When Kansas University athletic director Sheahon Zenger arrived at KU in 2011, he took over an athletic department in desperate need of a makeover.
Ticket scandals, federal indictments, controversial coaching resignations and fights between the men’s basketball and football teams, all during an 18-month period that preceded him, made national news and put a sour spin on a place Zenger had always believed was better than Disney World.
All of that nonsense made the dream job one that required a rolling up of one’s sleeves as opposed to turning up one’s nose, and Zenger, a native Kansan and blue-collar athletic boss at Illinois State, was more than willing to oblige.
From the moment he arrived, Zenger emphasized that KU’s coaches and athletes would correct the things that they could control. They would be humble. They would work hard. They would compete harder. And they would not be satisfied until they began making phone calls to order new banners.
During his first two-and-a-half years in town, perhaps no team better illustrated both how this was possible and what could happen than the women’s track and field team that was crowned the 2013 NCAA outdoor champions last weekend in Eugene, Ore.
Just a few months ago, the very same team finished second at the national indoor meet. For many programs, such a feat would have been enough of a reason to spend the next 12 months celebrating. For this program, second simply wasn’t good enough. Similarly, after making a big deal of its run to the Sweet 16 in 2012, the KU women’s basketball team followed it up with another Sweet 16 appearance in 2013. It wasn’t a title. But it was progress. And it was exactly the kind of movement Zenger both expected and demanded upon taking over as KU’s AD.
For the track and field athletes and coaches who made it happen, winning the 11th national title in KU history was the product of years of hard work, heavy dreams and career performances. For Zenger, it represented the beginning of what he believed was possible all along.
“At Kansas, you know that you’re going to be in the hunt for these national championships,” Zenger said. “That’s one of the reasons you come to a place like this. I credit coach (Stanley) Redwine, his staff and all of the young women on that team who had been working toward this for years. What this championship does is it sets the tone to show all of our other sports what is possible at the University of Kansas, and not just for the men’s basketball team.”
Winning one national track title does not serve as a magic potion to cure all that ails the KU athletic department. Coaches have been fired, there are other programs, coaches and athletes who are underachieving, and there are areas — most notably the money-making monster that football could become — where major work still is needed. Zenger knows this. And he uses it to sharpen KU’s edge.
“This is a great accomplishment, and I want those girls to celebrate this and remember it for the rest of their lives,” he said of the track team’s national title. “But, as a department, we’re not there yet.”
And whether the Jayhawks get there 11 more times under Zenger or not at all, the methodology won’t change. One day. One practice. One game. When it all adds up to something like they experienced last weekend in Oregon, then they’ll celebrate. Then and only then.