The man who should be coach should also have to wait.
The Kansas football program owes itself that much. Athletic director Sheahon Zenger needs to put more thought into this than the last time, when he met Charlie Weis and made a desperate hire the next day.
This is an opportunity for Zenger, and for Kansas. If nothing else, it’s a chance for Zenger to talk to football people about how perhaps the sport’s worst power conference program can improve first to being merely bad, then perhaps mediocrity, and, eventually, maybe even more.
The goal should be to not only collect ideas, but make every phone call necessary to see if a rotten program devoid of passion, optimism and big-time money can do better than a homegrown grinder who brings energy, belief, and would accept what he calls his dream job for relative peanuts.
The process should lead them back to Clint Bowen, the Lawrence kid who went from a walk-on safety in 1990 to the interim head coach these last two months. But when Bowen gets the permanent job, it should include an honest blueprint full of innovation, creativity and a tangible plan about how the Jayhawks can turn the Sunflower Showdown into something more than an annual, scheduled, and televised tail-whipping.
Kansas got one last personal look at what an actual college football power looks like in a 51-13 whipping by No. 11 Kansas State here on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.
K-State is a model not just for KU, but for anybody trying to pull a program out of the mud and maintain consistent excellence. The Wildcats will play Baylor next weekend for at least a share of another Big 12 championship, one of the great all-time success stories of coaching and leadership. K-State’s status among the country’s best football programs is also a clear checkmate against anyone who thinks success can’t be earned brick by brick and day to day.
The chances of finding another Bill Snyder are small enough to be covered by a gnat, but KU has a wonderful opportunity here to make Zenger’s stated emphasis on “doing the little things right” more than an empty talking point.
On the surface, it might sounds ridiculous to make the case that an interim coach who lost his last two games by a total of 75 points should get the permanent job and, honestly, maybe it is.
There are no clear answers here. The argument that Bowen has helped KU achieve some of its brightest moments is fogged by the counter that he’s also been around for some of the darkest.
But so much of what drives him is so much of what KU needs right now. He has an unwavering belief that the Jayhawks can be consistent winners in football. He knows the state and program better than anyone.
He is young, energetic, and would give KU everything he has. He is adored by high school coaches in the state, and could repair some broken relationships. He would accept the job without ego, and with the credibility in the locker room to enforce rules and demand a higher standard.
In one way or another, those are all traits that predecessors Weis and Turner Gill lacked. In one way or another, the lack of those traits helped drive KU from four bowl games in six years under Mark Mangino to a compelling case as one of the worst three programs in major-college football.
Gill’s hiring was an overreaction to Mangino’s rough edges, and a severe underestimate of the challenges of winning at KU. Weis’ hiring was a desperate get-rich-quick scheme, and a severe overestimate of Weis’ own chops.
Hiring Bowen would be an honest acceptance of where the program is and what it needs, an acknowledgement that there are no shortcuts, that building back to where the Jayhawks have been will take someone who knows what that looks like and is willing to put in the work, and that no coach can do this alone.
It would also be a dash of creativity and a willingness to think outside the box. Programs like Kansas are supposed to hire the hot name at some smaller school or a coordinator at a winner.
Weis and Gill failed spectacularly enough that turning KU around will take more than one year, and more than one man. Next year’s roster appears woefully weak. Whoever the next coach is will require patience, diligence, resolve and commitment. By all appearances Bowen has all four of those traits and more.
One of the few advantages of being this low is that you don’t have much to lose, and don’t have to be bound by convention.
Bowen would take the job for much less the market rate for a power-five football coach, which is great for KU on at least two levels. First, it addresses the internal push to avoid another big contract as donors have been leaned on too much in recent years to pay for expensive mistakes with Gill and Weis.
Second, and this is more to the point, it could mean more money available for the kind of coaching staff needed for a monumental task.
Winning football games at KU will require much more than making the right head-coaching hire, and if Bowen is taking less than the alternative that means a better chance at surrounding him with the best possible help.
For instance, Zenger could probably use $1.2 million to hire Bowen as the permanent coach. KU could then have enough money to give, say, Texas A&M assistant David Beaty a big raise in both salary (from a reported $359,000) and job title (from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator).
For less than Weis’ salary, KU could then have two good coaches. In Bowen they would have a good front man whose passion, selflessness and hard work would come through to both fans and recruits. And in Beaty, they would have a bright mind who’s helped one of the nation’s best offenses and an ace recruiter with deep ties in Texas.
That’s just one idea. Zenger and everyone he consults with — from Chuck Neinas, the former league commissioner hired to help with the search, to the big money donors who need to be on board — should consider them all.
If there’s a better option than one with Bowen as the head coach, then of course Zenger should pursue it. He knows Bowen well, and has seen him in the job for two months. That means a better understanding of Bowen’s organization, ability to multitask, and day-to-day leadership than fans or media are allowed.
But Bowen is a walking embodiment of so much of what KU needs and has been lacking. And so far, Zenger has not earned the benefit of the doubt for his judgment on improving the football program.
After being blown out by a K-State program that is KU’s rival in theory only, Bowen told a senior class that’s won only two conference games in the last four years that they will always be valued by the program, and that they have nothing to be ashamed of.
It was undoubtedly a difficult message to deliver. Bowen has no idea if it’s the last postgame talk he’ll give in what he calls his dream job.
But when the emotions settle and Zenger considers all options, he should see that Bowen is uniquely positioned to give KU the kind of future in which the coach doesn’t have to remind his players they shouldn’t be ashamed.