Sam Mellinger

Kansas football’s ‘tragic shape’ has consequences beyond David Beaty, Sheahon Zenger

The futures of Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, left, and football coach David Beaty are linked.
The futures of Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, left, and football coach David Beaty are linked. The Kansas City Star

Coaching football at Kansas these days must be like clean-up after a hurricane. The mess is everywhere, so many places to start, and sometimes the mind overloads and you find yourself obsessing over a broken windshield while the houses around you continue to crumble.

This is David Beaty’s life now, prioritizing the cataclysmic problems of his program from the merely embarrassing, and so it is that the man who walked in telling everyone he needed help found himself apologizing about taking too much on.

Beaty was proud of the men he’d convinced to work with him on college football’s greatest challenge, and still is, but at some point in the last week or so he found himself as the program’s head coach and offensive coordinator, as well as coaching the KU quarterbacks and punt returners. Some of this is like worrying about which color trash bags you use to remove the debris.

Beaty is now promising not to micromanage, and if this is the sort of inconsistency coaches try to avoid, it’s also a symptom of the helplessness that comes with what must feel at times like an impossible task. It’s the kind of thing that convinced Tony Peña to shower in full uniform, anyway.

As he enters his second conference season with a nationally televised game at Texas Tech on Thursday, Beaty has lost all 13 games against FBS competition by an average of more than 30 points.

There are encouraging signs on the periphery — recruiting and team speed, most notably — but no guarantees he will fare any better than his two most recent predecessors, who conspired to make KU football analogous to the mess inherited by Bill Snyder at K-State in 1989. That’s one of college football’s greatest success stories, but they call it a miracle for a reason.

Beaty will continue to fight this fight with everything he has, including a smile most days, but if he is fired after another two or three seasons it will be less a statement about his chops than the ineptitude of those above and before him.

Most directly, of course, that is a reference to athletic director Sheahon Zenger — hired nearly six years ago to fix football, and whose most consequential decision so far was the disastrous hiring of Charlie Weis (when Gus Malzahn was thought to be available).

Put another way: If Beaty is replaced, the next hire will be made by whoever replaces Zenger.

“I appreciate the sentiment there,” Zenger said. “I would tell you it has to work with him. This is our guy.”

That point came into sharper focus this week with chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s announcement she will step down next summer. Gray-Little has been something of an AD’s dream. She has stayed out of athletics, offering advice or support where she can but mostly letting the experts handle it. Even if the new chancellor shares that philosophy — rare in big-time college sports — he or she will not have the relationship or loyalty.

But this is about much more than the future employment of an earnest administrator. This is about the future of the athletic department, and university, a point driven home by Dana Anderson — the football program’s biggest booster.

“It’s imperative, ultimately, that if there’s conference realignment or whatever that we have a program that’s competitive,” Anderson said. “Everybody realizes that. Everyone on the staff is well aware.”

So, those are the stakes. Beaty, who was a position coach at Texas A&M when Kansas made him the lowest-paid head coach in power-conference football, is in charge of a rebuild that could influence whether the university is on the safe side of a potential fault line in the precarious future of college sports.

Zenger has been supportive in many important ways but also has failed in a few key spots. The most obvious is the disaster of Weis’ time at KU, but for a man who talks a lot about his background in coaching, Zenger could’ve steered Beaty away from taking on so much minutiae in a program with so many grand problems.

Beaty has a few things working for him. They just opened new locker rooms, with all the special effects to keep up in the race to impress recruits. Memorial Stadium is still outdated — and occasionally cited by recruits as a reason to go elsewhere — but combined with a relatively new or renovated training room, weight room, and practice facility, Anderson, Beaty and Zenger all agree KU finally has the infrastructure required to compete in the Big 12.

When he was hired in Jan. 2011, Zenger referenced his experience in turnarounds (ironically, he was Snyder’s first recruiting coordinator at K-State) and has considered it his top priority to help Beaty in any way possible. Zenger fast-tracked the locker-room improvements, for instance, which in Beaty’s words gives recruits one fewer reason “to rule us out.”

If there is a better ally for a football coach than an AD working for his professional reputation, it’s a supportive major donor like Anderson. Anderson blames most of KU’s current problems on Weis (“He left us in tragically bad shape”), expresses confidence in Zenger (“He’s busting his ass”) and acknowledges Beaty’s challenges (“The hardest part is recruiting linemen, because their glory is in the team”).

Anderson’s goals are modest — “play .500 ball on a regular basis and go to a bowl game every other year” — but his patience is not endless.

“I think there has to be significant progress next year,” he said. “Absolutely.”

That doesn’t mean bowl-or-bust in Beaty’s third season. Just progress, on the field, visible with more than just hope or roster numbers.

In that way, the uncomfortable truth for Zenger is that by now he can’t do much more for Beaty than PR.

There’s black humor in the joke sometimes told around KU athletics, that $11 million for the basketball teams’ apartment complex and $22 million more to store the sport’s original rules can be raised over a lunch hour, but plans to update the football stadium have been on hold more than a decade.

That’s the kind of line rooted in truth, because there is nothing that Zenger or Anderson can realistically do to generate the required money without having a successful team to sell, even if “successful” can be put in the relative terms of KU’s football history.

The problem is that by now the program may be beyond repair, or at least beyond repair in the current context.

Beaty is an eager advocate for his program, and more than most college football coaches understands that his every public word is a sales pitch to donors and recruits. He talks in endless optimism about progress as minimal as not quitting and as intangible as effort in the fourth quarter of another blowout.

He speaks of winning a conference championship the way your neighbors might talk about doing their kitchen — “I’m not sure when, but we will get to it,” Beaty said — and compliments the administrative support he’s receiving at a time when he knows others are losing patience.

But the problems are so grand that any single effort can feel meaningless, and misguided. When Beaty lamented his team’s slow starts, he said they practiced fast starts, instead of the underlying causes of the poor play (ball security, line communication, execution, etc.).

He apologized for being late for a recent radio spot because, having heard that other league games included players on free runs to the end zone dropping the ball just shy of the goal line, he had his players practice handing the ball to the official. It’s shamefully easy to point out that it would be progress if his team ever had a free run to the end zone in the first place.

There was an interesting moment in Beaty’s most recent weekly postgame conference. He began with an eight-minute monologue before the first question, with the help of detailed notes, including 14 different statistical categories in which KU has improved from a year ago.

You have to start somewhere, of course, but it had the feel of a workplace safety sign being posted immediately after the last accident — This program has beaten one consecutive FCS opponent.

For instance, among Beaty’s talking points was an improvement from 56th in the country to 36th in passing offense, but he also knows that without a layup against what might be the worst team in the FCS, that ranking drops to 93rd.

Zenger is aware of his own culpability in the program’s problems. He admits they are much further behind than he expected when he was hired, and says the situation Beaty inherited was “very unfair.”

There are subtle signs of progress. Beaty has seemed to find a productive balance between demanding the discipline that Turner Gill couldn’t and making the program a far less miserable place to be than it was under Weis. The talent is improving, and the roster growing. High school coaches who once warned their kids against going to KU are now encouraging them to at least listen.

Maybe this is all like not driving through the back of your garage, but still. Progress has to start somewhere.

Beaty knows that if he is to survive more than another two or three seasons at KU, real progress must materialize soon. If it doesn’t, he and the boss who hired him will be out of work, and a major donor’s worst fears about the future of the athletic department will become more real.

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