LAWRENCE — It is a Saturday morning and Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger is pointing at the horseshoe end of Memorial Stadium. That’s the section, he says, where he used to sit and watch KU football games as a kid.
If you ask him, he can still remember that September day in 1978, when a winless Jayhawks squad took down a ranked UCLA program. It’s still his favorite KU football memory.
“It was quite a day,” Zenger says.
As he says this, Zenger is sitting in a booth perched high above the field before KU’s 13-10 victory over Louisiana Tech in late September. The sun is shining, and tailgaters move through neighborhoods surrounding the stadium. It’s a fitting scene given that the football team is about to improve to 2-1 and the KU athletic program as a whole is coming off one of its most successful — and well-rounded — athletic years in recent memory.
That success led to a contract extension in May that will keep Zenger at Kansas through 2018. But as he looks toward the north end zone, Zenger is envisioning what could be his most ambitious project as KU’s athletic director.
The stadium that Zenger attended as a kid is in noticeable need of a face-lift, a renovation to help close the gap with its Big 12 rivals. For the last few years, the idea of a Memorial Stadium upgrade — including the removal of the running track — has been a white whale for KU fans. Now it may soon become a reality.
On Sept. 18, Zenger says, Kansas began a formal design process for the eventual renovation. KU officials met with Kansas City-based architectural firm HNTB, which will oversee the design of the project.
“No idea at this point is too small or too big,” Zenger said. “They will be engaging our stakeholders over the next few months, and they’ll come back to us with their ideas. The reality of it is, it will be an expensive project. And it will be a massive fundraising campaign.”
Herein lies perhaps the thickest barrier for any potential projects at Memorial Stadium: money. In 2009, the last time KU attempted a project at Memorial Stadium, then athletic director Lew Perkins unveiled plans for the Gridiron Club, a $34 million luxury box expansion that would rise above the east side of the stadium. The plan was scrapped when the program fell on hard times and the money didn’t materialize.
Zenger is aware of the history, of course. But he has spent much of his tenure trying to get fans and alumni to believe in a new KU athletic department. Last year, the vision of a more well-rounded, competitive program paid off.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams both made the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. The volleyball team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in years. And the women’s track and field team captured the first women’s NCAA title in school history.
For a department coming off a wave of scandals late last decade — an illegal basketball ticket-sale scheme inside the athletic department and the controversial departures of football coach Mark Mangino and Perkins — the last 2 1/2 years have provided new energy and a revived competitive spirit.
“Everybody knew of some of the obstacles we were going through,” KU basketball coach Bill Self says. “But there were some areas that maybe had taken a lot of wind out of all our sails, within the department, in all avenues.
“I think Sheahon definitely helped pump life back into everything.”
As a reward, Zenger signed a contract extension in May that increases his annual salary from $450,000 to $600,000 and extends his contract through June 30, 2018. According to University officials, only $200,000 of Zenger’s salary comes from the state, while $400,000 comes from private “non-taxpayer, non-tuition” funds.
But as KU looks to reinvent Memorial Stadium, some of the same structural problems persist.
After four straight losing seasons — including a 3-21 record the two previous seasons — could the Jayhawks’ lack of on-field success hinder momentum for an expensive, large-scale project?
“If you were being a politician, you’d say no,” Zenger says. “But the reality of it is, for people to really want to engage at a high level, you need to have some success on the field.
“I do believe that the Jayhawk Nation understands the importance and the relevance of college football today, to any BCS institution, and it’s impact on all sports.”
Right now, Zenger says, there is no public timetable for the project, but it will likely be done in phases.
“What we would like to do is engage in a full fundraising campaign and financing campaign,” Zenger said, “rather than just finance bits and pieces as you go.”
Last April, KU broke ground on Rock Chalk Park, a $39 million project in west Lawrence that will house new facilities for track and field, soccer and softball. Construction is on schedule, Zenger says, and the new track is set to play host to the KU Relays this spring. That development paves the way for KU to remove the track at Memorial Stadium, which could be the first phase in any larger renovation.
“A lot of people ask: ‘When’s that coming out?’” Zenger says of the track. “It just takes money. When we have the money, we’ll begin the renovation project.”
Zenger, of course, is a football man at heart, a former college assistant coach who once rolled up his sleeves and helped Bill Snyder build K-State into a relevant program in the early 1990s. Zenger jokes that it has been his lot in life to help build football programs, and for now, it’s priority No. 1 at Kansas as well.
Zenger believes second-year coach Charlie Weis has begun to set a solid groundwork. But as Zenger looks to the future, gazing out at Memorial Stadium, he believes its time to remake another layer of the foundation.
“It’s near and dear to my heart to take this stadium and make it more modern,” Zenger said. “And to bring it into the present day, without damaging the memories of what’s been here in the past.
“It’s not just a football stadium,” he adds. “You don’t get a second chance to do it right.”