Saturday Column: What will it take to turn KU football around?
Kansas University alumni and Jayhawk basketball fans are flying high, and the enthusiasm is great.
The KU team and coach Bill Self are in the national spotlight, about to wrap up a 12th consecutive conference championship. Tickets for a game in Allen Fieldhouse are in high demand and carry a high price tag. Self and his assistants recruit on a national and international level for top prospects. The success of the program strengthens morale, pride and enthusiasm among alumni and helps student recruitment and private fundraising.
Interest, support and excitement for the basketball program is sky high, but, across the campus, at the KU football office, the mood must be far different.
Various representatives, such as the coach and athletic director, try to put a good face on the situation, but, right now, it is a sad story.
Last year, KU’s new football coach, David Beaty, had an 0-12 record. Attendance was down, and the incoming recruiting class was ranked last in the Big 12 and 98th in the country. To make matters worse, five assistant coaches have left since the end of the 2015 season, the most recent one only days before the start of spring practice.
It should be noted Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger inherited a bad situation from former AD Lew Perkins and Turner Gill, whom Perkins hired as KU football coach. When Zenger took over from Perkins, he compounded the problem when he hired Charlie Weis as coach.
Whereas many good things can be said about the KU basketball program, not too many positive things can be said about the football program.
This is a sad situation and bad for the school. Granted, a university should not be graded or ranked based on the success of its basketball or football programs, but, as many higher education officials acknowledge, major athletic programs often serve as a “front door” to the university by attracting fans, alumni, non-alumni and friends, as well as encouraging private giving, helping attract students and generating high morale throughout the university family.
This writer is a strong and enthusiastic supporter of the KU athletics program and was a three-year letterman on the Jayhawk football team. This is pointed out merely to make it clear this writer wants the team to be a winner in every respect.
What is it going to take to turn the program around? It should not be allowed to continue as it is. The university deserves better.
A longtime, highly respected former sportswriter recently told this writer, “KU needs a chancellor who realizes football is the paddle that propels the canoe. Unfortunately, the next good season is decades away if massive changes aren’t made in the program.”
Longtime and loyal KU alumni and friends are proud of their university, particularly its academic and research excellence. There are some who question whether a school known for its academic excellence can also achieve excellence on the football field and basketball court.
It is interesting to note that more than half of the 61 private and public universities that are members of the elite Association of American Universities have outstanding football and/or basketball programs — or both.
You can have both academic and athletic excellence.
Money plays a big role, with the Big 12 Conference schools splitting the ever-growing pot of money generated by television revenues. This, along with generous private fiscal support, has provided KU far more funds than in the past. However, teams (schools) used to split the revenue from ticket sales at the various stadiums. This is no longer the case. KU would pick up more dollars playing at Oklahoma, Nebraska and other schools with solid programs and larger ticket sales. Now, there is no split, and KU takes in only the revenues from Memorial Stadium.
These numbers are down and probably were the lowest of any Big 12 school last year. What are the expectations for the coming season? Not too good.
Beaty, Zenger and KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little are in a tough spot. They all want a winning football program, as do students, alumni and friends.
Some say KU needs a new or vastly improved stadium. A large expansion and renovation plan was presented several years ago but put aside when it became clear there was not sufficient private fiscal support.
The KU Endowment Association is completing a record $1 billion-plus campaign. Is a stadium project sufficiently important for the university that Endowment money could be diverted for that purpose? Not likely.
Kansas State University faced an even more serious situation some years ago with a football team that was setting national records for the number of consecutive losses. It was the worst in the nation. What did they do? A new chancellor and a new football coach.
Should KU officials be alarmed about “the football situation”? How much worse does it have to get before it is an alarming situation?