- Kansas's new athletic director has a blank slate to work with in building up a Power 5 football laughingstock. To whom will he turn to reenergize the Jayhawks?
When Jeff Long was named new Kansas athletic director over the summer, he didn’t hesitate when it came to setting goals for his football program. He started by making his priorities clear at his introductory press conference.
“I’m not shy in saying that someday down the road, we’re going to win the Big 12 championship,” Long said at the time.
Kansas hasn’t had a winning season or reached a bowl game since 2008. But things were going to change, Long promised. After an embarrassing season-opening loss to FCS opponent Nicholls State, Long was compelled to release a statement. He said he would “continue to support our student-athletes and coaches and ask all Jayhawks to do the same.” Then he said, “Our evaluation of the program is ongoing without a predetermined timeline.”
That was sufficient foreshadowing for what transpired last Sunday when Long fired head coach David Beaty following Kansas’s 27–3 loss to Iowa State. The Jayhawks are 3–6 this season, and Beaty is 6–39 with only two Big 12 wins in four years in Lawrence. He will coach through the end of the year.
Now Long has a blank slate to mold the program into what he wants it to be. Which direction will he go in this hiring process? He could go with someone more established: Former LSU coach Les Miles’s name has made the rounds this week, but he hasn’t been on a sideline since he was fired by LSU in September 2016. Miles has a natural connection to this job because of his relationship with Long, who tried to hire him away to Arkansas in 2012. But you have to wonder if Miles, who turns 65 this week, is interested in taking over what might be the nation’s worst Power 5 head coaching job.
If that’s not an option, Long could look to someone else he knows pretty well who has also been away from the college game for a little while. Bret Bielema was fired at Arkansas—nine days after Long—last November. Since leaving SEC country, Bielema has been working for the New England Patriots in a loosely defined role. A return to college ball for the first school that comes calling sounds unlikely.
Long told reporters after he fired Beaty that he wants someone with major college experience. Beaty arrived in Kansas after coaching wide receivers for a few years at Texas A&M, and before that he was the offensive coordinator for one season at Rice. Long also wants this person to have experience in building a program—the Jayhawks are on their way to a 10th consecutive losing season.
This brings us to Maryland interim coach Matt Canada. The former LSU offensive coordinator is trying to find some stability after making seven different stops in the past nine years. He’s done an admirable job holding this Terrapins team together and having them one win away from bowl eligibility in the most undesirable circumstances following Jordan McNair’s death and the drama surrounding head coach DJ Durkin’s dismissal. If Maryland doesn’t retain him, another program will scoop him up.
Long’s ideal candidate would also possess lots of energy and have a knack for recruiting. In that case, Seth Littrell makes sense. He’s 40, knows the region well for recruiting, and has led North Texas to three consecutive bowl games. But he might wait for a better opportunity.
Other top assistants with recruiting chops to look at would be Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who is currently coaching the nation’s No. 2 defense. Diaz spent three years in the same position at Texas, which was a failed experiment, but he is used to recruiting the area, which is a positive. And it also wouldn’t hurt Long to take a look at Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea—his unit is a major reason why the Fighting Irish are No. 3 in the CFP ranking. He may arguably have a better job right now, but it would be an option worth considering.
Long could also go completely off the beaten path. Andy Staples wrote in Wednesday’s mailbag that Army’s Jeff Monken should get a look. The argument here is that Kansas should try something different, and that something is running the triple option. “They need to establish an identity that differentiates them and keeps them from needing to beat much more successful programs for recruits on a regular basis,” Staples wrote. Army has gone to three straight bowl games and nearly beat Oklahoma this season in the most exciting game no one could watch. So why not?
“There really isn’t a front-runner,” Long told reporters after the announcement of Beaty’s firing was made. “I want a leader of young men, someone with a history and track record of building a program, because we need that. But I hope our fan base understands it’s not a quick-fix thing. We have a lot of challenges.”
The point here is that Long has options, and he can even get creative if he so chooses. Kansas is a difficult job, will likely always be overshadowed by the men’s basketball team, and becoming a program that makes annual bowl games is an aggressive goal. Long wants to get this right, but he also needs to move fast with the early recruiting signing day in December.