For more than eight weeks, the question has hung over Clint Bowen’s head, a cloud that has been difficult to escape.
Bowen, Kansas’ interim head coach, has never concealed the fact that he would like to be the Jayhawks’ head football coach on a full-time basis. This, he will say, is his dream job. But in the days and months after KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger fired Charlie Weis, Bowen always tried to stress one thing.
“The point of this whole thing, it isn’t about me,” Bowen said. “It’s not ever going to be about me. It’s about this team, this university and this football program.”
Bowen said these words Tuesday as he concluded his final news conference of the regular season. On Saturday afternoon, the Jayhawks, 3-8, will finish the season against Kansas State in the Sunflower Showdown. For Bowen, who will conclude his eight-game audition, it could be his final game as Kansas’ head coach.
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So in the final moments of Tuesday’s news conference, he steered the moment toward a prepared statement. It wasn’t quite a farewell address, but Bowen had a few messages he wanted to send, a few people he wanted to thank. He had the microphone — maybe for the last time — so why not use it?
“Dr. Zenger has a great plan and a process in place to find and hire the best person possible to lead this program forward,” Zenger said. “When the selection is made, I truly believe this, it’s time for everybody to put their full support behind that decision.”
Bowen has pieced together a solid body of work during his first eight weeks on the job. He found a capable starting quarterback in Michael Cummings; he elevated receivers coach Eric Kiesau to the role of play caller; he helped coax life into a moribund passing game.
Some of Bowen’s supposed successes, of course, are unquantifiable. Players appeared more motivated at times. They have played harder for Bowen. They spoke of a new comfort in the locker room.
But entering Saturday’s game against Kansas State, the Jayhawks are just 1-6 since Bowen took the reins, and coming off a demoralizing 44-7 loss at Oklahoma.
“The important thing is that I hope the head coach thing doesn’t come down to that one game (at Oklahoma),” Kiesau said on Tuesday. “I hope it’s over a body of work.”
Kiesau, a former offensive coordinator at Washington, is in his first season at Kansas. On Tuesday, he expressed hope that the coaching search would keep parts of the current staff intact. If Kansas could add some young blood and hungry recruiters, Kiesau said, they have the makings of a successful formula.
“I feel very strongly that we could do some positive things and get this thing going in the right direction,” Kiesau said. “Just in the short time — just the way Clint and I work together behind closed doors and the conversations we have together — we’re on the same page.”
The Kansas coaching search is likely to heat up after Saturday’s game at K-State. Zenger has enlisted former Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas to help with the search. And Neinas and Zenger have been laying the groundwork and sorting through potential candidates for weeks.
But for Bowen, Saturday should hold special significance for other reasons. A Lawrence native and former KU defensive back, Bowen will have an opportunity to make his final case against Kansas State and Bill Snyder, the coach who has owned the rivalry for the better part of two decades.
“In the state of Kansas,” Bowen said, “you’re on one side or the other for the most part, and you grow up with that mentality.”
On Tuesday, Bowen reflected on the many things he’s learned while working as a head coach for the first time. Lessons about leadership. How to build a program. How to set the foundation for the future.
Next week, Bowen and the KU staff will hit the road to recruit. Zenger says Bowen will be a part of the program moving forward — one way or another — and beyond that, Kansas football sits on a plot of shaky earth, waiting for the aftershocks of change to cease.
“It’s been rewarding because you realize that you can have an impact on people’s lives,” Bowen said. “You can impact a program and impact a lot of things. But I learned a lot through it. I learned a lot about ways to manage time, ways to do things more efficiently.
“You make a lot of decisions every day, so you learn what to base them on and how to move on.”