David Beaty has neither the time nor inclination to go through all the reasons he might fail. The new Kansas football coach is something like a human pep talk, voice always raised and firm, tone never anything but convinced.
Maybe this is all exaggerated a bit. Maybe he’s trying to convince you. Maybe he’s trying to convince recruits or their parents or their coaches. He’s an optimistic guy by nature — he jokes that his wife’s beauty is proof of the power of his positivity — but maybe he’s trying to convince himself.
Whatever the reason, Beaty has a lot of convincing to do here. The Kansas football program is in a historically bad place, even by its own standards. How do you turn the worst of 64 power conference programs around? One pep talk at a time, one convinced mind at a time.
This is just part of why this week’s Big 12 Media Days are probably more important to Beaty than any other coach in the league. He doesn’t get many chances like this to be heard. Losing can be a muzzle.
“It’s a big distance,” Beaty says. “It’s no doubt about that. That’s why you’ll hear me talk about the process and foundation so much. I tell them, ‘Get bored with the foundation.’ Because that’s what we’re going to be building for a while.”
This is a rebuild big enough that if Beaty is successful, it will be talked about with the greatest program turnarounds in recent college football history. There is so much riding on this, too.
Not just the good feelings and millions of dollars in revenue that come with good football programs, but likely the job of athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who fired Charlie Weis 30 months after hiring him with a $12.5 million contract.
Some context. The firing of Mark Mangino and the hirings of Turner Gill and Weis have had the effect of an air-tight campaign to torpedo a program that was ranked in the top 25 six seasons ago. The problems go way beyond depressed attendance, squashed morale, and 48 losses over the last five years.
The program may just now be hitting rock bottom. Particularly after starting quarterback Michael Cummings tore his ACL, there are people in and around the athletic department who see this roster as the most devoid of talent yet during the program’s fall.
Start with the fact that the Jayhawks come out of the summer with just 64 scholarship players. That’s fewer than the limit imposed on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. KU’s problems come in large part from Weis overloading recent classes with junior college transfers. Beaty will add a few transfers between now and the start of classes, but with a limit of 25 recruits per class, it will take at least a few years just to get close to the allowable 85 scholarships.
And it’s not just the quantity. Using Rivals.com’s database, just 33 players listed on KU’s roster had offers from other programs in the power five conferences. Twenty-four were graded as two-star recruits. Just one, tight end Kent Taylor, who transferred from Florida, is a four-star.
Beyond that, there are broken relationships with high school coaches and donors. Losing has slowed fund raising, which means plans for facility upgrades are put on hold, which means Beaty’s charge is to somehow sidestep this self-perpetuating cycle.
Las Vegas bookmakers have Kansas’ win total set at 1 1/2, the lowest of any school in a major league, and tied with Eastern Michigan at the bottom of all FBS programs. Kevin Bradley, a sports book manager for Bovada, says the Jayhawks would be less than a touchdown favorite for their home opener against FCS South Dakota State.
You can hear some of this in the way Beaty talks. There is rhetoric about not accepting excuses, and of holding players to a high and non-negotiable standard, but if you pay attention there is also realism.
He talks about strength coach Je’Ney Jackson, a subtle reference about the shape of the players he inherited. He talks about his past as a high school coach, and the need to earn the respect and trust of his former peers, a subtle reference to the grassroots image of the program.
He also talks about the most basic parts of football. Oh, sure. There is a vision of spread formations and quick pace and the kind of fast football that appeals to both fans and recruits. But underneath it is a focus on the simplest level — don’t commit penalties, and don’t turn the ball over.
For this, he has concrete goals: be the least penalized team in the conference on both offense and defense, and be in the top third in special teams.
“Being a good, disciplined, sound, hard-playing, smart football team has very little to do with talent,” Beaty says. “You can get better really fast when you value possessions and take care of the football and steal possessions.”
Across an aisle from Beaty, maybe 20 feet away, sits perhaps the best model possible for what he’s trying to do. Bill Snyder has lived what Beaty is only beginning. Snyder, the Kansas State coach, has accomplished what Beaty can only now talk about.
Snyder took over in 1989, which is like four lifetimes ago in college football years, and in most ways his K-State team was in worse shape than Beaty’s KU. K-State was not particularly close to the NCAA’s minimum average attendance for Division I football, and the Board of Regents was not just discussing whether to drop the Wildcats to I-AA — it had a plan.
But in other ways, there are similarities. Rosters full of players rejected by other programs, and accustomed to losing. Low expectations from the outside. A dearth of scholarship players.
Snyder nods over to Beaty.
“We’ve been there and we’ve done that,” Snyder says. “So, yes, I empathize.”
He has been asked a million times how he built K-State from rubble to championships, and there is no simple explanation. So many things have to go right.
Snyder had unwavering support from the administration, which is key, but he also says it’s important to do what you believe in doing, and to not try to be somebody you’re not. The more he does this, the more he believes that values are more important than athletic ability, because a recruit with good values can become a better athlete.
Maybe there are bits of what Snyder did that Beaty can copy. Maybe this is the beginning of college football’s next great turnaround, the kind of thing that will make for a great story and be a model for the next dreamer who takes over the next broken program.
Then again, maybe there’s a reason they call what Snyder did a miracle.