Now that the Very Latest has happened, the question of what to do about Kansas football feels like a philosophical one. To wit, Is it morally acceptable to put a bad football program out of its misery?
Is it morally acceptable not to?
Answers are hard to find, but in any case morale is low, and the faculty are turning.
It has been a dreadful decade, yes. One of the worst in college football history. And it is true that most decades in Kansas football history are not winning ones.
It is also true that Kansas began the season with a loss at home to FCS Nicholls State, that it now has lost 12 games in a row, meaning the streak could well get into the 20s before this season is over, and that it has not won a road game since 2009. The Jayhawks are so bad that they are Twitter’s favorite team.
Yung Law Boy’s despair is understandable.
Yet Kansas had a pretty decent 1990s and an even better 2000s. The memory of successful football is not too distant and the road map to getting there has not yet faded in the sun. You can still make out the spot where John Randle caught that hook-and-lateral against Kansas State in 2004.
The last decade in Kansas football that compared to this one in terms of lousiness was the 1980s. But even then Kansas had two non-losing seasons and went 38-71-5. This decade, Kansas is 15-82 with no season better than 3-9.
KU’s current badness is an aberration, is what I’m getting at. Over 118 seasons of football, Kansas has won 48 percent of its games — not good, but not like this.
So if the history of Kansas football is a good predictor of the future, the upcoming decade, the 20s, should see the Jayhawks in a couple of bowl games and maybe a few Top 25 polls. To balance things out.
But how? How will the Jayhawks get there from here?
Using history as our guide, it will look something like this:
Going the juco route is usually thought of as an act of desperation, but desperate is just what Kansas is, so this adds up.
Signing a lot of juco players is risky, and you can’t get too many. Because as they say, there’s a reason juco guys are at junior colleges in the first place. Juco transfers often have difficulty becoming and staying eligible and are notoriously unreliable.
By going big on juco players, former coach Charlie Weis is largely responsible for the personnel hole in which Kansas finds itself today. In 2013, 16 of the 25 players in KU’s signing class were juco transfers. Within a year, half of them were gone, and six of them never played a down at KU. By the summer of 2015, none of them were still on the roster and KU was down to 64 scholarship players, 21 scholarships below the NCAA limit.
Weis looked at that big juco class as a Hail Mary that might bail him out after he kicked 29 players off the team the year before. Predictably, it failed, and early in his tenure Beaty promised not to make the same desperate mistake. You can’t have too many juco guys. It just won’t work.
That all said, junior college players are also the only way for a program like Kansas to get a jolt of talent. The best high school players from Kansas always seem to sign with one of the Oklahoma schools, and there are only a couple guys like that available in Kansas in an average year, anyway.
KU in recent years has been physically overwhelmed by most of the Division I teams it has faced. In addition to being extraordinarily prone to mistakes, the Jayhawks are slow and small and weak. Against Big 12 competition, the difference is stark.
Phase 1 has to be to sign as many juco players as necessary to make the team competitive athletically in the Big 12. Even in the best years — even the 2007 Orange Bowl team — KU had linemen on both sides of the ball who were undersized and not especially athletic. Kansas is never going to have as much talent at the offensive and defensive lines as Oklahoma, Texas or Oklahoma State.
But it can get close at the offensive skill positions and at the second level of the defense with a combination of homegrown veterans and juco transfers. That’s what Mangino used to take KU from 2-10 his first year to a bowl game in year two.
Mangino’s first bowl team had 17 juco players on it, including starting quarterback Bill Whittemore, a transfer from Fort Scott who showed the first flashes of what Mangino’s offense would become at Kansas. On the 2005 team that won the Fort Worth Bowl, there were 12 juco players, including starting defensive ends Jermial Ashley and Charleton Keith.
The 2007 team that went 12-1? It had nine, none of which were in the starting lineup at the end of the year.
Mangino used juco players to pull the program out of the mud while simultaneously building a roster of overlooked high school players that would become the backbone of the program during its most successful run.
Beat Kansas State
The thing Bill Snyder knew when he arrived at Kansas State in 1989 was that any goal he ever hoped to achieve in Manhattan began with beating Kansas. It was low-hanging fruit, but if you can’t even beat the other historically bad football program in your small, rural state, you are already done.
It works just the same going the other way.
When Mangino had it rolling from 2003-08, he beat Kansas State four times, and it is not a coincidence that this period was Kansas State’s worst stretch since it hired Snyder (for the first time) in 1989.
Kansas and Kansas State can probably never be good at the same time. Not for very long. It’s not just that one being up means the other is down, it pretty much causes it.
To succeed in that rivalry is, without fail, to succeed in recruiting in-state kids, who can go either way depending on who’s good at the time.
For most of the last 30 years, that program has been Kansas State. But look at the salad days under Mangino and what do you see?
A starting running back from Salina, a starting receiver from Pittsburg (Kan.) whose brothers played at Kansas State, a starting safety from Kansas City, a starting linebacker from Shawnee, a starting running back from Lawrence, a starting guard from Manhattan. And we’re not just talking about dudes, here. These were the leaders of those teams. Bedrock players who set records, made all-conference teams and in a couple cases went on to have NFL careers.
The only reliable way to get the best Kansas players seems to be to beat the other Kansas school, which begets more Kansas players, which begets more beatdowns, and so on and so forth.
Sign Athletes, Put Them on Defense
This is another big strategy from the early Mangino years, when he would try to get as much speed on defense as he could get, regardless of the player’s preference or previous experience.
For a while there, he had his starting running back (John Randle) and his best receiver (Charles Gordon) both playing in the defensive secondary while also playing offense. Chris Harris, the All-Pro Denver Broncos cornerback, was a wide receiver when KU began recruiting him. The 2005 Big 12 defensive player of the year, Nick Reid, was the top quarterback prospect in Kansas as a senior in high school.
It takes a lot of time and coordination to build a good offense. Offensive lines need years to develop, and if you don’t have the right quarterback, you’re sunk anyway. On defense, if you have fast guys who tackle well, you’ve got a fighting chance in any game. And that was the extent of what Kansas was accomplishing in the middle of the last decade.
From 2003-07, Kansas’ rank among Big 12 teams in total defense was, in order: 7th, 5th, 2nd, 9th, 1st.
Its total offensive ranking looked like this: 7th, 8th, 10th, 7th, 1st.
None of this was achieved on defense through major recruiting victories or the hiring of a star defensive coordinator. These were all two- and three-star recruits who played pretty well for a journeyman coordinator on the back end of his career (Bill Young).
But sound defense and well-executed special teams made up for a gap in talent that will always exist, and it bought Mangino juuuuuusssst enough time for the offense to finally come together in year six.
Get A Short Quarterback
I am using “short” because that’s the way Todd Reesing was, but really we could be talking about any physical deficiency that would cause an otherwise extremely gifted quarterback to go unwanted by — let’s face it — pretty much everybody else except for like maybe Duke.
It’s just that when it comes to physical deficiencies for quarterbacks, short is the easiest one to live with. Fat doesn’t usually work, although there are some notable counter-examples.
You do need a certain amount of arm strength, too. Although the modern passing game is mostly short stuff, you need to be able to hit the out routs and the deep posts and such with a certain amount of ease — for the sake of reliability. And then of course if the guy taking the snaps is a common imbecile, the whole thing is DOA, although I guess I’d have to say there’s an exception to that rule, too.
I’m not saying you need to find another Todd Reesing, but you need to find another Todd Reesing, who was the spiritual ancestor to Johnny Manziel.
That’s to say you need a smart quarterback with obvious natural leadership qualities who throws accurate passes and is difficult to sack. Bonus if he’s a bit of a punkass, too, if we’re being honest.
Because he’s going to face some pressure playing quarterback at Kansas. Especially the first couple years, he’s either going to be getting the ball out quickly, or he’s going to be on the move.
You may say this all sounds obvious and reasonable. Of course you want a smart, accurate, elusive quarterback who’s a good leader. Everybody wants that.
Which is true. You pretty much just have to get lucky on this one, but short is the way to go. You can work with short.
So just go around the country and scout every short quarterback you see, and what you’re looking for is that work hard/play hard type guy whose got a GPA of 10,000 but parties harder than anyone.
Or something like that.
Be an Early Adopter of the Next Football Wave
You don’t need to be a pioneer of anything, but it’s not going to be possible for Kansas to beat Oklahoma at Oklahoma’s own game. So if Oklahoma is running a no-huddle spread with a zone blocking scheme, then that’s exactly the kind of game Oklahoma wants to play. And unless your plan as a program is just hope to catch your opponents on a bad night, then you can’t play the way they play unless your players are just as good as theirs.
Bill Snyder has always understood this, and his teams rarely play offense like the majority of the league does. What Kansas State has done on offense since Snyder returned from retirement defies classification. There are a lot of designed quarterback runs, a lot of bunched formations, a lot of fullbacks. But yet out of the shotgun. It’s like when somebody puts a modern engine and suspension in a classic car. Bill Snyder’s offense is a resto-mod.
Anyway, I’m sure there is known football terminology for it, and I don’t think he has created anything new. Nevertheless, facing Kansas State’s offense is an unusual experience that some teams adjust to better than others. It makes the opponent less comfortable than usual, and that helps.
Insofar as Kansas is “doing something on offense” it does not appear to be on the front wave of anything. It looks like the same offense everybody else runs, only worse, and with smaller, slower players.
If you want to know what the next wave in football strategy is going to be, you should always look to lower-division college football and to high school football. That’s where you see the real mad scientists, because coaches get more and more conservative as they move up the ranks and have more to lose.
Whenever you see some “new” offensive technology in college football, there’s a 90 percent chance some D-III coach in like Montana has been running that same thing for 15 years. And then it will inevitably turn out that that scheme is just a variation on something Yale was running all throughout the 1890s.
There is nothing new under the sun, but you can’t beat the other teams at their own game, so you at least need to be weird.
Give the Coach a Crazy Amount of Time
This doesn’t apply to all bad programs. This advice applies to Kansas and Kansas’ unique set of challenges. KU is going to have to fire David Beaty, a likable man who may very well be a decent football coach, but who nonetheless will go down with one of the worst records ever recorded in the sport.
His replacement could come in one of two forms:
(1) Somebody just as desperate as the Kansas football program
(2) Somebody looking to cash a few more checks before the career peters out
You have to go with Option 1, but that means it’s going to be somebody without much of a resume, probably somebody who’s never been a head coach before. So not only do you need to give them more time than usual to build a competitive roster, you have to allow some time for them to learn the job of head coach, and to learn what works at KU in particular.
Mark Mangino already knew all that stuff, because he had spent the first part of his career in Kansas, beating Kansas, as a member of Snyder’s staff at Kansas State. So just because he beat K-State in year three and won a bowl game in year five doesn’t make that a reasonable timeline for the next guy.
Unless Kansas wants to keep spinning the coaching roulette wheel every three or four years, it should give the next coach, whoever it is, a radical amount of time to turn the thing around. I’m talking about seven or eight years, no matter what his record is after six.
If it were me making the decision, I’d go to the best assistant coach on Bill Snyder’s coaching tree, and offer him the job, and just keep working my way down until somebody said yes. And I’d tell him everything I’ve written down in this piece and say we’ll see where things stand in eight years.
Or something like that.
In Conclusion …
It’s pretty hard to win at Kansas, and that’s never going to change. Kansas isn’t going to become Nebraska. When they were divvying up the Midwest way back when, Nebraska took football and Kansas took basketball and that’s just how things are. But KU football doesn’t need to be this bad, either, and the program doesn’t need to be canceled, as cathartic as it might be to say so.
The program can be (and has been) one that wins about half the time, goes to a few bowl games a decade, and every so often takes a Top 10 ranking into the cold months. This has happened in the past, and will probably happen again in the future, hard as it might be to see from here.