Three years ago, in the aftermath of one of the worst scandals in college sports history, the NCAA leveled the prestigious Penn State football program with nearly unprecedented penalties. The story was tragic — a former assistant coach was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse, a special investigative report alleged that members of the Penn State administration and head coach Joe Paterno failed in their responsibilities, and the NCAA stepped forward with a hammer of fines and punishments.
Among the penalties: scholarship reductions. According to the sanctions, which came down in 2012, Penn State could only offer 15 football scholarships per year — 10 fewer than the maximum allowed. By the 2014 season, the program would be limited to just 65 total scholarships — 20 fewer than the NCAA maximum of 85 for football.
The NCAA would ultimately lessen the punishment, but in the short term, the Nittany Lions felt the pain. In 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they began the season with just 66 scholarship players — an unheard of number at the Division I level.
“This really is (like) a six-year sanction,” said then Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, when discussing the scholarship reductions.
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Two years later, another college football program is approaching the fall with fewer than 66 scholarship players. This program is not under any NCAA sanctions. This program has not run afoul of the NCAA rule book — at least not in the last decade.
This program is Kansas, and it counts 64 scholarship players on the roster this summer, a stunningly low number for those who follow college football.
“It’s the reality of any coaching change,” said Gary Barnett, the former Colorado and Northwestern head coach who now works as a college football television analyst. “You’re going to have some attrition.”
For new coach David Beaty, who was hired last December after Kansas’ sixth straight losing season, the depleted roster offers his greatest challenge as he begins his first head coaching job. Beaty has inherited a program that has gone 12-48 over the last five seasons. The Jayhawks, according to one preseason computer ranking, are projected to be the second-worst team in all of Division I football. One Las Vegas sportsbook, Bovada, has set the over-under for victories at 1.5.
But for all the calamitous predictions — is a winless season possible? — the foundational problem for Kansas is not simply that it lacks talented football players. It’s that the program lacks players in general.
In interviews during the spring and in conversations with donors and fans, Beaty has compared the KU roster to one handcuffed by NCAA sanctions. This, Beaty has said, is a matter of fact — not an excuse.
“We look at it as a challenge,” Beaty said earlier this spring. “We look at it as a phenomenal opportunity.”
Based on roster projections, it will likely take Kansas another two recruiting classes to rebuild its scholarship numbers back toward the max of 85 — and some close to the situation say it may take three. It’s a dire situation — especially for a program that has employed four head coaches in six years. But Barnett, who faced a similar rebuilding job at Northwestern, said the numbers issue may not be as bad as it appears on the surface. Most programs, Barnett suspects, only operate with around 78 or so scholarship players.
“Sixty is a low number,” Barnett said. “ ... but the problem may be that those 60 aren’t as good as somebody else’s top 60 right now.
So how did Kansas football find itself with such glaring roster problems? Start with a combination of coaching turnover and short-sighted recruiting tactics.
The roots of a bone-dry roster stretch back years, to the firing of coach Turner Gill in late 2011 to the hiring of his successor, Charlie Weis. In the first three months of his tenure, Weis set out to hack away at the “entitlement” culture he witnessed in the locker room. He dismissed 29 players from the program — for myriad reasons — and hoped for a fresh start.
The Jayhawks would finish 1-11 in 2012, and with the roster ailing, Weis desired a quick-fix strategy for what he once famously called a “pile of crap.” In early 2013, Weis signed 16 junior-college recruits in a 25-man class. If a majority of the players hit, Weis figured, perhaps Kansas could claw to respectability in a year or two.
The move was a massive failure. By last fall, just eight of those players remained in the program. The volume of junior-college players — many of whom were borderline qualifiers and academic risks — weighed down the program. Six of those junior-college recruits — including highly touted players Marquel Combs, Kevin Short and Chris Martin — never played a down. After senior safety Isaiah Johnson transferred to South Carolina in the spring and defensive lineman Andrew Bolton left the team this month, not one of those 16 junior-college players remains on the roster.
So here we are, two years later, and just five players remain from Kansas’ 2013 recruiting class. Compounding the problem, just eight players remain from the 2012 class, signed months after Weis accepted the job. For comparison: The Jayhawks still have three players from Turner Gill’s final class in 2011, including senior quarterback Michael Cummings — the likely starter if not for a knee injury suffered during the spring — and starting defensive end Ben Goodman.
Beaty was informed of the roster crisis during the hiring process, according to people familiar with the search committee. And so far, Beaty has not let a short roster affect his convictions. Earlier this month, for instance, he dismissed starting running back Corey Avery and receiver Rodriguez Coleman for violations of team rules.
Still, the Jayhawks’ depth is remarkably thin, even when compared to the recent string of dismal years.
If Cummings’ knee injury sidelines him for the season — which remains a possibility — the Jayhawks will be burdened with replacing 70 percent of their passing yards, 64 percent of their rushing yards and 93 percent of their receiving yards.
They will not feature a pass-catcher who caught a touchdown or hauled in more than eight catches last year. They will not possess a running back who scored a touchdown or rushed for more than 450 yards. They will have zero skill-position players who started more than one game (senior running back De’Andre Mann earned one start last year).
Saddled with a roster drained of resources, Beaty has trudged on. The KU staff has scoured the state of Kansas, searching for worthy walk-on candidates to boost numbers. (The current roster features more than 25 walk-ons, and there could be more coming.)
“The margin between a scholarship player and a walk-on is razor thin,” Beaty said during his introductory news conference last December.
Beaty has searched for creative ways to add to the roster, including the obscure “blue-shirt” rule, which allows programs to count scholarships forward to the next class. Using that rule, the Jayhawks are expected to bolster the roster with some incoming transfers in August.
For a time, Beaty said during spring practice, he stopped counting scholarship players. The exercise put him in a bad mood. He also realized that it was the wrong way to look at the problem. The Jayhawks lacked players — the basic building block of any roster — but they possessed something else: Freedom.
Beaty would be free to build the roster as he saw fit, with plenty of room to add his own players to the equation, even if it might take multiple years. The players, meanwhile, were free from any expectations. The numbers issues, dire as it seemed, would not be a burden, Beaty said, but rather a galvanizing force.
“It motivates us,” Beaty said in the spring. “We are excited about the guys we have.”
Breaking down the Kansas football roster
The KU football program enters the fall with just 64 players on scholarship — 21 scholarships under the maximum of 85 allowed by NCAA rules. The Jayhawks will likely add a few scholarship transfers before the beginning of the season, but here is a look at how Kansas got to this point — including some major attrition in the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes.
Scholarship players left
JUCO recruits left