Saturday, August 27, 2011

Monday message from Zenger to set tone for KU Athletics

Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger hangs out with head coach Turner Gill on the sidelines of practice on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011.

Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger hangs out with head coach Turner Gill on the sidelines of practice on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011.



Kansas Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger hangs out with head football coach Turner Gill on the sidelines of practice on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011.

On Monday, when he stands in front of the entire Kansas University student-athlete population, Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger will deliver a message he hopes will reshape Kansas athletics.

Many have heard it — most more than once — and it cuts to Zenger’s very core. It won’t be driven solely by his Kansas values, kind smile or honest approach.

The message will be about competing — something Zenger said will be the basis for helping the university’s athletic programs heal and move into a new era. It’s about substance over image and accountability over all.

“I want people to know we’re doing it differently here,” Zenger said. “I’ve said that over and over and over again. But what is differently? It’s a little bit throwback. It’s a little bit visionary. And it’s a lot Kansan.”

In the wake of the ticket scandal that led to the removal — and in many cases prosecution — of seven athletics department employees as well as the unceremonious departure of former Athletic Director Lew Perkins, many have questioned what comes next for KU. Zenger has the answer and it’s about much more than hiring a new A.D.

Zenger, 45, started at Kansas six months earlier than athletic directors typically do and worked his first month — last January — without pay. While some KU faithful will not believe things are changing if Zenger doesn’t initiate widespread firings and loudly condemn the previous regime, Zenger said his first six months on the job set the foundation for what’s still to come.

“I felt that was an advantage with respect to watching how people worked, how the staff and coaches interacted and how the student-athletes competed,” Zenger said about starting a semester early. “The misperception would be that in that four-month window you’re gonna make career decisions about coaches and staff members, but February through May is a very different snapshot of a department as opposed to August through May. You have to be careful. That snapshot may not represent what you think it does.”

Eye-opening introduction

Initially, Zenger watched from a distance, shook tons of hands, made lots of lists — his lists fill notebooks, big and small — and remained mindful of how much he mingled with KU’s student-athletes. He was formulating a plan and wanted it to make an impact when delivered.

“The real work started June 1,” Zenger said. “That’s when we started restructuring the department and infiltrating the philosophy.”

About a week later, at a mandatory all-staff meeting June 9, the kind-faced Zenger delivered his first stern message. His words were driven by passion, anger, determination and pride. Losing, he said, was unacceptable. Laziness, he said, would not be tolerated. Complacency, he said, was for the weak.

“I feel that, internally and externally, there’s been a culture that has evolved that as long as we’re winning in men’s basketball and as long as football’s there every once in a while, things are good,” Zenger said. “That’s not good enough.”

Just like that, the sunny tone of a meeting that many said they believed would be like the first day of class was fraught with hard swallows and open eyes and ears.

Since that day, there have been several changes, not the least of which was the resurfacing of concerns about the future of the Big 12 Conference. Zenger has worked day and night to stay on top of conference realignment and will do so for as long as it takes. Quietly, Zenger has cut in half the number of staff members who report directly to him — a move, he says, that leads to greater accountability. He also brought in a handful of hires paid for with readily available money, not, he noted, by growing the department’s debt.

Three of the new hires came from Illinois State, his previous employer. And they came, as Zenger put it, “because they were part of the guts and heart and soul of what we did there. They’re also here to hold me accountable to what our philosophies have been in the past so that I don’t change.”

One of them, Jane Fulton, spent the last six years marveling at the way Zenger works.

“For us, the most crucial thing during that first year was that everyone within the athletic department and every student-athlete got on the same page,” said Fulton, one of the ISU trio, which targets Zenger’s top priorities of student-athlete and donor development as its mission.

Different atmosphere

Jim Marchiony, a member of the KU athletics department since 2003, said Zenger’s approach on Mount Oread has been well-received. Marchiony noted that the passage of time since the ticket scandal had lightened the mood in the department. But other factors are at work.

“The atmosphere is different with Sheahon,” Marchiony said. “I think there was a certain segment of the population that didn’t like the fact that Lew was not from Kansas and, when you couple that with the changes he implemented, I don’t think people liked that those changes were made by someone many viewed as an outsider. So Sheahon comes in and he is a Kansan. But he’s not just a Kansan. He’s a Kansan with a degree from KU, who grew up in the state and went to school at multiple institutions within the state, who worked in Strong Hall, and he’s somebody who knows a lot of people in the state. Immediately, the tenor changes in many people’s minds because he is a respected administrator who is one of them.”

Added Zenger, when asked if he noticed people warming to his way of doing things: “Yes. And I am being told that there are people here that now seem to be able to be more themselves.”

There’s a reason Zenger has focused so much attention internally since arriving.

“We all know what a structure looks like with a principal, vice principal and teachers,” Zenger said. “When you look back at your experience in those venues, how did you interact with the principal? Did that principal interact with all 500 or 1,000 students every day? No.

“He or she could not possibly do that. But he or she could impact the teachers every day.”

As time goes by, Zenger’s expectations for KU will come into full view. Coaches who succeed will be better compensated, their programs given more support. Zenger already has started reassigning some administrators and trimming salaries to make things less top-heavy.

“He has studied this department,” Fulton said. “He has studied the conference. And there is no doubt: When he talks about it, he knows what’s going on. If change is needed, he’s not afraid to make the change. If it’s not needed, he is not afraid to mentor.”

By mentor, Fulton’s talking about students, colleagues, coaches, secretaries, whomever.

“I believe this with all my heart, you’ve gotta build it from the inside out,” Zenger said. “If you build something just to please people on the outside, you haven’t built something of substance and, before long, people can see through that.”

Substance. It’s a word that comes up a lot with Zenger. It means a lot to him, too. While transparency is the word that’s in vogue for college athletics departments to use to say they’re acting properly, Zenger is one of the few in his profession who doesn’t use it.

“You do the right thing for the right reason at the right time,” he said. “You get those out of order, you’ve got a problem.”

Lasting decisions

During his six years at ISU, Zenger had plenty of opportunities to leave, but always decided to stay. That is, until Kansas called.

“I learned that it was important to learn what it felt like to make decisions in year one, two, three and then live with those decisions in year four, five and six,” he said. “In today’s world, that’s something people often miss. I now know and have the benefit of seeing how early decisions in your tenure affect what you’re trying to do in year five, year six and so on. What I learned was don’t make knee-jerk decisions about personnel. Observations you make early on in some cases are dead-on. In other cases, if you’d have had more time you’d have found out things were different.”

He continued: “I know from the outside it can look so obvious, people say, ‘We need to just trim, trim, trim and cut, cut, cut.’ But if you cut the wrong person or dismantle the structure in the wrong order, then the whole thing falls down. We have to remember that three short years ago we won the national championship in basketball, we won the Orange Bowl. We were considered one of the elite programs in the country. And, actually, we’re still considered that.

“There will be change in this department over time, but you have to be consistent with your message, and you have to treat people the right way, inside and outside.”

That’s where Monday’s 1-on-550 “We are Jayhawks” address comes into play. Zenger expects the speech will last about an hour and will sound a lot like the message he used to get from his parents when he was younger.

“Whenever I was on the verge of getting in trouble,” he recalled, “my parents would say, ‘Straighten up and act right.’ What I’m really asking is for the department, the coaches, the student-athletes, the donors, the campus to look in the mirror and really examine our Kansas values and then live those Kansas values.”


ahpersecoachingexperience 6 years, 9 months ago

Gawd. We can only hope SZ turns us into the next Illinois State!

Jayhawk1116 6 years, 9 months ago

So by that logic Bill Self turned our basketball program into the next Oral Roberts?

"Straighten up and act right."

ahpersecoachingexperience 6 years, 9 months ago

Did we hire hcbs from Tulsa or after he had proven himself for a couple of years at a big 10 school?

Ben Kliewer 6 years, 9 months ago

Yeah ahperse, but that was our basketball program, which is nationally recognized. In basketball, we can afford to hire someone who's "proven themselves" at another major conference program. But you seem to think that KU Athletics as a whole can pull in the same kind of big names from big programs, which we can't. Basketball is all anyone knows us for, and that's where the rest of the country would like to keep us. In the "good at basketball and nothing else" cupboard with Duke and UNC. You constantly seem to be making outrageous demands, and when KU can't live up to your delusional expectations, you throw a b*tchfit and talk about how everyone is ignorant except for you. Newsflash, your grandiose view of how Kansas should be is everyone's grandiose view of how Kansas should be, but the rest of us have realistic expectations, not delusions of grandeur. To claim that we should be hiring all these people that wouldn't give Kansas a second thought makes you look like a fool, and then to complain that we didn't strike the impossible deal makes you less of a "loyal fan" and more of a nuisance to those of us trying to support that which we are given. Sure, we can throw the idea towards some of those big names, but we can't get bent out of shape when they say "Thanks, but no thanks." We need to play the hand we're dealt, not complain that we didn't get pocket aces. What is KU supposed to do? Steal the AD from some B10 or SEC school with our awesomeness? That's completely unrealistic. Because we don't have awesomeness...we are good enough to be able to take a gamble on someone from a lower school and hope it pays off in the end. We aren't a powerhouse athletics program. We are a school with a good basketball team, trying to build a great athletics program. We don't have our pick of the litter. We have to get people in here who we think can build us into something great, and we don't have the option of choosing from accomplished veterans. Wake Up!

ahpersecoachingexperience 6 years, 9 months ago

No I didn't think that we were going to hire deloss away from UT, but I did expect us to get a top assistant from a major university. A person that has learned from an ad that has been there done that. Sort of the Roy Williams of athletic directors. Instead we grab SZ who says the mvc tourney is the biggest sporting event he has taken part of as an athletic director. A guy from a school where part of the football stadium had to be torn down because SZ couldn't raise the funds to repair it. A guy that was basically hired because he had "ties" to the university. Oh and having KSU blood in him isn't helping anything.

And ummmmmm remember someone screaming that we better hire a person with some decent major conference ties because realignment isn't done.

Ben Kliewer 6 years, 9 months ago

As much as I hate to say it, I still think you're giving KU more credit than it deserves...look at it from the perspective of the rest of the country. I don't like it any more than anybody else, but we're kind of a crap deal to any conference. 5 people live in the state of Kansas, and only 3 of them have TVs. Even though we have a widespread alumni base, we enjoy our low-revenue basketball games just fine. If football is winning, we might, MIGHT check out the games, but it's going to be difficult to build an attractive football program (regardless of who the coach or AD is) in time for your scenario of inevitable conference shut-down. We are where we are. Can't change the past. So, at this point, all of us have two options. Throw btch fits, light ourselves on fire and talk about how everyone is stupid, when there's not a thing any of us can do about it. Or, we can try to find the positives in what has happened and hope for the best. What are you going to do about our football program ahperse? What are you going to do about the AD? I'd love to, not hear, but see your solutions in action. You seem to think you are some sort of all knowledgeable athletics and conference magician/genius. Do something. Do it now, for all our sake. Get us into the Big 10, get us into the Pac-12, get us into the Big East or the ACC. Or, save the Big 12, get us some more teams. Or, hire yourself as AD and football coach. Solve all our problems with your magic. Or, if you're like the rest of us, and can't do a damn thing, then shut up and quit bringing everybody down with your btching. It's not helping anyone.

Clarence Haynes 6 years, 9 months ago

Frigging jerk. You must be Bubba Cunningham's "partner"

KU79 6 years, 9 months ago

I think Zenger is the right guy, in the right job, at the right time.

KU79 6 years, 9 months ago

I know what I posted was very profound (lol), but I didn't intend to post it 3 times.

Dirk Medema 6 years, 9 months ago

Reading yours 3x's still beats the snot out of reading others even once.

KU79 6 years, 9 months ago

I think Zenger is the right guy, in the right job, at the right time.

KU79 6 years, 9 months ago

I think Zenger is the right guy, in the right job, at the right time.

nuleafjhawk 6 years, 9 months ago

it's ok KU79 - one post for the right guy, one post for the right job, one post for the right time !

notigers4me 6 years, 9 months ago

I think Zenger has a better sense of where he's at and where he came from than Lew. Lew always seemed like he wasn't in touch and of course the scandal proved that he wasn't. I believe that over time Zenger will turn things around and then we will move forward towards repectability in all sports.

Jeff Coffman 6 years, 9 months ago

I believe that we have had several programs underperforming from the numbers I have seen posted on KUsports. I additionally think there are some coaches that are way over their heads. In six months Zenger hasn't given one note that coaches are in trouble or that any have been let go.

Actions speak louder than words. Hopefully, he was truly evaluating and behind closed doors, he was able to lay done expected performance for the upcoming year. I hope and expect that besides trimming a few salaries he is actually ready to get rid of some of the coaches.

ahpersecoachingexperience 6 years, 9 months ago

In his first order of business he signed our last place softball coach (two years remaining on her current contract) to a four year extension.

Dirk Medema 6 years, 9 months ago

Lew seemed focused on 1 aspect of the dept (increasing revenue) with the expectation that everything else would fall in place (improved facilities, improved salaries, improved performance). Unfortunately, by not paying enough attention to the other aspects of the dept (checking spending, accountability, ...), there was all sorts of unraveling. It's unfortunate that it sounds like some folks were so inversely nepotistic, that they created some of the problems or at least exascerbated them.

Mostly though, glad to see that Dr Z seems to have the big picture of the entire package in mind. My guess is that the same aproach has been used when renegotiating contracts, even if it is just the bottom line ($'s & yrs) that are reported.Definitely glad that he puts more thought into it than some bloggers.

Kevin Kelly 6 years, 9 months ago

Great article. But what does it say about us as people that we are ready to give a cookie to a guy who comes out and so many words...."I'm not here to fill my and my friend's pockets with everything they could carry."

ahpersecoachingexperience 6 years, 9 months ago

And is it too much to ask for a bomb to have landed right after that picture was taken? Maybe a fault line opening up? Lightning strike?

disclosure: kidding, kidding, kidding. ahperpimp'nainteasy doesn't really advocate the bombing, fault line swallowing, or lightning striking of hctg and sz. Just the axing, firing, or pink slipping.

haydenhawkco 6 years, 9 months ago

Give them a chance ahper. They want the same thing you do - what's best for KU.

parrothead8 6 years, 9 months ago

I hope none of the student-athletes have to miss class to go hear a speech by the new AD.

John Mueller 6 years, 9 months ago

I think I like the guy.

I am 100% behind him and it's time for positive, positive, positive when it comes to Turner Gill. We can make another judgement at the end of the season, but at this point, its time for a little, Go Jayhawks, Fight Jayhawks, WIN Jayhawks!

Unfortunately, I think the legacy of Zenger will probably have more to do with how he handles the future conference affiliation of KU athletics that coaching hires, etc.

The dark cloud is the uncertainty or our affiliation going forward, and, I for one think it is very much time to leave the Big 12, err 8 and cut the best deal we can cut for the University of Kansas.

I live in Texas, and i do not for one minute begrudge Texas AM or Texas (after all, they are only acting in their interest, which is what entities do) but it is time for KU to act in our interest and waiting around for Texas to tell us our next move is probably not in our interest.

Let's go SZ!

kureader 6 years, 9 months ago

Good article, Matt. But, Lew had a bunch of direct reports, and a very large staff. Additionally, Zenger brought in three cronies from Illinois State. So, did he just group some of Lew's old direct reports under his former Illinois State people, or did he actually reduce staff? I have no doubts that Zenger is a good manager, and I'm not looking for an excuse to criticize him. I'd just like to know more about how he has reorganized the administrative staff and how KU will benefit. Is Sayers still on the staff? If so, what does he do now?

Dirk Medema 6 years, 9 months ago

You really want a comparative org chart posted with the article? ZZZZZZZ, and that's not for Zenger - snooze city. Matt mentions that the moves have not just been about adding staff, but that there has been a reduction in staff and budget. Analysis beyond that is the stuff of prof journals.

Mike Kendall 6 years, 9 months ago


I love your take on the articles you write. Love to read your stuff----keep 'em coming!

justajoe 6 years, 9 months ago

"Many have heard it — most more than once — and it cuts to Zenger’s very core. It won’t be driven solely by his Kansas values, kind smile or honest approach."

and then there's...

"About a week later, at a mandatory all-staff meeting June 9, the kind-faced Zenger delivered his first stern message."

Good Grief, is this reportage or the fawning drool normally found in the jacket cover of an autobiography?

ahpersecoachingexperience 6 years, 9 months ago

We should be careful with the "kansas values" talk too. For those of you not living in Kansas go ask your neighbor what they think of a "kansas value" and I bet the names Phelps, Roeder, Brownback, and Jesus are brought up within the first 30 seconds.

vd 6 years, 9 months ago

Jesus's values are bad. Now I understand your previous posts.

Ben Kliewer 6 years, 9 months ago

Do you even live in Kansas? Because that sounds like a stereotypical thing a non-Kansas would say about Kansas.

nuleafjhawk 6 years, 9 months ago

I'm just thanking the same Jesus that he doesn't believe in that he didn't mention the Wizard of Oz.

I love that movie, but it's the only thing that anyone outside of the state knows us (Kansas) by!

topeka52 6 years, 9 months ago

I am thinking as well as many others that LJW needs to ban for life one certain poster.

Kevin Randell 6 years, 9 months ago

topeka52, Though I agree with you, the fact is to many women and men in our armed services have died to give people the right for free speech. I respect their right for free speech and welcome it.

For example: I am a Christian and a follower of that Jesus that they are talking about. The great thing about it is?.....I have the same right to express my belief and love for Jesus as they have the right to make fun, mock, and even bash that belief. But at the end of the day we BOTH have the right to say what we feel. :)

Now....the only way this would be bad is if either side would start trying to deny the freedom of expression. You telling people to quit "forcing" their belief's or non-beliefs down their throats. But nobody on here would do that....would they? ;)

BewareOfThePhogOnTheWater 6 years, 9 months ago

Give Sheahon a chance folks. Lew left behind a huge mess. It will take some time to clean it up.

Dennis Mahorney 6 years, 9 months ago

KU ties,Kansas ties,Northeast Kansas ties,Douglas county ties,Lawrence ties,routinely runs into Bill Self at the same Starbucks, and was visited in a dream by the ghost of Wilt Chamberlain..I get it..ok. However a good fit, (and no doubt He is one) there are many that would also be good choices. If familiarity is helpful though, then so be it.

DevilHawk 6 years, 9 months ago

"Added Zenger, when asked if he noticed people warming to his way of doing things: 'Yes. And I am being told that there are people here that now seem to be able to be more themselves.' "

Referring to Gill and the football staff, perhaps...?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.