A couple of weeks ago, I observed new Kansas University athletic director Sheahon Zenger on the job.
His personality and genuine interest in the people he’s talking with make it seem as if Zenger is always on the job. But don’t confuse being on for being on the job. Zenger’s always on.
I was able to catch a behind-the-scenes look at the way he conducts business in the Dolph Simons Media Communications Conference Room at the Wagnon Student-Athlete Center. Zenger, KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and the Kansas Athletics, Inc., board of directors, were there for their quarterly meeting. It was the second such meeting Zenger had attended and already he looked comfortable.
In a meeting weighed down by technical jargon and seemingly endless reviews of and changes to the organization’s bylaws, Zenger lent a fresh, energetic touch.
We’ve all seen his public handshakes and smiles. Behind closed doors, Zenger has them too. In this setting, they were neither quite as glowing nor as long, appropriately so because just about everyone in the room worked for him. Not that you would have known that from watching.
Sitting at the head of the table, Zenger was just as happy to let others handle the day’s business as to interject his thoughts. When he did, he spoke in a rational, calm, strong and confident manner and seemed content to simply nod approval when appropriate. As easy as it would have been for Zenger to stand tall and speak loudly on every topic, it was obvious he was not interested in making it about him. There was work to be done, and he forged through it in a way that seemed to say, “Might as well have fun doing it.”
Though he’s been in town for just four months, questions have surfaced about whether the forever-smiling face has what it takes to handle the grunt and grind that comes with big-time collegiate athletics. Those I spoke with who worked for him at Illinois State laughed at the notion that Zenger wasn’t tough enough. At the meeting, Zenger demonstrated his mind is always working toward solutions to make the grind less grimy.
On one occasion, Zenger circled back to an item that had passed. He wanted to make sure the language with which a change was written was as clear as possible. A few minutes earlier, Zenger put on display his compassion, when he said that his only concern about changing the name of the chancellor’s advisory committee to the athletics advisory committee (or something of the like) was that it not offend those who serve on it. As Zenger put it, “It’s important that they don’t feel that it’s a demotion.”
Finally, when the board discussed whether adding the words “is bound to act in accordance with Big 12 and NCAA rules,” to its bylaws was necessary, Zenger moved to the edge of his seat and jumped in.
“I’m thinking really out of the box here,” he said. “Let’s say 20 years down the road, 50 schools disagree with something the NCAA does. Are we bound to stay with them if we put this in or can we...”
A couple of board members quickly informed the bylaws can be amended at any time.
“OK. That’s great,” Zenger said. “That’s all I needed to know.”
Impressive. Think more Bill Gates and less Donald Trump.