Sheahon Zenger’s first memories are from the little yellow house his family lived in on 21st Street Terrace here when his father, Weldon, was earning his Ph.D. at Kansas — a degree Zenger himself would later earn at KU in educational policy and leadership.
He wore a Gale Sayers jersey in his fourth-grade class picture, and the first college football game he ever saw was from the hill at Memorial Stadium, his first basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse.
When he thinks of all he put into his tenure as Kansas athletic director, he thinks about the words of football coaching legend Vince Lombardi: “I firmly believe that any man's finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.”
It doesn’t change the sentiment that the last word of that eluded him when Kansas fired him last month for no discernible reason other than his inability to revive a distressed football program — quite literally the coin of the realm in college athletics these days.
So, yes, that hurt him profoundly, and he’s felt the flood of emotions you might expect someone to experience in all this, and he might wake up in anguish over it.
And then he hits a figurative minimize button.
“It starts every morning, and I beat it down,” he said over lunch Thursday, laughing. “I refuse to let the churning exist.”
There are a lot of reasons for this, and they have little to do with the $1.4 million buyout Zenger received and everything to do with things we could all learn from and prosper by.
It stems from a lifetime of perspective absorbed by a gracious, smart and sensitive man of character, a gentleman who within hours of losing a dream job of sorts had set up a new work space at a friend’s office and started practicing some of the things he had long preached as a coach and educator.
It’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how you react.
By the time he found himself telling a second friend the story of what happened to him, that gear engaged itself.
“You either live what you believe, or you don’t, so I decided I didn’t want to tell that story anymore,” he said.
Because you can either be someone who attracts people or repels them, he knows inside, and indulging being a victim or martyr is a distasteful way to go that can only repel.
Besides, he has long embraced the words of Nelson Mandela he keeps handy on his phone: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
He thinks now, too, about readings in ancient Stoicism, from which he takes that our purpose on Earth is simply to be a good person and that we control our minds and choices.
“And that when you get control of that,” he said, “it’s amazing how you can live a life of gratitude.”
So Zenger doesn’t have time for the pain, especially as he considered how much he has to appreciate.
Like the 300 or so text messages of consolation he received from colleagues and friends, and the heartening support he’s gotten from prominent boosters and within the KU athletic department and, of course, the love of his family.
For that matter, he remains a fan of the man who fired him, second-year Chancellor Doug Girod.
“I think the world of Doug Girod; I’d do anything to help him,” Zenger said. “He’s the right guy, and the university needs to get behind him.”
He accepts that this is largely, if not completely, about football; KU was 12-72 in his tenure. If David Beaty (3-33) doesn’t show substantial progress this season, Beaty might lose his job — and Zenger wouldn’t have a third chance to get it right.
“I’ll never be OK” with what came to pass in football, Zenger said.
But he asks only that the entire picture be considered when judging his legacy: from the tens of millions in funds raised to new facilities in track, soccer, softball and tennis to the basketball apartment complex and museum housing the original rules of basketball and his thriving relationships with coaches including Bill Self.
And, yes, football.
“Who was the guy pushing the rock up the hill?” he said, laughing, referring to the myth of Sisyphus.
More seriously, he said, “Here’s how I process it: The universe has a way of humbling us. And when I came here (from Illinois State), if I thought I had two skills that were at the top of my list, one would have been football and the other would have been hiring the football coach. …
“I’m not sure I needed more humility, but it certainly put life in perspective.”
Not that he didn’t already have plenty of that.
Few know that Zenger’s father was suffering from aphasia and died at 84 on March 30, Good Friday.
He made sure it was kept quiet so as not to in any way distract from KU getting ready to play in the Final Four.
That was heartbreak, but at least it was in the natural order of the world, unlike when Zenger’s older brother and hero, Sheldon, committed suicide at 26 when Sheahon was 18.
It took more than 20 years before he could talk about it without choking up, which isn’t the same as reconciling it.
“I’ve been through far worse,” he said.
So forward is the way for Zenger, 52, who upon turning 50 became conscious of the fact that the typical healthy life span of men in his family is 75.
In odd moments, he found himself writing “25” on a paper to remind him how many more years he can expect to be able to do the things he wants to do in life.
Pretty soon, of course, he was writing 24. And now 23.
All of which means he can only be excited about what’s ahead, whether it’s in athletics administration, university administration, coaching, the world of philanthropy or some other portal he has yet to consider.
Whatever is to come, it won’t be driven by any need for fame or money or power or glory but how to find fulfillment in helping others.
Meanwhile, he will go to his new office most every day and set about figuring it out.
He also will enjoy his new-found freedom like he did on Friday morning, when he put on a catcher’s mask and sat on a bucket and caught pitches from his youngest son, Jake.
Sometime he might start to churn within again.
But it won’t be about the intense challenges of the KU job that at times pierced him. And it won’t last.
Because this, too, shall pass. And he can’t wait for whatever is next.
Athletics, he knows, are all about the catchphrase of the old “Wide World of Sports” show — “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
“You know you’re alive in athletics, either way,” he said. “And between the pain of this and the future opportunities, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more alive."