Kansas Jayhawks: Parting ways with Sheahon Zenger was right decision

Sheahon Zenger, KansasÕ new athletic director, spoke at half time during the Jayhawks game against UMKC in Lawrence, Kansas, Wednesday, January 5, 2011. (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images)
Sheahon Zenger, KansasÕ new athletic director, spoke at half time during the Jayhawks game against UMKC in Lawrence, Kansas, Wednesday, January 5, 2011. (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images) /

The Kansas Jayhawks relieved Sheahon Zenger of his duties on Monday morning. Zenger’s shortcomings hiring coaches elsewhere in the athletic department ultimately required a change to be made.

The University of Kansas is uniquely positioned in the world of college sports. Rarely does a university’s athletic success, perception and revenue rely so heavily on one sport. It’s even rarer to see a school in a “power five” conference do so.

On Monday, KU chancellor Dr. Douglas Girod made clear his intentions to rectify that at KU firing athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who was hired in 2011. In his address to KU faculty, Girod cited lack of “progress in key areas” as the logic behind Zenger’s firing.

The evidence to affirm Girod’s assertion is a bit staggering. True, it’s not fair to judge an athletic director’s success completely on team’s records, but it is something that you expect from a well-functioning (and well-funded) athletic department.

When two sports that have revenue-producing potential struggle as poorly as the football and women’s basketball teams have at KU, it makes it tough to overlook.

From the public’s point of view, the success of the basketball team typically masks unsatisfactory athletic performance elsewhere at Kansas. Zenger didn’t hire Bill Self though, so it doesn’t overshadow his woes. He doesn’t get credit for that success.

In total, four sports have seen new coaches hired in Zenger’s tenure at Kansas: women’s basketball, women’s tennis, men’s golf and football.

Women’s tennis has been just fine. Since coach Todd Chapman was hired in 2013, they’ve finished in the top four in the Big 12 twice. They made their third straight appearance in the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championship tournament in 2018.

Men’s golf has improved quite a bit. Since Zenger hired coach Jamie Bernal in 2012, the golf team has improved every year, including a regional appearance in the 2016-17 season where they finished ninth. This year has been even better, with the team qualifying for a 15-seed at the Division 1 Golf National Championship, set to take place Friday, May 25.

The issue is, these sports (women’s tennis and men’s golf) don’t generate much revenue. Success, in any sport, is worthy of celebration, but the fact of the matter is, universities tend to focus more on sports they have the potential to make money from. That’s just the nature of the business and in the two sports most affected by Zenger’s time at KU, business has been dreadful.

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Zenger fired longtime Kansas Jayhawks women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson in March of 2015. Henrickson compiled a 186-171 record in her time at Kansas.

In her stead, Zenger hired Brandon Schneider. Since his hiring in April of 2015, the women’s basketball team has gone a combined 26-65, with a record in the Big 12 at 5-49.

And football?

Football at Kansas is much less a sport than it is a punchline. Zenger hired “offensive guru” Charlie Weis in 2012. All Weis did at Kansas was go 6-22 (1-18 in the Big 12). Zenger fired him mid-season in 2014.

Enter David Beaty. Beaty, a perennially upbeat coordinator who had spent time in the KU coaching ranks, seemed a pleasant change of pace from the blustery Weis, but those changes haven’t translated to wins.

Since Beaty’s hiring in December of 2014, the team has gone a combined 3-33, with one pitiful win in Big 12 play (1-26).  So whatever ends up happening with Beaty, Zenger didn’t earn the chance to try again.

So sure, Zenger managed to raise funds for new athletic facilities in Lawrence and sure, the men’s basketball team continues its remarkable run of dominance. When push comes to shove, however, students, donors, alumni and fans want to see success from their major sports. Wallets tend to dry up when the facilities they’re paying for aren’t producing results on the field and court.

Every time Zenger had the chance to improve the situation for those major teams, he fell flat on his face. Zenger will get another shot, that I’m sure of, but Bill Self covered for him for too long. He likely won’t be afforded that luxury ever again.