LAWRENCE — They spent the week in western Kansas, shaking hands and giving speeches. It was the first leg of the Kansas football program’s tour through the state, and first-year coach Charlie Weis and athletic director Sheahon Zenger were the main attractions on stops in Dodge City, Hays and Salina.
These are places KU fans often have to share with supporters of rival Kansas State, so as you might expect, Zenger says he fielded plenty of questions about the Jayhawks’ two marquee programs — men’s basketball and football.
But every so often, Zenger says, he would hear a question or concern about the school’s other programs — the non-revenue sports that often get lost in the shuffle.
“You don’t get asked about those sports early on in the conversations…” Zenger says. “But it always comes up. Because the KU alumni and the KU nation want to be good at everything. I believe that’s what we should be as the University of Kansas; we should aspire to excellence in everything.”
Of course, there’s another reason some Kansas fans have taken notice of the often-overlooked programs — and Zenger is fully aware of this, too.
“In recent years,” Zenger says, “they noticed that those sports had started to slip in terms of the competitiveness.”
Hidden underneath a historically successful basketball program and a recently woeful football program, there’s a list of sports that have wallowed near the bottom of the Big 12 standings.
Even worse: These are sports that have failed to compete with the school down the road. Take away the dominance of men’s basketball, and KU’s record against K-State in head-to-head matchups the last two years is just 1-19 after the Jayhawks lost 2-0 in baseball Friday in Manhattan.
The numbers don’t include track & field, cross country or golf, but the conference finishes in those sports have been comparable — save for the KU women who will compete for a top-three finish Sunday at the Big 12 track and field championships.
Of course, the numbers also don’t include the fact that KU appeared in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game in April, a place K-State hasn’t been in 60 years. Maybe for some KU fans, that’s enough. But for Zenger, it’s not. And the issue is larger than the record against one school.
“We look at it across the board,” he says, “If you look at the schools that haven’t been as competitive with Kansas State head-to-head, they haven’t been as competitive with other schools in the Big 12.”
Zenger, who replaced Lew Perkins in January 2011, has been clear about his on-field priorities: He expects to be competitive in all sports — not just the money-making giants.
One of the first visible signs of that philosophy came into focus earlier this week, when KU fired men’s golf coach Kit Grove, a KU graduate who had recently concluded his fifth year on the job. The men’s golf team finished last at the Big 12 championships, and Grove became just the second coaching change since Zenger took command. Football coach Turner Gill was also fired in November.
But for now, Zenger says, all signs point to no further coaching changes between now and the start of another sports season in the fall.
“I don’t anticipate another change between now and the fall, based on current evaluations,” Zenger says.
Still, Zenger is firm about one thing. There are expectations for all sports. Yes, he’ll factor in variables such as history, facilities and resources for each program. But expectations must be met.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t several sports and coaches that have had very thorough evaluations,” Zenger says, “and the expectations for next year have been made very clear.”
That brings us to today in Manhattan, where the Kansas baseball team, 19-30 overall and 4-14 in the Big 12, will finish a three-game series with Kansas State, 23-27 and 4-15.
Last month, the Jayhawks beat K-State on a dramatic walk-off homer in Lawrence on April 25 — breaking the string of losses against K-State — and the Kansas players mobbed home plate after the victory.
“Missouri’s leaving the Big 12,” KU junior first baseman Jake Marasco said, “so we want to start a bigger rivalry with K-State.”
In a sense, Marasco was simply talking about baseball. One rival is leaving. So there will be more emphasis on the other, in-state foe.
But some close to KU say it won’t be that simple.
“You can’t all of a sudden decide what’s gonna replace this 100-and-some year rivalry,” says KU basketball legend Bud Stallworth, whose career ended in 1972. “And we’re going to have to treat them just like we treated Missouri. I don’t think it works like that.”
For Stallworth and others, this is where it gets complicated. Rivalries, of course, are often a product of geography and history — think William Quantrill’s bushwackers burning down Lawrence, or Kansas politicians in the 1860s working to make sure the state school wound up in Lawrence … and not Manhattan. But for Stallworth, that stuff can only mean so much. You need competition and consistency.
“You develop rivalries when you have to share things and compete on an annual basis,” Stallworth says.
These things run in cycles, of course, but K-State legend Ernie Barrett remembers his playing days in the early 1950s, when KU and K-State were both national powers in basketball. For Barrett, Missouri always felt like more of an afterthought. KU and K-State was the true rivalry. And for many in the western part of the state, Barrett says, that still remains the case.
“We wanted to beat KU better than anyone else we played,” says Barrett, who concluded his basketball career in 1951. “And I still feel that way.”
There’s also the question of whether the Jayhawks’ recent slide in other sports registers with the mainstream Kansas fan — especially with the basketball program on a run of unprecedented Big 12 dominance. Stallworth isn’t sure, but he does remember the empty feeling he had following K-State’s 59-21 drubbing of Kansas’ football team in Lawrence last fall.
“The core fan base,” Stallworth says. “They would like to compete with K-State in every sport … and at least be as good.”
With one rival off to the SEC, perhaps some of these feelings may intensify in the comings years. But here’s Stallworth’s point: It’s hard to have a rivalry in men’s basketball when KU has won 44 of the last 47 meetings. And it’s hard to have a rivalry in football when K-State has won 15 of 19.
For Zenger, much of his department’s progress starts there, on the football field, and on tours such as the one he took earlier this week. There’s no hard data that says a winning football program guarantees success in non-revenue sports, he says. But he knows the energy that a winning football program can bring to the rest of an athletic department. Revenue dollars, too.
“At the end of the day,” Zenger says, “winning begets winning, and losing begets losing. And I don’t think anybody wants to be a part of any department where you have an awful lot of losing. You want to have more winning than losing.”