In an alternate football universe, one in which Turner Gill was not fired in 2011 or Charlie Weis came to his senses, Seth Russell could be starting at quarterback for the Kansas Jayhawks this Saturday against Baylor.
OK, you might need to expand your mind to imagine this universe. Russell, a redshirt junior at Baylor, is leading the nation in touchdown passes (19) and passing efficiency (218.7) while guiding the No. 3 Bears to a 4-0 start. Kansas, meanwhile, has been a great wasteland of college quarterbacks, cycling through a rash of ineffective starters since Todd Reesing left campus last decade.
But even Baylor coach Art Briles concedes that his starting quarterback was once this close to becoming a Jayhawk.
“If Turner (Gill) had stayed the coach there,” Briles said earlier this week, “we probably wouldn’t have Seth Russell right now.”
College football is chock-full of recruiting hypotheticals — every school has a long list of close calls and near misses — but this one is particularly painful for Kansas. A future star quarterback once wanted to come to KU, and the Jayhawks’ staff couldn’t make it work. On Saturday, KU fans will get an up-close look at what they missed when Baylor faces Kansas, 0-4, inside Memorial Stadium at 11 a.m.
“He’s a kid of impeccable character,” said Kansas coach David Beaty, who helped recruit Russell while working as an assistant to Gill. “He’s a guy that I really root for each week.”
The story of Russell’s recruitment is well-documented by now, but it begins with Russell, an under-the-radar prospect from Garland, Texas, struggling to garner offers from big-time programs. Kansas was the first Big 12 school to offer Russell a scholarship, and during the process he struck up a bond with Beaty, a then-KU assistant who also grew up in Garland.
Beaty remembers visiting Russell at his house in Garland, a modest home behind Central Park, not far from his own childhood home.
“He has a humility about him,” Beaty said.
Russell committed to the Jayhawks in the summer of 2011. But after a 2-10 season that fall, KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger pulled the plug on Gill and hired Charlie Weis, who was prepared to bring in transfer quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps. That left Russell looking elsewhere, and an opportunity emerged at Baylor.
“He was always on our radar,” Briles said. “But he had committed to them.”
Four years later, Russell says he’s happy with how it all transpired. After redshirting in 2012 and spending two seasons behind starter Bryce Petty, Russell has flourished in the Briles system, keeping the Bears’ offense at juggernaut status.
“I feel God opened up the opportunity to make a better decision for myself,” Russell told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “The reason you go to a school is because you have that right feeling.”
When it was Gill and Beaty at Kansas, Russell had that right feeling. When Weis arrived and Beaty wasn’t retained, that feeling went away. Four years later, Beaty and Russell will meet up on Saturday, and the Jayhawks will have to deal with the quarterback that got away.
“It’s not my job to talk about Seth, but if you met his mom and dad, you’d know why he is who he is,” Beaty said. “He’s a great kid — great faith foundation — and he just keeps working.”