Possible KU football coaching candidates to replace David Beaty
LAWRENCE — One name sits atop the mind of many Kansas football fans as the program searches for its 39th head coach, but several others are worth keeping an eye on, too.
First-year athletic director Jeff Long's firing Sunday of fourth-year head coach David Beaty — effective at the end of the season — set in motion, at least publicly, the Jayhawks' high-stakes search for a replacement who will inherit a downtrodden program that's only won 19.7 percent of its games over the last nine-plus seasons.
With a reputation as a big-name hunter thanks to previous hires Dave Wannstedt (Pittsburgh) and Bobby Petrino and Bret Bielema (Arkansas), Long would complete his most high-profile hire yet if he reaches an agreement with former LSU coach Les Miles, widely seen as the front-runner for the position — if he has interest.
Miles went 114-34 at LSU with a BCS Championship victory in 2007 but was fired by the program in September 2016. He has a longstanding relationship with Long — in fact, the current Fox Sports analyst Miles earlier this year acknowledged he "considered" accepting the then-vacant Arkansas head coaching position in 2012. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Long had offered Miles the job.
At 64 years old, Miles' coaching longevity and potential patience for what is undoubtedly still a rebuilding effort remains unknown, though his eagerness to return to the sideline doesn't appear in question. An ESPN report less than two months after his firing at LSU pegged Miles as already putting together a staff for a potential 2017 return that didn't materialize.
"I'm looking for a place dedicated to the players' achievement in the classroom and that wants to win championships," Miles told ESPN in November 2016. "If there's an athletic director and president that wants to do that, I'm in line."
Miles' six-year, $9.6 million buyout from LSU stipulates the former coach must actively attempt to obtain a new job, according to The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La.
As for what Long is looking for this go-round, the traits were publicly identified through a Sunday afternoon tweet sent shortly after Beaty's dismissal.
"Our search will find an experienced (head coach) that is a proven program builder and strong recruiter ... that is an established leader of men, both on and off the field," tweeted Long.
If nothing else, the coach who cut his teeth in the Southeastern Conference appears to check all of those boxes.
Here are five other candidates who also fit that mold, with this footnote: Like Miles, each is among the 245 individuals Long follows on Twitter, with several joining that list after Long's start at KU.
SETH LITTRELL, North Texas head coach — The 40-year-old Littrell is one of the hottest up-and-coming names in coaching, with his Mean Green now 7-2 on the season and bowl eligible for the third time in his three seasons. A player on Oklahoma's national championship team in 2000, Littrell may adopt a holding pattern until the Sooners' Lincoln Riley solidifies his future, though Littrell did spend three seasons in Lawrence as a KU graduate assistant (2002-04).
TODD GRAHAM, former Arizona State head coach — A candidate for the opening according to a report from USA Today's Dan Wolken, Graham went 46-32 in his most recent stop with the Sun Devils, which ended with his firing last November. Like Miles, the 53-year-old Graham's unemployment means he could hit the ground running immediately in recruiting, where the Jayhawks have just one oral commitment in the upcoming class.
DAVE DOEREN, N.C. State head coach — There appear two major obstacles casting doubt on KU's ability to steal the 46-year-old Shawnee native away from the Wolfpack: a $6 million buyout that would be owed to N.C. State, and whether the sixth-year coach would even leave a program he's rebuilt into the nation's No. 22-ranked team at 6-2. Doeren was a leading candidate for the KU opening that ultimately went to Charlie Weis in 2011.
MAJOR APPLEWHITE, Houston head coach — Another rising name in college football circles, the 40-year-old Applewhite is 22-14 with the Cougars, including a 7-2 mark this year. A former quarterback and later offensive coordinator at Texas, Applewhite is thought of highly as a recruiter in the state, where the Jayhawks have struggled to secure commitments over the last two seasons.
JIM LEAVITT, Oregon defensive coordinator/linebackers coach — What better way for the Jayhawks to stick it to their in-state rival Kansas State than by hiring away a man many see as the team's next coach? Leavitt has the relevant experience — he literally built the South Florida football program from scratch, going 75-44 in his 10 seasons after becoming the Bulls' first head coach in 2000. He earned bowl eligibility in each of his final five seasons, but allegations of physical abuse against a player cost the now 61-year-old his job in 2010. It appears K-State, at least, has considered giving him a second chance — former athletic director John Currie reportedly struck a deal with Leavitt to become the program's coach-in-waiting before Bill Snyder axed the move.
Firing Beaty was the easy part. Now the real work begins for new Kansas AD Jeff Long
Commentary By Sam Mellinger
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.