There is this line that David Beaty likes to use, one that he has kept repeating during his first nine months as the football coach at Kansas. In a few years, Beaty will say, we’ll all look back at his first year here. We’ll remember his hiring, and we’ll remember that first recruiting class, all cobbled together with duct tape and sweat. We’ll remember a spring roster with barely enough bodies to survive his first practice. We’ll remember a fall roster with just more than 60 scholarship players. And we’ll remember his first preseason camp, three steamy weeks in August with just four returning starters and a million question marks.
“We’ll look back,” Beaty says, “And we’ll wonder how we ever got a play off.”
The punch line is delivered for effect, to demonstrate how fast the world comes at you when you are in your first season as a college head coach. But such is the condition of the Kansas football program that the line is actually sort of believable. Such is the shape of KU football that successfully snapping a ball and running a play is generally considered a success.
“We still have a million miles to go,” Beaty says.
Ready or not, here we are. At 11 Saturday morning, Kansas football’s Beaty Era will surge into the Great Unknown with a season opener against South Dakota State. After years of volatility and rising angst — three coaching changes in six years and 12 victories over the five seasons will do that — Beaty will take the controls and try to do what his predecessors couldn’t: Fix KU football.
It’s a process that has been nine months in the making, and a process that will continue after Saturday. In the short-term, the outlook is less than ideal. According to one computer projection, the Jayhawks enter the season ranked 127th out of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, KU will be favored in just one game this season — Saturday’s opener against South Dakota State. As one might expect, Beaty has generally sloughed off the harshest predictions.
“We’re excited about putting our guys out on the field and seeing where we’re at right now,” he said this week.
Football programs, though, are not built in a day. And in the big picture, Saturday’s result is just one data point in a project that figures to be long and arduous. Want proof? Former KU football coaches Glen Mason and Mark Mangino each lost their first games at Kansas (as did Turner Gill, in 2010) and eventually guided the Jayhawks to bowl games. Terry Allen and Charlie Weis, meanwhile, won their KU openers and never recorded a winning season in Lawrence.
For the moment, Kansas’ coaches are just as curious about the future, just as anxious about the path ahead for a team that returns just four starters and zero players who scored a touchdown last season.
“I just kind of want to see how good we are,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens says.
For the moment, though, a rough sketch has emerged — blueprints for what we someday might call Beaty Ball. It has not always been perfect. On the day he was introduced, Beaty offered his “condolences” to the search committee and nervously referred to the state of Kansas as “Texas.”
But in nine months on the job, Beaty has set out to define his program with certain core principals — freedom, energy, family and one word that echoes through the Anderson Family Football Complex each day, players shuffling from meeting room to meeting room, locker room to practice field.
“Tempo, tempo, tempo!” offensive tackle Jordan Shelley-Smith says. “On to the next meeting.”
One of the first things David Beaty did, his assistant coaches say, was offer freedom. This story comes from last winter. Beaty sat in an office at the University of California, looking for an offensive coordinator. He was there to interview Rob Likens, the receivers coach at Cal, and the two discussed a vision for a new KU offense.
Nine months later, Likens says he could sense a vibe that day. But the feeling crystallized during his first months at Kansas.
“He creates an environment where people aren’t walking around here, scared to death to fail,” Likens says.
The freedom manifests itself in various ways, Likens says. Players are emboldened to show their personalities — during preseason camp, dozens donned wild hairstyles and dye-jobs. Coaches are encouraged to experiment and be creative. On some days, Likens says, he will go out to the practice field and try something different or unconventional. If it works, great.
“If it doesn’t work, (Beaty will) come in, put his arm around me and say: ‘Oh, that didn’t work,’” Likens says. “There’s a comfort zone that you have to where you can feel a little creative. You’re not walking around fearing failure. And then that creeps down to the kids.”
One of the next things David Beaty did, his players say, was offer energy. In the spring, when Beaty traveled the state of Kansas to meet with alumni and boosters, he would often stand before a crowd and ask for a “Ric Flair.”
“Give me two claps and a ‘Rick Flair,’” Beaty screamed in mid-August, speaking at the Corinth Kickoff in Prairie Village. “WOOO!!!”
In the KU football facility, Beaty instituted rules to ramp up the energy level. When his players moved from meeting room to meeting room, they had to move as quickly as possible. On the field, Beaty and Likens have installed a no-huddle, up-tempo offensive system. To do that right, Beaty says, you have to take the same tempo everywhere.
“This coaching staff brings a certain energy to everything that they do, whether it’s in the film room or going from film room to (meeting) room,” says Shelley-Smith, who was recruited by Gill’s staff and played for Weis for three seasons. “(We emphasize) tempo when no one else does.”
One of the next things David Beaty did, his players say, was offer family. After one practice during the preseason, Beaty brought his two young daughters, Averie and Alexa, out onto the field. He introduced them to his players, and offered a directive.
“These are your little sisters,” Shelley-Smith remembers Beaty saying, “take care of them.”
Each day, Beaty mandates that his assistant coaches leave the KU football offices to take their kids to school. Spouses and children are welcome on the sidelines at practice. And for the most part, Beaty maintains an open-door policy for his players.
“He’s smart,” junior quarterback Montell Cozart says. “He’s super intelligent, and just being able to talk football (with him). And then sometimes we just talk life.”
For now, though, the Beaty Era is just beginning. Coaches speak about remaining in evaluation mode. The program lacks a public depth chart — as well as actual depth. In a few years, Beaty says, he’ll look back at all this. He’ll wonder how anything ever worked; he’ll wonder how his team ever got a play off. But then again, for a rebuilding football program, the project has to start somewhere.
“We’re excited to see what they can do,” Beaty says. “Even the best laid plans sometimes go a little bit awry on the field. You have to be able to make adjustments.”