When the clock struck 0:00 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, 2008, it also struck midnight on Kansas football playing Cinderella.
The Jayhawks’ 24-21 victory over No. 5 Virginia Tech completed a 12-1 season. It was the high point in the program’s history. There was no place to go but down.
Over the next 10 seasons, Kansas has averaged 2.8 victories per season under four different coaches. The 28-93 record over the last decade is the worst of any Power 5 school. Over the last nine seasons in the Big 12, KU has host 74 games – with four winless seasons – and won just five.
There is no bigger disparity in college sports than the success of the Jayhawks’ basketball program and the wasteland of the school’s football program.
Jeff Long has been hired to fix it. He replaced Sheahon Zenger as Kansas’ athletic director. Zenger hired Charlie Weis, whose inconsistent and imperious recruiting methods wrecked the roster and turned KU into an FCS team. Zenger then turned to David Beaty, the lowest-paid coach in the Big 12.
Beaty has been trying to rebuild a dead program while competing in one of the nation’s top conferences. He is 3-33 entering 2018. The Las Vegas odds for KU winning the Big 12 title are the longest in college football – 800 to 1.
Long’s hiring has flipped the hour glass and the sand is slipping away on Beaty’s tenure. Beaty needs to surpass, perhaps double, his win total to stick around for Year Five. It’s not his fault but a Power Five school can’t afford to have a punchline program, no matter how many conference championships the basketball team wins.
This is the 50th anniversary of KU’s last football championship, winning the Big Eight Conference. Since then it has had two seasons with 10 or more victories and played in eight bowl games. It is most definitely a basketball school.
However, the school and the athletic department can’t abide a football program that every team on its schedule wants to invite to homecoming.
“Big picture wise I think for our program our goal is set to reach a bowl game,” Long said at his introductory news conference. “So we’ll strive to reach a bowl game and once we reach that level we won’t stop there. We’ll move on to more games and ultimately I’m not shy in saying someday down the road we’re going win the Big 12 championship. We’ve done it here at Kansas in the past and it’s something we’re certainly going to work every day and night to do.”
A conference championship might be out of reach but improvement is certainly reasonable. About an hour west of Lawrence, Kansas State had the nation’s worst football program until it hired Bill Snyder.
However, that was 30 years ago and college football has changed. Climbing the improvement ladder is a bigger challenge than it was when Snyder first arrived in Manhattan.
Long’s big picture view of reaching a bowl game doesn’t include this season. What Beaty needs to show is that the Jayhawks can be competitive. In 27 Big 12 games over the last three seasons, Kansas has been outscored by an average of 30 points a game – 44.8 to 14.7.
Even if Beaty reduces the margins of defeat to 20 points a game, another 1-11 season would fall into the good job, good effort territory.
“I’ve had good conversations with Coach Beaty,” Long said. “Looking forward to seeing his operation, understanding how he goes about business on the inside and then certainly they’re preparing for their first game on Sept. 1 … We’ll really start to know the progress of the program on Sept. 1 as the season begins.
“I know he’s a good person, I know he works hard. But we haven’t gone into any depth about his program.”
If Beaty’s status on the hot seat wasn’t obvious, it’s also clear that Long comes to Kansas with a coaching candidate in his back pocket. Long was fired as Arkansas’ athletic director in November and after the season the school dismissed coach Bret Bielema.
In December 2012 Long pulled off one of the most surprising hires in recent years when he lured Bielema to Fayetteville after a successful (68-24 in seven seasons) run at Wisconsin.
At Arkansas, though, Bielema went 29-34 in five seasons.
Bielema spent two seasons on Snyder’s staff at K-State. If Snyder steps down after this season, Bielema would be a candidate. Kansas fans would be giddy if they think KU deprived their Sunflower State rival of a potential successor.
And, of course, there’s always money. After the biggest victory of Beaty’s career – an overtime defeat of Texas in 2016 – the excitement helped lead to a $350 million fundraising campaign for the football program with most of the money going to Memorial Stadium improvements.
A $50 million pledge kick-started the campaign but soliciting donations for a losing program is like selling saltines to someone lost in the desert.
Hiring Bielema might be too obvious and too easy. What’s certain, though, is that about six months from now, Long will again be at another news conference hiring the school’s new football coach.
The new athletic director made it clear that change – either in the head coaching office or the won-loss column – is coming.
“I’d like to say one message to the KU family specifically about our football team,” Long said. “It’s time to break the cycle.”