Sam Mellinger

Kansas, K-State, ‘sawing wood’ and why David Beaty’s challenge might be harder than Bill Snyder’s

The athletic director who hired Bill Snyder at Kansas State says David Beaty (right) in some ways has a harder job rebuilding the KU football program.
The athletic director who hired Bill Snyder at Kansas State says David Beaty (right) in some ways has a harder job rebuilding the KU football program.

David Beaty may have the hardest job in college sports. He is to build strength from rubble and credibility from pity. He will be mocked if he fails, because that’s how we treat sports. He is attacking this job every day, with everything he has.

That includes Texas charm and remembering people’s names and most of all it includes lots and lots and lots of energy. Beaty is the football coach at Kansas, and in many ways this is like being the president of Kiribati. Hasn’t taken long for him to learn the value of self-deprecation.

“Coach Bechard is here,” Beaty says at the start of his news conference this week, nodding at KU’s volleyball coach. “He’s 14-0, wow, way to go. I need you to come over and help me.”

There is truth behind every good joke, and the truth is Beaty can use all the help he can get. Already, Kansas is the first Big 12 football team in nine years to lose all of its nonconference games.

That’s despite a schedule that included South Dakota State (picked to finish fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll), Memphis (coach Justin Fuente cited a “pretty significant step up” in preparing for Bowling Green after blowing out Kansas) and Rutgers (whose coach and seven players were suspended for various rules violations).

This is the 20th season of the Big 12, and no team has gone the whole year without winning a game. The last school from any of the top five conferences to go winless was Washington in 2008.

Kansas, as it enters its own pretty significant step up to Big 12 play, appears a decent bet to make new and sad history. The Jayhawks are a 16  1/2 -point underdog at Iowa State this weekend, have not beaten a conference opponent on the road in 31 tries, and at least at the moment, this appears their most winnable game left. Add up the win probabilities on, and KU has a 35.5 percent chance of winning any game this season.

They are, in so many ways, not just bad but historically bad. Paul Bessire of ranks KU ahead of only UTEP, Eastern Michigan, Wyoming and Idaho. Charlotte, in its first year of FBS competition, would be a one-point favorite over KU on a neutral field. Baylor is likely to be favored by around 50 points next weekend.

Beaty is trying to keep it positive. Charlie Weis, the man he replaced, failed in a lot of ways but none more obvious than a general arrogance and detachment from the work required. Beaty doesn’t complain about what he walked into, but if you listen closely you hear just how low this thing is.

One of his goals is to commit the fewest penalties in the Big 12, for instance, and he talks a lot about the same basic fundamentals they teach in Pop Warner. Keep your pads low, bend your knees, remember to line up with a good stance.

“There’s a lot to do,” Beaty says. “A lot to do.”

The other day, Beaty used the phrase “keep sawing wood” something like a half dozen times. It was, on the surface, a reference to Mark Mangino, who hired Beaty eight years ago and is now an assistant at Iowa State.

That’s part of it, but only part. Whether he knew it or not, Beaty was making a reference that goes further back than Mangino building KU from 2-10 to Orange Bowl champion.

This is how Bill Snyder built the Kansas State football team from the verge of dropping in class, or dropping football altogether, into a national power. The truth is, what Beaty faces now is a kindred challenge to the one two hours down the Interstate, an accomplishment so incredible it is known as a miracle.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that question,” says Steve Miller, Kansas State’s athletic director when Snyder was hired. “But, yeah. I do see similarities with Kansas right now.”

If Kansas football in 2015 is in a hole similar to K-State in the 1980s, it is a deep, dark, tragicomedy of a hole.

Much of that story has been told, of course. About how only the seniors on Snyder’s first team had ever won a game at K-State, or how a plan was in place for K-State to leave Division I football for the Missouri Valley, or about the time K-State was set to end an 18-game losing streak and the coaches left their booth to join the celebration only to find that the team had blown the lead in the time it took them to ride the elevator to the field.

Yes, many stories have been told many times. One that hasn’t is about how Miller came to find Snyder. Then an assistant at Iowa, Snyder was not Miller’s first choice. Or his second. Or, actually, even his 12th.

Miller and the rest of the K-State search committee interviewed no fewer than 18 candidates before Snyder. One of them wanted the team to travel by train, with a study car, and promote itself as the most studious program in the Big Eight. Another thought Aggieville could be a real boost for K-State’s recruiting, particularly if they could couple the bar scene with readily available women and grade fixing.

One had the best idea, if we can agree that in this context that “best” means “ridiculous to the point of being imagined by a crazy person.”

You see, this man wanted to put a dome on K-State’s stadium, but “dome” is probably too fancy of a word because he wanted to use parachutes. That’s right. Parachutes. His theory was that the tautness — his word — of the parachutes pulled tight around the corners of the stadium would make it work.

Miller listened, nodded, turned to a colleague and said, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, that he was going to the bathroom and that when he returned this man better not still be here.

“It wasn’t like everyone I interviewed was a nutcase,” Miller says. “But a few of them definitely were.”

All of these men were searching for ways to set K-State’s program apart. To differentiate it in a field of many other schools competing for the same thing.

As it turned out, K-State found that difference not just in a brilliant and diligent football coach but a synergy with and massive commitment from the administration. Alumni joined in, too, donating millions of dollars, at least in part motivated by the desperation that comes from being close to dropping major college football.

All of those things are much easier to describe than to find, and at least in the eyes of one of the men who helped K-State build, the situation at KU is in some ways even more challenging.

What Miller talks about here is a bit counterintuitive, but it makes sense, particularly when you consider that the last two football coaches have been fired after two and two and a half seasons.

Kansas, Miller points out, has been very successful in a lot of ways. The men’s basketball program is the most obvious example, but it has also been the state’s flagship university, the one with the law school and medical school.

“When you have a situation like that,” Miller says, “I don’t know what their temperament for patience is.”

There is more. Building a football program requires an enormous expenditure in both money and energy. K-State had some very specific and very important reasons for motivation here. KU has done some nice things for football, but major renovations to Memorial Stadium have been stalled for the better part of a decade.

Kansas has some strong history in football. Most of it is dusty, or in black-and-white photographs, but still, it’s something. People around the program can remember KU in the national polls, blowing out Nebraska, and as much as some use that as an example of the possibilities, the reality can be difficult to accept.

“(Winning at KU) is harder than what we did in this respect,” Miller says. “Because Kansas State was never there, the incremental bar you had to clear was, frankly, a bit easier. The bar was so low you could just have a concert and do better. You could do almost anything.

“The problem with KU is you’ve been there. You’ve played in the Orange Bowl. You’ve had All-Americans. You’ve done things. You have a history. There’s a lot of doubting about where you are, but there are a lot of comparisons about where you were. That comparison makes the climb harder.

“KU’s expectation, their history, what they’ve done in the past, is actually in some degree, and in some very strange ways, a detriment. It’s not a plus.”

So, that’s where we are. A semi-historical winless season is a strong possibility, if not a probability. Thirty-one consecutive road losses, and the most winnable remaining game appears to be this weekend, on the road, as a 16  1/2 -point underdog.

All of that, and Beaty is up there behind that lectern, and he won’t stop talking about sawing wood.

Already, Beaty is more comfortable up there. That deserves to be said. The man has never been a college head coach before and, actually, was passed over for the offensive coordinator job at Texas A&M.

He was noticeably nervous at his introductory news conference at KU, saying “Texas” when he meant to say “Kansas,” so it was easy for some to run with the narrative that he’s in over his head.

But he’s much more at ease now. That happened quickly. He looks people in the eye, speaks with passion, and generally does a good job projecting the image of a man you’d be comfortable having coach your son, which is really the whole point of these things.

“Those kids, they’re just like us,” Beaty says. “They want five years of work in six months. It doesn’t work like that.”

There isn’t much positive for Beaty to talk about. The Jayhawks just lost by 13 points to one of the most dysfunctional programs in recent college football history. Despite one of the easier nonconference schedules around, they are next-to-last in points scored and last in points surrendered among Big 12 teams.

Their quarterbacks have been hit 14 times, while they’ve hit the other side’s quarterback just four. They are giving up 542 yards per game, and despite that emphasis on limiting penalties committed a key and unnecessary horse-collar tackle in the loss to Rutgers.

Beaty probably oversold his team before the season. There has been a subtle recalibration in the way he talks about it now. He still speaks positively about his players. But now it’s more about getting a little better every day, about learning how to manage the game as a head coach, and continuing to recruit and sell the program to the outside.

“Keep sawing wood,” he says. “Keep sawing wood. It’ll hit.”

That line is even more appropriate for Beaty’s new life than he may know. Snyder, when accomplishing what is likely the closest thing to what Beaty is now attempting, used to say it all the time. Keep sawing wood, he told his players and coaches back in the early 1990s before they ever made a bowl game.

One of those coaches was Mangino. Keep sawing wood has been the soundtrack to at least two improbable college football rises already. There is so much to do before Beaty can make it three.

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