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How KU AD Travis Goff found success in first hires

How KU AD Travis Goff found success in first hires

LAWRENCE (KSNT) – The job of the Athletic Director at any university has many important and complex responsibilities. However, none are more public and come with more scrutiny than hiring and firing.

When coaches are highly successful, athletic directors get credit for bringing them in. When coaches fail, the same leaders catch flack for adding them or keeping them.

For University of Kansas Athletic Director Travis Goff, his first three Jayhawk head coaching hires are all showing positive signs.

Goff’s first hire was the one that came with the most attention, but the most pressure and it was a job that most national experts wouldn’t have called highly sought after. Goff selected Lance Leipold.

In three seasons at the helm, Leipold took a zero-win program (0-9 in 2020, the year before Leipold took over) to back-to-back bowl games and a combined 15 wins in 2022 and 2023. Leipold, who came to KU from Buffalo, has taken the program to heights it hasn’t seen in well over a decade.

Goff then selected Lindsay Kuhle, formerly a head coach at Denver University, to lead the women’s golf program. Kuhle recently led her Jayhawks to their second-straight NCAA regional bid, marking the first time the program has ever done so.

Thirdly, the KU AD and Dodge City, Kansas native brought in Dan Fitzgerald from LSU to take over the baseball program after more than 20 years under Ritch Price’s leadership.

In year two at the helm Fitzgerald has led Kansas two 15 conference wins, more than the previous two seasons combined.

Goff most recently hired Nate Lie to lead the women’s soccer program. Lie’s first season in charge will be the fall of 2024.

Goff’s hiring success might be most impressive in the fact that he doesn’t have a ‘type.’ There’s no simple or easy answer when the Jayhawks are selecting a new head coach. Goff and his accompanied KU leadership doesn’t simply select the hot up-and-coming head coach from a lower-level DI program, nor have they consistently sought out the top associate head coach from one of the nation’s top programs.

Are there things he requires of his head coaches? Absolutely. However, are there specific sorts or styles of head coaches he seeks?

“Not really,” Goff said in one-on-one interview with 27 News and K-Nation.

The result, in the form of wins and postseason opportunities, are a result of an top-notch process, he says.

“What matters most is that there’s actually a diligent process and actually a search that’s executed where you come in with some open-mindedness, you learn some things along the way,” Goff said. “And then you get after it.”

To call the searching process extensive might be an understatement.

“We call every head coach of the top 50-75 programs in Division I and then we call every head coach at the high end of Division III and the high end of Division II,” Goff said, with the exact number depending on the sport and need.”

Those phone calls accomplish multiple things.

“You are getting some insights, you’re getting some recommendations about what we need to do to invest in that program from successful head coaches,” Goff said. “The other thing you might get is them raising their hand and saying ‘You know what I might want to learn more about that.’ That’s not why you’re calling, but that might be one of the outcomes.”

He says there were reigning endorsements for Leipold across the board before KU hired him in April of 2021.

However, Kansas is seeking out more than just a coach with an impressive resume and others who will say nice things about them. Goff says it’s all about finding the right fit for the University of Kansas specifically. That’s an element that could differ based on each program.

“We have to fully evaluate that particular program,” he said. “Where’s that program been? What are the needs? What’s the evolution in that sport? What are the most impactful characteristics of a successful coach in that sport?”

The best athletic directors don’t just hire the right people but they keep those people around. Doing so, Goff says, starts in the hiring process. A coach who wants to stay at Kansas long-term won’t do so solely based on contract extensions or raises.

“All four of those coaches [I’ve hired] had demonstrated longevity and commitment and some form of loyalty which maybe is less and less common in our industry,” he said. “Do they really bring to life this notion that ‘KU is special.’ That they feel that, that they want that and this is an aspirational job. More often than not if all those things shine through then I think longevity comes with it once they get here.”

27 News spoke with Goff’s two most recent hires who described the process from the opposite side. What stood out about KU?

“The athletic department under Travis’ leadership really believes in doing things the right way, building and developing student-athletes of character and integrity,” KU’s new women’s soccer coach Nate Lie said. “I absolutely, without hesitation, know and believe that Travis values all 16 sports and that he wants soccer specifically to be successful.”

“I thought KU had an incredible picture of who they were and where they were at, and then a great picture of where they wanted to go,” Fitzgerald said. “And then for me, I was really looking for something for our family- a place to go and a destination.”

Goff hasn’t just brought in the right people, he’s kept right people. He’s retained arguably the best coach in college basketball. He extended KU head softball coach Jennifer McFalls, a decision which proved wise as the Jayhawks won more conference games in 2024 than it has since 1997. One could also look at the continued commitment of Jamie Bermel, who recently took his ‘Hawks to their program-record-tying eight-straight NCAA regional.

Whether hiring or retaining, the KU AD appears to have it down to a science in just over three years on the job.

“What kind of person are they? How do they treat people? What do people say about working for them, or with them?” He listed as some of the most important questions. “And then I’d say the last thing, and this needs to be authentic and sincere, is why KU?”

Goff also mentioned KU head men’s basketball coach Bill Self as a phenomenal resource in the hiring process for any sport. Plus, he says there is more to consider now than ever when hiring a head coach given the growing importance of the transfer portal and NIL.

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