A deeper look at where new KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger comes from


5:43 p.m. Update:

Just finished up with interviews for the day. Some six hours of tape and about 10 actual interviews and not a single negative word about Zenger. In fact, none of the people I talked to today had even heard anyone utter a negative thought about the ISU athletic director, who will take over at Kansas on Feb. 1.

Here are some interesting things I learned about Zenger today:

• Despite not being a big guy, the guy's a big eater. According to ISU football coach Brock Spack, Zenger's favorite meal is anything that starts with the letter "f" ends with the letter "d" and has two "o's" in the middle. Associate AD Aaron Leetch backed Spack's claim, saying simply, "He's never met a meal he didn't like."

Because of this, Zenger doesn't necessarily have a favorite restaurant. He likes them all. I was told to see a man named Art for breakfast in the morning at a popular diner in town. I'm told Art will have some great Zenger stories.

• Leetch also told a tale of Zenger spearheading a seating chart overhaul at the basketball arena, in which donors were repositioned according to the amount of money they donated. Instead of doing this overnight, Zenger gave each donor a clear indication of where they stood and then gave them three years to get up to speed before being moved. Leetch said this method was received very well by the ISU community, many of whom did up their donations and some who chose not to worry about it but were not outraged when they were moved. Reminded me a little of the reorganization of Allen Fieldhouse that Lew Perkins and Co., did a few years back. Good to see Zenger has experience in that area.

• Speaking of experience, Zenger appears to be a master fund-raiser. Though the money is not nearly what he'll be dealing with in Lawrence, it's still impressive on a relative scale. During Zenger's first year in Normal, donor gifts totaled approximately $650,000 for the year. Six years later, in 2010, that number nearly doubled as donations totaled more than $1.2 million. That's just annual gifts. That doesn't include money donated for upgrades at numerous facilities, including the baseball field, which received a major overhaul and is now among the nicest in the Missouri Valley Conference. Said ISU donor and Zenger friend, Don Franke, "It's just really hard to say "no" to Sheahon."

• ISU president Dr. Al Bowman told me that, when he hired Zenger in 2004, Zenger was one of three finalists and was not ISU's first choice. Sound familiar? The reason Zenger wound up with the job: "He hit a home run in his interview and I was impressed with him right away," Bowman said.

There's plenty more where that came from, as I talked to several other colleagues and a few student-athletes. Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to meet with ISU men's basketball coach and former KU assistant, Tim Jankovich.... After breakfast with Art, of course.

Check back tomorrow for more.

For now, here are a few more photos from today. Enjoy!

12:47 p.m. Update:

Just ate lunch at a place called "Pub II" apparently, it's the place to go in Normal for grub, beers and all things sports.

Pretty much what you'd expect from a college-town bar and grill. Bears, Cubs, Blackhawks and ISU banners and jerseys dominate the decor and meals for $5 or less dominate the menu. Good stuff.

Heading off to do some more interviews now....

12:04 p.m. Update:

So far today, I've done four interviews and met dozens of different people employed by Illinois State. Not one of them has had anything less than sensational words to say about Sheahon Zenger.

My first stop took me to the athletic department to meet Mike Williams, the SID for football, who acted as my tour guide today. Poor guy.

He's been great, driving me here and there and taking me to all of my interviews. Mike was born and raised in Normal and seems, no surprise, to be a pretty normal guy. I'm not sure if this is just the way people are here or if this is an indication of the culture that Zenger helped create but Mike has gone out of his way to make my stay pleasant.

So, too, have all the people I've met, which, so far, includes ISU football coach Brock Spack, who was hired by Zenger, ISU president Al Bowman, ISU vice president of student affairs, Steve Adams, and women's basketball coach Stephanie Glance, who started last April and also was hired by Zenger.

All four had incredible things to say about Zenger and what he's done in this town. They talk about his integrity, his geuineness and his generosity. They talk about his passion for ISU athletics, for the student-athletes themselves and how important it was for him to be accepted by this quaint little community.

This afternoon I'll meet a couple of donors and ISU's associate AD for external affairs and I'll also get a chance to hit the town and tour a few of Zenger's hot spots.

I'll have much more then, so check back soon. So far, though, I can tell you that all of that positivity and good will that surrounded Zenger's hiring was not a facade. The people here love him and they're certain that Jayhawk fans will, too.

Check back in a bit...

Original Post, 6 a.m.

Good morning and welcome to Normal, Illinois.

For the next three days, I’ll be based here, learning the ins and outs of the city that is home to Illinois State University, from where Kansas University recently plucked its newest athletic director, Sheahon Zenger.

Zenger won’t officially join the Jayhawks until Feb. 1 but we’re not going to wait that long. For the next few days, I’ll talk to the people Zenger worked with, the people who worked for him and the people around town who knew him best. All in an attempt to find out just who the new guy in charge of Kansas Athletics really is.

Thanks to Redbirds sports information director, Todd Kober, I’ve got an awesome lineup of interviews for the next couple of days. I’ll talk with ISU coaches, I’ll talk with alums and donors and I’ll talk with senior administrators who worked side-by-side with Zenger for the past six years.

It’s my hope that things won’t stop there. I plan to check out restaurants, barber shops, insurance offices and grocery stores. So far, we’ve heard nothing but great things about Dr. Zenger and I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Check back often in the next few days as I plan to update this blog throughout each day, while stockpiling the really good stuff for a complete print and online package upon my return to Lawrence.

I’m heading up to campus in about an hour. For now, here are a few facts I dug up about the city that, upon driving into it, reminded me a lot of a smaller-scale Topeka. We’ll start there, and, as we peel back the layers, I’m sure I’ll discover a lot more. Enjoy!


• Population: 52,750

• Number of parks: 17

• Number of golf courses: 1

• Number of libraries: 1 (books in library, 187,660)

• Normal was home to the first Steak ‘n Shake Restaurant in the world. It was located at Main and Virginia streets, south of Illinois State University.

• ISU educated, among others, actors John Malkovich, Gary Cole ("The Brady Bunch movie"), Sean Hayes (”Will and Grace”) and actresses Laurie Metcalf (”Roseanne”), Judith Ivey (”The Five Mrs. Buchanans”, “Designing Women”).

• Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, Inc., is one of the most technologically advanced automotive manufacturing facilities in the world and has a production capacity of 240,000 vehicles annually. It is designed to accommodate several different models intermixed on one assembly line.

• Stand on the top floor of ISU's Watterson Towers and you are at the highest point in Illinois between Chicago and St. Louis.

• Although not widely known, ISU was founded 10 years before the University of Illinois and is the oldest public university in Illinois.

• Illinois State used to field teams nicknamed the Cardinals, but a Pantagraph newspaper sports editor changed the nickname to Redbirds so collegiate teams would not be confused in headlines with the St. Louis Cardinals.

• The farmland around Bloomington-Normal ranks among the top three areas in all the world for corn and soybean production. Ironically, the Twin Cities have seven streets named after fruits (Cherry, Apple, Bayberry, etc.) but none after vegetables.


ahpersecoachingexperience 7 years, 4 months ago

Wow! I was on such a high from last nights game until you reminded me that our new AD is possibly the worst hire I've seen in my lifetime by KU. He is coming from "a small scale topeka" tells all!

Carter Patterson 7 years, 4 months ago

Did your parents not love you? Maybe they dropped you a few times. Worst hire you've seen in your lifetime? If you have a degree from KU then we need to raise our standards immediately.

Marcia Parsons 7 years, 4 months ago

Having that great game at Baylor really put a cramp in your downer-ism, but I was confident that you'd find something to criticize.

hawk316 7 years, 4 months ago

If Matt finds 100 people in Illinois who fall all over themselves to praise our new AD to the heavens and none to counter those opinions, what will you do?

You may have heard the expression, "my mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts."

This looks more and more like an incredibly outstanding hire.

ahpersecoachingexperience 7 years, 4 months ago

you'll have to excuse me if i don't take the peoples of normal il. word on what makes a great sports exec. i'm go out on a limb and say the people of normal are not the most progressive, free thinking, innovative, (heck why not) educated bunch in all the land. (no harm of malice to the new readers from normal but i bet i can find stats that back up my claims pretty easily) i actually think it's kind of sad that tait has to spend three days there trying to justify this hire. think about it! if we didn't hire "the little engine that could" to be our AD and stole one (or top associate) from another top tier university, do you think they would of opened their doors for us to interview their current staff? "hello kentucky (example) this is the ljw. is there anyway you can give me the red carpet tour of your facilities and access to all of your coaches after we just jacked you ad?" i don't think that would go over to well. but at ill state in normal ill it's perfectly ok and exciting to them. bottom line is this is a horrible hire and ku is going to sit and spin for many years to come under this guy.

Carter Patterson 7 years, 4 months ago

You'll have to excuse me if I don't take anything you write seriously because you have zero credibility. I doubt you could name 3 ADs in the Big 12 from memory. When you talk about what a bad hire this is, you are basically telling people who are a hell of a lot smarter than you are that they are idiots. Ray Evans, and his family have done more for this University than you'll ever be able to comprehend.

Instead of just saying that this is a bad hire, why not tell us all how your little brain came to that conclusion? I'm guessing because "your guy" did not get picked....the Kentucky AD was not a candidate after the fiasco with Gillespie.

I think we all know what "ah" stands for in your name.

ahpersecoachingexperience 7 years, 4 months ago

i named 8. couldn't get isu, baylor (but i did know their president), tt, and nu. nu because i've had that guys name perminatly erased from my mind!

yes, you are right in one aspect. ray has done some things that i'll never comprehend. like making the hire that will eventually send us into conference usa. or worse!

now onto why this is a bad move. i've said time and time again that we needed to hire someone that is at a school that is at least on the same level as ku, if not, then an associate from a school above ku. a person that could come in and say "we did this here" or "this school in my old conference did this and it worked." when you reach for someone that has only proved himself at a small school like, say, i don't know, BUFFALO it can back fire on you! our hire should of been someone that has sat in on major negotiations (or did it themselves) with shoe companies, BIG time donors, or advertisers. finallly someone that has networked with a "super conference." of course you know that "the little engine that could" fits non of these descriptions!

to our new "normal" readers. i'm sorry, i'm sure there are numerous spelling and grammar errors above but i'm not going back to proof read. aaaaaaaaaaaaah! who am i kidding, nobody in normal can read!!! (no harm or malice intended. it's fact. i checked the literacy rate)

KU_FanSince75 7 years, 4 months ago

Matt---three days in Normal, Illinois?

Just try to act normal, okay?

Robert Brock 7 years, 4 months ago

Normal is normal. Topeka is...abnormal.


baldwinjhawk 7 years, 4 months ago

Never use Topeka as a reference point.. yuk.! Our state capital city is one of the worst. Too bad they didn't leave it in Lawrence. Now that's a cool town!

John Randall 7 years, 4 months ago

Can't 'leave' it where it never was. Lecompton – now there is a nice little town.

Bob_Keeshan 7 years, 4 months ago

If Matt goes 3 days without making a Ben Folds reference I will be hugely disappointed.

d_prowess 7 years, 4 months ago

I can't wait to see what Tait digs up. And I will be disappointed if you don't eat at the original Steak n' Shake!

d_prowess 7 years, 4 months ago

And stop taking pictures while driving!
A number of your groupies (I mean commentors) would be devastated to lose you (and by you, I mean your great football coverage!). No one could handle a return of Doogie.

Sean Rodger 7 years, 4 months ago

My favorite lines in "ahpersecoachingexperience comments" are the ones where he makes fun of Normal, Ill. being un-educated, but in turn has spelling and other common grammatical errors that any person would use on a daily basis.

He is a disgrace to Jayhawk Nation. I wish he'd do everyone a favor and just cancel his internet subscription.

ahpersecoachingexperience 7 years, 4 months ago

spelling and grammar rebuttal = "crickets"

average number of people that can't read per city is 20% normal il is 28%

ahpersecoachingexperience 7 years, 4 months ago

hold on devil, i have to type something real quick.

ok, the problem with kansas is it's, well, kansas. the people on the selection committee and fans that are in favor of this hire are overlooking the fact that college sports is major cut throat business where deals are done in smokey backrooms errr i mean superbowl skyboxes and yes if you want to get things done you sometimes need to "keeps a private jet" (youtube it). making a hire because he has "kansas values" and "lived in lawrence for sometime" and "he's from hayes" is going to do little to impress the lawyers and execs from addias and nike when our next shoe contract comes around.

ok, the problem with kansas is it's, well, kansas. the people who are so shamed that such a scandle could happen at our esteemed university are forgetting that with big business comes big business problems like employees stealing and you deal with them. Oh, and nobody in the sports world outside of a 100 mile radius of lawrence cares one lick about this scandle.

ok, the problem with kansas is it's, well, kansas.the people that don't get the huggins hire don't understand a short term hire can reap longterm gains. did ksu have success under him? was there an excitement under him that had never been seen at ksu? if WV (his alma matter)doesn't open up is he still there? have they been better since he left than before he was there? i'd say yes to all of them and also reference bobby knight hire at TT in the same boat (except they sucked before and after him).

ok, the problem with kansas is it's, well, kansas. the people that think this hire is the same as roy or bill couldn't be more wrong! roy had spent years sitting next to one of the greatest minds in college basketball for years while bill had proven success at 3 previous schools before coming to kansas. this hire would be like if we picked roy our of high school and bill from oral roberts (think thats where he coached before tulsa) it might of worked. but the experience they gained working their way up the ladder made them be successful. the "little engine that could" resume reads ksu, wyoming, st. mary sisters of the blind, and il state. not much learning on that ladder.

don't get me wrong, i want to be wrong about this but i'm pretty sure i'm not going to be. and thanks for using you brain on your post and not hitting me with the usual "nah-nah nah-nah boo-boo" or "i know you are but what i'm i" like most of the chumps do.

i think we can respectfully agree to disagree on this one.

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