It was early Friday morning, and Sheahon Zenger stepped away from his office and made the short jaunt across campus to Memorial Stadium. It was a cool summer morning, relatively speaking, and a large throng of Kansas football players were up early for the first day of camp.
Zenger, the fourth-year Kansas athletic director, was hoping to track the progress of a $500,000 upgrade inside Memorial Stadium, a minor facelift that includes the removal of the running track. But as an old football man himself, Zenger was also naturally curious about the evolution of another rebuilding project: The one on the field.
“I have used the word in recent months,” Zenger says, “we need momentum.”
Nearly three years ago, Zenger tabbed Charlie Weis to “clean up” a Kansas program that had fallen on hard times. The Jayhawks had become a punch line, losing 19 games in two years under Turner Gill, and Zenger believed he needed a coach who could withstand the “battles” of a rebuilding job.
Now, as the Weis era enters year three, the signs of progress have been scant, often limited to tangential improvements in the weight room and incremental success in the classroom. The Jayhawks are just 4-20 in their last two years, mired in a state of general irrelevance.
The moment, then, inspires an easy question: After two years of maintenance and foundation work, where does Kansas football go from here?
“We need momentum,” Zenger says again, echoing recent private discussions with Weis. “Well, let’s be real clear: momentum is wins. (Charlie) can’t tell you; I can’t tell you; the players can’t tell you how many that is. But I would tell you the players, the coaches, our staff and the fans will know what that is as the season progresses.”
For Zenger, searching for progress — or more specific, the right number of victories — can be a little like baking a cake. The process can be slow, but you know in the end if it came out just right. In other words: If Zenger is expecting a certain number of victories from Weis this season, don’t ask him for a specific number.
Because in the end, Zenger says, we’ll all know if the recipe and execution was done right.
“You know when (a cake) is done,” Zenger says. “You know if you burn it, you know if it’s not done enough. I think the big variable, and I’m stating the obvious, the big variable is we don’t know the level of our competition yet.”
In recent days and months, Zenger has had similar conversations with Weis, who came to Kansas in December 2011, offering gridiron hope and generating some noise with a fistful of Super Bowl rings. Weis signed a five-year contract worth a guaranteed $12.5 million, and he loaded up on junior-college players during his first two years of recruiting, hoping to expedite the building process. On Friday, Zenger praised the strides that Weis has engineered on defense and special teams.
The Jayhawks needed some stability and consistency after a few years of turmoil. But as Weis stands here now, surveying the landscape in year three, even he concedes it’s time to make good on that early hope.
“This is the best we feel by a wide margin about the talent we have here,” Weis said on Thursday, on the eve of the first practice. “That being said, we’ve done very little to back that up, me included. So we’ll see how it goes.”
On a sidewall of his spacious office, Zenger has three Kansas football helmets of different colors, all lined up in a row. It’s a nod to his roots, time spent as an assistant coach under Bill Snyder in the early days at K-State. Zenger will tell you that he’s spent most of his professional life around rebuilding football programs, and in his current job, some of that building is meant in a literal sense.
Kansas is planning a massive renovation at Memorial Stadium — Zenger calls the removal of the track “Step 1A” — and the process has been slow and cautious thus far. On Friday, Zenger said Kansas City-based architecture firm HNTB was ready to present its design plans to KU officials, and Zenger can start taking the vision to potential donors.
“We keep sending HNTB back to the drawing board for little tweaks,” Zenger says, “and at some point, we’re just going to have to pull the trigger.”
For now, though, no plan is set in stone. Zenger has big dreams. But as another season begins in Lawrence, it’s clear that the project could use a little momentum.
“As Charlie and I’ve talked, you can talk about cleaning up the program for so long,” Zenger says. “And then people want to see a residual effect from that. It’s just human nature. That’s why there’s a scoreboard.”