s been very successful in his professional life, but he’s also a really solid person who would value a lot of his own characteristics.”

Ah, so there it is, the secret to Jennings’ search successes: Just find somebody like himself. Easier said than done, but a worthy goal regardless. Because he means business.

—Chris Lazzarino

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