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!
-- FACTS ABOUT NORMAL, ILLINOIS (courtesy of www.normal.org) --
• 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.