Matt Tait: Kansas coach Les Miles doesn’t have to win big right away to make good on recent claim
Last week, on his final “Les Is More” podcast with his daughter, Smacker, for The Players Tribune, new Kansas football coach Les Miles caught people’s attention with one simple sentence: “I think we will win in the first year.”
Bold plans for a bold man.
But while some Kansas fans — those no doubt still shaking from the joy of luring a man of Miles’ stature to town in the first place — immediately thought that Miles’ quote meant KU was going to win six games in Year 1, fans of KU’s rivals could be found on the internet mocking both Miles’ words and the excitement of the Kansas football fan.
Here’s the deal: Anyone who listened to the entire podcast knows that Miles was not promising a bowl game in 2019.
He’s too smart to do something like that. And the task at hand is too difficult, with far too much work still to be done, for even the most blatant optimist to be putting “Kansas” and “bowl game” in the same sentence at this juncture.
With that understanding, we’re left to decipher what exactly Miles meant when he uttered the words “win in the first year.”
During his last two head coaching stops, Miles averaged 7.5 wins per season in Year 1 at Oklahoma State and Year 1 at LSU, winning four games with the Cowboys in 2001 and 11 games with the Tigers in 2005.
He took over a much different situation in Baton Rouge, La., than he did in Stillwater, Okla., — read: loaded — so forget about the 11 wins for now.
It’s those four wins Miles managed to wrangle in Oklahoma that seem more relevant here. And even though KU fans surely would love to see Miles get to five or six wins next season, you can bet that almost all of them would take that four-win, first-year record in a heartbeat. Especially when you consider how it happened and what it looks like stacked up against Kansas football history.
First, how it happened.
Miles opened his OSU career with a road loss at Southern Miss and, two weeks later, dropped another game on the road at Texas A&M. On each side of those losses, Miles added victories over Louisiana Tech and Northwestern State.
Now, 2-2 to open the season isn’t setting the world on fire, but what came next sort of did.
Oklahoma State lost five in a row after that 2-2 start, but three of the next four games were decided by two scores or less, including three-point losses to Missouri and Colorado.
Clearly, a trend toward more competitive football had been established.
After that, Miles closed Year 1 with a 38-22 win at Baylor and an unexpected, 16-13 upset of bitter rival No. 4 Oklahoma on the final day of the season.
Mapping that type of run onto KU’s 2019 schedule results in something like this: Wins over Coastal Carolina and Indiana State to open the season, a handful of competitive Big 12 losses after that, followed by a win at home against bitter rival Kansas State and a road win at Iowa State late in the season.
Would you take that if offered today?
You would if you’ve been paying attention.
The last Kansas football coach to win four or more games in his debut season was Terry Allen, who kick-started his 20-33 run over five seasons with a 5-6 mark in 1997. David Beaty (0-12), Charlie Weis (1-11) and Turner Gill (3-9) combined for four wins during their debut seasons.
Before Allen, you have to go back to Mike Gottfried’s 4-6-1 mark in 1983 to find a four-win Kansas football coach in Year 1, and the Jayhawks have not employed a head football coach who led the program to a winning record in his first season since Bud Moore went 7-5 in 1975.
In fact, Moore is the lone wolf on a list of 13 KU head coaches dating back to the 1950s who achieved that four-win feat in his debut season.
So, yeah, winning in Year 1 is a relative thing at Kansas, and all Miles has to do to make good on his word is finish 4-8. It won’t be easy. But it’s not impossible either.
Not only would that make him the first Kansas coach since Mark Mangino to hit that elusive four-win plateau in a single season, but it also would set the Jayhawks up in better shape at the start of a new head coach’s tenure than the program has seen in more than two decades.