New KU AD Travis Goff cites 'divine intervention' along journey back to Lawrence

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
The University of Kansas' new athletic director Travis Goff answers questions during a news conference Wednesday at the Lied Center in Lawrence. A Dodge City native, Goff in 2002 graduated from KU with degrees in journalism and sociology.

LAWRENCE — Not unlike his first arrival at the University of Kansas more than two decades ago, Travis Goff enters his second stint as a Jayhawk with an open mind.

Introduced Wednesday as KU’s new athletic director, Goff touched on a number of subjects in his first news conference in that position. Among Goff’s most notable assertions: the school’s long-suffering football team can experience a Northwestern-like resurrection; its men’s basketball program can successfully navigate its high-stakes dispute with the NCAA; and that, despite his lack of any prior time spent as an athletic director, his background has prepared him for this moment.

Goff also recalled how his initial KU experience shaped what became a 16-plus-year journey in collegiate athletics that led him back to his alma mater.

“I came here, like many, not knowing what that (career) path might look like,” said Goff, a Dodge City native and 2002 graduate from KU with degrees in journalism and sociology. “I was raised in a family of teachers, coaches, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and that was a really neat perspective to bring, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, certainly in terms of my career.”

That uncertainty extended into Goff’s junior year, but he soon took matters into his own hands. With an assist to an insider he described as “a little bit of a contact" within the athletic department, Goff walked into the facility and offered up his services as a student volunteer. After graduation, that work paid off by way of a full-time position within the Williams Fund and, ultimately, high-ranking roles at Tulane and Northwestern.

“One of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Goff said. “That’s what gave me the experience, gave me the support system and that foundation. ... It’s taken more than two decades, so many selfless mentors and supporters and some divine intervention to help me find my way back to Lawrence, but I can assure you, it’d been worth every second of that wait. ...

“This is my destination job. This is where I received an incredible education, where I started my career and where I fell in love with college athletics. This is the absolute honor of my professional lifetime to come back and serve my alma mater, a place that has done so much for me. 

Goff appears eager to once again enter uncharted territory.

Described by KU chancellor Douglas Girod as a “rising star in collegiate athletics,” Goff cut his teeth in that world by helping Tulane pull itself out of the despair and devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Then, across an eight-year stint at Northwestern where he served as deputy athletic director and assistant vice president of development, Goff oversaw more than $400 million in facility work and was as a sport administrator for the Wildcat football, volleyball and baseball programs.

Still, notably absent from the résumé Goff submitted last month to KU was any prior experience as an athletic director. While he acknowledged that “the narrative tends to be” time in that position at a smaller institution is the best path to getting the gig at a larger school like KU, Goff indicated he feels more than ready to make the leap.

“I think what I recognized as I left Tulane and the experiences I gained in I think the most challenging of circumstances, and as we continued to build at Northwestern over a significant time frame and to be a part of what was achieved there at a place with some inherent disadvantages, it surely came to my realization that I didn’t need to do that,” said Goff, “that the experiences I was gaining by the day, by the month, by the year were literally preparing me for this exact opportunity.”

Goff’s top priority at KU will be fixing a football program mired in a decade-long tailspin. The Jayhawks have had five different full-time head coaches since the 2009 season, a campaign that kick-started a stretch that has seen the team lose 115 of its last 136 games.

Goff spent part of his Tuesday observing the football team and meeting with interim head coach Emmett Jones, who last month replaced the scandal-embroiled Les Miles. While he understands what options are on the table, Goff said his long-term plans on that front are “still in development” — he could choose to start the search for Miles’ full-time replacement immediately; he may opt to stick with Jones through at least the conclusion of the upcoming season, when a larger pool of candidates should be available.

“I come in open-minded. I come in wanting to listen, learn, absorb, understand where we’re at with this football program,” said Goff, who received his master's of business administration from Tulane in 2007. “There’s a plan, and it’s more about the when and the understanding of how to go forward with that plan. ... 

“It would be insincere and it would not be doing the right thing for the University of Kansas for me to have arrived (Tuesday by) putting the head down and (saying), ‘This is the direction, this is how we’re moving forward,’ without the chance to spend time with Coach Jones, his staff, observe and then listen. I’ve got to listen to the individuals who know a lot more than I do about where Kansas football is at, the state of that roster (and) the mindset of the student-athletes.”

Asked to rebuild one program, Goff must also sustain success at another.

Coming off its 31st consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawk men’s basketball team last week extended head coach Bill Self to what the university described as a “lifetime contract” — the five-year rolling agreement will automatically add one year at the end of each completed season for the remainder of the 58-year-old’s coaching career.

While Goff didn’t put that deal together, he nevertheless labeled it “awesome” and added that it is a reflection of Girod and KU’s continued commitment that Self is “exactly who (the Jayhawks) need at the helm.” Self and KU are currently disputing five Level I violations alleged by the NCAA to have occurred in the realm of recruiting.

“I think when you have the support and the foundation that the University of Kansas provides and that KU athletics provides, there has never been a shadow of a doubt in my mind that we’re going to navigate that successfully, and any of the other things that lie ahead,” Goff said, “because there will be more challenges, there’s no questioning that.”

Kurt Watson, who served as interim athletic director after Jeff Long last month agreed to a buyout of the remainder of his contract, said KU is “certainly aware of (its) challenges,” particularly with respect to the football program, but added he has “great confidence” in Goff’s ability to lead the department through this period of uncertainty — “I know I can speak for my fellow alumni in saying he is simply the right person at the right time,” Watson added.

And, in only his second day on the job, Goff didn’t shy away from setting a high bar.

“We’re going to win championships,” Goff said. “I can’t wait to get you (fans) back in our stadiums and bring that energy and passion to our student-athletes again. We have work to do, there’s no questioning that, but that work has already begun. So keep supporting and spreading that KU passion and stand by us.”