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What kind of coach can win at Kansas?

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The formula that propelled Kansas in the past is now a best practice in the Big 12. To win in the future they need to go a different route.

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Kansas Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

After a 26-23 overtime loss to Nicholls in week one, David Beaty is now 3-34 in his time at Kansas and at real risk of watching his team “go defeated” for the second time in his tenure as head coach.

Kansas’ football performance over the last two decades has had some sensational highs and lows, peaking in 2007 when they went 13-1 and won a BCS Bowl game and then hitting perhaps their lowest low when they provided the sole victory for rebuilding Baylor in 2017, cementing them as the floor of the league.

Unfortunately the Jayhawk administration didn’t make a particularly timely decision here. Last year’s 1-11 season, which came despite the defense having an NFL DE and then a DT that will probably join the NFL in 2019, made fairly obvious that this program just wasn’t getting any traction under Beaty’s leadership. They gave him another year, which he then used to fill up the team with JUCO transfers that could set the next coach (assuming that he’s fired after this year, which seems more than likely) back considerably. That’s what Charlie Weis’ did to Beaty with his later classes and it’s been a vicious cycle for the Jayhawks.

Beaty inherited a tough situation with a low number of scholarship players and his plan to repair the problem with his recruiting connections in Texas and Louisiana that he’d worked as an assistant for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M simply didn’t bring the yield it needed to.

So Kansas needs to hire a new coach in the coming year and AD Jeff Long really needs to think long and hard about what kind of coach can bring success to Kansas.

That 2007 season

The 2007 team was coached by Mark Mangino, who later was pushed out after it was revealed that he was regularly verbally abusive to his players. Current Michigan OL coach Ed Warriner was offensive coordinator and eventual Oklahoma State defensive savior Bill Young coached the defense. Current Texas OC Tim Beck was also an assistant and current DC Clint Bowen was already there. That man has survived seemingly every change in Lawrence over the course of the century.

Much of their record was due to a few key factors that cannot be overlooked. The Big 12 was split into two divisions at that time and Kansas was in the North division with a Snyder-less Kansas State and collapsing Bill Callahan Nebraska team. The only other good team with them in the north was Missouri, who narrowly defeated them in the season finale and handed them their only loss of the year. The Big 12 South was loaded with a solid Texas team they didn’t play, a not quite elite Oklahoma team (year one with Sam Bradford) they didn’t play, and typical Texas Tech they didn’t play. Instead they drew one of the weaker Mike Gundy Oklahoma State teams and the Texas A&M Aggies.

In today’s round robin Big 12, Kansas would never get so favorable a draw ever again.

Still, this was a good team and they won all but one game while putting up historic offensive numbers.

The team’s makeup was completely reasonable in composition. The 12 main guys on offense included five Kansans and the only JUCO in the whole group was RG Chet Hartley who’d gone to a Kansas HS before attending a Kansas JUCO. On defense they had another three Kansans making up the starting 11.

Texas provided another eight guys to the top 23, most of them coming from the DFW Metroplex save Houstonian center Ryan Cantrell and QB Todd Reesing, who was in fact the first famous QB from Lake Travis high school in Northwest Austin. There was one Californian (MLB Joe Mortensen) and another starter from Missouri but most everyone was from Kansas, Texas, or Oklahoma.

Kansas were early adopters of the HUNH spread offense and followed normal “count the box, go where they ain’t” rules while typically utilizing outside zone to make the most of a scrappy and quick but not particularly imposing OL. Despite his small size, Todd Reesing was a regular contributor in the run game, picking up 92 carries on the year but also getting involved in speed option plays that often resulted in a pitch.

They were primarily a spread passing team that also had a high degree of competence and versatility in the run game if you dared them to utilize it.

Kansas’ best roster was made up of the sorts of players you’d expect Kansas to be getting by with. The classes that went into that team included...

2003: 44th nationally, 7th in the Big 12, average rating of .8067 by 247 composite.

2004: 52nd nationally, 11th in the Big 12, average rating of .7889 by 247 composite.

2005: 41st nationally, 7th in the Big 12, average rating of .8123 by 247 composite.

2006: 39th nationally, 6th in the Big 12, average rating of .8291 by 247 composite.

2007: 50th nationally, 9th in the Big 12, average rating of .8237 by 247 composite.

Things were looking up, but those latter classes filling out the 2007 team’s underclassmen ranks were no better per the rankings than the classes Beaty has been signing.

Kansas’ advantages

There aren’t many.

It’s a basketball school in a state that is indiscernible from Nebraska in terms of population and demographics. The Jayhawk Community College system does include several strong JUCO football programs that regularly do a good job of developing overlooked local talent and out of state talent looking for a bridge to big time football. Obviously Kansas State made great use of those JUCO programs in the Snyder era but that can be a tricky solution today when national programs scout those schools more heavily and it’s no longer as useful a tactic for the Wildcats. When Weis filled up with JUCOs a large number of them flushed out of the program as they were guys other programs didn’t want to take risks on.

The advantages, such as they are, include low amounts of pressure or unhelpful scrutiny and involvement and also a good pitch to make to overlooked talents in the Kansas-Oklahoma-North Texas region. The problem for Kansas today is that the Big 12 is a different place now than it was in 2007.

Everyone runs the HUNH spread so there are no advantages to be had from innovating with that style and the Big 12 replaced Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado with TCU, adding one more program into the mix that makes their living from carefully scouting the best 3-star Texas talents. Lake Travis QBs are at last a prized commodity with the last one currently at Ohio State, the current starter committed to Texas, and a back-up with an offer from Houston. There are lots of programs in the league that exist in college towns with smaller fanbases, are culture and system oriented, and are recruiting the types of players that Mangino utilized in 2007 from the same locales.

Kansas is going to struggle to win following current best practices, they need to be back ahead of the game like they were in 2007 and they need to be mindful of the local population’s strengths and weaknesses. They may find some scrappy and overlooked football players, particularly from the more rural northwest side of the state. It may also be a good idea to utilize the JUCOs more like Kansas State does now, picking off preferred walk-ons early in their careers in order to fill out the roster.

It’d be silly not to scout the Metroplex for skill talent as well. But there needs to be great organization and development to try and maximize every talent and the deployment strategies need to be different from the rest of the league.

So what to do?

There seem to be three prevalent schools of thought on where Kansas should go from here.

1) Go hire an innovative FCS offensive guy while he’s still low enough on the coaching hierarchy to be unable to say no to the opportunity.

2) Go hire a triple option coach and embrace an identity as a team that can be fun to watch and maybe wins a few games per year against the teams that don’t have a good option plan.

3) Bert happens.

The last time new Kansas AD Jeff Long was looking to make a hire in a small, heavily rural state surrounded by stronger and more resourceful football programs he snatched Bret Bielema from Wisconsin. Well, Bielema is currently available.

Bret has coached under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Bill Snyder at Kansas State, and both Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa so he knows the region and what kinds of players are available. He seemed to be expecting to find such players at Arkansas but then ended up pulling players out of Minnesota and Denmark in order to find the sorts of OL that are much more common in Wisconsin, Iowa, or even Kansas. What’s more, he was generally reasonably successful at building some good, power run games but struggled to develop good defenses.

As it happens, the blueprint for making a power run game work in the Big 12 is now out there. In the past going on that route was highly questionable because a team that can’t score quickly or often is at a decided schematic disadvantage in a league where shootouts are the norm and opposing offenses are often running 80 or more plays.

But with the evolution of dime defenses, it’s possible to devise a strategy where a team can force an opponent to score their points by banging the ball on the ground with the run game and working their way down the field slowly and methodically. Who wins in a low-scoring slugfest between HUNH spread team A and Bielema bully ball team B in a game that is determined by who can hold the ball and score while running it off-tackle all day?

The advantage at Kansas is that they could hire Bielema to do exactly that and he’d be gifted all the time and leeway he could want. Just provided that he win a game from time to time.