LAWRENCE – The locker rooms lacked air conditioning. There were no meeting rooms dedicated for football. The weight room, or what one might refer to a weight room, was shared with the rest of the athletes on the University of Kansas campus.
When Glen Mason arrived at Kansas in 1988, leaving behind a coaching job at Kent State, he surveyed the landscape and came away with one prevailing thought:
We had better facilities at Kent State.
Mason, then a 37-year-old with two years of head coaching experience, had plenty of rational reasons to turn down a job at Kansas. The facilities were abysmal. The recruiting base, as it always has been, was questionable. The program had suffered through five losing seasons in six years.
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But for Mason, the possible objections were trumped by one determining factor. Kansas was in the Big Eight, among the best conferences in college football. Kent State was not.
“There’s only so many big-time jobs,” Mason says now. “Those are awful hard to get. And if you can get one, and you bypass it, you may not get another chance.”
More than 25 years later, KU is in the market for another coach — its fifth since Mason left for Minnesota in 1996. After firing Charlie Weis on Sept. 28, Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger has spent the past two months laying the groundwork for a search, compiling names and contacting potential candidates through consultant Chuck Neinas, the former Big 12 interim commissioner who was enlisted to help with the search.
According to a source familiar with the basics of the search procedure, KU will spend this week contacting possible candidates and zeroing in on a handful of top choices. For the moment, specific names are elusive.
Interim coach Clint Bowen is an official candidate, while other potential candidates have floated into the conversation. Memphis coach Justin Fuente is a hot commodity among many openings after leading the formerly woeful Tigers to a 9-3 record and an American Athletic Conference title. So, too, is Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz, a Kansas City native who guided his team to a Sun Belt title in the program’s first season in the Bowl Subdivision.
Other names — such as Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who’s from Cheney, or Texas A&M wide receivers coach David Beaty — have ties to the area or the program. But Zenger has remained tight-lipped.
As the search continues — and Zenger attempts to find the right fit for Kansas football — a key question rises, the same question that Mason had 26 years ago: How appealing is the Kansas job? Good enough to attract the right coach in a marketplace that includes openings at Nebraska, Florida and Michigan, as well as UNLV and Tulsa?
“These is upside potential there,” says Mason, now working in television after coaching at Minnesota from 1997 to 2006.
Oftentimes, to look at the KU football program is to see many pictures. The KU athletic department has invested millions in facilities upgrades over the last decade, building the $33 million Anderson Family Football Complex, complete with a new weight room and two new practice fields adjacent to Memorial Stadium.
But the job certainly has its natural drawbacks. The program has bottomed out during six straight losing seasons. The in-state recruiting base is thin, further emaciated by the presence of a perennial top-25 program in Kansas State and traditional powers such Oklahoma and Nebraska, who will swoop in and gobble up many of the state’s best recruits.
According to numbers tracked annually at the website NationalHSFootball.com, the state of Kansas produced an average of 14.8 Bowl Subdivision signees over the last four-year recruiting cycle. The number does not include walk-ons who may have grown into contributing players, but when compared against nearby states, the talent pool is shallow. Missouri produced an average of 28 FBS signees from 2011 to 2014, while Oklahoma averaged 35.3. Among states in the Big 12 footprint, only Iowa (8.8) and West Virginia (3) were worse at producing FBS players.
During the past two decades, Kansas has mined Texas for talent. But KU coaches also concede that the rise of Baylor and TCU, along with Texas A&M’s move to the Southeastern Conference, has ramped up the competition for Texas high school players.
“If you recruit the right guys in here,” KU receivers coach Eric Kiesau says, “you can have a positive, productive program.”
Those familiar with the KU program, though, point to other assets and appealing qualities. The last two Kansas coaches — Weis and Turner Gill — were paid handsomely, pulling in at least $2 million annually. And Zenger can point to recent success. While the glory was fleeting, Kansas was one of 51 schools to appear in a Bowl Championship Series game from 1997 to 2014. The Jayhawks were one of 21 schools that made one appearance, but a track record of some success can be critical.
One example: When Fuente, a Tulsa native, took over a losing Memphis program in 2012, he cited the program’s recent success in the early 2000s as a primary factor.
More to the point, Mason says, Kansas is a Big 12 job, one of 64 jobs in the power-five conferences. For every top assistant reluctant to stake their career on a tenuous rebuild at Kansas, there are five to 10 others waiting for an opportunity.
“I looked at it as a product,” Mason says. “Is this product sellable? What’s the campus like? What’s the school like? At Kansas, why can’t you sell it?”