The easy path back to Division I football would have taken Darrian Miller, a major talent at running back, elsewhere. That way, his having been run from the program by new coach Charlie Weis would not become a big part of the story. Miller didn’t take that path and that speaks to the pull Kansas University has on those who taste it.
It’s often been said by football coaches throughout the years that getting athletes to make a campus visit is the toughest battle. Once they visit, soak in the natural beauty of the place, meet the people, get a feel for the vibe of life as a student-athlete, the place sells itself. Parents walk away impressed with Paul Buskirk, genuine boss of academic support. Athletes leave blown away by the facilities made possible in large part by the generosity of Tom Kivisto and Dana Anderson.
It’s natural to group the most recent football recruits, Miami of Ohio wide receiver Nick Harwell and Miller, together because they add so much explosiveness and because they weren’t always as impressive off the field as on it. But for the purposes of demonstrating the appeal of playing football and attending school at KU, cornerback Dexter McDonald is the better player to twin with Miller.
McDonald spent two seasons at KU, one wearing a redshirt, and then needed to attend Butler County Community College to get his academics headed in the right direction. He accomplished his goal, was ranked the 80th best junior college player in the nation, and decided to come back to KU. Why? He knows what a cool place it is to play college football and live as a college student.
After being shown the door by new head coach Charlie Weis, Miller, a native of Blue Springs, Mo., took the fall off from football, took classes at a junior college and then participated in spring football at Butler County Community College in El Dorado. He matured to the extent Weis wanted him back. Miller has three seasons of remaining eligibility and decided to spend them in Lawrence. Why? Again, unlike similar talents who never have visited KU, he knows what a special place it is.
Surely, when Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger took a gamble on Weis he did so in part because he knew the coach would be able to coax more serious talents into visiting Kansas. Based on the deep junior-college recruiting class and the addition of Harwell, Weis has done so, making Zenger look like a prophet in that regard, right?
“I’d love to take credit for that and say that was in the matrix (of reasons he hired Weis),” Zenger said. “The truth is that’s one of those things you just don’t have any way of knowing. It’s always an unknown.”
Zenger said the homework he did on Weis suggested he was hiring a man with a “really, really strong work ethic,” but he could not have foreseen exactly how that would manifest itself.
“I pictured him rolling up his sleeves and grinding it out in the office,” Zenger said. “What I’ve really enjoyed is seeing how hard he works at recruiting. Not every head coach is like that. Charlie will tell you it’s the assistants. He jumps right in there and works as hard at recruiting as his assistants. When a leader leads by example like that, everybody else naturally jumps right in.”
In welcoming first McDonald and then Miller back, Weis has brought two of the more talented Turner Gill recruits onto a team that has been led by James Sims (recruited by the staffs of Mark Mangino and Gill) and Tony Pierson (a Gill recruit).
Weis’ decision to retain another Gill recruit, running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, could rank as the wisest of all his choices. Relieving him of recruiting coordinator duties also was a wise decision because it freed Mitchell to do what he does best, which is develop relationships with young athletes and sell a Kansas education. A recruiting coordinator has to spend a great deal of his time on organizational duties and on judging his judges, the other recruiters. It’s no coincidence running back is KU’s deepest position because recruits know they’ll be working under Mitchell, so it’s an even stronger bond than Mitchell forms with recruits at other positions.
Mitchell does a terrific job of selling Kansas and Weis knows how to recruit talented, confident athletes, having coached them all those years in the NFL. Having such an appealing home away from home to sell certainly doesn’t hurt. As McDonald and Miller can attest, developing a fondness for the whole Lawrence/KU experience comes quite naturally.