List of Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year finalists did not include KU’s Leipold; surprising or expected?

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold paces up the sideline during the fourth quarter on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022 at Memorial Stadium.

The Football Writers Association of America released the eight coaches chosen as finalists for this year’s Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, and Kansas coach Lance Leipold did not make the cut.

There are probably a number of valid reasons why Leipold, who led KU to a 6-6 season and back to a bowl game for the first time in 14 years in just his second season with the program, was not chosen as a finalist.

But given the fact that the list was eight names long, it came as at least a little bit of a surprise.

After all, what Leipold did in his first 19 months at KU was nothing short of remarkable. The Jayhawks, who cycled through a number of head coaches and athletic directors in the past 14 years, had not won more than three games in a single season since 2009. Yet there Leipold was, leading the program to a 6-6 record in Year 2.

It wasn’t just the final record that made Leipold seem like a worthy candidate for the honor.

The fact that he had the Jayhawks 5-0 at one point, selling out Memorial Stadium for three consecutive weeks and inspiring ESPN’s College GameDay to come to town for the first time in the history of the program all made Kansas one of the stories of the first half of the college football season.

Kansas faded a little down the stretch, going 1-6 in its final seven games, but the Jayhawks did still reach a bowl game — they’ll play Arkansas later this month at the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 28 in Memphis — and they were at least competitive in most of the games they lost while finishing 3-6 in conference play and ahead of West Virginia and Iowa State in the Big 12 standings.

Here’s the deal; I don’t think Leipold’s name not being on the list of finalists is some great travesty. The historical context of what he accomplished this season certainly makes his case stronger, but there’s no doubt that several other coaches had better individual seasons with their teams in 2022. Many of them made this list.

One is TCU’s Sonny Dykes, who was an overtime away from leading the Horned Frogs into the College Football Playoff with an unbeaten record. Even TCU’s loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game did not keep the Frogs out of the CFP and they’ll play for a national championship in a few weeks. Not bad for a team that was picked seventh in the Big 12’s preseason poll.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart led the Bulldogs to a 13-0 season and they, too, are still alive in the hunt for a national title. So is Jim Harbaugh, at Michigan, whose Wolverines finished 13-0, as well.

Regardless of expectations or the overall health and status of their programs, it’s hard to argue with any of those three being on the list of finalists.

The other names on the list were all deserving, as well.

Tulane’s Willie Fritz led the Green Wave to an 11-2 season and a berth in a New Year’s 6 bowl. Lincoln Riley tied a USC record for most wins (11) by a head coach in his debut season and had the Trojans on the brink of the CFP. Jon Sumrall, at Troy, and Jeff Traylor, at UT-San Antonio, both led their programs to 11 wins this season.

Duke’s Mike Elko, whose Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the ACC (like Kansas in the Big 12) after going 3-9 overall and 0-8 in ACC play last season, was the last name on the list. It’s also the one that seemed to have Kansas fans the most upset given the fact that KU and Leipold defeated Duke this season in a head-to-head matchup.

I suppose there’s a case here, but finishing second in the ACC after going winless one year earlier and being picked last is, at least on paper, slightly better than finishing eighth in the Big 12 with six wins after being picked to finish last following a 2-10 season the year before.

Both were solid turnarounds. And both are deserving of major praise. But, in reality, neither guy was going to or should win the award this year, so while making the list of finalists is nice, it’s not exactly bringing home the hardware or the financial bonus.

If you had asked me before this list came out whether Leipold’s name would appear on the list of eight finalists for national coach of the year, I probably would have said yes without hesitating. And it still may wind up there. There are, after all, other coach of the year honors that are handed out annually.

But I also don’t think it’s highway robbery for Leipold to not be named.

No one’s taking anything away from what he and the Jayhawks accomplished this season. It will still go down as a magnificent year and a remarkable run from seemingly out of nowhere.

Beyond that, if you’ve been paying attention at all to Leipold, the players and coaches in the program and the KU administration, you know that they all believe that what happened in 2022 was just the beginning.

If that’s true, there’s plenty of time for Leipold to land on this list in the future, perhaps multiple times, and perhaps with a record that’s closer to what the rest of the finalists brought to the table this year.

For what it’s worth, I think this award should go to Dykes.

Whoever wins it will be a first-time recipient. And maybe that will help the Kansas fans who are struggling with it accept that Leipold’s name was not on the list. There are a few pretty big names in that group and it’s wild to think that at least a couple of them have not already won this award.


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