University of Kansas

Painted words and ‘Perfect 40s’: How Les Miles is working to change KU’s culture

The main meeting room at Kansas football’s Anderson Family Complex has a new addition: white words painted on the gray wall in front.

Prepare to take the field with confidence and swagger.

Why not now? This practice, this week, this game, this season.

We are the most physical team on the field.

Phrases like these — there are about 20 in all — were created by members of KU football’s leadership council then put in a location where teammates would see them often.

Ten months into Les Miles’ coaching tenure at KU, these mantras might be the most visible example of the new coach’s efforts to build team chemistry.

“I think you’ll enjoy the culture that this group wants to adopt,” Miles said Thursday. “ ... They don’t want to be just a football team; they want to be a dominant football team. They don’t want to be just a player; they want to be a dominant player.”

This hasn’t been the only shift from a year ago, as players say there’s also been a different vibe around the facility with the new staff taking over.

Offensive lineman Api Mane says he can sense a difference whenever he walks into the facility.

“I just see smiles everywhere,” Mane said. “I’m a big positive guy, and I see that from the coaches as well. That’s what I like.”

Mane is quick to point out that he’s not trying to criticize the previous coaching staff, which also had its share of good influences. It’s just that this group seems to be helping players come together — with Mane citing an example that KU’s offensive linemen, on their own, got together in the summer for impromptu poolside cookouts.

“I see everybody just encouraging, cracking jokes and just having a great time, no matter what we’re doing, whether it’s an off day at dinner or coming in for camp,” Mane said. “We’ve just got to make the best of it.”

Linebacker Kyron Johnson also says there’s more togetherness in the weight room. With strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin bringing in additional staff this season, there’s been more of an emphasis on the “we” aspect of training.

“They’ll say stuff like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s do this.’ And they’ll even go through the drills with us and do it with us,” Johnson said of the strength coaches. “It’s like a reoccurring energy that never goes away.”

Defensive lineman Sam Burt believes a focus on discipline also has been effective in bringing teammates together.

One example: At the end of each practice, Miles has players run “Perfect 40s” — 40-yard dashes meant to stress extreme focus.

With coaches watching, KU’s players must not make any mistakes; each hand must be behind the line, and no player can jump offsides before the whistle is blown.

If either happens? The whole group has to run the sprint again until all do it correctly.

This relates back to a slogan that’s repeated often in the program, and especially by Miles: “We do hard things, but we do it hard for the guy next to us, for each other.”

Burt has noticed that carryover in other places. In his D-line meeting room, for example, when a teammate doesn’t know something, the others teach him. If someone messes up an answer, guys correct him and tell him why he was wrong.

“It’s a lot of patience, and it’s a lot of just making sure that the person next to us knows what they’re doing,” Burt said. “It’s just awesome to see accountability, because it just brings us together and makes us work more together and not just as individuals.”

Miles also has set in place a foundation for the players to lead each other. For instance, each workout has a player leader in charge whose main goal is to ensure the group doesn’t slack off.

Much like those white words at the front of the meeting room, it’s one way Miles has structured the program to make his players responsible to each other.

“I think when you have leaders buy in to what you’re trying to get accomplished,” Miles said, “it becomes a much easier transformation.”

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.