Sheahon Zenger takes a few steps over to his desk before returning with a handful of photos.
It’s a Wednesday in mid-May, and the Kansas athletic director is allowing himself a moment to look back. He pulls out pictures from Jan. 3, 2011 — the day he was officially hired at KU — with the snapshots showing basketball coach Bill Self in his office, along with Zenger’s three children.
Luke, an eighth-grader then, will be a sophomore at KU next year. Abby, a sixth-grader at the time, just attended high school prom in the last month. And Jake, also in high school now, has grown to 5 foot 10.
“They’ve gone from little kids to adults,” Zenger says, smiling. “When I look in the mirror, I think I’ve gone from darker hair to whiter hair.”
It’s been an eventful first five years for Zenger at KU, which has included Final Fours in men’s basketball and volleyball, a national championship in women’s track and also two coach firings in football.
“In some ways, it’s gone really, really fast,” Zenger says of the past five years. “On some other issues, the first couple years were quite lengthy.”
In an extended interview with The Star, Zenger outlined his thoughts on his tenure so far and his hopes moving forward.
‘Clearing the deck’
Zenger admits he didn’t come to KU knowing all the realities about his situation. There are certain things in the interview process that aren’t revealed.
“You see the glitz and the glamour of the University of Kansas and Kansas basketball, and you don’t always look back behind the curtain — or I didn’t at the time,” Zenger said. “And what I failed to see was the need for facilities in almost every sport except for men’s basketball.”
Once he started, the priority list changed immediately. KU Athletics faced potential civil rights lawsuits because of its poor softball and soccer facilities located near Allen Fieldhouse. Portable toilets served as restrooms. Spectators watched games while standing on rocks. Teams didn’t have their own locker rooms on site.
“Our soccer field and our softball field,” Zenger said, “were equivalent to practice facilities at other peer institutions.”
Zenger says with any new job, you find out quickly what needs to get taken care of first.
“I came in thinking, ‘Heck, let’s renovate the football stadium right away. Let’s do this. Let’s do that,’ ” Zenger said. “Well, not so fast. There’s some other things you need to get done.”
The construction of Rock Chalk Park — a $39 million project that opened in 2014 and currently houses track, softball and soccer and is the future home of tennis — is a source of pride for Zenger. He often cites from memory how the track is one of only a few in the United States to earn Class I certification from the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Zenger also sees the facility as the springboard for what’s most important in the next five years.
“I call it ‘clearing the deck,’ ” Zenger said. “Let’s get everything done so that now we can turn all focus on football.”
In Zenger’s mind, building a track stadium was the first step to renovating Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1921 but is widely considered the worst football stadium in the Big 12. After Rock Chalk Park’s completion, Zenger was able to remove the track around the football stadium in 2014, which was seen by many as an eyesore.
There is more to be done with Memorial Stadium, and Zenger is asked what’s most important when it comes to improvements.
“Looking the part,” he said. “I’m trying to say something that’s not too trite or overarching. But you know it when you see it, when you go to other stadiums.”
The challenge of improving Memorial, though, is more difficult than it might appear.
Zenger’s first football renovation choice this year was made with the blessing of second-year coach David Beaty: KU Athletics raised more than $2 million for improvements to the locker rooms and meeting rooms at Anderson Family Football Complex.
“It was built very well, it’s just in nine years — if you built your house nine years ago — it might be time to change the drapes,” Zenger said. “That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Zenger also says he was in lockstep with Beaty when deciding to make improvements the players would see every day before taking on the larger process of renovating Memorial Stadium.
“You want them to know you care,” Zenger said. “And when they know we care, it impacts them out on the practice field and on the field of play. You’ve got to start with them.”
The actual logistics of a Memorial Stadium renovation are tricky.
The biggest obstacle, according to Zenger, is that the stadium is built in a coliseum style.
“How do you open that up? Engineering, how can you maintain the structure, the structure’s integrity, and at the same time, get the look that you want?” Zenger said. “The reality of it is, when you’re dealing with an older coliseum like that, and you’re dealing with things like space between rafters and columns, it eats up money in a hurry that you’ll never see.”
For help, Zenger says KU has studied recent renovations in places like Oklahoma and Texas, who also had coliseum stadiums that were updated.
“We have plans. I don’t necessarily like them as they are. That’s why you haven’t seen them rolled out,” Zenger said. “We’ve shared them with key stakeholders and donors. There’s some things I’d like to tweak.”
Could KU lower the field after removing the track? Zenger says that’s a possibility, but not something that might be needed based on certain designs.
All this renovation talk, though, is contingent on something else: KU Athletics will need a significant amount of money for potential improvements. And typically, those funds are raised quicker when a team is having success.
That makes KU’s 0-12 record last season an obstacle when it comes to building financial momentum.
“You’ve got to find the people who understand that you’ve got to make the investment first sometimes,” Zenger said. “In my heart of hearts, I wish we were further along: For the young guys in that program, for our coaches, for our fans. But we’ll just keep swinging away each and every day.”
KU’s lack of football success — the team is 9-51 over the past five seasons, with its last road win in 2009 coming in a world before iPads — hasn’t affected KU Athletics’ bottom line as might be expected. According to USA Today’s numbers, KU was 28th in total revenue in 2014-15, as its total of $91.8 million ranked fourth among Big 12 schools.
Zenger says that football remains as a sport with “blue-sky opportunity” for revenue production at KU.
“If we’re being real forthright about it, there’s a difference between being a top-25 revenue program and a top 10,” Zenger said. “That’s to put it simply.”
In many ways, Zenger’s mission for the next five years hasn’t changed from that of his first five.
When he first arrived, he had three main goals: Diminish a sense of entitlement he’d been told had previously existed; raise the bar competitively in every sport; and strive to improve external outreach with fans.
Improved facilities also have been a major part of his tenure. That’s included KU basketball renovations in the locker room, training room, with housing (McCarthy Hall) and dining (DeBruce Center).
“There were needs here, that if someone said, ‘In five years, you will have needed to build a track stadium, a soccer stadium, a softball stadium, a tennis facility, a museum for rules of basketball, apartments for basketball, remove the track from the stadium, expand the turf,’ I wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” Zenger said. “But — and this sounds like a heckuva quote, but it’s true — through the generosity of donors and the work ethic of our staff, that’s gotten done.”
It’s still clear, especially with conference realignment always a possibility, what’s most critical for KU when looking to the next five years and beyond.
“There’s nothing more important than building that football program at this time in the culture of college athletics,” Zenger said. “We all have to get behind it and support the coaches and the players.
“I believe we have a coach and a staff right now that put their best foot forward every day.”