Lance Leipold aiming to rebuild KU football program after pulling off similar feat at Buffalo
This past Friday, Lance Leipold boarded a jet to leave Buffalo feeling confident he had delivered on a core value in the football coaching ranks, to “leave it better than you found it,” as Leipold described the saying. The flight took him to Lawrence, where the new Kansas football head coach hopes to engineer a similar turnaround to the one he pulled off at Buffalo.
Not that Leipold is in any hurry to further climb the coaching ladder.
“I’m not a guy that’s moved around a lot,” Leipold said Monday during his introductory press conference at KU football’s indoor practice facility. “And this is a place I want to be for a very, very long time.”
The Jayhawks’ new leader, who signed a six-year contract with Kansas Athletics Inc., that will pay him $16.5 million, spent eight years as the head coach at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater and six at Buffalo before KU Athletic Director Travis Goff chose Leipold to lead the Big 12’s perpetually struggling football program.
Leipold said he didn’t necessarily give Goff a sales pitch when he interviewed for the job during the coaching search.
“I don’t know if I’m overly flashy in a lot of different ways,” Leipold said. “I just believe that your work and your production and who you’re surrounding yourselves with in 30-plus years of this profession kind of builds your daily résumé.”
At his alma mater, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold won a staggering six NCAA Division III national titles, going 109-6. Reaching that level of success got him his first FBS job at Buffalo in the MAC.
That rebuild job took a couple of years of laying a foundation, but the Bulls broke through with a winning season in Leipold’s third year. Then he led the team to three consecutive bowl berths, the program’s first two bowl victories and a 24-10 record from 2018-20, giving Leipold an overall record of 37-33 at Buffalo.
When Leipold agreed to lead the Bulls, he said the program was “probably in the bottom 25%” of the MAC “in a lot of areas,” such as financial resources and facilities.
“But we didn’t worry about that. We worried about what we could do and we were able to do that,” Leipold said. “And I feel that a lot of those things are going to transfer to what we can do here.”
In a conference where Oklahoma and Texas are the football kings and the pecking order among the rest of the teams leaves the Jayhawks at the bottom, KU hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009.
But Leipold said he didn’t even ask Goff during the hiring process how KU compared to other Big 12 programs in terms of resources. Just as he did at Buffalo, Leipold said the Jayhawks will “control what we can.”
And while the new coach said what lies ahead is “going to take some work,” in the from of great attention to detail and taking on everyday tasks with great energy and passion, his plan is to reinvigorate the program.
“The goal is to win championships, pure and simple,” Leipold said. “One day at a time. Become a consistent winner.”
Like most new head coaches, Leipold didn’t share publicly his thoughts on any type of ideal timeline for turning the program around. Nor did he speak of specific win totals for 2021, as he takes over a program that went winless the year before he arrived.
Rather, Leipold said he will measure the success of his first year with the Jayhawks by the “daily improvement” he expects to see out of the players, because with that, he added, “the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”
Coaching transitions typically occur shortly after the regular season, not at the tail end of spring football. Leipold admitted that made for a “unique situation.” But he didn’t view that as a deterrent.
“And I’m very confident that you’re going to see consistency and improvement throughout the season,” Leipold said of what he expects during his first fall in Lawrence.
Goff didn’t hire Leipold expecting a quick fix, either. The AD said Monday the ideal type of coach KU football needed crystalized for him over the course of the coaching search.
The AD realized he wanted to find “a program-builder, who’s had a demonstrated track record in developing successful, sustained football programs.”
“On Friday, we got our guy,” Goff said. “The ideal fit, the ideal next leader for Kansas football.”
KU’s new AD said that process was supported by a search committee comprised of executive associate athletics director Nicole Corcoran, senior associate athletics director for compliance and student services David Reed, senior associate athletics director for football operations Mike Vollmar and director of football relations Darrell Stuckey.
As Goff’s search went along, Leipold, before he emerged as the top candidate, said he reached out to former KU football coaches Mark Mangino and Glen Mason, who told him he can win at KU.
While Leipold acknowledged the lack of stability and continuity — with both head coaches and assistants — have held the program back for many years now, he also said he’s more focused on the program’s potential and bucking those negative trends that have dogged KU football.
After his introductory press conference, Leipold said next on his agenda was to begin meeting one-on-one with the players. In an era of college football during which the transfer portal has given players the flexibility to leave and find a different team, KU’s new coach said it’s “extremely important” to him that the Jayhawks hang on to the players they have.
“Our plan is to win and win with the players who are here right now,” Leipold said. “I feel very strongly about that.”
Even so, on the same day KU introduced its new leader, one of the program’s scholarship players, reserve sophomore cornerback Valerian Agbaw Jr., announced he’s leaving the team and entering the portal.
The goal for Leipold is to keep such losses at a minimum. The Jayhawks just went through spring practices with former members of Les Miles’ staff, led by receivers coach and passing game coordinator Emmett Jones, in charge.
In this earliest stage of transitioning to a new regime, Leipold said his message to players is to “keep an open mind.”
“A lot of those young men want to play in the NFL,” Leipold said. “I asked them if they get to pick their coach (as a rookie becoming a pro). Change happens in the real world. That’s unfortunate. They did not choose what has happened. But as soon as we get a chance to sit down they will find out that we will have their best interest in mind. We will get them to reach their goals. We want to help them get there on and off the field.”