LAWRENCE — Sheahon Zenger views himself as an athletic director with two sides of a brain, both of which are highly active.
One side will make him a different kind of leader for Kansas. Zenger, introduced as KU's next athletic director Monday, has three degrees. You would be right to call him "Dr. Zenger," because he wrote a 222-page dissertation and earned a Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership at Kansas. Zenger's friends say he'd be just as comfortable running an entire university as an athletic department, and he freely admits he will be spending plenty of time talking with KU faculty members about a wide range of topics.
"I need that to feed myself," Zenger said.
And then there's the other side of his brain — the one that will earn him $450,000 a year and ultimately define whether he is a success as Lew Perkins' replacement.
Perkins may not have been as scholarly as Zenger, but Perkins' domineering presence and focus on winning got results. If there was any doubt about that, all Zenger had to do on Monday was look around at the finished capital projects on KU's campus, including a $31 million football practice facility and a $42 million renovation of Allen Fieldhouse. Certainly, the place has a different feel than it did when Zenger became Dr. Zenger in 1996.
But Sheahon Zenger (pronounced SHAY-un) is a competitor, too. From the time he was 9 years old, he wanted to be a coach. He was a 5-foot-10 quarterback at Hays High who played a couple years at Fort Hays State and MidAmerica Nazarene before enrolling as a regular student at Kansas State.
During the next decade, he'd grit it out coaching football at K-State, South Florida and Wyoming. That resume says there is plenty of fight in Zenger, who will leave the athletic director job at Illinois State to come home.
The fact that he ended up being KU's second choice to Tulsa athletic director Bubba Cunningham? Well, that's the other guy's loss.
"It makes it a little bit sweeter, doesn't it?" said Zenger, 44. "Nobody has ever given me anything in athletics. I can tell you that. School came a little easier, but it never came easy."
Zenger gave a quick nod to his father, Weldon, who was sitting to Sheahon's right at Monday's news conference.
"My dad over there taught me the word 'perseverance,' so much so that my cousins called him that," Zenger said. "That's what we'll be here. I relish that opportunity. The tortoise and the hare... I don't mind being the tortoise."
Zenger appeared equally eloquent and energetic during his first public discussion of the job that will be his starting Feb. 1. He is a man who is comfortable with words, which shouldn't come as a surprise considering his bachelors degrees in English and secondary education and masters in journalism and mass communication from K-State.
For a KU fan base looking for a breath of fresh air after an embarrassing year, Zenger said all the right things. He talked about living from two to four years of age at 20th Street and Ousdahl Road, just south of Allen Fieldhouse. He talked about growing up wearing No. 10 in youth sports because that's the number former KU quarterback Bobby Douglass wore, and choosing to wear a Gale Sayers jersey in a school photo.
When asked about how KU should prepare for potential conference realignment drama in the future, Zenger said "I just think we continue to be Kansas."
"Some people in this profession dream of places like Notre Dame or Michigan or USC," Zenger said. "I dream of the University of Kansas. James Naismith, Phog Allen, Bill Self. Allen Fieldhouse. The Hill. Memorial Stadium. Jayhawk Boulevard...."
Zenger said he was ready to be the "humble servant" of the Jayhawk family — a mission that will start with talking face-to-face with as many KU donors and fans as possible in an effort to repair hard feelings in the wake of the ticket scandal and questions about Perkins' ethics. Zenger recalled his days recruiting the state of Kansas and driving to places like Dodge City and Garden City and said he was ready to hop in the car and do it all over again.
"We are Kansans," Zenger said, wrapping up his opening speech, "we are Jayhawks, and I hope that when you and I look in the mirror today and each and every day that I see you and you see me."
A divide existed from the beginning between Perkins and KU faithful who didn't appreciate his big-bucks attitude and East Coast pedigree. When Perkins retired a year ahead of schedule in September, he was making $800,000 a year. In 2009, thanks to bonuses, he made $4.4 million, which led some KU alums to question the school's priorities.
The No. 1 objective in Kansas' search for its next athletic director was to find a candidate with uncommon integrity. KU search committee chairman Ray Evans referred to Zenger as an "eagle scout" and a "Dudley Do-Right."
Zenger says he just likes to do things the old-fashioned way. That sounds about right coming from the son of two college educators.
"He's a renaissance man," said Ted Orth, a long-time friend of Zenger. "He's just interested in a lot of things, knows a lot of things. He's not your typical person that one time played college football as a quarterback."