What is a winning strategy at Kansas?

Ian Boyd

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The Mad Hatter, Les Miles, is no longer going to be the head coach for the Kansas Jayhawks.


The modern era of college football has been pretty cruel to the Jayhawks, for whom the game has become mostly an exercise in rent collection while they focus on basketball. I’ve observed them going through four different hires since Mark Mangino and each has been worse than the one before. Meanwhile over the same period, Kansas State brought back Bill Snyder and put on a clinic in proper Kansas college underdog strategy the Jayhawks ignored and then replaced him with Chris Klieman who’s been similarly effective. Even Iowa State got in on the game, bringing in entrepreneur Matt Campbell to build up their program and reveal what could be possible with the right leadership and strategy.

Hiring Les Miles never made just a ton of sense. The fellow who’d wasted major talent advantages at LSU due to an outdated offense was clearly going to need some help in transforming Kansas into something respectable. It didn’t help either that the already poor spoken Les’ public appearances as the top Jayhawk made him sound like a doddering old man. When Miles aimed to mix a physical, 21 personnel approach with RPOs under hotshot offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon things were looking up for a moment but Dearmon wisely (somewhat suspiciously, really) bailed on Kansas this offseason to take the same position at Middle Tennessee State.

The way forward is pretty murky. Athletic director Jeff Long is probably not long for his role and there’s not much sense in letting him pick the next head football coach (to the extent he does so now) if you’re going to replace him soon anyways. The Jayhawks may have to go find Jim Grobe and trot him out for a nice payday like Baylor did in 2016 while buying time to settle their house in order to hire new staff.

Longer term, the Jayhawks need to hire someone with a strategy for Kansas football and someone with a National Championship ring, Super Bowl ring, or some other accolade that will have no practical relevance in winning at Kansas.

Mangino in space

A little known fact of the Mark Mangino era, in which Kansas was 50-48 overall and 23-41 in the conference but with a 12-1 season in 2007 that ended in an Orange Bowl win, is the Jayhawks took advantage of space force theory.

Mangino was hired by the Jayhawks in 2002, two years removed from winning the National Championship as the offensive coordinator for the Oklahoma Sooners. The 2000 Sooners were arguably the greatest team in Oklahoma history but not because of their talent level, which was a touch middling for one of the great teams, but because of their strategies. The Sooners pioneered nickel defense with Roy Williams and embraced the Air Raid offense under Mike Leach the previous year and maintained it under Mangino. The nickel defense made them much faster than they’d otherwise be as a defense while the aggressive offensive tactics completely overwhelmed their opponents, which is detailed in my book.

https://www.amazon.com/Flyover-Foot...swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1569860922&sr=8-1

Mangino’s Jayhawks took some time to build up their squad but by 2007 they had some strong pieces in place, particularly in the space force units. Everyone tends to credit their surge to Mangino’s decision to start gritty, former Lake Travis quarterback Todd Reesing. The central Texan threw for 3486 yards at 7.8 ypa with 33 touchdowns to seven interceptions a year after Kansas had played the quarterback shuffle with dual-threat Kerry Meier (now moved to wideout) and Adam Barmann.

Reesing unquestionably helped them establish their infrastructure, along with the offensive line which was Mangino’s particular area of expertise and background (although scouting was certainly another). The space force units for the 07 Jayhawks were truly key to their breakthrough success.

At left tackle they started Anthony Collins, a former 2-star from DFW who’d be named All-American for his play and get drafted in the 4th round. He’d start 35 games in the NFL before injuries ended his career.

The top wide receiver was 6-4, 210 pound Marcus Henry, an unranked recruit from Oklahoma Mangino knew due to his experience scouting the state for talent. Mangino regularly mined Oklahoma for overlooked players and started five Oklahomans in 2007.

Henry caught 54 balls for 1014 yards and 10 touchdowns and the Jayhawks also threw the ball a lot to their other three main receivers Dexton Fields, Kerry Meier (5th round pick, NFL career derailed by injury), and freshman Dezmon Briscoe (6th round pick, a few years in the NFL).

So on offense, three future NFL draft picks between left tackle and the four receiver slots.

On defense, they were similarly solid. One of the strengths of their team was defensive end Russell Brorsen, who didn’t put up many stats but was tremendously reliable in setting the edge. He was a 2-star recruit out of Oklahoma who’d been a wrestling champion as a senior in high school, to revisit an earlier Flyover Football topic. The other defensive end was former walk-on John Larson, who had 11.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions but only 2.5 sacks.

The defense was maybe best known for the trio of linebackers, Mike Rivera, Joe Mortensen, and James Holt, who all finished the year within six tackles of 100. However, the superstar of the bunch was cornerback Aqib Talib, who’d be drafted in the first round the following summer and be named to five Pro Bowl teams as a star in the NFL.

So while everyone loves to look back on Kansas’ 12-1 season and praise Todd Reesing, the Jayhawks had two more years with Todd and went 8-5 and 5-7. The following two years they played tougher schedules and did so without Talib, helping lead to a defense which went from giving up 16.4 ppg in 2007 to yielding 28.8 in 2008 and 28.4 in 2009.

Another notable factor to the Mangino Jayhaws was the strength coach, Chris Dawson, whom Bill Snyder would later poach when he returned, Chris Klieman retained, and Gus Malzahn just hired to take over at Central Florida. There were some other famous names on the staff as well.

The offensive staff included:
Ed Warriner, who was later the O-line coach for the 2014 Buckeyes and most recently for Michigan.
Tim Beck, who was also an offensive coordinator for the Buckeyes, then the Longhorns, and now North Carolina State.
Bill Young, the defensive coordinator who’d later coach the breakthrough Oklahoma State defenses at the turn of the decade.
Clint Bowen, who stuck around in Kansas for most of this century and has always had a knack for finding legitimate talent in the secondary.

Between Mangino and his staff’s evaluations, the 2007 Jayhawks were able to field a team with multiple NFL talents at space force positions.

The future for Kansas

One of the biggest questions for a coach at a school like Kansas is always, “how are you going to get the players?” Mangino hasn’t been the only one to demonstrate how it’s possible to hire good staff at a place like Kansas. While you may be disadvantaged relative to the rest of the Big 12 with your payroll, it’s not hard to poach bright coaches from the lower levels if the head coach is a good manager of staff. If Les Miles can hire Brent Dearmon and find success then a future coach could manage this strategy as well, it’s important they try.

Gary Patterson is sort of the model for what not to do, always hiring old pals and often refusing to challenge himself or the program with fresh perspectives and coaching talents. Mike Gundy (.601 winning percentage in Big 12 play) has been more successful than Patterson (.543 winning percentage in Big 12 play) because he’s done the opposite, regularly hiring FCS coaches or taking a creative look at how to upgrade the staff.

But how do you get the players?

For Snyder and Mangino alike, it was about carefully scouting the home state of Kansas, plucking as many of the top talents out of the Kansas City metro area as possible, and then also carefully scouting the oft-overlooked Oklahoma high schools.

Of course the DFW metroplex also holds enough good players to help the school out but the notion Kansas is going to hire a coach who can get into DFW (or Houston) and convince players from a well-scouted area to choose a Jayhawk future over that of any other Big 12 school or even SMU or Houston is...unrealistic. Particularly early on in the tenure of the new head coach. However, Kansas and Oklahoma have players with as much or more talent than the lower-rated 3-star players coming out of DFW if you can develop them and they don’t have the same caliber of programs chasing for their signatures.

The alternative here is triple-option football, making talent matter less than finding the right fits and instituting a “zag” strategy. The struggle with a triple-option approach is, again, recruiting as well as getting buy-in from the existing roster.

You’re not going to get much NFL talent on your roster running the triple-option and many of the players on the roster right now are going to bail if you install it. Particularly the quarterbacks and wide receivers, who happen to be some of the more promising players on the squad. For all the talk about how the service academies benefit from using the option, they all have a national recruiting strategy and a base of talent to choose from. The service academies have quite a bit to offer if military service is at all appealing to an athlete. Kansas has arguably a weaker pitch to make in recruiting for the option than do those programs.

The best pitch Kansas can make is, “come have a chance to play high level football” to players who might otherwise not have that chance, or else to offer some sort of schematic utilization they won’t find elsewhere. It’s probably a better bet to aim for hiring a Matt Campbell or Mark Mangino who understands the region, can scout for talent, and can manage staff to try and get an edge on the headsets. It may sound difficult but the league has always been powered by such hires, including Bill Snyder, Mike Gundy, Mike Leach, and Art Briles.

So Kansas, look FCS, look G5, and look within the Midwest. See if you can’t find a coach with a plan to craft a solid team from local resources and then who knows what might be possible with a stronger brand?
 
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bHero

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Is there a coach that would trust that school? I mean I'm sure there is, but it's probably going be expensive for a decent one given their history. And they still probably don't have a full roster. Probably need another 4 years to rebuild. I think your Grobe scenario really is the best route this year.
 

panther52

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If you aren't hiring for the long term; why not Marvin Lewis? Solid guy, good image for school, good administrator. Working Kansas football can't be more frustrating than working for Mike Brown; so. proven to be calm, patient and resilient.
 
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Ian Boyd

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If you aren't hiring for the long term; why not Marvin Lewis? Solid guy, good image for school, good administrator. Working Kansas football can't be more frustrating than working for Mike Brown; so. proven to be calm, patient and resilient.
Could be wrong but it actually sounds like they're going to hire an actual, long term coach and not an interim. We'll see though.
 

stilesbbq

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Is there a coach that would trust that school? I mean I'm sure there is, but it's probably going be expensive for a decent one given their history. And they still probably don't have a full roster. Probably need another 4 years to rebuild. I think your Grobe scenario really is the best route this year.
Worse case scenario for a promising FCS or G5 coach is that you walk away from 3 years at a disorganized KU 5million richer.

The money and ability to play in a P5 conference is still there relative to most G5 and FCS jobs
 
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Toadvine

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Kansas:
We’re ****ty and football and we haven’t paid either of the last two guys full boat.

They should just hire an innovative young guy and give him a heavy incentive laden contract. They can’t really do anything else that has much of a chance.
 

coolhorn

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Is there a coach that would trust that school? I mean I'm sure there is, but it's probably going be expensive for a decent one given their history. And they still probably don't have a full roster. Probably need another 4 years to rebuild. I think your Grobe scenario really is the best route this year.
Nothing's gonna get settled until KU hires an AD. Once that happens, these are the coaches that I think could do well in Lawrence, given the necessary time to build their program.

1. Frank Solich, head coach, Ohio University - He's not young, but he's still got some good years of coaching in him. He's been very successful at Ohio University, was reasonably successful at Nebraska, and he knows recruiting in the midwest. He's a known name in Kansas as well.

2. Willie Fritz, head coach, Tulane - He's one of two coaches you want to take a look at if you're seriously thinking about switching to running an option-style offense. He's won with it at Tulane, a notoriously difficult school to win at. He's a Kansas native. He's been successful building programs at previous stops.

3. Todd Moncken, head coach, Army - Much of what was said about Fritz can be said about Moncken. He is also a specialist at running an option-style offense at Army. He was an OC at Oklahoma State so he knows recruiting in KU's prime recruiting area and is familiar with the Big XII.

4. Troy Calhoun, head coach, Air Force Academy - Like Fritz and Moncken, Calhoun is an advocate of the option-based offense. He has a winning record at Air Force over the last several years, and he has been inquired upon by several P-5 programs looking for a new head coach. No guaranties, but he might be ready to make a move.

5. Bill Clark, head coach, UAB - Bill Clark has been one of the most in-demand names over the last two or three years by mid-level P-5 schools looking for a new head football coach. That's because he's accomplished some near impossible things bringing the Blazer football program back to life and into competition in its' first year back. So far, Clark has said no to moving on, but you never know when the right offer might pique his interest.

I'm sure that there are other candidates to coach KU that I'm missing, but these are ones that I think might be available that would fit within Kansas' hiring budget for a new football coach.
 
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fullbackdive

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1. Frank Solich, head coach, Ohio University - He's not young, but he's still got some good years of coaching in him. He's been very successful at Ohio University, was reasonably successful at Nebraska, and he knows recruiting in the midwest. He's a known name in Kansas as well.
"He's not young" might be a bit of an understatement. Good coach, though; probably could've done a nice job in Lawrence if he got the job right after Mangino.
 

coolhorn

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"He's not young" might be a bit of an understatement. Good coach, though; probably could've done a nice job in Lawrence if he got the job right after Mangino.
He could still do a good job there, and could certainly set things up for a successor several years down the road. Solich could make the KU job a whole lot more attractive than it currently is. He's not too old to do that.
 

kevinbelt

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I’m not sure that Solich agrees with you. I get the sense that he is satisfied with the low pressure of the MAC and is looking forward to retirement. A couple of his longtime assistants (most notably, Joe Burrow’s dad) have retired recently. I’m not sure he wants to rebuild a staff at a new location. I agree that he’d do a good job, but not sure he wants to try.
 
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