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Jamie Squire/Getty Images Head coach Charlie Weis of the Kansas Jayhawks watches from the sidelines during the game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Memorial Stadium on September 1, 2012 in Lawrence, Kansas.

What's the Matter With Kansas (Football)?

The long road ahead for Charlie Weis and the Jayhawks

When Charlie Weis entered his press conference as the new head football coach at the University of Kansas, in December 2011, he was walking with a cane. At the time it was hard to discern whose reputation was more hobbled: the coach’s or the program’s. For Weis, there was his humiliating flameout at Notre Dame, followed by one-year stints with mixed results as the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs and Florida Gators. For Kansas, there were the team’s previous three seasons — and much of its history before that — which had produced just two conference wins and an average margin of defeat greater than 20. “It’s not gonna be pleasant here in the springtime,” Weis said. “There aren’t gonna be many things I can promise, but I can promise you that.”

As it turned out, fall would be just as unpleasant. “Well, let’s see,” Weis said in Lawrence last month, offering a survey of his first season on the job before his second one was about to begin. “We blew the Rice game: They kicked a field goal at the end. Then TCU turns it over six [Editor’s note: It was actually four] times but we still can’t beat ’em. Then we go to Northern Illinois and blow that lead. And let’s not talk about Texas Tech in double overtime. Or, while we’re at it, blowing the Okie State game when we got it cut to six and the ball’s on the 30-yard line. And how about giving up a touchdown pass to Texas with 11 seconds to go?” Kansas won just a single game, against South Dakota State. The program was so desperate for good news that the athletic department’s website briefly listed Blue’s win over White in the annual spring game as the team’s second victory of the season.

It was 85 degrees in Lawrence during the year’s first practice with full pads, and Weis walked onto the field without a cane but still with a noticeable limp. He wore a gray hoodie, not unlike his old boss. (Unlike Bill Belichick, Weis left the sleeves uncut.) “I feel like I’m living in San Diego,” he said, walking over to one sideline to greet Aaron Glenn, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback who played for the Jets in the ’90s, when Weis was the team’s offensive coordinator. Glenn is now a Jets scout, covering colleges from Texas to the Dakotas. “I’m not looking at anyone in particular,” Glenn said, when I asked which Jayhawks he had his eyes on. He might have been keeping his cards close, but he might have simply been telling the truth: There are no Jayhawks on Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board. Glenn did say that, based on his experience, Kansas was lucky to have Weis. “He’s blunt, so you always know where you stand,” Glenn said.

It is hard to think of another football coach with a career losing record who attracts more attention than Weis. This is attributable in roughly equal parts to his involvement in the creation story of Tom Brady, his five-year tenure as the head football coach at Notre Dame, and the fact that he has a big mouth. During the Big 12 media days, in July, after a reporter asked Weis how he sold recruits on a struggling program like Kansas, Weis answered that he catered to those who wanted to play immediately. “I said, ‘Have you looked at that pile of crap out there?'” Weis said, referring to his own players. “‘You’ve seen it, right? Unfortunately, so have I. … If you don’t think you can play here, where do you think you can play?'”

When I encountered Weis a few weeks later — one day before KU’s first practice — he seemed barely chastened by the incident. “It’s almost comical,” he said of the negative reaction to his comments. “Did they not watch our team last year? How else are you gonna describe it? You want me to give it in a cleaner way? It wasn’t very good.” A year in Lawrence had taught Weis that this was not South Bend or Gainesville. “Say a guy came in for a game,” he went on, describing a typical recruiting weekend. “We just played Iowa State. We wore the black uniforms. It’s Senior Day. And we go and get whupped! At home!” He was slumped in his chair, but his voice rose steadily as he spoke. “So now it’s Sunday morning, I’m sitting with a guy in my office, and he’s saying, ‘You think I can play?’ I say, ‘Did you watch the game? You saw the product, do you think you can start here? And if you don’t think you can, you should go somewhere else — or maybe you’re playing the wrong sport.'”

Nine years after he left the New England Patriots, Weis is clearly thankful to be free from Belichick’s media gag order. His first press conference in Lawrence this summer lasted more than an hour, with 20 minutes devoted to assessing his team’s entire depth chart in minute detail. “Last year at this time, I had a tough time giving you two deep — and I probably had a tough time giving you one deep in some cases,” he said. “We were awful at a lot of positions. We were awful at head coach, if you’re wondering.” Weis never once looked at a printout in front of him, as if to prove mastery of a lineup that had been transformed since he arrived. Weis was “really high on” just about everyone on the roster. This suggested either boundless optimism or desperation, depending on how you view the fact that he made a special note of exactly how high he was on the kid listed third on the depth chart at long-snapper.

Among the ways the 57-year-old Weis attempts to bridge the generational divide between himself and his players is to allow them to curate the music played during practice, which means he ends up being introduced to a lot of hip-hop. He makes only one demand: The second song on every playlist must be by one of the coach’s two favorite musicians, Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. “It’s taken a little time, but I’m very pleased that they know the chorus to ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,'” Weis said a week into training camp. “You think I’ve been spending a lot of time picking ‘The Rising’ from Springsteen, because we’re rising from the ashes. That’s not on me — although I think it’s an apropos choice.”

If you didn’t know already, you can now probably guess that Weis was born in New Jersey. His father, briefly a minor league baseball player, built a whiffle ball field in the family’s backyard, complete with foul poles and a pitcher’s mound. (Balls hit into the pool were ground-rule doubles.) Weis played just one year of high school football, at backup center, but fared much better on the diamond, where he was a starting catcher.

Weis and his four siblings grew up listening to Marv Albert call New York Giants games, and when he went off to Notre Dame as an undergraduate, the closest Weis wanted to get to a football field, professionally, was to one day replace Albert in the booth. Coaching was initially a side gig, at a high school in Morristown, New Jersey, where he had landed a job as an English teacher and asked the athletic director if he might help out with the football team. The answer was yes, though the AD needed help elsewhere, too: Over the course of five years, Weis coached girls’ basketball, boys’ lacrosse, and fencing, along with football. “My expertise is zero,” Weis says. “But I can tell you what épée, foil, and sabre are.”

After four years as a graduate assistant at the University of South Carolina, Weis returned to New Jersey, where he led Franklin High School to a 10-1 record. That was good enough to earn a call from Bill Parcells — Weis thought it was a prank — offering an entry-level job with the Giants. Weis spent eight of the next 10 years following the Tuna from New York to New England and back again, before Parcells retired and Weis followed Belichick back to the Patriots.

Weis has been through so much subsequent tumult in his career that it is easy to forget he was once the offensive savant drawing up plays for Tom Brady. Time has only made it more difficult to divvy up credit for the Patriots’ early-2000s success. While the offense has not struggled in Weis’s absence, Brady and Belichick have yet to win another Super Bowl since Weis left. As the Patriots’ legend soared, Weis’s did, too, and he started shopping around for head coaching jobs, especially in his home state: He went so far as to call local reporters in New Jersey, asking if they might mention him as a candidate for the head coaching position at Rutgers, and in 2004, Weis made public his interest in replacing Jim Fassel with the Giants. “I thought I nailed those interviews,” Weis said at the time, openly disappointed that he was passed over for several NFL jobs. He exacted revenge by helping New England to its third Super Bowl title in four years.

Weis’s time in South Bend has been so thoroughly documented — and coaching at Notre Dame is so unlike coaching anywhere else that it reveals hardly anything about how a coach might perform in a job based in reality — that rehashing the details hardly seems worth it. But as a reminder: Seven games after Weis’s “decided schematic advantage” was put in place, his six-year contract was extended to 10 years. Four years later, he left Notre Dame with a worse record than all but one coach since the 1960s. Pretty much nobody was happy. “I’ll never forgive the people who character-assassinated me without even knowing me,” Weis said at the time. “Those people did irreparable damage to my wife and son, and I’ll never forgive them.” Asked about Charlie Jr., his then-15-year-old son, and his looming decision about higher education, Weis said, “I know where he won’t be going to college.”

Following a brief reunion with Romeo Crennel in Kansas City — the Chiefs won the AFC West, but Weis’s offense mustered just seven points in a playoff loss to the Ravens — Weis left for what he insisted would be a much longer stay in Gainesville. Gators fans knew Weis as “Cheeseburger Charlie,” for a comment he had made when Florida had leapt the Irish in the rankings during a bye week. “They were home eating cheeseburgers and they end up jumping us,” Weis said. Convenient jokes about his weight aside, Gainesville was excited for his arrival. One columnist, comparing Weis to the team’s previous offensive coordinator, said the change was “like William Faulkner succeeding Dr. Seuss. The Gator playbook just went from Green Eggs and Ham to The Sound and the Fury.”

Weis was the highest-paid assistant coach in Florida history, and for a moment it seemed the investment might pay off. John Brantley, the team’s quarterback and a traditional pocket passer, had been planning to leave Florida if he had to play another season in Urban Meyer’s Tebow-oriented offense, but Brantley was convinced to return when the Gators hired Weis. Weis’s scheme and Brantley’s arm helped Florida score 30 points in each of its first four games. All was well through the first play of the team’s fifth game, against no. 3 Alabama, when Brantley threw a 65-yard touchdown.

The momentum died, more or less, when Brantley twisted his ankle and knee just before halftime. Over the next 14 quarters, with Brantley on the sideline, Florida’s offense scored just two touchdowns, and ended the regular season with a punchless loss at home against Florida State. “After the Florida State game, fans were pretty upset,” Pat Dooley, who covers the Gators for the Gainesville Sun, told me. “What the heck? How did this happen? They held FSU to 95 yards and never had a chance to win the game.”

Much of the ire was directed at Meyer, who, it was thought, had left the program in the lurch. But as the season wore on, Weis began to shoulder more of the blame. Head coach Will Muschamp was upset that Weis and the offensive coaching staff had not adequately prepared the team’s backup quarterbacks. Weis’s mobility issues — the result of several knee and hip surgeries — also proved a concern. “As the season went on, he would sit on the watercooler talking to the quarterback, and bring a portable chair on the sidelines,” Dooley says. “After a while people looked at him and said, ‘You know, this is kind of embarrassing.'” Weis was forced to use a cane on the sideline, and eventually moved to the box for a game against Georgia, staying there during halftime rather than hobbling to the locker room. “The perception at first, right or wrong, was that Urban left a sinking ship,” Dooley said. “Well, that same sinking ship came back [without Weis] and won 11 games last year.”

As it did at Notre Dame, the mood in Florida quickly soured, to the point that no one was all that upset when Weis bolted for Kansas after just one season. “It only cost Florida three-quarters of a million dollars to have the eighth-best offense in the SEC and provide a launching pad for a coach who found a program desperate enough to offer him a head coaching job,” Dooley wrote in his farewell column to Weis. “They apparently don’t have cable in Lawrence.”

When Weis’s tenure in South Bend comes up, as it often does, the coach invariably refers to his former employer as “that other school.” “Can you imagine becoming the head coach at Notre Dame?” Sheahon Zenger, Kansas’s second-year athletic director, who hired Weis, told me. “If you’re the coach at Notre Dame, the next job you’re like, OK, I just wanna coach football.” When I asked Weis about his recruiting class, which included 19 junior college players, more than any other team in the country, and how strict that other school had been about bringing in such transfers, he said, “Basically there was a policy … No.”

The other school Weis is frequently asked about, and which he is willing to acknowledge by name, is Kansas State. “I’m gonna ask one rhetorical question here,” Weis said at his introductory press conference. “The University of Kansas this year was 2-10. The other major university in the state of Kansas, Kansas State, was 10-2. I only have one question to ask: Why?”

The answer was complicated, but owed little to institutional advantages. “The thing about tradition at Kansas State is, there is none,” one former Wildcat told Sports Illustrated in a 1989 article titled “Futility U,” which called Kansas State “America’s most hapless team.” As uninspiring as the Jayhawks’ football history had been, the Wildcats had been far worse: The program had lost more games than any other in the history of Division I football. When athletic director Steve Miller offered the head coaching job that year to Bill Snyder, a first-time head coach, he told Snyder: “You may have heard it’s one of the toughest jobs in the country. It’s not. It’s the toughest.”

That makes Snyder’s subsequent performance all the more impressive: Since 1993, he has finished with a winning record in all but two of his 17 seasons as head coach, turning Kansas State into one of the most consistently above-average and occasionally excellent football programs in the country. The Wildcats play in Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium, outside which stands a statue of Snyder, making him one of just two active coaches able to shake a cast of his own hand while walking to work. (Alabama’s Nick Saban is the other.) He is revered in Manhattan to a degree reserved in Lawrence for whomever happens to be the Jayhawks men’s basketball coach at the time.

Among the difficulties Snyder faced in turning around the Wildcats was the fact that Kansas produces fewer top-flight recruits than practically any other state with more than five Electoral College votes. A 1981 study commissioned by the NCAA found that Kansas had fewer high school football players available relative to the state’s 30 college teams than any other state in the country. This year, not a single member of Rivals’s top 250 high school recruits came from the state.

What Kansas does have, however, are some of the country’s best junior college teams. In the latest juco rankings, three of the top 20 spots are occupied by teams from Kansas, and a fifth of Rivals’s top 100 juco prospects play in the state. Snyder made culling juco teams his primary recruiting strategy, and when I asked Weis if his focus on transfers was an attempt at copying Snyder’s blueprint, he did not attempt to hide his plagiarism. “The answer is absolutely yes,” he said, noting that even before he accepted the Kansas job, he had gone online to figure out where K-State’s players were coming from. “Look at that defense last year: nine junior college starters. I said, ‘Maybe he’s onto something.'”

In his first year in Lawrence, Weis dismissed 29 players for a variety of undisclosed academic and behavioral reasons. Weis said none of the dismissals were for poor performance: “Not one of those players did I get rid of because they weren’t any good. So now I took a team that already wasn’t very good, and I made them worse.” Weis searched for a quick infusion of mature talent. “I needed guys that could play now,” Weis said. “If not, I’m going to be ranked 10th in the league every year.” Weis recognized that, unlike at Notre Dame or Florida, he was not negotiating from a position of power with top high school talent. “Let’s go back to the infamous three-word comment down there,” he said, referring to his “pile of crap” remark. “You’re 1-11. You’re recruiting. How many high school kids outside your local area are saying, ‘Man, I wanna go play for that’? Guys that no one else in the country wants.”

The face of Weis’s transfer infusion is Marquel Combs, a top-three junior college recruit, who chose Kansas over offers from South Carolina, Texas A&M, and, of course, Kansas State. Combs spent two years at Pierce College in Los Angeles, and living near Hollywood seems to have increased his desire for the limelight. A 290-pound defensive end, he has declared himself a member of the fictional PRAA (Pass-Rushers Association of America), and he says that one of his primary motivations in picking a place to play football was access to good food. Inside a function room at Anderson Family Football Complex, on a day in which Weis was trotting out his juco recruits for local reporters, most of the players were allowed to leave early because of lack of media interest, but Combs had a dozen reporters at his table. He said that when the coaches told him that he had been talking too much, on Twitter and elsewhere, he bought a yo-yo, because it was difficult for him to talk and yo-yo at the same time.

Combs had become a vocal spokesman for the program and an unofficial recruiting director in the offseason, referring to the incoming class of junior college players as a “Dream Team” in the making. “Y’all can get your shirts — we’d love to see ’em in the stands,” Combs said. Over the winter, he used Twitter and his personal relationships with other top junior college recruits to convince them to join him in Lawrence, and he said that though Weis had not used the “pile of crap” line on him, he admitted it would have worked. “That’s the main thing for any juco player,” Combs said. “You wanna go to a school where you can play immediately.” He said the chances to play quickly and to help turn the program around were his main reasons for choosing Kansas. “I understood KU was a basketball school,” Combs said. “But I wanted to take a losing program to be a winning program.”

Having come from two universities where football knows little competition, Weis claims to have no complaints about the secondary place football occupies at Kansas. “The stadium needs work” is as close as he’ll come to a complaint, and it’s one that won’t last long, since an upgrade is already in the offing. “Look, when KU basketball is on national TV, there’s the Jayhawk,” Tim Grunhard, Weis’s offensive line coach told me. “It’s a positive for both programs.” Weis has learned to take advantage of the sport’s second-class status as best he can: In April, when he saw a preliminary basketball schedule, he suggested to Zenger, the athletic director, that the department schedule more home basketball games on recruiting weekends.

One morning, after football practice, killing time before a scheduled meeting with Zenger, I walked to the university’s athletic hall of fame inside Allen Fieldhouse and stumbled upon the university’s annual Select-A-Seat program, which allowed donors of significant-enough largesse to choose their seats for the upcoming men’s basketball season. There were two rows of tables topped with laminated seating charts, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., for an entire week, 10 donors were being brought through every 15 minutes. “It’s the Wiggins effect, or whatever you want to call it,” one KU employee said, mentioning that demand had been so high as a result of incoming super-freshman Andrew Wiggins’s imminent arrival that several hundred donors might not be able to get tickets. The university holds a similar event for football every spring, but there is far less fanfare, and the unofficial ticketing policy in recent years has been simple: “Please come!” While the basketball team has a sellout streak at 197 and counting, Memorial Stadium has not come close to one since 2009.

Basketball’s lofty position in the athletic department’s hierarchy is, of course, not a new development. Memorial Stadium is on Fambrough Way, named for a KU football coach with a losing record; Allen Fieldhouse is on Naismith Drive, named for the inventor of the game. When former athletic director Al Bohl was let go in 2003 — not long after firing head football coach Terry Allen, a close friend of then–head basketball coach Roy Williams — he felt that a man whom he was supposed to oversee had cost him his job. “I believe the Kansas basketball coach had the power to hold his athletics director in his hand like a dove,” Bohl said at the time. “And he had a choice to either crush me with his power of influence or let me fly with my vision for a better, total program. He chose to crush me.”

Zenger, who worked with Snyder at Kansas State, was once the publisher of American Football Quarterly, an instructional magazine directed at coaches. He called the magazine, which he helped found, a “total start-up,” not unlike his task with Kansas football when he started as athletic director in 2011. Zenger inherited head coach Turner Gill, whose contract one Kansas booster described to me as a “$6 million hickey.” He meant, I think, that it had seemed like a good idea at the time, but Gill’s tenure had been painful from the start — his Jayhawks lost their first game 6-3 to North Dakota State. Two years into a five-year deal, with just one conference win to Gill’s name, several Kansas boosters pooled together $6 million to buy out his contract.

Gill’s calamitous two-year stint coincided with the first wave of conference realignment, a process that offered great financial rewards to universities with successful football programs but offered only existential crises for many of the nation’s basketball powers. After Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Colorado left for the Pac-10, and with the conference’s southern football powers being courted by the SEC and an already-expanded Pac-12, Kansas and its revenue-averse football program were left with few good options. Among the best prospects reported at the time was that Kansas would take its teams, including the basketball program, to the Mountain West Conference.

Zenger’s primary directive was to improve Kansas’s football program, both for its own sake and to safeguard the basketball team from the indignity of twice-a-year matchups with the University of Wyoming. “I would stop short of saying the search committee or the chancellor said, ‘Get that fixed now,'” Zenger told me of the importance placed on righting the football ship when he was interviewing for the job. “It was just a known quantity. We live in a day and age when BCS college football is as big a footprint as there is, and you better have it going in the right direction.” In looking for a coach, Zenger told me that Weis’s NFL history had been a deciding factor in his hiring, in the hope that a connection to the pros might offer a recruiting advantage to a program with very few. Weis’s hiring, he said at the time, “puts Kansas on the national map.”

And yet even in 2007, when Kansas was on the map, with the football team on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time ever, en route to the Orange Bowl, the program’s success was outshined four months later when the Jayhawks basketball team won the national championship. One alumnus, looking for any sign of progress, said the games had become more of an event on campus, offering as evidence the fact that girls were wearing sundresses “like they do in the SEC.” Another told me that his hope for this year’s team was simply that it provide “something to help kill the time to Wiggins.”

When Weis arrived at Kansas, he said he would stay for the duration of his five-year contract, but no more. He was here to jump-start a dead battery, not power it long-term. He has since amended that statement — perhaps with some prodding from the athletic department — noting that, in fact, he would like nothing more than to last long enough to hand the reins to his son, Charlie Jr., a student assistant for the Jayhawks. During practice, Charlie Jr., who is a 20-year-old junior at KU, is one of the few other coaches in long sleeves, a trimmer version of his father. (If Charlie Sr. is the size of a lineman, his son would struggle to fill the punter’s shoulder pads.) Charlie Jr. is seen as an extension of his father’s brain, with the best understanding of Weis’s complicated offense, and in spring practice Charlie Jr. would often stop drills to help players figure out how to run Weis’s schemes. One KU assistant told Weis that his son could be a position coach at the Division I level right now, while Weis said an NFL team had called in the offseason to offer Charlie Jr. a full-time position.

Both Weises have lived together off and on in Lawrence, while Weis’s other child, Hannah, who has a rare seizure disorder with autism-like symptoms, currently lives in South Bend, in a community house run by Hannah and Friends, a foundation the Weis family started to help children with developmental needs. Over the years, Weis has dedicated so much time and effort to the foundation that he once somehow convinced Belichick to stand on a stage and sing “Wanted Dead or Alive” at a fund-raiser.

At 57, Weis has considered the possibility that Kansas could be his last major head coaching job, and there is reason to hope that this season will be better than his last — if only because it would be hard to do worse. Saturday, in KU’s first game, the Jayhawks beat South Dakota comfortably, 31-14. The team’s running back corps, among the most talented in the pass-happy Big 12, combined for 280 yards. The team’s passing game, Weis’s specialty, still needs work: Last year, somewhat remarkably, no Kansas wide receiver caught a touchdown pass. To remedy that, Weis recruited Justin McCay, a top-rated transfer from Oklahoma, and Jake Heaps, a transfer from Brigham Young who was once the highest-ranked high school quarterback in the country. “[Heaps] really wanted to come to that school I was at, but he thought I might get fired,” Weis said last month. “He forgot to tell me that he was going to be right.”

The South Dakota game had left considerable room for improvement — Heaps threw for just 110 yards and Combs was demoted to second string just before the game. He didn’t play a single down. Still, equaling last year’s win total counted for something. “We have a lot more ceiling,” Weis said. “There’s some guys that aren’t even playing yet that are going to end up being major factors here.”

Back in August, a scene from practice illustrated just how far that ceiling is from Weis’s current squad. The Kansas offensive linemen were going through a cut block drill that required them to get low enough to upend a rolling exercise ball standing in as a linebacker. Several of the players missed the ball entirely and stumbled to the ground, leaving offensive line coach Grunhard to drop his head. For Weis, this is what the road to a slightly less smelly pile of crap looks like. “You’d like to think we’re better in a lot of different areas,” he said, making sure to include himself this time. “Let’s start with the coaching.”

This article has been updated to reflect changes to the location of the backyard where the Weis family had a whiffle ball field, the number of years Weis spent following Bill Parcells around the NFL, the amount of the buyout for Turner Gill’s contract, and the nature of Hannah Weis’s disorder.

Filed Under: Kansas, Teams