LAWRENCE — On Wednesday night, after the Kansas women's basketball team knocked off No. 22 Iowa State in overtime for its biggest win of the season, KU coach Bonnie Henrickson received a thumbs-up from her new boss.
But Sheahon Zenger, who has officially been on the job as KU's athletic director since Feb. 1, did not insert himself into the moment any more than that.
Zenger and Henrickson, who was hired by former athletic director Lew Perkins nearly seven years ago, have not yet spoken in great detail about the direction of the women's basketball program. Same for Ritch Price's baseball program and Ray Bechard's volleyball program. The KU coaches can feel Zenger's presence up and down the halls of the Wagnon Student-Athlete Center, but he has largely avoided the more serious topics of conversation — a method of transitioning into the job that Zenger says is by design.
"It's very different coming into one of these jobs mid-year than it is in June," Zenger said. "It takes an element of patience to step back and observe. There's more observation at times than action, because you don't want to come into a place and jam a crowbar in the middle of an academic calendar or an athletic cycle of seasons."
Zenger is perfecting the art of the "pop in," just moving from office to office to let his coaches know that he's there for them. Henrickson said that, in the few short talks they've had, Zenger has made sure to tell her to let him know if there's anything she needs.
Right now, Zenger says there aren't enough hours in the day, and thus far, he's proven that by spending time in his office until 11 p.m. most nights. His wife and three children will remain in Bloomington, Ill., until May, which has given him the opportunity to go all-in.
"He's got great charisma," said Price, who was a member of the university's six-person search committee that chose Zenger as a finalist. "He's high-energy, with great enthusiasm. He's been a home run from the day he walked on campus thus far. I don't think there's any place in America more excited for their new athletic director than the University of Kansas is."
In these early days of his tenure, Zenger has too many priorities to count. First and foremost, there is the matter of reaching out to donors large and small in an effort to rebuild trust in the aftermath of the ticket scandal. And, of course, he is trying to adjust to the way the department operates on a daily basis.
Long-term, Zenger wants all of KU's programs to follow the lead of men's basketball and achieve on a national scale. Price said Zenger had a meeting with all of the head coaches on Jan. 3, the day of his introductory news conference, to offer his support and stress that the goal should be for all teams to be ranked in the top 25.
Traditionally, Kansas has not been as competitive in non-revenue or Olympic sports, and Zenger says he is aware of the perception of KU as a one-trick pony. In the last five years, only women's track and field, women's soccer, and women's swimming and diving have finished consistently in or near the top-half of the Big 12. The women's basketball program, which has shared the same facilities with the men's program, has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2000.
Baseball has made the NCAA tournament twice in the last five years, which is certainly a sign of progress.
KU's coaches expect Zenger, who spent nearly a decade in their shoes as a football assistant coach at Kansas State, South Florida and Wyoming, to be fair in his evaluation.
"He's been there," said Bechard, whose volleyball program has not qualified for postseason play the past five seasons. "He knows the daily struggles that we go through. Everybody up and down the hall I deal with wants to improve what they're doing for Sheahon, but bigger than that, for Jayhawk Nation in its totality."
Zenger says it is not in his nature to be critical of coaches and that he is here to help them succeed.
"I believe in coaches," Zenger said. "At their very core, just the fact that they're in that profession, that they're in it for the right reasons, to help young people. I think it's arrogant to come into a place and say I expect this and this and this. I think you come in, and you ask questions. You evaluate. You get other people's input. You don't deliver a mandate without doing your research."