The next University of Kansas athletic director has to get football right …
… is the same thought that has accompanied every athletic boss search in school history.
Don’t believe me?
Kansas was so unhappy with the direction of football in the 1937 that the university removed the athletic director and abolished the position for a few months. That AD? Phog Allen. From a letter to the school newspaper: “To get Kansas of the fog, you’ve got to get the Phog out of Kansas.”
Allen stayed on as basketball coach, got a fieldhouse named after him and is recognized as a coaching legend. But KU football reached a boiling point under Allen, who was good enough in his one year (1920) as the football coach that he led the Jayhawks to a 5-2-1 record but was no longer trusted with the Jayhawks' gridiron fortunes.
So KU turned to a rival, and former Missouri football coach, Gwinn Henry, as its next athletic director.
Decades and a dozen or so athletic directors later, Kansas once again looks to fix football by changing bosses. Sheahon Zenger is out as of Monday.
Good luck to whoever is up next. Football failure has cost many their jobs in Lawrence, and unless David Beaty, who lugs a 3-33 record into 2018, shows significant progress this season, he’ll be gone, too, perhaps not even lasting the season. KU knows the interim route well.
The bar is so low that football came immediately to mind as the cause of Zenger's ouster — not Kansas’ mention in the ongoing FBI investigation involving basketball recruiting.
KU chancellor Douglas Girod’s email to faculty and staff said as much. The only coach identified in the notice was Beaty. He was told to “continue recruiting hard and (get) his team ready for the season.”
Seven months earlier, Girod gave Zenger and Beaty a vote of confidence after announcing the $350 million “Raise the Chant” campaign to improve Memorial Stadium. In an open letter sent to faculty and alumni, Girod said, “Nobody denies the challenges we are having on the field, but I maintain my belief that Sheahon and coach Beaty have the right long-term vision and are doing things the right way. Our focus now is empowering them with the tools they need to fulfill their vision.”
What changed since then? Is the money drying up?
Zenger was seen as a solid hire at the time, the right person seven years ago to replace Lew Perkins, who retired amid turmoil involving staff members selling coveted basketball tickets and pocketing the money for themselves.
Before leaving, Perkins’ firing of Mark Mangino and hiring of Turner Gill started KU's current spiral in football. The legacy continued with Zenger’s unwise choice of Charlie Weis as Gill’s replacement.
Zenger had the experience many believed was needed to right the ship. A Kansas native with undergrad and master’s degrees from Kansas State and a doctorate from KU, he wore a Gale Sayers jersey in his fourth-grade picture.
But the clincher was his position on Bill Snyder’s first K-State staff in 1989 as an assistant recruiting coordinator and director of football operations. In Zenger, Kansas had an athletic director who had been on the ground floor in Manhattan to witness the greatest turnaround in college football history.
Kansas seemed to have gotten a break when its first choice for the job, Tulsa’s Bubba Cunningham, turned it down. KU was getting a home-grown product with the ideal background.
It hasn’t worked. Football has never been consistently good at Kansas, but under Zenger’s watch it has become historically bad. Girod could have made the move closer to the beginning of the football season, but this way a new hire likely will have an entire season to evaluate Beaty and the program, and determine whether it’s time to hire yet another football coach.