We're not asking the right questions about Kansas football

Playing the coaching carousel hypothetical game is fun. But that's not the most important question right now.

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Okay! Enough announcements. Often, this newsletter digs into stuff that isn’t part of the big college sports news cycle. But I can’t ignore the news out of Kansas right now.

Playing the coaching carousel game is fun. But before we talk about which successful G5 coach should be banished to Kansas, I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of a few bigger questions…questions that will play a big role in determining if the next coach will ever have a prayer of being successful.

1) It’s important to remember why Kansas needs a new head football coach right now.

Kansas did not fire, er…excuse me, “mutually part ways with” their head coach because that coach did not win enough football games. If that was the case, you wouldn’t fire the guy in March, and you certainly wouldn’t announce it at 11 PM, East Coast Time on a Monday night. But that’s what Kansas did.

Course, you wouldn’t know that from the statement the school released:

This is ridiculous passive-voice baloney. Disappointed in what?I? How are you going to frame this decision as part of the need to win football games? This is not why Les Miles is no longer the head football coach at Kansas.

In case we forgot, Les Miles is no longer the football coach at Kansas because Miles was investigated for sexual misconduct with female students while at LSU, conduct so bad that LSU’s athletic director recommended Miles be fired. With this news now out in the open, it would be completely impossible for Miles to lead a football program.

This was not a decision that Kansas made under duress, where communicating the correct message might have been impossible. Miles was put under administrative leave on Friday night. The athletic department had an entire weekend, and all of Monday to decide how to communicate this inevitable departure. Then they decide to do it late on a Monday night, without actually mentioning why they’re doing it, and on International Women’s Day?!?

Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.

Why should anybody have any faith in Jeff Long or this current athletic administration to get this right?

2) If you’re invested in the athletic success of Kansas football, that’s the key question, one way bigger than “who should Kansas hire”, or “what kind of scheme should Kansas run.” Why should anybody trust Kansas to not screw this up?

My old colleague Ryan Nanni summed up this situation very well. Did Jeff Long not know about these allegations against Les Miles when he hired him? Miles’ attorney says the school knew. In a press conference on Tuesday, Long said otherwise:

If “multiple background checks” didn’t turn anything up, then before Kansas engages with any search firms or starts this process in a meaningful way, they need to explicitly address how the school missed this information, and how they’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Did Long half-ass any vetting process because he simply decided he wanted to hire Miles right from the jump? That seems probable. After all, in a deposition, Long couldn’t even remember who else he interviewed for the gig. Why should somebody who so clearly mailed in the process before, with such disastrous results, automatically get another shot?

It’s not like Long’s prior history ought to demand that he get the benefit of the doubt. Miles was not an in-demand commodity for a reason, given the perception that the game had passed him by, and he had squandered significant talent at LSU. But even if you want to defend the Miles decision on football grounds, Long’s other big hires were Bobby Petrino, Bret Bielema, and Dave Wannstedt.

Hiring football coaches is always going to be a bit of a crapshoot, but in four tries, you have a guy that resigns in disgrace after going 3-18, a guy involved in one of the most famous scandals in college football history, and a guy who so alienated folks at Wisconsin that his old boss reportedly thought he was a “thug.” And also Dave Wannstedt.

When you throw in the ridiculous Dave Beatty legal battle…boy, you sure have a lot of information to suggest that letting Long run point on another coaching search isn’t going to end well.

In Tuesday’s press conference, Long said "I'm confident I can conduct the search." What isn’t clear is why anybody else should be.

Once Kansas decides who should actually get to pick the coach, they also need to make it clear that whoever takes this gig needs a long runway, because they’re walking into a bad football situation that hasn’t been resolved.

3) When will Kansas be back to 85, Big-12 caliber scholarship football players?

FBS football programs get 85 scholarships for their rosters. But (generally) you can only take 25 athletes in a recruiting class. If a program suffers massive roster attrition, not only could they potentially start a season under 85 scholarships, but it could take them years to get back there.

Miles was painfully aware of that fact when he took the gig back in 2018. Via KUSports.com:

In the course of his first day on the job, on Nov. 18, Miles was asked for his thoughts on the health of the program he was inheriting, particularly as it related to scholarships.

“I recognize the key piece for us is to get our scholarships up to 85 and 85 with quality recruits, not 85 with turned and given to walk-ons that were not necessarily deserving,” Miles began, adding he isn’t opposed to placing walk-ons who prove themselves on scholarship. “But getting to 85 and doing so with quality recruits and guys that can play. That to me is the biggest battle.”

KUSports estimated that the 2019 Kansas football squad would start the season with around 68 scholarship football players. When Beaty took over the job in late 2014, he claimed Kansas only had 39 scholarship players.

KUSports estimated that even under perfect circumstances, Kansas wouldn’t be able to get back to 85 scholarships by the 2022 season.

Trying to get an exact roster count is tricky. You’d think that the NCAA’s decision to give an extra year of eligibility heading into the 2021 campaign could stabilize things, The Athletic noted that 15 scholarship players entered the portal since December. More could potentially leave as a result of this coaching change.

You can win P5 football games with inferior talent. You can’t win a national title or anything, but you can win some football games. But you probably can’t win P5 football games with inferior talent AND a schedule where every conference opponent starts with a dozen more scholarship football players.

Les Miles was supposed to step in, make Kansas competitive, stabilize recruiting, and get the roster back to 85 Big-12 caliber athletes, so the next Kansas football coach could take the program to the next step. Well, now the roster is in even worse shape than before.

Until that roster stabilizes, I don’t think anybody has a chance.

4) This is probably the worst gig in the P5, and it’s gotten even harder over the last few years. Will the school conduct this search with that in mind?

It’s not impossible to win football games at Kansas. Glen Mason managed to pull it off a few times. Mark Mangino left with a winning record (although let’s not forget that Mangino wasn’t terminated because he didn’t win enough). The last decade has been desolate, and Kansas has very rarely won on a consistent basis, but it is possible.

But as Andy Staples pointed out yesterday, part of the reason Mangino saw success was because he coached when Ron Prince was at Kansas State, Iowa State was a crater, and Nebraska was dive-bombing below .500.

Every other college football dork on Twitter is reading this and screaming KANSAS RUN THE TRIPLE OPTION CHALLENGE, and honestly, that’s probably the best solution for a team that needs to win football games while fielding a roster that has significantly less talent than their conference foes. Whoever takes over this program will be doing it while Iowa State is fielding their best teams in a hundred years, Kansas State is improving again, and West Virginia and TCU now in the league. That’s a tough assignment.

If, as a school, you realize exactly the situation you’re in, you may be more likely to embrace a less conventional strategy. Older, established coaches from the scratch and dent sale have not done well at Kansas. But if you think your problems are more about execution than anything existential, well, you’re likely to go a bit more status quo.

If Kansas is rolling with their same athletic department leadership, I’m not sure it matters how bold or how boring this coaching hire is. This team is likely going to suck until at least they can field a team with comparable scholarship athletes, and probably, will stink until another conference program or two historically implodes.

They’ve got to get everything else taken care of first. If you can’t explain why you should be trusted to protect students, why you’ve learned lessons from previous failures, and how things will improve, well, the other decisions just won’t matter as much.

Without effective leadership at the top, Kansas will be doomed to continuing what they have done for the last decade. Getting physically dominated by Sun Belt and FCS teams, and hoping to steal a win or two from the dregs of the Big 12.

You know. Texas.

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