University of Kansas chancellor Douglas Girod confirmed Monday evening that football and fundraising — more than anything else — were the primary reasons he decided to fire KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger after seven years leading the department.
“Football’s most certainly the most prominent challenge that we have right now,” Girod told The Star at Union Station in Kansas City. “But it’s also getting excitement behind a vision, getting a fanbase moving behind a vision to really take athletics to the next level. We had lost some momentum there.”
In an email sent to KU faculty and staff Monday morning, Girod credited Zenger for his loyalty before saying, "Athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary."
KU assistant athletic director Sean Lester will be interim AD, while Drue Jennings — who was interim AD in 2003 when KU hired basketball coach Bill Self — will lead the search committee.
Girod also said he spoke with KU football coach David Beaty earlier Monday and "shared my expectation that he will continue recruiting hard and getting his team ready for the season."
Zenger's most obvious failing with KU was football. As a former football assistant coach, he was hired in 2011 to help revive the program, though his hiring of Charlie Weis set the team back scholarships-wise before Zenger chose David Beaty as his replacement. Through three seasons, Beaty has compiled a 3-33 record with just one FBS victory.
"It's certainly been a difficult day. Sheahon gave me an opportunity to be the head coach here at Kansas, a place that is special to both of us, and I will be forever grateful for that," Beaty said in a statement. "I appreciate Chancellor Girod reaching out to me directly. Although this is a tough day, we will move forward as a program and continue to keep all our focus on preparing for the season ahead."
The KU athletic department's relationship with Adidas has also been put under scrutiny as a result of a federal indictment in April against one of the shoe company's executives, which mentions the Jayhawks' basketball program. According to the indictment, James Gatto was part of a group that conspired to illicitly funnel payments to two players, believed to be Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston, in order to secure their commitment to KU and to Adidas upon entering the NBA.
Despite Adidas' alleged involvement, KU Athletics has continued to work on plans to complete a new 12-year, $191 million sponsorship contract with the company.
Among Zenger's top accomplishments was improving the facilities outside football. That included construction of Rock Chalk Park, which houses track and field, softball, soccer and tennis. KU Athletics also constructed McCarthy Hall — a dorm used primarily for the men's basketball players — and the DeBruce Center, a building adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse that houses James Naismith's original rules of basketball.
Kansas has started construction on a $26 million indoor football practice facility, set to be completed by late fall, that is part of a five-year, $350 million fundraising effort called "Raise the Chant," a campaign focusing on football and the reconstruction of KU's Memorial Stadium. KU alumnus David Booth — whose name was added to the football stadium's official name — made a $50 million pledge when the campaign was announced last year.
But renovations to the stadium have not started, and the football program has gone 10-62 in six seasons under coaches Zenger hired or installed on an interim basis.
“It got to the point of realizing we had lost a lot of momentum,” Girod told The Star when asked about the timing of the announcement. “We weren’t making progress in the direction that we needed. It seemed like it was time to make a change.”
To hire Weis in 2011, Zenger fired Turner Gill, which necessitated a $6 million buyout. Weis was signed to a five-year, $12.5 million contract, all of it guaranteed. He was paid $5.625 million in severance after being fired four games into his third season in 2014.
Zenger's firing also comes at a time when the importance of football is heightened in college athletics, especially with the potential for more conference realignment. Girod addressed this in his opening statement of a news conference last September when talking about the need for football stadium improvements, saying he wanted to emphasize "how important it is for us to continue to be a strong member of the Big 12 Conference" and also "how important a Power Five conference is to the university, to help maintain our national stature, which is critical to recruiting, among other things.”
One data point that illuminates KU football's recent struggles is recent ticket data released as part of the NCAA membership financial reporting system. In the 2017 fiscal year, KU listed $3,412,370 in football ticket revenue, which didn't come close to the $15,101,909 raised from men's basketball sales. For comparison, Kansas State listed $11,808,521 in football ticket revenue in 2017.
Per a contract extension signed in summer 2017, KU will owe Zenger two years' salary — or $1.4 million — for termination without cause.
Zenger, in a release, called working at KU “the honor of a lifetime" and that he was "proud of our successes during the past seven years, most of all the accomplishments of our student-athletes and coaches. I hope our fans know I did my best and always prioritized our student-athletes.”
"We've had many positive things happen since Sheahon's arrival, and it's our job to continue to add to the foundation that he's helped set," Self said in a statement. "This is sad because we all liked an appreciated Sheahon, but we know that in all businesses tough decisions have to be made."