Kansas defensive lineman Daniel Wise looked at his teammates, who were just as confused as he was.
During one of David Beaty’s first days as coach, he finished a team meeting three years ago with a phrase that seemed out of place.
“Love you boys.”
There was an awkward pause. A few players gave a half-hearted response, which made Beaty lean further into the microphone.
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“Love you boys,” he said with added emphasis.
The “Love you too" that followed was a little louder.
It took days for some — and weeks for others — but Wise remembers teammates becoming more comfortable with the exchange over the next few weeks.
“It may sound corny or quirky or whatever you say, but that’s how he is,” Wise said at Big 12 media days Monday. “He truly loves his players.”
Perhaps this is the start to help explain the offseason football buzz in Lawrence — a team appearing to gain confidence despite a 2-22 record over the past two seasons.
For Beaty, one small phrase was part of a bigger goal when trying to rebuild his team’s psyche.
“Our kids had to understand they had value,” Beaty said. “That was difficult, because even on campus, those guys were hearing things that were not fun to hear.”
Linebacker Joe Dineen remembers it well. Three years ago, during a Monday lecture, his professor began class with a wisecrack: “Hey guys, did you hear KU football lost again on Saturday?”
The one-liner drew chuckles around the room.
“There wasn’t a respect for KU football at all,” Dineen said.
Beaty was starting with his guys from a low point. So he spoke to them about bringing positive energy, focusing them on incremental improvement instead of outside critiques. He also looked for ways to do extra for his players, wanting them to believe they were worthy of championship treatment.
Players noticed changes immediately. Beaty rented out a movie theater for his players one day, and weeks later, he took them to a group outing at Fogo de Chão on the Plaza.
“We had a heyday,” Dineen said. “We ate cow after cow.”
Beaty also made sure to mix in some moments of fun inside demanding workouts. One practice was interrupted for a golf chipping competition between the uprights, and another was stopped so the team could play the basketball game “Knockout” with portable hoops.
Some of it was silly, but Beaty believed the underlying message was important.
“We wanted them to love being there, love being a Jayhawk,” Beaty said. “We wanted them to know that it was OK to enjoy this game.”
Beaty’s players-first focus appears to be part of the reason for KU's continued momentum this offseason.
The Jayhawks still rank well in recruiting, sparking fan interest with a current top-30 class. Last year’s home victory over Texas added credibility, while the team also benefited from a quiet offseason with few transfers leaving the program.
Beaty even noticed during Monday's event that his players carried themselves differently than they had in the past.
“That’s what I’m fired up about, is if you hear our guys talk, you can hear in their voice,” Beaty said. “They know what’s coming. It just took some foundation work to get going.”
If it works — and KU rebuilds quickly as the players believe they can — Dineen says the change in culture will have been most important.
It started with some love from the head coach. And for now, it’s resulted in Dineen only hearing positive comments from friends and strangers when they talk about KU's football team.
“It’s not a joke anymore,” Dineen said. “It’s really something that people are invested in.”