Kansas, as the locals will tell you, is not as flat as you’ve been led to believe. It can feel that way over certain stretches, if you happen to be traveling west on I-70 or one of its rural siphons, across the longitudinal no-man’s-land where the leafy eastern half of the continent is gradually swallowed up by the steppe. For the most part, though, that portrait seems to have been painted by people whose notions of the state were informed mainly by Auntie Em.
If you ever find yourself traversing the University of Kansas campus, for example, you’ll be disabused of any lingering prairie stereotypes: The school sits on a slope formidable enough to carry the name Mount Oread, a.k.a. “The Hill,”1 the highest point in the city of Lawrence and, infamously, the staging ground for a Civil War massacre carried out against the town’s civilian population by Confederate troops. The university sprouted up in stages over the ensuing decades, including Memorial Stadium in 1921, on the northern side of the summit. As the locals will also tell you, this is the only conceivable sense in which Jayhawks football can be said to occupy the high ground.
A.k.a. “Hogback Ridge,” if you were alive before the Civil War, or “Snob Hill,” if your loyalties lie with Kansas State.
From every other vantage point, the program has been more closely associated with the Big 12 basement — or, more recently, with a smoldering crater. Kansas has always been, and will always be, a basketball school: While the hoops team regards the Big 12 title as a birthright, the football team hasn’t claimed a conference championship since 1968, when it still played in the Big Eight. Even by the forgiving standards of the previous half-century, though, the last six years of KU football have been an exercise in historic gridiron futility. Since 2009, the Jayhawks have managed the fewest wins (17) of any FBS team in a major conference, and the fewest conference wins (4) of any FBS team, period. In five of those six years, they finished in last place or tied for last place.2 Three head coaches (Mark Mangino, Turner Gill, and Charlie Weis) were sent packing in that span, continuing the spiral.
The 2014 edition narrowly avoided the cellar by notching its lone conference win against Iowa State, which went on to finish 0-9 in Big 12 games.
Last year, official attendance for home games declined to a little more than 30,000 per game — which, adjusting for routine attendance inflation, means the 50,000-seat stadium was frequently left half-empty. Inevitably, the half that showed was left to ponder the eternal question: Is it basketball season yet?
“I mean, that’s always gonna be there just because we’re at Kansas,” says junior quarterback Montell Cozart, a part-time starter the past two years who spent spring practice locked in a battle for the full-time job. “It’s a basketball school, it’s tradition. But we’re here. And we feel like of course winning a couple games is going to help that. We’ve got to get over that hump where a couple turnovers happen and everyone goes, ‘Here we go again.’ We’re trying to get over that hump.”
At this point, the hump is large enough to dwarf The Hill, and David Beaty, the first-year head coach facing the Sisyphean task of getting the Jayhawks over it, has no illusions about the magnitude of the job ahead. Before the then–Texas A&M assistant accepted the KU head-coaching job in December, Beaty had already served two separate, short-lived stints in Lawrence as an assistant under predecessors Mangino and Gill, which allowed him to glimpse the program both in better times and at its nadir, respectively. The buzzwords Beaty and his staff drilled into their new charges this spring (urgency, competition, process) are central tenets of Rebuilding 101, a course many of the older players on the team have sat through before. Kansas fans blessed (or cursed) with longer memories have seen the cycle repeat many times over, only to always watch the boulder roll back to the bottom of the hill.
Beaty is well aware that his tenure is beginning at a moment when any semblance of momentum has long since vanished. Expectations are nonexistent; apathy is the rule. What will it take to convince the patrons of a program that’s subsisted in a rebuilding mode for as long as Kansas has that the other side of the hill is actually attainable?
“Think about it, if you [were] a student and the football team was losing, who’d want to see them play? That’s being honest,” says defensive end Ben Goodman, one of four fifth-year seniors on the 2015 roster who were on hand to watch both of the previous administrations unravel. “We have to change that environment by going out and winning. Because football is America’s game. No matter where you are in the world, if the football team is good, people will support it.”
As far as the rest of the country is concerned, the last time Kansas football was relevant was 2007, when the Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl, set a school record for wins (12), and matched the highest AP poll finish in school history (no. 7) after rising as high as no. 2 late in the year. Beaty, who at that point had spent nearly his entire coaching career in the high school ranks, joined Mangino’s staff the following year as wide receivers coach; the 2008 Jayhawks subsequently went 8-5, marking KU’s first consecutive eight-win seasons in a century. Then everything went to hell, where it has remained.
When the record began to sour in 2009, the tide turned abruptly against Mangino, who was publicly branded by former players as a volatile, profane taskmaster prone to physical and emotional abuse, and who was generally accused of running his program like a low-stakes version of the first half of Full Metal Jacket. The accusations mounted along with the losses, and Mangino and Kansas parted ways that December on the heels of a seven-game skid. His successor, Gill, was the anti-Mangino in almost every conceivable way, a square-jawed ex-quarterback who frowned upon swearing, restricted cell phone use before games, and tried prohibiting fraternizing with the opposite sex after 10 p.m. The result was catastrophic: On Gill’s watch, Kansas lost 16 of 17 conference tilts by an average of nearly four touchdowns per game.3 In both years under Gill, the Jayhawks ranked last or next-to-last in the Big 12 in total offense, scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense, passing defense, third-down offense, third-down defense, sacks, and sacks allowed. Defensively, the 2011 edition yielded more yards and points per game than any other FBS team.
The lone victory: A 52-45 stunner at Colorado in November 2010. Kansas, an outfit that averaged 9.1 points in its seven Big 12 losses that year, erased a 28-point deficit by scoring five unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter. CU coach Dan Hawkins was summarily fired a few days later.
The next man in, erstwhile Notre Dame coach Weis, took one look at the existing roster and vowed to erase as much of it as possible. Barely a month into the job, Weis announced the departure or dismissal of 10 players, including incumbent starting quarterback Jordan Webb and his heir apparent Brock Berglund, who claimed he learned of his pending exit via Twitter. Throughout his tenure, Weis seemed to hold the roster he inherited in such contempt that he was still shredding it in 2013, when he joked to reporters that he pitched prospective recruits on immediate playing time by asking them, “Have you looked at that pile of crap out there? If you don’t think you can play here, where do you think you can play?”
From the start, Weis made no apologies for the fact that the purge had less to do with alleged transgressions by outgoing players than it did with freeing up scholarships that would allow Weis to remake the depth chart in his own image, which he did primarily by targeting transfers, especially from junior colleges. Weis’s first notable addition at KU was ex–Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist, whom Weis had successfully recruited to South Bend out of high school. And starting with Weis’s first recruiting class, in 2012, juco transfers have made up nearly half of Kansas’s incoming recruits over the past four years, a staggering ratio. In 2013, the first crop attributable fully to Weis, juco signees (19) outnumbered players coming directly from high school (9) more than two to one.
From Weis’s perspective, securing older recruits who could ostensibly upgrade the overall talent level without first passing through developmental limbo was a matter of necessity. “If you’re taking nothing but high school kids, there’s only a couple that ever end up playing as freshmen,” he explained in defense of the juco-heavy 2013 class. “The rest are over on the bench with me. What good is that going to do me?”
In the end, though, the quick-fix blueprint didn’t do Weis any good, either, and arguably left the roster in an even deeper hole than the one Weis had tumbled into three years prior. When Beaty arrived in December, he inherited just 42 scholarship players4 with eligibility remaining in 2015, just less than half of the NCAA’s 85-scholarship limit; based on the current roster, and after accounting for the 2015 recruiting class, the scholarship count heading into the season sits at 68, still nowhere near the cap. Of that number, the vast majority will be in their first or second year on campus: Only 20 of the 74 players signed in the 2011-13 classes remain, leaving the depth chart and the locker room largely devoid of a veteran presence. Not only do the Jayhawks lack the raw talent to compete in the Big 12, but after the attrition that accompanied Weis’s arrival and the subsequent failure of his juco investments, they lack the players.
That number excludes former walk-ons who had earned scholarships since arriving on campus.
“You’re really almost playing under sanctions without being on sanctions,” Beaty says. “This year we signed 25 [new players, the NCAA maximum for a single recruiting class].5 But we lost more than that, because what had happened previous to us arriving. So you’re down 34 guys, but you can only sign 25. We’re still going to be in the same problem next year with regard to having extra scholarships [under the 85-man cap] but not enough initials to make up the difference.”
Some recruiting numbers in the above graphic are more than 25 because early enrollees technically count against the previous year’s cap.
Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Beaty has repeatedly stressed, with the same sense of urgency that led Weis to turn Lawrence into Juco Junction, the importance of developing walk-ons into viable contributors, at least in the short term. At this stage, every healthy, eligible body is a valuable body. In December, in his first news conference as head coach, Beaty articulated his goal to build “the most powerful walk-on program in the country,” a title that currently belongs to cross-state rival Kansas State, which bills itself as “Walk-On U.” As Beaty surely realized, the comparison was inevitable: After all, if Bill Snyder has proven anything in the course of turning K-State into college football’s reigning paragon of under-resourced, overachieving respectability, it’s that far better talent can be found incubating in the obscure rural byways of the Sunflower State than anyone else in the recruiting business seems to realize. Across the Midwest, the same can also be said for the consistently productive walk-on program at Wisconsin, which churns out massive, All–Big Ten–caliber linemen at an astonishing rate, and for solid walk-on traditions at Nebraska and Iowa, which have always drawn from a pool of overlooked in-state farm boys. “The margin between a scholarship player and a walk-on is razor thin,” Beaty said last winter. “And sometimes you don’t make the right decision.”
This spring, Beaty continued to emphasize the need for unearthing walk-ons to fill the gaps left by the scholarship crunch, but he was somewhat less insistent on the long-term viability of attempting to compete in the Big 12 by cornering the market on what he calls “blue-collar” projects. “We might be able to put a walk-on on [scholarship] who’s been here for two years, but those are not true scholarship players.” Beaty says. “Those are walk-ons that, you’ve got a scholarship laying around, you’re not going to let that money go to waste. You’re gonna reward a kid. But they weren’t brought here as a scholarship player.” In other words, the margin between a depth chart that features two or three walk-ons and a depth chart that features a dozen is an issue that remains very much at the front of Beaty’s mind.
When prompted, Beaty is careful to praise Snyder’s longevity at Kansas State, which he concedes is “one of the greatest programs in the history of college football” and a prime example for any outfit looking to foster a successful “underdog mentality.” When he describes the long-term goals for his own program, though, Beaty doesn’t cite the obvious model just to the west; he cites the obvious one to the south, at Baylor, where the forecast before Art Briles’s arrival in 2008 was at least as bleak as the one Beaty is facing at Kansas, if not bleaker. By the end of his third year, Briles had the Bears back in a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade. In Years 6 and 7, he had them in the national championship conversation in late November en route to consecutive Big 12 titles. Like Briles, Beaty spent years as a high school coach in Texas; and like Briles, Beaty has deep roots in the up-tempo, Air Raid offense that has proliferated across the state at both levels. If an Air Raid–fueled rebirth can work at Baylor, a relatively small Baptist school in the shadow of the University of Texas with little football tradition to speak of, it can sure as hell work in Kansas — eventually.
“I think that’s living proof that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish if you believe in it, and you get your guys to believe in it, and you have a plan, and you work that plan, and you do not sacrifice your vision along the way,” Beaty says. “Our long-term goal is to be able to be a champion here in the Big 12. That’s a long-term goal. It’s not an immediate goal. But that is the goal. It’s a process to get there. Baylor didn’t just get there. It took them awhile. There were steps involved in getting there. And [Briles] didn’t sacrifice anything along the way, and now they’re sustaining that success.
“I think the sky’s the limit [here]. I really do.”
In the short term, the limits to progress are quite clear, beginning with the dearth of obvious Big 12–caliber talent in Kansas high schools. This year, the state produced just 17 FBS signees, none of whom earned higher than a three-star grade according to 247Sports’s composite recruiting rankings, and only one of whom signed with the Jayhawks. That’s all par for the course. “Kansas is going to be the emphasis,” Beaty says. “But are we building a team that’s competitive in the Big 12 [without recruiting heavily in other states]? The answer to that is, probably not.” Like every other school in the Big 12 that isn’t Texas or Oklahoma, the chief recruiting emphasis will continue to be scouring Texas for sleepers that the Longhorns, Sooners, and Texas A&M somehow let slip through the cracks.6 As it ever was, so it shall ever be.
This spring, the roster broke down as follows: 27 players from Kansas, most of whom are walk-ons; 25 from Texas; and a handful from Missouri (8), Florida (5), and Illinois (5). No more than two players hailed from any other state.
The one advantage Beaty should enjoy that his immediate predecessors did not is patience. Under Gill, the on-field product deteriorated far too rapidly and dramatically to justify a third year; under Weis, there were too few signs of progress after two and a half years to justify his bloated salary. In Beaty’s case, the on-field product can’t really get any worse, and his base annual salary of $800,000 is easily the lowest number of any Big 12 head coach. (By contrast, the university ponied up $2 million per year for Gill and $2.5 million for Weis.) More importantly, after pulling the plug so quickly on the previous administrations, the university should have every incentive to avoid being branded as the kind of place that insists on hitting the reset button every few years. No one is demanding a miracle, yet.
Naturally, though, certain stakeholders will expect the ball to begin rolling more quickly than others. Asked about tangible goals for his senior season, Goodman says, “Of course a bowl game. Of course. That’s the minimum.” (At least there will be no shortage of options this year should the Jayhawks happen to qualify.) For Beaty, though, the short-term goals are oriented entirely around his vision for the long haul. He says one of his goals for 2015 is to “not get caught up in overnight success,” the pursuit of which doomed the last guy who occupied his office to a volatile locker room and a midseason pink slip. Instead, Beaty says his top priority for this fall is to field an outfit that, win or lose, is consistently competitive, an adjective that’s rarely been applied to Kansas football over the past six years. If he makes that label stick in Year 1, regardless of the team’s record, this rebuild will be off to a respectable start. And for now, gaining respect is the goal that matters most.
“We just want something we can be proud of. We want people to understand that this is a real place, with real facilities, that wants to play real ball,” Beaty said. “We’ve got to make sure that we provide our kids in this state and in the Kansas City area with a university that they’re proud to come to, that they don’t want to leave our borders. And that’s a process, not an event. It doesn’t just happen overnight, and you don’t get that by talking. You get it by showing.”