On a Tuesday in April, Kenny Perry strolled through the front doors of Little River High School, a Class 2A school that sits at the corner of Prairie and Waverly streets in a quaint farming community 20 miles west of McPherson, Kan. Perry, a first-year assistant football coach at Kansas, was there on business, a goodwill mission during the spring recruiting season.
In the span of days, Kansas coach David Beaty had ordered his staff to canvas the state, attempting to hit every high school in Kansas that fielded a football team. This is how Perry, a native Texan, found himself in a hallway at Little River, a school that plays eight-man football and rarely spurs much interest from Division I head coaches.
Nearly four months later, Paul Dold still remembers the meeting, in part because it was a little odd. Sometimes the football coach at Little River will field a call from a junior-college coach or hear from a small-college program in the area. Little River, once an eight-man power, sent a lineman to K-State in the last decade, so it’s not like the place is totally devoid of football talent. But you don’t often see many Division I assistants in this dusty enclave along Kansas Highway 46.
“It was a ‘hello’ — a ‘how do you do?’” says Dold, the football coach at Little River. “He said to call if we ever needed anything, or if we had any players that needed a look. I can’t quite remember his name. He dropped off a business card. I think I still have it around here somewhere. Nah, looks like I lost it.”
OK. So in the short term, it appears the brief stop-in didn’t pay major dividends for KU football. But Beaty would prefer to take the long view. The hour in Little River — and the overlapping trips to towns such as Centralia, Norton, Hoxie and Ellis — were part of what Beaty dubbed the #KansasBlast, a concentrated effort to build up recruiting efforts in every corner of the state.
“Our goal was to don the doors of every public high school in Kansas that played football,” Beaty says, “and we actually stopped at some that didn’t.”
For Beaty, the goal is clear — to build what he calls a “Kansas identity” in his football program. Beaty recalls the mid to late 2000s, when Mark Mangino was guiding the Jayhawks to bowl appearances and winning seasons. The KU roster was dotted with standouts from the state of Kansas, and to Beaty, that’s not a coincidence. Beaty mentions receiver Kerry Meier (Pittsburg), running backs Brandon McAnderson (Lawrence) and Jake Sharp (Salina) and safety Darrell Stuckey (Kansas City, Kan.), who is still playing for the San Diego Chargers.
“When Mark had it really going (during) the Orange Bowl year and the Insight Bowl year, we had a Kansas identity,” said Beaty, who was an assistant at Kansas in 2008 and 2009. “We had some really good players from (the) state.”
The secondary goal, though, is a little more subtle, a little more next level. In the months since taking the Kansas job last December, Beaty has stated a plan to build a productive and sustainable walk-on program. To do that, Beaty says, you need relationships. You need knowledge and information. In the state of Kansas, there are only so many sure-fire Division I prospects. But then there are the others, the fringe talents that need a look, the undervalued recruits that could grow into impact players in the right situation. In other words: There are kids who might want the chance to walk on at a in-state school.
“If you don’t do the ‘Kansas Blast,’” KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell says, “you don’t know about those guys.”
By late April, Beaty says, his coaching staff visited close to 474 Kansas high schools, according to the internal tally. It was a grassroots operation. One day, receivers coach Klint Kubiak was in Hays and moving west. The same day, another assistant was criss-crossing Johnson County. The same week, Mitchell took his first visit to Centralia, where he saw the home John Riggins grew up in, right across the street from the high school.
While stopping in at Little River, Perry made stops in places including Lyons and Sterling, while offensive coordinator Rob Likens stopped in at a list of schools that included Conway Springs.
“It’s the relationships that you enjoy,” said Conway Springs coach Matt Biehler. “Once you create that, you can send an email, give them a call or just let them know if they need to look at a kid.”
Of course, merely saying the right things, shaking the right hands and building the right relationships won’t be a cure-all for Kansas’ in-state recruiting efforts. For one, the Jayhawks still have to compete with Kansas State, the successful program down the road with footholds all over the central and western parts of the state. There is also the reality, Beaty says, that some of the state’s best high school players are leaving the state. KU can offer an in-state kid the opportunity to stay home, but it can’t offer the tradition of a Nebraska or Oklahoma.
Consider the recent trends: Each year, Rivals.com ranks the top 10 recruits in the state of Kansas. In the last five recruiting classes, just nine top-10 players have signed with KU — and just seven have ended up on campus. During the same span, 15 chose K-State, while seven picked Nebraska or Missouri. Others ended up at places like Auburn, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Florida and Minnesota.
“We have to give them something to be proud of,” Beaty said.
“Our counterparts out there,” he continued, referencing K-State, “they’ve done a nice job, and they’re still battling.”
Here, perhaps, it’s worth pointing out that KU didn’t stop recruiting Kansas under Turner Gill or Charlie Weis. Gill landed Hutchinson linebacker Ben Heeney, now with the Oakland Raiders. Weis helped close on quarterback Montell Cozart and Ryan Willis from Bishop Miege.
Shawnee Mission East’s Dustin Delaney, who coached the Lancers to the Kansas 6A championship last season, said the KU staff had been visible in recent years, especially defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, a Lawrence native. The same goes for many coaches in central Kansas who spoke for this story, including Biehler at Conway Springs.
“I was used to seeing them every year,” says Delaney, who also spent stints at Hutchinson and Emporia. “But I know they made an effort to go to a lot of smaller schools where they haven’t been to in a while.”
That point, Beaty says, is at the heart of what he wants to do. As a young coach, Beaty began his career as a high school coach in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a biographic note that has been well-worn by now. He forged a bond with the coaches of that state, he said, and he created relationships that persist today. At Big 12 Media Days in July, a reporter from a Texas newspaper approached Beaty and asked about his Texas connections and how it might help him recruit in Dallas. Beaty mentioned his connections, but a moment later, he steered the conversation back toward Kansas.
“We’re trying to create that same brotherhood up (here),” he said, “and the only way we do that is one school at a time.”
For Beaty, that’s where it starts. One school at a time. Could be a little town like Little River. Could be a power like Bishop Miege or Olathe North.
“We got to start with one,” Beaty says, “and then we can get two.”
Where the top recruits in Kansas signed the last five years
1. A.J. Harris, OL, Blue Valley, Missouri
2. Christian Gaylord, OL, Baldwin City, Nebraska
3. Ryan Willis, QB, Bishop Miege, Kansas
4. Scott Frantz, OL, Lawrence Free State, K-State
5. Alex Delton, QB, Hays, K-State
6. Josh Moore, TE, Olathe North, Missouri
7. Evan Applegate, OL, Mill Valley K-State
8. Alex Barnes, RB, Pittsburg, K-State
9. Darreon Jackson, DB, Derby, Boise State
10. Tyler Burns, RB, Wichita-Trinity K-State
1. Braden Smith, OL, Olathe South, Auburn
2. Traevohn Wrench, RB, Gardner Edgerton, Kansas
3. Jimmie Swain, LB, Olathe North, Oregon
4. Peyton Newell, DE, Hiawatha, Nebraska
5. Deandre Goolsby, TE, Derby, Florida
6. Dimonic McKinzy, ATH, Wyandotte, Minnesota
7. Austin Chambers, OL, Shawnee Mission West, BYU
8. Deron Thompson, RB, Wichita Northwest, Colorado State
9. Winston Dimel, RB, Manhattan, Kansas State
10. Fred Wyatt, DT, Lawrence Free State, Northwestern
1. Jerel Morrow, ATH, Emporia, Oklahoma State
2. Tanner Wood, DE, Conway Springs, Kansas State
3. Montell Cozart, QB, Bishop Meige, Kansas
4. Clay Rhodes, OL, Blue Valley, Missouri
5. Jordan Darling, QB, Shawnee Mission East, Kansas
6. Ben Johnson, TE, Basehor Linwood, Kansas
7. Dayton Valentine, ATH, Baldwin City, Kansas State
8. Parker Davis, RB, Dodge City, Air Force
9. Sean Newlan, ATH, Phillipsburgh, Kansas State
10. Coleman McCann, OL, Mill Valley, Northern Colorado
1. Tyler Matthews, QB, McPherson, TCU
2. Trace Clark, DE, Wichita Collegiate, Oklahoma State
3. Brian Beckman, OL, Blue Valley West, Kansas
4. Tre Parmalee, WR, Bishop Miege, Kansas
5. Deante Burton, WR, Manhattan, Kansas State
6. Vernon Vaughn, WR, Kansa City Sumner, Kansas State
7. Rob Riederer, LB, Holton, Tulsa
8. Matt Seiwert, ATH, Conway Springs, Kansas State
9. Matthew Baltimore, DE, Olathe East, Northern Illinois
10. Jacob Davis, LB, Wichita Northwest, North Dakota State
1. Jordan Phillips, DT, Towanda Circle, Oklahoma
2. Bubba Starling, ATH, Gardner Edgerton, Nebraska
3. Shane Ray, DE, Bishop Meige, Missouri
4. Morgan Burns, DB, Wichita Trinity, Kansas State
5. Dreamius Smith, RB, Wichita Heights, Kansas
6. Ben Heeney, LB, Hutchinson, Kansas
7. Jade Cathey, WR, Liberal, Kansas State
8. Drew Goodger, Shawnee Mission Northwest, Minnesota
9. Brady Foltz, OL, Rose Hill, TCU
10. Cody Whitehair, OL, Abilene, Kansas State
Oklahoma State: 2