LJWorld.com weblogs Tale of the Tait

Kindness and smiles the norm in Normal, Illinois


2:33 p.m. Update:

One of the things that has amazed me most about doing this story is all of the connections that exist between Illinois State and Kansas. I'm sure it's like this a lot of places and with a lot of different universities, but, even knowing that, this one seems extreme.

Here's a quick look:

• Former KU athletic director Bob Frederick was the AD at ISU before heading to Kansas in 1987.

• Former KU chancellor Gene Budig was the Illinois State president from 1973-77 and, three years later, wound up at Kansas.

• Former KU assistant men's basketball coach Kevin Stallings (who coached under Roy Williams and is now at Vanderbilt) left Kansas to become the head coach at ISU. Several years later, former KU assistant men's basketball coach Tim Jankovich (who coached under Bill Self) left KU for ISU and Jankovich currently is in his fourth season in charge of the Redbirds.

• KU women's basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson and first-year ISU women's basketball coach Stephanie Glance go back a couple of decades. Glance, by the way, coached under NC-State legend Kay Yow for 15 years and, last season, worked for Pat Summitt at Tennessee.

• ISU football coach Brock Spack coached with former KU assistant coach Pat Henderson at Purdue, under Joe Tiller.

• And then, of course, there's Zenger, who was born and raised in Kansas — including Lawrence — and now will be going back home.

One man who has seen most of that list come through Normal, Ill., is Larry Lyons, who currently holds the title of interim athletic director. Lyons originally came to Illinois State several years ago when Dr. Frederick inquired about hiring him to be the athletic department's business manager. During the hiring process, Frederick left for Kansas and the new guy wound up actually hiring Lyons. But Frederick got the ball rolling and Lyons said he's still indebted to Frederick for being where he is.

Throughout the years, Lyons has worked for four athletic directors, a couple more interim ADs and has seen ISU experience ups and downs and downs and ups. Since Zenger arrived six years ago, however, Lyons said the university has been on a steady path forward.

Lyons, who has worked closely with Zenger throughout the past six years — especially on the renovation of the baseball facility in 2009 that turned Duffy Bass Field from something you'd see at Holcom in Lawrence to one that would stand up well in most major conferences — said he's been impressed by so many things that Zenger has done. But few have been as impressive to him as the man's ability to motivate.

Twice a year the athletic department conducts what's known as the Walk of Champions, where the athletic department educates incoming student-athletes about what ISU stands for, believes in and is all about. Zenger, as he loves to do, stands in front of the entire student-athlete population and delivers his message, his philosophy, which he shared so eloquently during his introductory press conference at Kansas. Being "assignment correct, fundamentally sound and mentally tough on the field of play, in the classroom and in our personal lives each and every day," is the foundation of the philosophy the message and it's one that's not just shared with the student-athletes.

"We have one every year, too," Lyons said. "We watch a video and listen to him talk and hear the message. If he's really on, it's 'throw open the locker room doors, here we go' to start the season."

In the short time I've been here and through the hours of information I've learned about Zenger, that seems to be the one thing that has stood out the most. Not only is what he preaches real and from the heart, it's also something he's willing to back up with action.

As Lyons says, "So much of what he does is (because of) where he's from."

With that in mind, doing it at Kansas shouldn't be too much of a stretch.

12:49 p.m. Update:

Please note, I did not take the above photo. Got it from Carlos T. Miranda of The Pantagraph newspaper's web site, www.pantagraph.com.

Had two more interviews at ISU this morning and both were awesome.

The first was with Jankovich, who got home late last night after losing to Drake by eight on the road. The Redbirds are just 8-11 this year, including 0-8 in the Missouri Valley Conference, but they're also the 23rd youngest team in the nation so Jank's taking it all in stride.

Visiting with him was great. For starters, he, like everyone else, had nothing but amazing things to say about Sheahon Zenger. Zenger hired Jankovich and he did so because he was the right fit for Illinois State.

* Sidenote: I'm sure most of you know but in case you forgot, Jank's the second former KU assistant to take over at ISU. Kevin Stallings (now at Vandy) left KU several years ago to lead the Redbirds. *

The two have worked together wonderfully for the past four years and Jankovich said he can't imagine having a better boss than Zenger.

He also talked fondly about his time at Kansas, which he said he thinks about constantly. Being a K-State alum, Jankovich understands the draw to the Sunflower State and he thinks Zenger will do a fantastic job.

When I asked him what made him think Zenger could handle stepping up to the BCS level, Jankovich laughed and said, "A lot of people think that's a big question mark with Sheahon, but that just makes me laugh because I actually think it's one of his strengths."

He pointed to Zenger's time at other BCS schools, as a coach and assistant administrator, as one of the reasons he thinks he's ready for the job at Kansas.

When I'm finished with this Zenger story, I'll knock out an update on Jankovich. He had so many great things to say about KU, Lawrence, Coach Self and the whole KU family. He really loved his time there and has done his best to bring elements of Kansas to ISU.

I'm heading back to Redbird Arena this afternoon to watch practice. Should be fun.

More to come before then, though, so check back soon.

Original Post, 6 a.m.:

Tuesday was an incredibly productive day for me in Normal, Illinois. If nothing else, I learned that this place is not normal at all. It’s extraordinary.

One minute it’s a sleepy college town with an intimate and inviting campus. The next it’s a bustling business center with corporate headquarters to two of the world’s largest insurance agencies — State Farm and Country Financial — at its core. That rare blend — as Illinois State associate AD Aaron Leetch put it, “It’s not a college town, it’s a town with a college in it” — makes Normal an interesting place to investigate.

After spending most of my day on campus, from Redbird Arena and the offices that sit just off the gym’s concourse, to Horton Field House and the office of the president, it’s safe to say I got my Redbird fix. Everywhere I turned, I saw the vibrant Redbird logo, raring its head in one direction or another, popping off of whatever surface it was on with great pride.

With hours of taped interviews, a variety of videos and plenty of still photographs, I decided to take a break from my 12-hour extravaganza with a nice meal before I dove into sorting through everything.

Leetch, one of two outstanding tour guides who gave me first-class treatment on Tuesday, recommended that I check out Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works, a local joint that reminded me of a perfect blend between Free State Brewery and Teller’s. What a great call.

Not only was my meal sensational (spinach and goat cheese salad with salmon and mashed potatoes) but the service was exceptional, as well. As I arrived, an older lady, in a handicapped space, was attempting to scrape the ice off her windows. Because my car was equipped with an ice scraper and my jacket packed with gloves, I decided to do the noble thing, the Midwest thing, and scrape the ice for her. It only took a couple of minutes and, naturally, the lady was very appreciative. As I chipped the ice away from the rear window, an employee from the restaurant approached me with two gift cards. Ryan was his name, and he said, “Sir, we saw you being a gentleman and we wanted to give you these. Enjoy.”

Unreal. Although I would’ve done the same thing any time and any place, I couldn’t help but see the connection between my gesture and the one extended to me by the fine folks at Destihl as some sort of coincidental connection between ISU athletic director Sheahon Zenger and the whole reason I was in town in the first place. Apparently people are just that nice here and the vibe tends to rub off on everyone around. I’m sure Zenger’s not responsible for all of it, but, after what I learned on Tuesday, I’m thinking he’s had something to do with it.

The stellar service continued as I went into the restaurant. The hostess, Katie, an ISU student, was as sweet as could be, even going as far as to look up how often Zenger had eaten at Destihl. Turns out he was a fan, though he wasn’t there Tuesday night. At my table, Christina, the waitress, was equally as pleasant, affording me plenty of time and space to make my choices and enjoy my meal while also offering up a few nuggets of info about Normal, too.

Needless to say, whenever I’m in town again, I’ll be returning to Destihl. I’d recommend it to any of you, as well.

So, what does any of this have to do with Zenger and the Kansas Jayhawks? Good question. Not much, really. But it was the perfect capper for my perfect day and, in some small way, I think visiting Destihl, further helped me capture the spirit of Normal.

While I rode around town and checked out all of the hot spots, I kept thinking to myself, “I see why Sheahon loved it here. And I see why he’s coming to Lawrence.”

By all accounts, this is not a man who operates like the big business boss that many in his same position across the country choose to do. Sheahon Zenger is a man. Like you or me. With a family, good friends, favorite restaurants and a smile for everyone.

As today moves on and I meet up with some more folks from my Zenger File — a visit with ISU men’s basketball coach, Tim Jankovich, is on tap, along with a trip to see Hank the barber and a quick bite with Art, the owner of Times Past Inn, a breakfast hot spot not far from ISU — I imagine I’ll hear more great stories about KU’s next athletic director and I’ll be sure to bring them to you.

So check back with this blog throughout the day and lemme know if there’s anything you’d like me to check into while I’m up here. I can’t promise I’ll find the answer, but I’ll try.


wgcooper 7 years, 4 months ago

You have to go to the Pub II near campus and order the cheese balls. It is a staple for anyone who ever attended Illinois State. Normal and Illinois State are a little oasis on the stretch from Chicago and St. Louis. Great people, great town and great school. GO YOU REDBIRDS!

Matt Tait 7 years, 4 months ago

I actually had lunch there yesterday... ISU SID Mike Williams took me there and before I could even look at the menu he had ordered a basket of cheese balls. Not bad!!! Like I said, they gave me the first-class treatment.

Heading out for Day 2 here in a bit. Stay tuned for more and thanks for reading!!!

Michelle Hayes 7 years, 4 months ago

Oh...love those cheeseballs! I miss the Pub II and Zorba's! I attended ISU and lived in Normal for several years after graduation. It's a lot like Lawrence. Thanks for the great article about a great town. Go Redbirds!

chips 7 years, 4 months ago

I just moved from Normal to Lawrence and my favorite places are the Coffeehouse in uptown Normal near the Children's Museum and Carl's on College Ave heading west from campus.

d_prowess 7 years, 4 months ago

I know this whole thing Tait is doing revolves around our new AD, but perhaps given his high ability to do this kind of stuff, the LJW should be sending him to other Big 12 cities and doing the same type of thing. Matt Tait, guy on the street!

maudeandcecil 7 years, 4 months ago

I'm a HUGE fan of Grove Street Bakery and Schooner's Restaurant in Bloomington/Normal. Both are local businesses run by the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.