Kansas University’s new athletic director got a chance last week to make good on a promise he made during his introductory press conference — to get behind the wheel and meet new people.
Sheahon Zenger said being from Kansas is almost like a religion to him, and he enjoyed the opportunity to revisit some familiar places.
The trips are important to him, he said, because he gets to interact with new people. It’s something about the way he was raised, he said, that makes him love being out with the people of the state.
He rattled off the highways he traveled on the trip. Highway 148, Highway 119, Highway 9 and Highway 81. Roads he’s traveled “thousands of times,” he said.
The trek started in Salina on Monday.
Jordan Long is a server at Martinelli’s Little Italy, where Zenger met people. He was working on Monday, so he didn’t have a lot of time to hear everything that was going on, but he caught bits and pieces.
“He talked to just about everybody,” Long said.
That included Long himself, a die-hard Kansas State fan. He said Zenger was easy to get along with, like you could be friends with him really quickly.
His travel plans underwent some late rearranging as Zenger made time to attend his wife’s aunt’s funeral on Tuesday in Greenleaf. Members of his staff met people in Great Bend and Dodge City.
Zenger caught up with them in Garden City.
He arrived in Hays late Tuesday, about 10:30 p.m., but decided to take some time to drive around, seeing the house his parents lived in when he was young and getting a little dismayed that one of his favorite Hays eateries, the Taco Shop, had closed for the evening.
He and his staff had a meet-and-greet in Hays on Wednesday morning. His second-grade teacher showed up.
Chad Augustine is the owner of Augustine’s Bakery in Hays, where the event was held. He said Zenger stayed for two hours and his place was packed wall-to-wall for most of it.
“We were so full, you couldn’t even walk from one side of the building to the other,” he said, adding that having former KU football great Gale Sayers in attendance might have helped draw people, too.
Augustine talked to Zenger and said he was struck by how the A.D. seemed to take a genuine interest in his life and his family’s. Yes, he had a daughter. Yes, she’ll be attending KU soon. No, she doesn’t play any sports, but she is a cheerleader. No, she doesn’t want to cheer for KU because she’s afraid it might interfere with her studies. Yes, she’s majoring in pharmacy. Yes, that’s rigorous enough that it just might prevent her from having enough time to devote to cheerleading.
“He wasn’t just asking to ask,” Augustine said. “Most people when you talk about your kids, their eyes glaze over. They’re just asking to ask.”
Zenger said they then “made a beeline for Hutch” and did another event Wednesday afternoon before making it back to Lawrence for the men’s basketball game against Texas A&M.
His connections to the state have been well publicized. Salina was home, he said, because he was born there. Hays was home because he grew up there.
Zenger seemed to relish small details of the trip — the hills near Clifton. The bluffs near Larned. And remembering that he had to accelerate as he drove into Garden City, to make it up the small hill.
He typically would give a short speech and would then spend time answering questions and would greet people individually.
“It’s somewhat arrogant to think you can go and deliver a speech and answer all their questions in a speech,” Zenger said.
Once in a while, the Kansas Athletics ticket scandal would be brought up but not very often, said Zenger and others who were at the events. He addressed the questions and said that they’re focused on moving forward. Audience members seemed more interested in his priorities, his approach in the athletic department and facilities improvements.
Marla Eriksen lives in Hutchinson and serves as a coordinator for KU Alumni Association events in Reno County. She said that fundraising and money never came up in Hutchinson but that she felt his approach should make that easier later.
“He just kind of seemed like one of us,” she said. “Very professional, down-to-earth.”
He and his staff tried to stay and answer everyone’s questions, Zenger said.
“Unless you have to be at the next event, we’re going to be the last ones out of there,” he said.
He was helped on his trip by the KU Alumni Association, which he said had been “out plowing the field. Williams Fund staffers had been in the area before, too, so the staff weren’t strangers.”
And he doesn’t think he’s done now. He’ll be back, he told the audiences.
“This isn’t a one-time thing,” he said.