Jeff Long’s timing is impeccable. Think about it: In the past 30 years, has there ever been a better time for a KU athletic director to hire a new football coach?
Granted, the Jayhawks’ gridiron program is a mess in the wake of Long’s Sunday firing of David Beaty. KU is 6-39 the past four years under Beaty and 23-94 during the past decade. Its facilities are lacking, recruiting is nonexistent and the atmosphere at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on game days is moribund, as evidenced this past Saturday when the majority of the 15,000 in attendance came to cheer Iowa State.
All of that is troublesome, to say the least. But KU’s troubles are of its own doing, the result of poor hires, mismanagement and neglect.
That, of course, is why Long is here in the first place; he was brought in to “break the cycle” of disrepair. And for the first time since Mark Mangino trolled KU’s sidelines, there are reasons to believe this is the perfect time to do that.
One difference in KU’s current situation involves resource allocation. With plenty of support from chancellor Douglas Girod, Long isn’t consumed with “Raise the Chant,” an ill-timed $350 million fundraising venture to refurbish facilities. Long instead is consumed with identifying areas most in need of funding. That apparently starts with addressing personnel deficiencies, as Long says in-house research indicates the Jayhawk football program is operating at a deficit of between eight and 15 staffers compared to other Big 12 schools.
Long and Girod want to invest in people first, projects second. That’s a significant change in philosophy. Forget the if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach. KU's revised plan emphasizes finding pundits who know how to build a worthwhile product that entices fans to come. It’s one that could — maybe even should — produce tangible results in a year or two.
Another major difference for KU at this particular point in time concerns Bill Snyder and the FBS team 80 miles to the Jayhawks’ west. Rarely has the program Snyder built from the ashes three decades ago appeared more vulnerable. As absurd as it seems to suggest, K-State might actually be in greater turmoil than the in-state rival that doesn’t even know who its coach will be at the end of the month.
The Wildcats, like the Jayhawks, are 3-6 heading into this weekend’s Sunflower Showdown. They’re on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time since 2009 — the first season of Snyder’s second stint with K-State — and the iconic coach recently said he couldn’t remember a time when his program was in worse shape.
His team can’t win a close game, he's had a number of player defections during the past year or two, and Snyder himself keeps undermining his players and his cause with confounding statements that seem completely out of character — comments that must have offended or ostracized some of the Wildcats.
Worse yet, questions about Snyder’s future now hover over the Vanier Complex like a black cloud. The shortcomings on the field have been so glaring and Snyder's remarks so derisive that a handful of local columnists already have called for the Hall of Famer to resign. Given all that Snyder has done — not just for for K-State football, but also for the Manhattan community and economy — that's something I hoped we'd never see.
It also is something KU supporters shouldn’t underestimate. Why? Because for the Jayhawks to return to college football relevance, their first priority must be to own a state that has never been more ripe for the picking. K-State's problems become KU's possibilities, whether Long hires Les Miles or someone completely off the media radar.
One area where Beaty consistently failed was in recruiting within the state. The Jayhawks’ current roster includes only 22 Kansans — and precious few key in-state contributors other than Lawrence products Joe Dineen Jr., Keith Loneker Jr. and safety Bryce Torneden.
The Wildcats’ roster features two-and-a-half times as many in-state products, including notables such as running back Alex Barnes, quarterback Alex Delton, receiver Dalton Schoen, offensive lineman Scott Frantz, defensive tackle Trey Dishon, defensive ends Wyatt Hubert and Kyle Ball, safety Denzel Goolsby and placekicker Blake Lynch.
Argue if you want that K-State leans too heavily on players from within the state’s borders or that such reliance contributed to this season’s decline and reflects substandard recruiting. All of that may be true.
But it’s worth remembering that some of the state's most successful teams benefited greatly from homegrown talent.
Former Kansas prep stars such as Mark Simoneau, Monty Beisel, Joe Bob Clements, Jon McGraw and Jamie Rheem helped K-State notch several double-digit-win seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Darren Sproles, Ryan Lilja and Joe Rheem were standouts on the 2003 team that shocked No. 1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. Arthur Brown, Chris Harper, Ty Zimmerman and Travis Tannahill were among Kansans who helped produced K-State’s 2012 league title.
As for KU, who can forget the many 2007 contributions made by Jake Sharp, Kerry Meier, Brandon McAnderson and Darrell Stuckey during the Jayhawks’ remarkable run to the Orange Bowl?
Remember, too, that it’s a rarity for KU and K-State to field successful teams during the same season, in part because that aforementioned in-state talent usually is at a premium. Since Snyder first arrived in Manhattan in late November 1988, there have been only four times when both teams posted winning records (1991: K-State 7-4, KU 6-5; 1994: K-State 9-3, KU 6-5; 1995: K-State 10-2, KU 10-2; 2006: K-State 7-6, KU 6-6).
In other words, if KU and K-State hope to reach a bowl game, the first step usually involves winning the Sunflower Showdown and consistently attracting the state’s best talent.
This year neither team appears headed to a bowl, no matter what happens this weekend in Manhattan. So regardless whether Snyder returns for the 2019 campaign or retires, the Wildcats will be facing a rebuild. They also could be coming off their most disappointing season since 2008 when Ron Prince went 5-7, and it isn't entirely outside the realm of possibility that this season could end as K-State's worst since 1989 when Snyder went 1-10.
The bottom line to all this is simple: With K-State on shakier ground than we’ve seen in recent memory and KU seemingly more committed to football than ever, the next Jayhawk coach should have a great opportunity to gain some immediate footing.
And Jeff Long couldn’t ask for a better time to start a football renaissance.