Sheahon Zenger’s game plan bolstered the ’Birds

The Intercollegiate Athletics program, sometimes described as the “front porch” enticing the public into the University’s rich academic and cultural home, has been revitalized at Illinois State during Sheahon Zenger’s five years as Athletics director.

Illinois State was a frequent Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) All-Sports champion entering the new millennium. By the time Zenger arrived in 2005, the metaphorical front porch needed refurbishing to restore success, enthusiasm, fundraising, and community support. Zenger went for a splash of color too by introducing the “Spread the Red” campaign, which became a textbook example of a model sports marketing effort.

“The irony is I don’t fashion myself as a marketing expert,” Zenger said. “My first love is higher education. I’ve been a football coach, researcher, fundraiser, and administrator. But there are certain things within sports marketing that to me are just no-brainers.”

“Spread the Red” initially targeted local merchants and restaurant owners. Soon the campaign, well, spread to T-shirts, soda cans, dry cleaner hangers, pizza box tops, and eventually Interstate 55 billboards that let travelers know they are entering Redbird Country.

“I see it as speaking for the institution as a whole,” Zenger said. “One of the things I take the greatest pride in is that I think we’ve done something for the institution, which is what athletics is all about.”

The marketing campaign is just one tangible example of progress since Zenger arrived from an associate athletics director for development position at Kansas State. He brought with him the belief that success and visibility in sports are important to the campus culture.

Zenger built up both by focusing on three goals: establish harmony within the department; improve external outreach by mending fences with donors and other Redbird sports fans; and restore competitive excellence on the field of play, while recognizing the importance of classroom achievement and community service. Five years later, those missions have been accomplished.

Fundraising is on the rise with a 65 percent growth since 2005. Redbird Club funds are vital because unlike other Illinois public universities, ISU does not receive state dollars for Athletics. Private donations help cover scholarship costs, which totaled $2.7 million during the past academic year.

Academic achievement is another important measure of success. Illinois State’s 400 student-athletes combined to post a 3.13 grade point average during the fall 2009 semester, tying a department record, with 63 earning a 4.0. Redbird athletes combined for a 3-point or above GPA in six of the past seven semesters.

Community service remains strong as well. Athletes regularly contribute 2,000 hours or more annually working with youth groups, charitable organizations, and public agencies. During the 2009-2010 academic year the volunteer hours reached 3,500.

On the field of play, Illinois State planted its flag on the MVC pinnacle this year by capturing the All-Sports Trophy for the second time in three seasons. Redbird teams have finished in the top five of the league’s All-Sports race for 28 straight years, and have won the All-Sports Trophy 12 times.

“I’m extremely proud of our student-athletes and our coaches for bringing the Valley’s All-Sports Trophy back to the Illinois State campus,” Zenger said. “This award symbolizes all the hard work that is put in daily by members of the entire Athletics Department and the campus leadership, as well as the support from the Redbird community.”

Fans cheered as Illinois State sent a dozen teams to post-season tournaments in the past year, won conference titles in three women’s sports (basketball, golf, and soccer), two men’s sports (tennis and baseball) and was a strong contender in others. Record crowds saw the football team achieve a winning season under first-year coach Brock Spack.

The men’s and women’s basketball teams, coached last season by Tim Jankovich and Robin Pingeton respectively, secured post-season berths in the National Invitation Tournament. It took the eventual NIT champions to eliminate both squads. Redbird athletes looked good on the journey. Under Zenger the department secured a five-year contract with Nike, which resulted in significant savings.

Zenger’s most ambitious task for elevating Illinois State’s competitive position is the creation of a $39 million facilities improvement plan called Redbird Renaissance. Seven major projects were identified with a number already completed, including new tennis courts and the $3.2 million baseball stadium at Duffy Bass Field.

“Probably the thing I’m most proud of is the new baseball stadium,” Zenger said. “Illinois State had been waiting for a hundred years to have a real baseball stadium.”

Other projects were scheduled within Redbird Arena, including new basketball and volleyball locker rooms, and an attractive entertainment area called the Legends Room.

The most challenging part of Redbird Renaissance is the renovation of Hancock Stadium, which opened in 1965 and presents visitors with an uninspiring view of aging bleachers. The Board of Trustees has authorized architects to plan a redesigned stadium.

“I think it’s important for the institution’s image,” Zenger said. “For me it has less to do with the football team’s performance than it does with what we represent to the rest of the community when you drive down Main Street. We need to have something that bespeaks excellence, just like the rest of the campus.”

The project will feature new seating on the east and south sides, with first-class concession areas, restrooms, a concourse, a press box, and donor suites. Seating capacity would be about 14,000 in the first phase, with the possibility of adding another 10,000 seats in a horseshoe configuration.

The downturn in the economy has made starting a campaign to fund the stadium project difficult, “This institution has lots of needs,” Zenger explained. “While the football stadium is probably our greatest need in the Athletics Department, there are other needs on campus that have to come first. The tail will not wag the dog here. We’re very mindful of what the institution’s needs are and what comes first.”

Meanwhile football excitement is surging. Fans throng into parking lots with sizzling grills to tailgate on football Saturdays. Overflow crowds force some to sit or stand on grassy areas. Football fans have been eager for the 2010 campaign ever since the Redbirds knocked off ninth-ranked Northern Iowa 22-20 with a touchdown pass in the last second of the 2009 finale.

Zenger believes that a football game day is a celebration of a university’s community spirit, pride, and culture. “College football is where you get to fly your flags and have your marching band, your Homecoming activities, and really celebrate the institution’s culture. That’s what football brings to an institution,” he said.

“I’m pleased that our college game day has become one which alumni, community members, and businesses can all get together and feel good about what we have as an institution and community.”

A former football coach himself, Zenger has worked to improve the experience. Upgrades at Hancock Stadium include a new playing surface, and a video scoreboard to keep fans informed and entertained.

Zenger also played a lead role in advocating that the Missouri Valley Conference include football under the MVC banner. Until two years ago the Valley’s football schools competed in the affiliated, but less familiar, Gateway Conference. “From the day I got here, that was one of my goals,” Zenger said.

History and traditions are important to a university’s culture, and both have received increasing recognition in the Zenger era. The most visible symbol is the statue of basketball All-America Doug Collins ’73 and coaching pioneer Will Robinson at Redbird Arena’s north entrance. The sculpture, which was done by Lou Cella ’85, was donated by Don Franke ’71 and dedicated in 2009.

Illinois State basketball legends are shown in action on the Arena’s big video scoreboard before home games. Introductions are given to a player of the past, called the Redbird Ambassador, and a Faculty Star of the Game. Special recognition has been given in the form of endowed scholarships, facilities naming, and ceremonies to honor such notables as coaches Duffy Bass and Jill Hutchison, M.S. ’69: basketball Olympians Collins, Cathy Boswell ’83, and Charlotte Lewis ’78, ’01; and golf pro D.A. Weibring ’75.

“I think it’s important we look all the way back and acknowledge who helped us get where we are,” he said. “You stand on the shoulders of those who went before you. In my time here I want to do my best to make sure we acknowledge who those shoulders belonged to.”

In other words, those Redbird sports giants always have a seat on Illinois State’s front porch.