Today marks Sheahon Zenger’s one-year anniversary as the athletic director at Kansas University.
If you haven’t been paying close attention, it might seem more like five years have passed since Zenger was introduced as the replacement for Lew Perkins. That’s often the case for Zenger, who, in 12 months, has been through and done more than some ADs do during an entire career.
“For the most part, the tasks of an athletic director’s job on a daily basis are relatively the same across the country,” said Zenger, looking back at the year that was. “What was unique here was the magnitude of the issues that surfaced relatively quickly.”
From navigating the worrisome waters of conference realignment to reorganizing the athletic department and firing one football coach and hiring another, Zenger has had his hands full since the day he started at KU.
“The issues that arose early on forced me and forced the staff to run at a faster pace,” said Zenger, who came to KU after six years as AD at Illinois State. “And I see that now as a real positive, because we’re not sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, trying to figure out what we’re going to do next.”
With his foundation firmly in place, and KU’s most dire issues behind him (for now), Zenger plans to focus even more attention on raising the level of competitiveness throughout the KU athletic department. His focus from the beginning was on elevating all of KU’s sports programs into the top tier of the Big 12. Although the near collapse of the conference and his quest to hire Charlie Weis as the school’s 37th football coach demanded most of Zenger’s energy and attention during Year One, his vision has not changed.
“There’s only one goal here at the University of Kansas, and that is to always aim high,” Zenger said. “Aspire to greatness. That’s how I was brought up. That’s what I think the University of Kansas stands for, and that’s what I think the athletic department here needs to keep in its forefront at all times.”
Men’s basketball long has been top dog at KU, and Zenger was well aware of that when he arrived. In fact, much of what he did during his first year in charge — not all of it noticeable — was done with men’s basketball in mind. At least one man recognized and he spoke highly of the way with which Zenger began to repair the image of an athletic department in need of a makeover.
“One of the things that has impressed me about him is that he is not a knee-jerk-reaction guy,” men’s basketball coach Bill Self said of Zenger. “He studied, talked to people and has done it his way, as opposed to feeling pressure to do what others sometimes think you should do. And I think that’s been a very positive thing for KU. It’s a challenging time. It was a challenging year. But the pot at the end of the rainbow is gold.”
One of Zenger’s first visible roles with Kansas was to follow Self’s top-ranked team during its run to the Elite Eight. He talked often about how he saw sitting courtside at KU hoops games as one of the best parts of his job, both for the Jayhawk fan inside of him and for the connection to donors and alumni it allowed him to create.
Shortly after basketball ended, things began to heat up with conference realignment for a second straight year, and Zenger spent the bulk of the summer in the middle of intense talks designed to save the Big 12 Conference. Although the league lost two schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC) for the second straight year, it also added two — TCU and West Virginia — and appears to be on more stable ground heading into 2012.
With less threatening realignment issues still lingering, Zenger, a former football coach, was forced to endure the disappointment of a 2-10 football season that led to the dismissal of second-year coach Turner Gill. Though Zenger did not hire Gill, he acted swiftly in firing him, largely because expectations were not being met on or off the field.
While pulling the plug on Gill marked his first such move at KU, Zenger had been through coaching transitions in the past. During his six years at Illinois State, Zenger parted ways with three high-profile coaches and ultimately hired two-thirds of the head coaches who were in place the day he left.
“It’s the most unfortunate part of any athletic director’s job,” Zenger said of having to fire a coach. “But it’s the most important part of an athletic director’s job. And if I had not gone through it before, I can’t imagine having to do it at this level.”
Less than two weeks after firing Gill and his staff, Zenger made national news by hiring Weis, a man with nearly 20 years of NFL coaching experience and four Super Bowl rings. The move, though met with skepticism by some, was celebrated throughout the KU community.
“A lot of times, you can’t get to the good things until you take care of some things that need to be addressed,” Self said. “But you don’t want to rush into addressing them. So, to me, it’s been one of those situations where he’s taken his time, and taking his time has better given him the opportunity to evaluate and make the proper decisions. It was the perfect time for a guy like Sheahon to come in here and put his own stamp on things. Moving forward, I think there will be a lot of positive things happening.”
While his first year at KU was an eye-opening experience, Zenger said he would not have asked for anything different.
“I see it as a positive,” he said. “Rather than sitting back and watching for a year, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work and got to know people locally, regionally and nationally. Now we’re at warp speed, and we’re way ahead of where we would’ve been had this first year just been a normal year.”
When it was suggested that the breakneck pace of his first year in town made it seem as if he had been in his current job for much more than 365 days, Zenger agreed.
“It does,” he said. “And part of that has to do with the fact that this isn’t my first time at the University of Kansas. At the same time, my lifespan in the department feels like … it feels more like I’ve been here closer to two or three years. And quite frankly, that’s something I’m thankful for.”
Although he spends most days with dozens of things going on at once and all of them racing through his busy mind, Zenger is not a complicated man. He loves his job and his family, and those are the two most important things in his world.
During winter break, when the KU campus was quiet and many of the students and staff members spent extended time away with their families, Zenger found time, just about every day, to head up to his office. Sometimes he sat there and thought. Other times, he returned phone calls or straightened his desk. His idea of a break? Going to work in a KU sweatshirt instead of wearing a suit and tie.
“Now’s not the time to rest,” Zenger said. “People perceive that this has been a long year and a year with a lot of intense issues, and they’re right. Some people, at the end of that time period, might think that it’s time to take a deep breath. But my message to the department and to the institution is now is not the time to take a deep breath. Now is the time to continue to push forward with great momentum.”