Twenty years ago I developed a theory about sports. This theory stated that sports teams, or the coaches and administrators that lead them, can sell their souls to the devil in exchange for short-term success.
I came up with this theory after Missouri went 14-0 in Big 8 play in 1994. While they had some fine talent, Melvin Booker and Jevon Crudup most notably, no one expected them to run away with the conference title that year. They rebounded from a terrible December loss to Arkansas, adding junior college transfer Paul O’Liney along the way, and made it to the Elite 8 before falling to Arizona.
That was the last good team of Norm Stewart’s career. I enjoyed teasing my Mizzou friends by claiming that Norm had sold his soul for one last great team and the Tigers wouldn’t be good again until he retired.
I also used this theory against co-workers from my company’s St. Louis office after the Rams won their Super Bowl. Sure, they made another Super Bowl, losing to the Patriots on Adam Vinatieri’s last-second field goal, but the “Greatest Show On Turf” was never quite the same after that one championship season. “Dick Vermeil sold the franchise’s soul to the devil,” I would say loudly at company gatherings when Rams fans I knew were close.
Well, it’s been clear for some time I need to apply my theory to my own team. Clearly Mark Mangino and/or Lew Perkins did some soul selling to earn KU’s 12-1, Orange Bowl champions season in 2007. Another bowl game, again a win, followed the next year, but nothing else has quite gone right since.
Mangino couldn’t capitalize on the Orange Bowl win, or the first back-to-back bowl appearances in school history. He shunned the diamonds in the rough he built the program with and went after bigger name recruits. He missed on most, and the ones he got were mostly busts once they got to Lawrence.
Then he started shoving kids and making horrible remarks about their dead relatives and got fired, losing his last seven games along the way. Oh, and either he or his offensive coordinator went brain dead when they could have killed the clock and upset Missouri in his final game, giving the Tigers the ball back with time for the winning score.
Lew Perkins swung for the fences to replace Mangino. When he missed on his top target, Jim Harbaugh, he panicked and gave Turner Gill, a guy who won six games at Buffalo, the same money he was throwing at Harbaugh to lure him away from Stanford.
Gill said all the right things, but by all accounts was not prepared to run a BCS-level program. During his two years, despite his bold stands against profanity, hanging out with women after 10:00 pm, and cell phones on nights before games, he somehow ignored everything else. Players were missing classes and failing drug tests left-and-right. Not only were they losing badly each Saturday, but they were an embarrassment off the field, too.
This time there was a new athletic director in place, Sheahon Zenger. He was a “football guy,” having worked for Bill Snyder and several of Snyder’s disciples before getting into administration. He, too, went after some big names. He, too, missed, panicked, and gave Charlie Weis a big stack of money.
Few KU fans were impressed. In fact, most of us declared a loud, “WTF?!?!” Charlie Weis made no sense.
But Charlie signed two five star recruits in two days, brought in a big junior college class in his first recruiting group, including two more five star players, and things looked promising.
Expect all those guys sucked. That vaunted junior college class produced one convicted felon, two knee injuries, and none of its top four players ever played a down for KU.
The losses piled up. So did the anger by people who cared about KU football, and apathy from those who gave up on Jayhawk football decades ago and spend their falls rooting against Missouri and K-State until basketball season begins.
Weis’ firing was inevitable. It was rumored to be on the verge two weeks ago after an embarrassing loss to Duke. A win last week against Central Michigan seemed to give him breathing room. But Saturday’s feckless performance against a pretty mediocre Texas team was apparently the last straw.
I was never a fan of Charlie Weis. But I will give him this: he did a lot of good at KU. People inside and outside the program say he changed the culture, turning pretty much everything off the field completely around from the Gill era. Players are going to class, there haven’t been as many drug issues, and he turned the strength and conditioning program around.
But he couldn’t get wins. He drove nearly 30 players out of the program before his first season. Combined with the failures of his Juco class to get on the field, it was devastating to a program that can’t afford recruiting misses. The numbers on the roster are way down. What little talent there is has no depth behind it. He made two big gambles and lost each one. And for that, he lost his job.
Worse, there was the way he seemed to clearly identify what was wrong with the team and then change the “solution” each week. There wasn’t a strong, consistent voice at the top of the program.
I don’t think Charlie is a bad guy. Yes, he talks too much and is full of himself. And he’s not the offensive guru he was made out to be when he coached Tom Brady. I think he cared about turning KU around and worked hard to do it. He just didn’t have the answers.
Which begs the question who does. KU has never been an easy job, and it’s gotten even more difficult with the current Big 12 schedule. But I also don’t think it’s a terrible job. There’s plenty of talent in the Kansas City area. Glen Mason and Mark Mangino got a lot of those kids. Gill and Weis did not.1 You start there. Yeah, you chase talent in Texas because you kind of have to do that in the Big 12. There is the opportunity for immediate playing time in Lawrence for the next coach to sell.
I think the biggest key is for Zenger and the money men who chased Gill and Weis is to not worry about the weight of the name of the next coach.2 If you find someone who has a proven track record, that’s fine. But, if the best candidate is an energetic guy with a good grasp on how football is played these days and a plan to get the talent to compete, but isn’t a household name, don’t let that stop you.
Also, don’t fear hiring someone who can turn the program around but will leave shortly after. Hell, hope that happens. Hope you hire someone who gets KU back to a bowl game in three years and then takes off for Mississippi State or wherever. That’s a good problem to have! Then you hire the next coach into a healthy program rather than starting from below zero yet again.
My expectations have always been very modest for KU football. One bowl game every 4-5 years is enough for me. Hope for more than that, but use that as the baseline. There might be some 2-10 years in there, but hopefully more 5-7 ones where they are at least competitive most of the time. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation, even in the Big 12. With the right coach, continued improvement to the facilities and support systems, there’s no reason a coach can’t bring in enough talent to compete with all but the Big 12’s elite.
Assuming, of course, that KU has satisfied its deal with the devil for that 2007 season. Haven’t we suffered enough?
Rock Chalk, bitches.
- Rumor has it Weis spent almost no time recruiting either Rockhurst or Blue Springs, schools that consistently turn out D1 talent. Not that he can force his kids to go anywhere, but Blue Springs is coached by former KU quarterback Kelly Donahoe. ↩
- Not literally weight. That’s not a Mangino/Weis fat joke in disguise. ↩