What is wrong with Kansas football? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Some say everything is fine and it’s a well-run program down on its luck. Others see the historic lack of wins as evidence of a mismanaged athletic department in need of new leadership. The former has been the official position of the university, while the latter found growing support among internet message boards which came to fruition on Monday.
A few years ago KU-faithful debated this question with civility. Mangino had to go. Turner Gill? Charlie Weis? Bad hires to be sure, but David Beaty will bring us back to the glory days.
But times have changed. Three seasons in and Beaty is 3-33 overall and 1-26 in Big 12 play. Last year a Turner Gill-led Liberty team beat Baylor, which raised Gill’s all-time record against Big 12 foes from one to two. Students graduating from KU in 2018 will leave campus never knowing the thrill of a becoming bowl-eligible, or the satisfying feeling that comes after beating a conference rival on the road. The 2016 upset of Texas is probably not enough reason for these new alumnae to spend adult-levels of money on season tickets, or even convince them to bring the family out to a game or two. They’ll be content to wait until basketball season.
But there is growing unrest among KU’s old guard. Winning at basketball has long been the security blanket that warms them on their trek across the proverbial frozen plains of a Big 12 football season. At risk of overextending this metaphor, supplies are low, and the blanket is worn, threadbare, and keeps but little warmth. Combine that with a football team that has three wins in three years and it is easy to understand why even the hardiest of fans are starting to question the leadership of Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger.
Recently LGG was able to sit down with one such crestfallen KU-faithful and get his side of the story. Mike Plank is editor-in-chief of KU’s SBN site, Rock Chalk Talk. If you visit RCT’s homepage you will know instantly where Mike stands on the issue. Pinned atop the feed is an article by Plank from November of 2017: Shehon Zenger is killing the Kansas Football Program.
Noticing his boldness and outspokenness, we reached out to Mike who was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the #FireZenger movement. Little did we know at the time of this interview, Zenger would be fired on Monday. Still, this exchange shows the frustrations that had built among the KU faithful. A big thanks to Mike for talking with us, and we will follow up with Rock Chalk Talk once the dust settles.
LandGrant Gauntlet: When did your patience run out on Zenger?
Mike Plank: It looks like my first “#FireZenger” at Rock Chalk Talk came on Sept 19, 2017. A variety of factors led me (us?) to this point. At the time, Kansas was 1-2 on the young season, with a shaky win over FCS doormat Southeast Missouri State, and two non-competitive losses to MAC schools, including a beat down at the hands of Central Michigan in Lawrence and doing things like this at Ohio.
Factor in that at Big 12 media days a few months prior, David Beaty was quoted as saying that it was time for fans to see dividends, and that “dividends are reflected in wins,” and here they are not even being competitive with MAC schools. Then, a few days before the conference opener against West Virginia, Zenger announced a $22 million initiative to upgrade the baseball and volleyball facilities, AFTER being quoted over the summer as saying the “deck had been cleared” to spend money on football.
Now back to 2018, at this point, I’m just tired of the shtick and tired of the failure. Zenger has hired two disastrous coaches in a row (Weis, Beaty) after his predecessor hired a disastrous coach (Gill). He has overseen the worst 3-year stretch in KU football history, and considering the 1980s, that’s saying something.
He should not be allowed to hire another football coach, or heaven forbid, a basketball coach. After all, Zenger fired current Loyola coach Porter Moser when the two were at Illinois State.
LGG: Zenger’s supporters tout his accomplishments “beyond the scoreboard,” such as the recently announced stadium/practice facility expansions. Why should KU fans question this approach?
MP: It’s actually pretty simple – because that’s his job. Being the AD at KU really shouldn’t be that hard. There’s pretty much four things: Raise money and be an ambassador for Kansas Athletics, give Bill Self whatever he wants, keep the non-revenue sports competitive, and fix football.
OK, so fixing football probably isn’t THAT easy, but as mentioned earlier, it’s only gotten worse under Zenger’s watch. For every successful program (volleyball, men’s and women’s track & field), I can give you one that isn’t even competitive against Big 12 competition, including baseball, softball, and women’s golf. And baseball has the potential to be a revenue generating program, or at the very least, one that doesn’t operate in the red.
Any athletic director has to be able to schmooze donors and raise funds. That’s their JOB. Zenger came in here as a self-proclaimed “old football coach” and pledged to “fix football” at his introductory press conference. He hasn’t lived up to that promise.
LGG: Bill Self has publicly supported Zenger as an AD who “give[s] the coaches what they need to be successful.” What does Self’s comment say about a possible disconnect between KU’s basketball and football fans when it comes to Zenger?
MP: Again, that’s Zenger’s job, but, I’m going to guess that where I go with this answer will put me in the minority of KU fans. I think there is a huge disconnect between KU basketball fans and every other sport at the university. As long as Bill Self keeps winning Big 12 titles, then people get to say, “Just wait until basketball season”.
Nobody cares about anything else other than basketball. It’s where all the big donors are, and it’s where most of the fans are. Bill Self isn’t going to say anything disparaging about his boss, because why would he? He gets whatever he wants, when he wants it. And that’s how the big time donors want it, too. Unfortunately, at this point, that will never change. Self is going to play happy company man because that’s what he is. A bad football team doesn’t affect Bill Self any.
LGG: Who would you hire to replace Zenger? Or what qualifications would you prioritize in the next AD job search?
MP: Gosh, I had to do a Google search for this one. It looks to me like KU would be hard-pressed to even interview most of the popular choices out there. Central Florida’s Danny White could be a good option. Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard and Colorado’s Rick George seem like long shots. Other hot names include UC Irvine’s Michael Izzi, Memphis’ Tom Bowen, Fresno State’s Jim Bartko, or Penn State’s deputy AD Phil Esten,
As I said earlier, most of the things an AD has to do should come pretty naturally. Ideally, Kansas would be looking for someone with a solid professional network, especially a network that includes promising football coaches.
LGG: What are you most pessimistic about ahead of the 2018 football season?
MP: I suppose it’s not fair to say “everything,” is it? I’ll go with the broad category of Coaching. The head coach can’t even figure out who the best quarterback on the roster is, let alone manage the clock properly during a game. The offensive line has been a sieve for a decade and now has a Missouri Tiger as the offensive line coach. Kansas has had talented defensive players, including many NFL draftees, but continually finishes last in most defensive statistics. Last year, the Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year finished with 1.5 sacks after being asked to provide run support instead playing to his strength of rushing the passer. That has to be coaching, right?
Also, Kansas hasn’t won a road game in nine years. NINE. YEARS. September 12, 2009, at UTEP, to be precise. The Jayhawks have shattered the NCAA record for road futility, and only look to extend it further this year.
LGG: What are you most optimistic about ahead of the 2018 football season?
MP: I’m honestly not really optimistic about anything. Kansas returns 18 starters from last year, but is that really a good thing? If incoming QB Miles Kendrick can seize control of the starting job, maybe there’s some reason for hope – that would at least show that the coaches are evolving and open to trying new things. But if we have another year of exchanging Peyton Bender for Carter Stanley and back again, I don’t see how the season goes any differently than last year.
It looks like they may have some legitimate weapons at receiver and running back, and the defense has several guys that would start for just about any Big 12 team in LB Joe Dineen, DT Daniel Wise, FS Mike Lee, and possibly even CB Corione Harris. But the defense had similar talent last year (exchange Harris for Dorance Armstrong) and KU still got blown out all year long, only staying within two touchdowns of Ohio and K-State while only holding three opponents under 40 points (SEMO, KSU, BAY).
It would be foolish to be optimistic about KU being competitive in the Big 12 or even getting a road win. I’ve had the Kool-Aid every pre-season since Mark Mangino was ousted, and I’m done. I did not renew my season tickets, and for the first time since 2000, I don’t plan on attending even a single game at Memorial Stadium. Unfortunately, I’m to the point now of rooting against my favorite team in my favorite sport. The entire athletic department needs sweeping changes in personnel from the top down in order for football to be any modicum of successful, and I think that only happens with another 0 or 1 loss football season that brings even more negative publicity/embarrassment to the University and forces the president to make a change.