Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, watching the final minutes of Kansas’ open practice, found it difficult to conduct the interview.
Not because he was caught up in the emotion of the moment, the Jayhawks on basketball’s grandest stage for the first time since 2008. Nor was he relieved that the issues that had kept Kansas in the headlines for the wrong reasons — a ticket scandal, football failure, realignment drama — weren’t commanding his attention.
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No, this interview was difficult because of the noise over the public-address system in the Superdome. If CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz wasn’t interviewing Jayhawks coach Bill Self for thousands to hear, the KU pep band was belting out the fight song.
This was the wonderful noise of Kansas basketball on the eve of its national semifinal game against Ohio State.
The Jayhawks were in their natural habitat, so to speak, and the Friday before the games begin is the relaxed fun of the weekend.
The NCAA threw open the building for practice sessions, and the Jayhawks went through some soft drills, took shots from half court and left the floor with about 10 minutes to spare.
Maybe it was the memory of the last visit here that shortened the time. In 2008, a Kansas reserve, Rodrick Stewart, broke a kneecap on a dunk attempt.
But the players smiled, laughed and played to the crowd. Kansas fans, like Marcy Fowler and her husband, Nathan, a KU fan by marriage, flew from Austria to watch their first KU game of the season in person.
“We have every basketball package you can buy online,” said Fowler, who works at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
She threw a house-warming party for her new apartment around the Feb. 25 Kansas home victory over Missouri and turned several European friends into KU fans. When the Jayhawks tipped off in the evening, she’d catch games at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. The Fowlers were looking into traveling to Houston for last year’s Final Four — from Moscow, where they lived then — but VCU foiled those plans.
“People were talking about how much of a drive it was from Kansas City or Lawrence,” Fowler said. “We didn’t have much sympathy. It was an 18-hour flight for us. But we weren’t going to miss this.”
Kansas had the biggest contingent of fans in its first two NCAA stops, Omaha, Neb., and St. Louis. In the Big Easy, they’ll hold their own against Kentucky, Ohio State and Louisville fans.
But none will feel better about being here after a few years of frustrations and embarrassments.
“They should feel great about this,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “Not just the players and coaches, but the fans. This doesn’t happen all the time.”
Zenger was introduced as the Jayhawks’ new athletic director on Jan. 3, 2011, about four months after Lew Perkins announced his retirement.
The memory of KU’s amazing 2007-08 school year was fresh. The Orange Bowl triumph was followed by the Mario Chalmers shot that led the Jayhawks to the NCAA championship. But in less than two academic years, Kansas had begun perhaps the most tumultuous period in its athletic history.
Football coach Mark Mangino became the subject of an investigation about the mistreatment of players and was forced out after a 5-7 finish in 2009. Turner Gill was his replacement.
In early 2010, federal authorities launched an investigation of possible illegal ticket sales involving NCAA Tournament and Kansas season basketball tickets.
The ticket scandal would become Kansas’ darkest hour as five athletic-department employees went to prison and Perkins was forced to retire before he had planned.
“There was real dismay and sadness,” Zenger said.
But the troubles weren’t over.
Kansas football became a mess under Gill. The Jayhawks lost the first game of his tenure to North Dakota State. Before he was fired at the end of his second season, Kansas had suffered some of the most one-sided losses in school history.
While that was happening, the Big 12 started to unravel. Months of uncertainty ended when Nebraska and Colorado left. More months of uncertainty ensued before Missouri and Texas A announced their departures.
Kansas twisted in the wind on both occasions.
“A lot was going on,” said Bob Brown, a Kansas fan from Danbury, Conn. “I’m an old Big Eight (fan) and I was really sad about Missouri and the others leaving.”
As for Perkins and the ticket scandal, some fans took a practical approach.
“The way I saw it is: It happened, people got caught, and they’re paying the price,” said Joel Engelbrecht, a Kansas fan from Spring Hill. “(Perkins) said he didn’t know anything about it, but it happened under his watch, and he was responsible for it.
“We moved on.”
At times during the last four years, it seemed as if men’s basketball was about all that Kansas had going for it.
The Jayhawks continued to win Big 12 championships, and coach Bill Self felt the responsibility.
“That year, 2008, it was an unbelievable time, unbelievable time,” Self said. “Then all the sudden, it became the polar opposite.
“One thing that remained a constant — we’ve always taken great pride in the basketball program — we were able to hang in there and do pretty well when the appearance was we weren’t doing well.”
Zenger’s most visible moves in his 15 months have involved football: firing Gill and hiring Charlie Weis.
Repairing football and making it relevant is the priority. But Zenger, a former football coach who received his undergraduate degree at Kansas State and graduate degrees at K-State and Kansas, fully understands the meaning of basketball at KU.
“I don’t think any Kansas fans or anybody associated with Kansas athletics doubts the fact that Kansas men’s basketball is the bell cow of our program,” Zenger said. “We will keep it at the pinnacle of our program as a shining example.
“But what that means is all the other programs can feed off this.”
Zenger has toured every corner of the state, and early in his tenure found fans who were angry with the university. Some had pulled their funding; others threatened to.
“Fans wanted answers, but what’s true about Kansas people is we’re not a real judgmental group of people, and we’re very loyal,” said Zenger, a native of Hays.
Donations to the Williams Fund, the athletic department’s donation arm, took a hit but returned to preticket scandal levels, Zenger said.
Financial challenges remain.
Kansas is still on the hook for contract settlements with Perkins, Mangino and Gill. But nobody’s thinking about that much this weekend. Not with the jazz music playing, Cajun food to eat and basketball to celebrate.
“To me, where we are in athletics, this is by far the best it’s been since ’08,” Self said. “We’re on an uptick now.”