Sam Mellinger

The mistakes, failures and possible success of Kansas AD Sheahon Zenger

University of Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger is seven years into the job, and the school’s football program appears to be in worse shape than when he arrived.
University of Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger is seven years into the job, and the school’s football program appears to be in worse shape than when he arrived. AP

Kansas’ football program stinks, again and still, the worst among 65 major-conference schools. No man wears the blame as fully as athletic director Sheahon Zenger. Those two statements are less opinion than objective fact.

This is his seventh year at Kansas, where he was hired to fix football. He promoted himself consistently as “an old football coach.” Somehow, football is worse now than when he arrived.

If first-year chancellor Douglas Girod fired Zenger tomorrow, there would be no tears shed and no passionate objection.

But let’s talk about why that remains unlikely, and, to go one step further, why it should remain unlikely.

Anything that happens on the football field this season is irrelevant. Or, more specifically, irrelevant except to the extent it affects fundraising for a $300 million football facilities overhaul.

KU coach David Beaty is in his third season of a job that may be impossible, but his biggest mistake so far was promising results this year that his program isn’t delivering. The one factor he had in his favor was patience and sympathy for the garbage pile he took over. He ruined that by talking about on-field results, and it’s a bad look for him to now pretend otherwise.

But all of that is focus in the wrong place.

Because whether Kansas ends up 3-9 or 1-11 this season, it needs more than the right PR spin.

It needs facilities that aren’t outdated by decades, and for that it needs money.

And this is where Zenger will keep his job, or lose it. Where he’ll ultimately be remembered as the guy who helped give KU a chance to have a palatable football program, or the one who made a rotten situation much worse.

Zenger’s future, then, depends not on the results from Beaty as much as the major donors.

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little gave Zenger a generous contract extension before retiring this summer, but the $1.4 million buyout wouldn’t be a problem if the wrong people lose faith.

At least at the moment, that doesn’t appear to be happening. Zenger has helped raise $70 million since the rehab project’s announcement in June. That includes $50 million from David Booth, a KU alum and billionaire co-founder of an investment firm. A department source who was in on the ask to Booth said Zenger led the presentation.

Two other major donors who didn’t want to be identified in this column expressed confidence in Zenger. One said he believed the majority of his peers felt the same, even while acknowledging “some naysayers.”

Two other university sources — including one who’s privately expressed dissatisfaction before — said Zenger has improved department morale and has a high internal approval rating.

With Zenger on the job, KU has built new facilities for track, soccer, softball and tennis. Basketball has a new apartment complex and museum. Football has new practice fields, turf, the track removed from the stadium, and around $4 million in facility upgrades.

But, let’s be serious. None of that — with the possible exception of the apartment complex — carries a fraction of the importance of football.

Kansas football has flatlined to the point that the goal is avoiding embarrassment. The program that fired a coach after a 5-7 season eight years ago is now desperate to merely not be an anvil for the department in the next round of conference realignment.

That desperation is embraced by many donors, and built into some of the pitches for money — help us now, or fall out of the Power Five later.

All of this comes at a critical point, too. KU basketball tickets are among the most expensive in the country, and tied to increasing requirements for Williams Fund donations. Throughout the department is an understanding that basketball fans cannot be stretched any further.

It’s a delicate balance. Football’s dive at KU has coincided with the school’s greatest sustained stretch of basketball, but how long will that last? One major donor said he “shudders” to think what would happen if basketball was finishing third in the conference, instead of winning at least a share of 13 consecutive titles.

There’s no indication that football’s Bad News Bears routine has made it any more difficult for the basketball program, but it has added pressure and even seeped into something like a scare tactic in the pitch for football fundraising — if you don’t help us with football, then basketball could be hurt.

The athletic department is at a critical point, and in the reality of the costs of major college sports, that means the university is at a critical point.

Beaty is in his third season, which is all the last two coaches got. But KU was in such a rough spot that a position coach from an underachieving program was the best candidate they could get. Fire Beaty now, and the next guy would almost certainly come from even further down the coaching food chain.

Every time he receives a paycheck, Zenger should be thankful that the catastrophic hire of Charlie Weis didn’t end his own employment. But now that they’ve gone this far and put Zenger in charge of the biggest fundraising campaign in department history, it makes sense to let him succeed or fail with his ability to monetize the relationships he’s built in seven years on the job.

In other words, Beaty’s results are at best an indirect indicator of Zenger’s future.

The only thing that matters is Zenger’s ability to raise $230 million more. So far, he has done agonizingly little to help football. His employment and legacy at KU are entirely in the hands of the school’s richest donors.

Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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