May 24, 2018 – The University of Kansas has turned to Korn Ferry to help find its next director of athletics. Sheahon Zenger was recently relieved from his duties. Jed Hughes, who leads Korn Ferry’s sports practice, is heading the assignment. Sean Lester, the school’s deputy athletics director, will serve as interim director while the search is being conducted.
“Athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive,” chancellor Douglas A. Girod said in a recent statement. “To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”
The KU athletic department’s relationship with Adidas has also been under scrutiny as a result of a federal indictment in April against one of the shoe company’s executives, which mentions the Jayhawks’ basketball program. Despite allegations, the school has continued to work on plans to complete a 12-year, $191 million sponsorship contract with Adidas.
Identifying a New Leader
“I have begun the process of identifying a permanent athletics director,” Mr. Girod said. “To lead this process, I have enlisted Drue Jennings, one of our most respected and accomplished alumni.”
Mr. Jennings, who received both his undergraduate and law degrees from KU, is of counsel at the law firm of Shughart, Thomson & Kilroy. He previously served as CEO for Kansas City Power & Light Company. An avid supporter of the school, he served as interim athletics director in 2003 and led the searches that led to the hiring of chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self.
“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” said Dr. Girod. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”
The Kansas Jayhawks participate in the NCAA’s Division I and in the Big 12 Conference. The school has won 13 national championships: five in men’s basketball, three in men’s indoor track and field, three in men’s outdoor track and field, one in men’s cross country and one in women’s outdoor track and field.
Mr. Hughes, of Korn Ferry, is renowned for identifying, assessing and developing leaders for sports organizations. His relationships within sports and intercollegiate athletics are extensive, having spent 20 years coaching in professional and intercollegiate football and working for five Hall of Fame coaches. Jason Belzer of Forbes has called Mr. Hughes the most valuable connector of the sports industry.
Recently, Korn Ferry placed Carla Williams as the director of athletics at the University of Virginia. She becomes the first female African-American athletic director at a Power Five conference school and is the fifth active female AD at that level.
Over the last quarter century, the sports sector has grown into a formidable global industry. Historically, professional sports teams operated on a relatively modest level, with league officials, team owners, managers, and coaches surrounding themselves with people they knew and trusted from their own small worlds. College sports teams relied on in-house search committees and word-of-mouth recommendations. Much of that has forever changed.
Teams with tremendous followings like the Dallas Cowboys, Real Madrid and Manchester United have seen their valuations soar into the billions of dollars. That’s attracted search firms – big time. Seasoned recruiters now provide strategic planning advice, in addition to talent identification services, with the capability of applying their findings to speed along the process in the hunt for talent. Here’s some further reading from Hunt Scanlon Media.
Athletic directors are playing an increasingly vital role at colleges and universities across the country. With the expansion of athletic departments and, for the larger schools, the infusion of big dollars for sports, more schools have turned to search firms when such positions become open. Too much is at stake, they feel, to go it alone. What’s more, the AD job has come to demand greater business and management skills than the typical academic search.
SRi, an international executive search firm focused on the sports, media and entertainment sectors, recently published a report on how the modern day AD serves more as a CEO-type function than as a coaching figurehead. SRi recently spoke with several university presidents on this topic.
“The AD today is the CEO of athletic operations at a college,” said John Lahey, current president at Quinnipiac University. “Thirty to 40 years ago, you were more likely to see former coaches and athletes promoted into those roles as a way of rewarding success or longevity, but now you need a business person who is able to lead people, generate revenue and understand how the marketing and brand of athletics can impact the entire university.”
Bill Lennox, president at St. Leo University in Florida, said schools must make sure that the AD is a senior member of the entire university staff. “We moved the AD to the equivalent level of a vice president, so he sat in all of the meetings and in the decision-making process with the rest of the VPs of the university,” he said.
The modern AD position oversees finances, marketing, human resources, student-athlete wellness, media contracts, and of course overall performance – all while salaries head well into seven figures and beyond, said SRi.
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Will Schatz, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media