LAWRENCE, Kan.—The Kansas college football apocalypse happened 28 falls ago, on Sept. 19, 1987. That infamous Saturday, Glen Mason's Kent State Golden Flashes went into Lawrence and upset the Jayhawks, 31–17. Meanwhile, an hour west on Interstate 70, a similar storyline unfolded in Manhattan: Army, visiting Kansas State, trounced the Wildcats, 41–14.
Just two weeks earlier, the College Football Power Index—an early computerized ranking system of all 104 Division I programs—had listed the Jayhawks 90th and the Wildcats 102nd. In the same cluster of teams was another Kansas institution, Wichita State—which had cut football in December 1986 due to budget shortfalls and poor attendance. Yes, you read that right: At No. 100, a nonexistent team ranked 10 spots behind Kansas and two ahead of Kansas State.
In 1987, Kansas would go on to win exactly one game, against Southern Illinois, by one point. It would mark the end of Bob Valesente's two-year, four-win tenure, and in December, Mason, the architect of the Jayhawks' early-season demise, would return to Lawrence as Kansas's fourth coach in seven seasons. Initially, he hadn't even wanted to talk to Kansas about the job. He only relented when his mentors told him it was his chance to push into big-time football.
That's exactly what he did, leading Kansas to a winning record (6–5) in 1991, an Aloha Bowl victory in '92 and a No. 9 ranking in the AP Poll at the end of '95. But at the time of his hire, Mason was a no-name candidate, given the reins to an unsteady program and told to turn it around. To make matters worse, he had no idea how long he would have to shape a one-win team into something resembling respectable. "At that point," Mason says, "I really thought in three years I'd probably be selling insurance."
Sound familiar? Dismal record, constant turnover, suffocating uncertainty—those are the very clouds that have loomed over Lawrence since Kansas parted ways with former coach Mark Mangino in December 2009. His successor, Turner Gill, went 5–19 over two years at the helm. After that, Charlie Weis spent two seasons in charge and finished 6–22. (Representatives for Mangino and Weis did not respond to requests for comment, and Gill declined to speak to Campus Rush for this story.) Then, beginning in September 2014, former Kansas defensive back and longtime assistant Clint Bowen filled in as the interim head coach for eight games. He won one. And now there's David Beaty, hired last December from Texas A&M to become, just as Mason was, the team's fourth coach in seven seasons.
"It's terrible," Mason, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, says of Kansas's recent coaching turnover. "There's absolutely no continuity in that program. It's not just that you're changing the coach. You're changing recruiting emphasis. You're changing assistant coaches. You know, coaching is so much about relationships, internally and externally. It's been a disaster."
In Kansas's dream scenario, Beaty, who has started his first season 0–3 (with losses to South Dakota State, Memphis and Rutgers), could emerge as the Jayhawks' next version of Mason and turn disaster into decency, beginning with this Saturday's visit to Iowa State (1–2), the very team that Kansas beat to earn its only Big 12 victory a season ago. But first he has to whip into shape a team that has won just four conference games in its past six seasons. The task ahead is perhaps the most difficult facing any coach of a Power Five team.
David Beaty's forehead is permanently creased, his pointed face thinner than it once was. He speaks in a Texas drawl, forever earnest, a little—this is his word— sappy. The man loves Kansas, and wants you to know it. It's impossible to doubt him, so serious is he about this place and its worth. He'll tell the story of the first time he and his wife, Raynee, drove up Campanile Hill in 2008, and he'll suggest you head on up there, too. He'll tell of how he left the school "kicking and screaming" after that tenure (as Mangino's receivers coach from 2008-09) and again after his next stop in the Sunflower State (as Gill's co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach in '11). And he'll look you straight in the eye and swear there isn't another job he would have taken last year besides this one.
Beaty returned to Lawrence last December after spending three seasons at Texas A&M as the Aggies wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. A onetime Texas high school football coach—in fact, Beaty was coaching on Friday nights at MacArthur High just outside Dallas as recently as 2005—the Wylie, Texas, native is known in college football circles for his ace recruiting abilities, a big reason Kansas pursued him. Another upside of the hire was the shred of continuity he would bring to a program that had established none for the better part of the last decade. Combine Beaty's three years in Lawrence with the presence of Bowen, who stayed on as defensive coordinator, and the Jayhawks feel as if they're at least drawing on some small element of institutional knowledge as they move forward. (Strength and conditioning coach Je'Ney Jackson is another source; he was Kansas's cornerbacks coach from 2007-09, working with the school's two big-name alums in the NFL today, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris.)
But Beaty's main selling point seems to be in what he is not: established, set in his ways, fear-inspiring—traits that ultimately drove a wedge between Weis and his players. When the newly minted head coach and his staff arrived in Lawrence last winter, they resolved to start their tenure as differently as possible, down to the location of their first meeting. Having been around for past coaching changes at Kansas, Beaty knew each had happened in the team room. Players associated the space, he figured, with tumult, and so he called everyone into the weight room instead. "The biggest thing for me on that day was to make them understand that this is not their fault. Sometimes the approach from other people is to blame them … in the name of toughness and … beat them to death," Beaty says, qualifying that he isn't pointing fingers at anyone else specifically. "My approach was, you didn't do anything wrong. I wanted to take their anxiety away. These guys had been through coaching change after coaching change. They weren't having much fun at that point, I'm pretty sure."
As he spoke to the team, the coach began to cry. Players' jaws dropped. "It was pretty cool to see someone care so much about the opportunity he was getting," Jayhawks sophomore linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. says. "I think at that point, we all knew that something good was going to happen."
But first players had to get through off-season conditioning, which Beaty scripted to separate those he would want in his program from those who lacked the mettle to succeed. Players underwent military-inspired assessments that tested their mental toughness. Physically, there were 5 a.m. workouts, stadium runs and log pushes. "It was hell," senior defensive end Ben Goodman Jr. says. "It was hell. Our strength and conditioning staff, they … wanted to push us to points where we thought our bodies were going to break. They definitely did. But that showed us that our bodies can go much farther than where our minds thought they could go."
What's interesting, though, is the difference in the tone with which players discuss Beaty's methods compared to Weis's. The new coach's agenda, they say, is a means to an end, everything from the early alarms to the clearly stated consequences for rule-breaking. Players feel as if they're learning rather than trembling at the prospect of failure. Under Weis, demands were similarly high—but different. At Big 12 media days in July 2013, Weis infamously described his Jayhawks roster as "that pile of crap out there," and instead of working to improve the players he had, the coach instilled fear. "It was like the NFL-type thing," junior safety Greg Allen says. "You do bad or something like that, and you're cut." Junior quarterback Montell Cozart elaborates: "Guys were uptight, like they were walking on glass, trying not to mess up and not being themselves."
But Kansas's problems began long before Weis's arrival. Mangino's departure in 2008 after allegations of player mistreatment cast a shadow over the program, and the fact that Gill only got two years before being ousted further compounded the issue. When Beaty took the job, he says he made sure that athletic director Sheahon Zenger and the rest of the powers that be in Lawrence understood he would need a more reasonable timetable than his predecessors. "I said, whether it's me or Paul Bear Bryant, if you want this done in a year, I think you're barking up the wrong tree," Beaty recalls. "I hope your goal is to win in the long-term."
In the 16 seasons that college football used the Bowl Championship Series, only 31 teams won a BCS bowl. Among those that didn't: Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Baylor, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Among those that did: Kansas.
Coming off an 11–1 campaign in 2007, Mangino's Jayhawks knocked off Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, 24–21. Nearly eight years and just 25 wins later, Bowen, that team's co-defensive coordinator, recalls how it was built: not with five-star recruits, but with players Mangino and his staff made into finished products. "When they stepped on campus, they didn't look the part, and they weren't the part," Bowen says. "But through hard work they became the part."
Mason built his turnaround on the same principles. He knew he wouldn't be able to haul in blue-chip prospects, so he scoured the nation for overlooked players. One was Tony Sands, a tailback who at the time held the Broward Country (Florida) career rushing record but stood at only 5' 6" and 175 pounds. Sands would go on to break the NCAA single-game rushing record (396 yards against rival Missouri) for the Jayhawks. "You've got to get lucky in recruiting," Mason says, "and go with your own evaluation."
That's exactly the method Beaty has implemented in his early days at Kansas, and he and his staff have placed an emphasis on that 2007 team. Alumni like Talib, Harris and quarterback Todd Reesing come back to speak as often as they can, and coaches hammer home that the roster of the best team in Kansas's history didn't look all that different on paper than the '15 squad—or, more realistically, a roster Beaty will put together over the course of the next few years.
For now, though, Kansas will likely slog through another season at the bottom of the Big 12. Even if it doesn't crack the list of the top 10 youngest teams in college football, it is certainly relying on youth and transfers more than most programs. So far this season Kansas has seen 21 players suit up for their first games in Jayhawks uniforms; only USC (24), Clemson (23) and Texas-San Antonio (22) have played more new faces, according to STATS, LLC. Much of Beaty's plan for this fall involves getting his young players experience and creating some kind of cohesive unit, regardless of the personnel in place and the system he hopes to eventually run.
Case in point: Ke'Aun Kinner. The Jayhawks breakout junior running back—he rushed for 157 yards in Week 1, 113 in Week 2 and scored two touchdowns in Week 4—drew little interest from major programs coming out of Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Texas, last year. Despite that, he has emerged as one of Kansas's few bright spots this season, bright enough for Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens to stray from the Air Raid offensive scheme for which they're both known and implement more designed runs.
In the near term, the Jayhawks will need to recruit the kind of personnel necessary for a high-flying offense, as well as beef up the size of their defense. Coaches will also need to repair relationships with in-state high school coaches that haven't been properly maintained. (In the past four seasons, the program has landed just five players ranked in the top 10 in the state of Kansas, according to Rivals.com. Over that same span, Kansas State has signed 13 top-10 players in the state.)
"[It's] not that high school coaches can steer kids here," Bowen says, "but they can steer them away. … You take the kids that we're recruiting right now; in their lifetime when they've followed football, Kansas hasn't been relevant. Kids kind of come up, and … in their high school, when they say they're considering Kansas, other kids are going to say to them, Kansas, why are you going to go there?"
Kansas will always be known foremost as a basketball school, a label that makes football players wince. To transform it into anything more will require time and resources, which Beaty says the administration has given him. Still, college football is a business, and for all the assurances that a new Jayhawks staff will be able to plant roots, a certain urgency is necessary for this operation. "It's produce or go home," Bowen says. "That's just the nature of the business."
To set its program on the right course, Kansas had to hire a talented, up-and-coming coach with recruiting chops and without ulterior motives to use this position as his stepping-stone to bigger things. Beaty is that, but one question remains: What should be expected? For a team that has never consistently cracked the upper echelon of the Big 12, setting realistic goals, like bowl eligibility, is crucial. Talk of conference titles and playoff consideration is a long way off.
However, there are smaller milestones: Win more than one Big 12 game for the first time since 2008. Hell, win three or four, even if that means preying on the league's fellow bottom-dwellers. To look at how much the Big 12's hierarchy has shifted in the past four years—Texas has devolved into a dumpster fire with horns, while TCU, a school that played in the WAC until '11, sits perched atop the standings—can only bring encouragement to the Jayhawks faithful. They can also find solace in the fact that Lawrence is among the best college towns in the conference—both Beaty and Mason attest to this—and could attract players who aren't interested in living in such outposts as Stillwater and Lubbock.
Marcquis Roberts, a linebacker who transferred to Kansas in April after graduating from South Carolina with two years of eligibility remaining, suggests a recruiting message the Jayhawks would be smart to use. He has seen SEC football, seen the machine that is a bigger, nationally relevant program. "Don't get caught up in all the bells and whistles," he says he'll tell prospective Jayhawks. "At a lot of those schools, they recruit a whole bunch of people that are, if not better than you, just as good as you, and you can get lost in the shuffle. You want to go somewhere where they're going to love on you and work with you to the end."
And that's what Beaty and his staff will do—if given the time and backing necessary. For now, they're less caught up in the scope of it all, the disastrous recent history and the years-long rebuild, than they are in tomorrow, and the day after. To look beyond would be overwhelming, and to project win-loss totals for 2015, '16 and onward would be premature.
But Bowen does have one goal, a sign he hopes to see that would mean this staff has done its job. It isn't tied to a specific win total or bowl berth. It's more about a sense of commitment—commitment to a place that has offered nothing for players to commit to in recent seasons. You see, everyone has a place that means something to him, Bowen explains. He has watched for years as players have arrived on campus with tattoos depicting their home state, the name of their hometown, their state flag. In his day, when Kansas was respectable and at times bowl eligible under Mason, players left the program with fresh ink. Same goes for the 2007 and '08 teams, Bowen says. There were KU initials on forearms and Jayhawks' logos on legs. "[Players] came here representing their state, and by the time they left, they were representing Kansas," he continues. "It's just a symbol of when the culture changes and when it's cool to be a KU football player."
It hasn't been cool for quite some time. So, Bowen says, bring on the ink. Beaty tears up and sets alarms and does his Texas-genuine, loyalty-inspiring thing. And Kansas fans wait: to see how loudly the clock is ticking on this staff, hoping for a reminder of better days, waiting for their team to emerge from its post-apocalyptic state.