Sam Mellinger

Firing Beaty was the easy part. Now the real work begins for new Kansas AD Jeff Long

Kansas AD Jeff Long announces firing of head football coach David Beaty

Kansas Jayhawks athletic director Jeff Long addresses the firing of KU football coach David Beaty during an opening statement in a press conference on Nov. 4, 2018. Beaty will still coach KU's final three games.
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Kansas Jayhawks athletic director Jeff Long addresses the firing of KU football coach David Beaty during an opening statement in a press conference on Nov. 4, 2018. Beaty will still coach KU's final three games.

Jeff Long did the easiest thing he will ever do in his new job as Kansas athletics director, and this is not simply about firing football coach David Beaty.

Long is the new guy, hired just five months ago, with a reputation for football competence that far exceeds anything his current school has seen in nearly a decade.

So the easy thing is to fire the overmatched coach and talk about “breaking the cycle” of failure, which he did in some form many times during his news conference on Sunday night.

That’s the easy part. The thing that a monkey could have done, or anyone who has watched KU football for the last year or two might’ve done earlier. The hard part is actually breaking that cycle, and so far there is precious little reason to believe Long is doing that.

Particularly when he jumps on a question about Iowa State fans outnumbering Kansas at last week’s game to insinuate that any of this is the fault of fans.

“I hope our fans saw that image,” Long said of Iowa State fans outnumbering Kansas at last week’s game. “I hope you show that image. Because they’re going to be part of the solution. They need to come back and support this team...

“All I’m asking them to do is invest on the front end.”

You know, if your plan was to prolong the cycle, you could do worse than blaming fans. Long deserves a chance, but he would not be the first man to view KU football from the outside, throw out a few simple solutions and then be replaced a few years later by someone else.

Kansas football is so wretched that some in and around the university were afraid that a win over K-State this week would force the program to keep Beaty. Maybe that was part of announcing the move now, even as Beaty will coach the season’s final three games.

There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with the fact that both Division I programs in Kansas are such overwhelming hot messes right now — K-State is bitter and fearful of losing ground, and KU has a more slow-cooked fear of never gaining ground.

The problem, of course, is that the university has consistently and continually failed its program, coaches, athletes and fans with a series of self-destructive, arrogant and clueless decisions. Then, they blame it all on the last coach, hire a new face and begin the cycle anew.

“We will break the cycle,” Long said.

There’s that phrase again. Long is better qualified than the men he follows. He is widely respected for his connections and ability to identify and hire football coaches. Les Miles has been rumored, and there appears to be at least a little smoke to that, but it also brings his streak of rumored connections to open or potentially open jobs to eleventy gazillion.

Whether Long knew it then or now, his hiring was an unwitting symptom of the fundamental problem. Because by then, everyone knew how Beaty’s story at KU would end. Kneecapping the man who hired him without finishing the job was a half-measure that ripped away what little chance Beaty had to succeed long-term.

The only real consequence was that Beaty would be unable to recruit — he currently has one commitment, while K-State has nine and everyone else in the league at least 15 — and his assistants doubtful of their own futures.

In what version of reality is this a good idea?

This is the type of nonsense that must be addressed, and fixed, before anything else has a chance.

Kansas has never been able to build football on anything other than quicksand, and to be sure, it has a lot going against it. The state is consistently barren of Division I talent, and K-State is two decades into first dibs on those scraps. KU’s own culture is centered on basketball, of course, a place where Bill Self can get a new mansion built to house basketball players by sneezing but the football program is more than a decade into fundraising for major stadium improvements.

Maintaining winning programs in both major sports is difficult anywhere, let alone in a less populous state with little history of football success.

But those are all factors largely out of the school’s control, sort of like racing a bunch of Ferraris with a Honda, but if they’re going to fix football the folks in charge have to stop driving their Honda into the guardrails.

This is not a slam on the last KU athletic director, Sheahon Zenger, or former AD Lew Perkins, or any other administrator who’s been in on the decisions and failures over the years.

Because the names have changed, but the result has not, which means the only constant has been a culture of addressing wood rot with a paint job.

Long is used to being at places with at least an institutional competence in football. He came directly from Arkansas, and before that Pittsburgh, and before that Oklahoma. He spent a decade at Michigan.

Things he’s taken for granted at those schools cannot be assumed now. Long needs to be the university’s guide, and he’s been smart to bring in administrators who can help — Mike Vollmar to oversee football, and Terry Prentice to raise money. Vollmar held a similar job at Alabama and Michigan.

Long talked on Sunday about changing the money message away from improving the stadium and toward improving the coaching staff. He said the program is eight to 15 coaches behind the Big 12 average and expressed a desire to close the gap both in quantity and quality.

That’s a start, but we’ve seen ideas fail before. With Beaty, it was improving the parts of the facilities that players touch every day. With Charlie Weis, it was that his name recognition would be the rising tide. With Turner Gill, it was supposed to be accountability and personal relationships.

All the while they were backed by ADs and administrative staffs that worked just as hard raising money as Long and his staff will. It’s done nothing but fail.

This is not about fan support, and even if it was, a 59-year-old in a suit dreaming about false starts forced in one of college football’s least intimidating environments isn’t a fix. Win games, and fans will show up.

Long is right to point out that fans have to be part of the solution, with both donations made and tickets purchased. But implying that they owe it to the program to show up for the last home game is naive at best, insulting at worst.

Those fans have been around longer than he has, and they’ve given more. They’ve been mostly duped, embarrassed and let down. They don’t owe their support. Long owes them a product worth supporting.

The easy part of his job is over.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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