When you get right down to it, when you cut away all the pomp and personality and everything else, Jack Mitchell was a recruiter.
He was other things, too, of course. A husband. A father. A college football coach who, in nine seasons at Kansas University, led the Jayhawks to a 44-42-5 record.
But at the core of the man, according to those who knew him, was a man born to recruit. He could stride into a room, they say, his dark hair and sharp features calling to mind a cheerier Dean Martin, and convince a recruit’s mother — and thereby, the recruit himself — that her son was the next Johnny Unitas and that there was no possible way life could go on unless he was wearing a Kansas uniform come September.
“As you get older, (you realize) that his whole thing was always building people up,” says Bill Lynch, a former Kansas running back/tackle who spent three seasons under Mitchell. “You could call it blowing smoke if you wanted to. ... But as a player, you thought you were the greatest, because he told you you were the greatest.”
So on Monday — a day after Mitchell died of cancer at age 85 near his home in Sun City, Ariz. — former players and assistants did the same for the old coach. Across the state, they picked up their telephones, dialed up old friends and chuckled into receivers as they recounted tales of Mitchell — an army of men forever wooed by the coach’s charm and humor and the quickness of his smile.
Men like Bill Bell, a former KU kicker and member of Mitchell’s final recruiting class at KU, who says he left his first meeting with the coach carrying a single thought: “I’m the savior of Kansas football.”
Or like Lynch, who, after asking Mitchell to pen a letter of recommendation for an upcoming job interview following college, came away with a piece of writing that could accurately be described as a work of fiction.
“You would have thought I was an all-American,” gushes Lynch. “It was smoke. He was just full of it!”
During his tenure as Kansas’ head coach, from 1958 to 1966, this was largely what carried Mitchell: A natural charm that made everyone he came into contact with — from the starting quarterback to the fourth-string long-snapper — feel like the most important guy in the room.
And it was this quality that helped Mitchell usher in some of the finest players in KU’s history. Gale Sayers. Bobby Douglass. John Zook. Of Kansas’ 12 first-team all-Americans, Mitchell coached four of them.
Perhaps his most impressive recruiting coup, however, came in his own backyard.
Shortly after being hired to replace Chuck Mather at KU in 1958, Mitchell was informed that, if his intentions were to build a successful football program, it would be in his best interest to sign a local boy by the name of John Hadl.
Problem was, Hadl, then a star at Lawrence High, was already committed to play under Bud Wilkinson at national power Oklahoma.
So one afternoon, knowing that Hadl’s father enjoyed the occasional horseback ride, Mitchell showed up at the Hadl home with a pair of saddled horses, a couple of drinks and an invitation for Hadl’s old man to go for a ride.
An hour or so later, when the two returned from their jaunt, the elder Hadl had an announcement.
“When they came back, Dad said, ‘You’re going to Kansas, and we’re not talking about it any more,’” says Hadl, who subsequently switched his commitment from Oklahoma to Kansas and went on to become an all-American quarterback and halfback for the Jayhawks.
Once he’d secured the talent, meanwhile, Mitchell didn’t have much trouble figuring out what to do with it.
He led the Jayhawks to their first bowl victory in school history — over Rice in the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl — and within three years of being hired had turned in a 7-2-1 season (although two of those victories were later forfeited due to an ineligible player).
In his quest to build the program, Mitchell was open to just about anything, going to great — and sometimes unique — lengths to achieve the desired results.
Faced with a running back who couldn’t hold on to the football, for instance, Mitchell decided hypnotization would be a sufficient method to cure the problem. And so, despite the protests of assistant coaches — namely Don Fambrough, who believed time could be better served engaging in more tangible matters — Mitchell invited the running back and a local hypnotist to the team’s staff meeting the following week, with the goal being to rid the player of his issues.
“So (the guy) goes into his act, and he was swinging something off of a chain,” says Fambrough. “I kept watching that damn thing, and you would know, I fell asleep and fell out of my chair.”
“Jack Mitchell wouldn’t have given a million dollars for that,” he added. “He never forgot it. Every time I was ever with him ... he would bring that up.”
Like any good Kansan, meanwhile, Mitchell — who grew up in Arkansas City — possessed a healthy distaste for the University of Missouri.
During halftime of a particularly close game against the Tigers, he did what he was known to do in the locker room: Spat fire and tore into his team.
At one point, in an apparent effort to grab the attention of his players, he slammed his hand into a nearby blackboard — “I mean, he slugged it,” says Hadl — before ordering everyone from the locker room.
“I was one of the last ones to leave,” said Hadl. “And the minute everybody left, he grabbed his wrist in pain. He had cracked a bone, and the next day he had it all wrapped up.”
“But I’m pretty sure we won that game,” Hadl added. “So he was all right.”
Before arriving at Kansas, Mitchell navigated the coaching ranks, beginning as a high school coach at Blackwell (Okla.) High. From there, he moved on to assistant positions at both Tulsa University and Texas Tech, and then earned his first head coaching job at the University of Wichita (now Wichita State) in 1953 and moved on to Arkansas two years later before landing in Lawrence.
His undoing at Kansas came following a pair of sub-par seasons — Kansas finished 2-8 in 1965 and 2-7-1 in 1966, leading to his dismissal. He would go on to purchase a newspaper in Wellington, serving 20 years as its publisher before eventually retiring to Arizona.
His lack of proximity to Lawrence, however, didn’t derail his passion for the program.
Not long before his death — as his health deteriorated and he began losing touch with reality — Mitchell had grown concerned that Zook, the former Kansas standout who spent 11 seasons in the NFL, was being poached by an assumed rival, and told his wife she needed to alert Fambrough of this development. She, in turn, told son Jud, who recently relayed the information to Fambrough.
“She said ‘Your dad keeps wanting me to call Fambrough and tell him to go out West, because they’re trying to steal Zook,” said Fambrough, chuckling as he recounted the story Monday morning from his Lawrence home.
“Even up to the very time he died,” he added, “Jack was (recruiting).”