Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What a year: Sheahon Zenger had eventful first 365 days

Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger listens as new football coach Charlie Weis takes questions during a news conference on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 at the Anderson Family Football Complex.

Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger listens as new football coach Charlie Weis takes questions during a news conference on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 at the Anderson Family Football Complex.


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.”


Janet Scott 2 years, 3 months ago

If Charlie does not win at KU, it will be time to bring in Santa Claus to replace BGL and bring in a Captain Kangaroo double to replace Zenger. AND Lew Perkins (Lord Lew of Lawrence) will be appointed by Gov Sammy Brownback to head the Kansas Board of Regents, after KSU's Crazy Frank Martin declines the position. All this will happen in one day.


jaybate 2 years, 3 months ago

The thing that gives me hope for Zenger is he hired Janks at Illinois State.


Bangkok_Jayhawk 2 years, 3 months ago

I'm reading some crap arguments.

Saying Zenger gets no credit for realignment or Weis would be like saying President Obama should get no credit for any of his bills because he has advisers and didn't actually write them himself.

Shay Z RUNS the athletic department so he is the bottom line guy. The bottom line seems to be much better since he got here. I promise he is not the only AD with consultants.


jaybate 2 years, 3 months ago

The apparentlys:

BGL apparently handled and is handling realignment.

A consulting firm apparently handled the Weis hire.

What does that leave Zenger apparently doing the past year?

He apparently followed BGL's orders and fired Gill and cost KU $6M bones.

We can also spec that he implemented a new paper flow system, or at least hope so.

Inference: mostly he has been raising money to pay for firing Gill and to build a new stadium.

He apparently hasn't done bad job of carrying BGL's action plan.

The question is: is BGL's apparent action plan effective?

Next question: Tait says Gill was problematic on and off the field, so what was the off the field problem?

The off the field problem has never been explained.

It sounds like Tait knows what it was and can tell us.

What kind of off field problem was worth burning $6M bones on?


missouricat 2 years, 3 months ago

Sheahon Zenger is a great hire and so is Charlie. I have discussed what KU is doing here with some people that have ties to the coaching staff here, and they said Ku will really improve in football with Charlie. Some of the coaches here know coaches who have worked with Weis's coaching staff, and coached with him at the NFL level. It looks like your football program is in good hands. Glad you guys had Gill as a coach when we played you. Ha, this is not a jab, take no offense to this. Hope we meet in a bowl game with your new coaching staff sometime in the future.


Janet Scott 2 years, 3 months ago

I suggest KU initiate a huge money raising campaign to upgrade its overall sports facilities, less AFH. I would put Lord Lew of Lawrence (Lew Perkins) in charge, and I would bring in Al Bohl to do the stand up comedy routines in a "Lew and Al" act. BGL would be the MC. Zenger could sell tickets (at scalper's prices).

Until Bonnie is fired, I yawn re Z's job performance. All minor KU sports need to cleaned up: let the firings begin, as soon as no payouts are required.


middleoftheroader 2 years, 3 months ago

Dieter just announced he will attend SMU


FLJHK 2 years, 3 months ago

Zenger deserves major kudos for his job performance in an extraordinarily challenging year. But, as is the nature of the beast, this is no time to rest. Major challenges remain and must be addressed. Conference realignment. While the situation may be somewhat more stable for the time being, this situation is far from over. The Big 12 is a lesser conference than it was a year ago, and I don’t think a 10-team conference is viable over time. Expansion to a minimum of 12 is essential, and Louisville and BYU should be the first targets (along with Notre Dame exploratory chats). Expansion beyond 12 is desirable, and the potential candidates are less obvious but still intriguing. The prospect of 4, 16-team superconferences is still very real, and right now and that leaves Big 12 teams merely targets for poaching unless the conference is proactively strengthened. KU has to have a back-up plan if the Big 12 implodes in a few years. The Big 10 and PAC are the most desirable and likely destinations if this occurs, and there must be some discreet communication on-going with these conferences. In the event of the superconference scenario, KU has made a substantial and critical upgrade to its attractiveness by improving the football pedigree with the hiring of CW and a renewed sense of commitment to the program. Related commitments are needed for non-revenue sports. While the money and interest may not be there for major upgrades across the board, targeted upgrades to select sports are needed. In addition, I agree with many that upgrades to Memorial Stadium are necessary. I think seating upgrades are more important than removal of the track as a first priority, but a long-term plan for a comprehensive upgrade must be developed. So Zenger is off to a great start, but much more needs to be done. Best to be proactive, not reactive as the landscape shifts. Rock chalk!


wildjayhawk 2 years, 3 months ago

We can hope that Sheahon keeps a close watch on the m-basketball team as it looks like it is coming unraveled in the last few years as far as recruiting goes. Time will tell soon.


Bangkok_Jayhawk 2 years, 3 months ago

Everyone seems to think that KU sat quietly and did nothing during the conference realignment. During the coaching search we heard nothing from Zenger and we ended up with what seems to be a pretty good coach. I believe the same approach was taken with conference realignment. Zenger was probably plenty active, but being active and being public about every move are two different things.

You don't have to love the guy yet, but so far there is are no glaring negatives about "Shay Z"


Robert Brown 2 years, 3 months ago

To me the jury is still out on whether Zenger is a good hire. I'm not sure the athletic department has been in this much of a weakened state in the last 15 years. We sat helplessly during realignment. We really had no leverage so I can't blame that on Zenger. I think the responses of all KU representatives during MU's move to the SEC and not wanting to play them in the future were an embarrassment to the university. I know it was red meat for the people on this board. I don't live in Kansas and the university was pretty much universally panned by the national media. By the way, any of you who say you don't care what the national media says about KU is not being honest with themself. The further strengthening of the KU brand is directly related to national perception.

I don't think it took alot of managerial courage to fire Turner Gill and it remains to be seen if hiring Charlie Weis was a good move. Everyone wants to believe that, but we need a couple of years to see some results. However, I do believe the football program is in better shape today than it was six weeks ago.

Currently the men's basketball teams is in worse shape than it has been in many years which is more of an indication of what Bill Self has created- KU is still a Top 20 team and easily could win the conference. They also could finish fifth.

I don't want to sound negative. I just want to look at this objectively.


stm62 2 years, 3 months ago

Kansas had little leverage in the latest conference reallignment saga because football is king. It's imperative that we get our gridiron program on track. SZ and others had little choice but to listen to Texas and Oklahoma dictate how things are going to be. We've been granted a temporary reprieve. The culture and attitudes about KU football MUST CHANGE if the other athletic programs are to survive and prosper.


ahpersecoachingexperience 2 years, 3 months ago

I totally didn't expect to log on today and see a giant make out session with the posters and sheahoRn.

During conference realignment he sat quietly in his office while others saved his arse. Remember the video of him at halftime when OU said they were going to the PAC. sheahoRn looked like 7 year old that was told "no video games for a month!" and don't forget it was Baylor that stood up in their own interest and not only saved themselves, us, but the rest of the league. For now!

Firing Turner...That same 7 year old I just talked about could of figured out it was time for TG to go.

Hiring HCCW might be the one issue I'd give him credit on. Except he had a consulting firm making his every move for him. You really think CW takes a call from 2-10 Kansas and it's AD he's never heard of before? So credit sheahoRn for using a consultant. But don't twist it with him having some great insider knowledge or connections that landed us HCCW.


Scott Oswalt 2 years, 3 months ago

Please refer to Sheahon Zenger as Shay Z


Gene Jackson 2 years, 3 months ago

In the late 50s and early 60s, KU was one of the elites of track and field. Let's find another Bill Easton.


Josh Galler 2 years, 3 months ago

I am sorry there are more things to worry about our sport facilities than removing the track. How about build a small 3 to 8k soccer only stadium for the woman's soccer program. I remember when I was in school woman's soccer was doing well. Or how about improving Robinson Gym for the swimming and diving teams, Do we still have woman's tennis? i know when I was in school they cut men's tennis, why not improve the tennis courts? There are many non-revenue sport facilities needs to be improve before we remove the track add more seats. Rememeber just 10 years ago the stadium just finished some major work to it


iamakufan 2 years, 3 months ago

Bill Self was a great hire. Charlie Weis was a great hire. And Sheahon Zenger is proving to be just as great a hire. KU is in a terrific position for the future.


Joseph Kuebel 2 years, 3 months ago

Meaning last season as OC at Florida: And you lose ur #1 and #2 qbs, u r gonna have a VERY hard time winning when ur greatest strength (coaching qbs to great numbers) is axed through both knees...


Joseph Kuebel 2 years, 3 months ago

Time to get to the airport and leave bitter cold Chicago back to the land of fruit and nuts!


Joseph Kuebel 2 years, 3 months ago

He showed he is more than capable of running the show at a school in a power conference... Which I also even had my doubts about.

Kudos to Sheahon, and BGL for their hardwork this year.

SZ, for what it is worth pulled a creative, homerun of a hire(although I do hesitate using that term). It seems undisputable that CWeis fits KU football and their reputation like a glove (both needing a rebound). I don't think I could name anyone I'd have rather had... Maybe Fedora but still I think that's a disputable argument as he has never been bug time... It's not like CW failed miserably and is washed up, he definitely has some gas left in the tank after returning from ND to take Cassell to a pro bowl... And you lose ur #1 and #2 qbs, u r gonna have a VERy hard time winning when ur greatest strength (coaching qbs to great numbers) is axed through both knees...

I commend SZ, and have been more and more impressed after each passing issue with him as AD.

NOW... PLEASE REMOVE THE F(olliage brow)n TRACK!!! NOW, PLEASE!!! IF I WAS IN LTOWN I WOULD PUT A RALLY AND RECRUIT DORMATORY VOLUNTEERS TO REMOVE THIS DISGRACE, AND TRUE EYESORE. IT REALLY DOES SHOW OUR TRUE COMMITMENT LEVEL TO FOOTBALL... SURE, Kansas Relays are a big part of our history, but they've been moved before... What's the problem with moving the Relays, again?? Nothin. They aren't what they used to be anyways, and won't be close as important as football ever again (Like they were in 1930... It's not 1930 anymore). In fact moving the track may help save the Kansas relays (in an odd twist of fate). Organize a Lawrence dig, and have 75,000 people bring their shovels, followed by some civil engineering students to design the proper pumps and pipeline layout to keep the field from being as soaking wet "as Jim Morrissay, on Christmas day on helayay, dressed hela&ay"


KU_Alumn_2000 2 years, 3 months ago

ADSZ still has a busy job on his plate for at least the next couple of years given the status and recent performance of our non-revenue sports programs.


Bangkok_Jayhawk 2 years, 3 months ago

I have been impressed with Zenger this year. The two major problems (conference realignment and the coaching situation) are currently in a satisfactory state. I agree with kusportsdotcom that our entire athletic department needs to be competing and not just basketball. We have way too much going for us at KU to have sub par non-revenue sports.

YEAR 2,,, I would love to see Zenger launch a massive fund raising project to renovate the football stadium. I know our athletic department is in debt. That being said, immediately after it is financially feasible, the stadium needs some major plastic surgery!

Keep up the good work Zenger!


kusportsdotcom 2 years, 3 months ago

Please raise the bar for all the non-revenue sports at KU. Look at a team like volleyball, who has had the same coach for 15 years, and has made 3 NCAA tournament appearances, and are coming off a whopping 3 Big 12 conference wins this past season.

There's no excuse for being the worst school in the conference in terms of overall sports performance. If it weren't for basketball (and now, hopefully football) KU sports would be an absolute joke. It's time for an overhaul. Zenger's the man for that.


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