A timeline of Sheahon Zenger's tenure as KU's athletic director
College athletic directors are only important for their influence on coaches and fundraising, so in that way the kneecapping of Sheahon Zenger is only interesting for its impact on David Beaty and Kansas' stuck-in-the-mud football program.
Almost exactly a year after he was named chancellor, Douglas Girod announced the firing with a staff-wide email that served as a press release on a Monday morning. He specifically mentioned Beaty, essentially announcing that a search committee will make a hire who will decide the coach's employment status.
Let's be clear: This is 100 percent about the football program continuing to stink, about an athletic director hired primarily to fix football overseeing a 12-72 run in seven years that in the broader context of modern college athletics have only increased the importance of football.
Nobody can make a passionate case that Zenger got a raw deal.
And nobody can make a passionate case that the timing makes sense, or that Girod isn't making Beaty's already brutal task significantly more difficult.
By firing Zenger now instead of three months ago (after signing day) or six months from now (when we'd know if the program progressed) Girod has taken an ill-timed half-measure that erases most of the already small chance Beaty had of succeeding.
Think this won't affect his ability to recruit for next year?
Think this won't drive some assistants to consider their options?
Think some players won't see this as an official condemnation of their worth and future?
If the goal is to fix football, then the actions should align. Girod inherited a difficult situation. His predecessor, Bernadette Gray-Little, gave Zenger a completely unnecessary raise and contract extension on her way into retirement. Perhaps Girod felt influenced to be as deliberate as possible with Zenger. As it stands, Zenger will be paid $1.4 million to stop coming into the office.
His presence there will be missed, too. One department employee called Monday's news "unnerving." Another once said of Zenger: "The truth is he may have (messed) this place up for a decade with one bad hire, but you won't find anyone here who doesn't like him as a man and leader."
That one bad hire was Charlie Weis, who needed fewer than three seasons to decimate the program in terms of talent, credibility, relationships, and self-esteem. When Zenger was allowed to hire a replacement, the financial constraints were so severe that a position coach at a historically underachieving program was the best candidate based on the salary KU could offer, the buyouts of more established candidates, and the Texas recruiting contacts Beaty presented.
Here's some context: as bad as Weis was, he has the best record of the four head coaches (including interim Clint Bowen) since Mark Mangino.
If you want to know how serious KU and Girod are about actually fixing football, pay attention to the resources given to the new AD to hire the next football coach.
That's where this is going, too. There is little doubt about that. Even among a sampling of supportive donors, the guess is that Beaty will need to win three and perhaps four games this year to keep his job. Optimism that he can do that is difficult to find.
Beaty is now, realistically, a lame-duck coach in need of something like a miracle to continue in a job that set him up for failure.
The march of perpetual losing continues. Football has, in one way or another, now factored into the end of three consecutive ADs. There are donors — powerful donors — who fear the losing literally cannot continue without the university suffering consequences far greater than blowout losses.
We are almost exactly halfway through the Big 12's landmark television contracts with ESPN and Fox. Conferences are only as secure as their TV rights, and beyond industry giants like Texas and Oklahoma the same can be said for schools down the food chain.
The pressure on football isn't to win the conference championship. The pressure on football is simply to be competitive enough to secure the university's future in the high-dollar world of the Power Five, or whatever that looks like in 10 years.
This is why Bill Self faces a unique brand of pressure, to prop an entire athletic department that spends with the top half of its league with a money pit of a football program. Self has made that balance appear easier and more certain than it is, but there is a recognition within the department and major donors that it's untenable long-term.
This is being seen, then, as something close to department life or death by some. Seven years remain on those TV contracts, which become a little more negotiable with each passing season.
If you believe in that timeline, then the next football coach could be the last with a reasonable amount of time to drag the program toward enough credibility and promise that the university will be secure for the next round of conference realignment.
The next AD will operate without margin for error. The timing of this move makes it even more difficult for Beaty to be part of KU's future, and could indirectly affect the starting point for the next coach.
This is the state of Kansas athletics, then: milking every drop from basketball while desperately trying to achieve mediocrity in football, the whole process made more difficult by demographics, history, culture, self-inflicted obstacles, and counterproductive decisions.