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Kansas Football: What Happened?

Carter Stanley, Kansas Jayhawks Football

Carter Stanley, Kansas Jayhawks Football

Mark Mangino admits he's like other Kansas football fans.

The former KU coach -- he's retired now, spending his winters in Florida and summers in Pennsylvania -- keeps track of his old team from afar. He's still active on social media and watches as many games as he can.

Mangino, who was named to the athletic department's Hall of Fame last year, still wishes his old program well.

But that doesn't mean he's satisfied with what's happened lately.

"I have to be honest with you: To some degree, I've been disappointed," Mangino says, "because when we left there, the program was on solid ground."

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Kansas State Football/Big 12 Magazine

Just a decade after Mangino led KU to the Orange Bowl, the Jayhawks are searching for their way back to respectability. The last eight seasons have pushed KU to a level of ineptitude that rivals some of the worst stretches in Division I history.

So how did the Jayhawks get here? And is there any hope for a turnaround?

Where We Are

KU's numbers aren't pretty, as SB Nation analytics director Bill Connelly can confirm.

Using his advanced stats from 2005 on -- and points scored and allowed before that -- Connelly has created a way to compare college football teams of different eras. In Connelly's system, an average team would rank in the 50th percentile.

The 2017 Jayhawks, who went 1-11, were in the third percentile -- second-worst in the program's 117-year history and ahead of only the 2015 KU team.

That's also not good when compared to college football as a whole. In fact, only four Power 5 teams this decade have failed to hit the fifth percentile in Connelly's numbers: 2010 Kansas, 2015 Kansas, 2017 Oregon State and 2017 Kansas.

KU coach David Beaty, after seeing progress in his second season, said Year 3 was a struggle in a few ways. Defensively, replacing four starters in the secondary turned out to be a bigger challenge than expected. On offense, the team had positive moments but simply wasn't consistent.

As a whole, though, Beaty says a lack of depth and injuries were the biggest issues. And to explain how the roster crunch began, one has to first examine the mistakes of the past.

How We Got Here

The day Brandon McAnderson committed to KU football in 2002, the Jayhawks lost 64-0 to Kansas State at home. It didn't matter. McAnderson, a Lawrence, Kan., native, appreciated Mangino's message and believed in his vision, even as KU went 2-10 that season.

"It was something about Mangino's sense of work ethic," McAnderson says. "It just felt different."

The fullback would see KU's evolution first-hand over the next five seasons.

Mangino started with a focus on fundamentals. McAnderson would line up nearly every day for "Iso" drills against KU's linebackers, and in one of his first practices, a teammate sent him catapulting backward with a hit.

"They were like, 'Dude, you better start playing, or you're going to get ran over here,'" McAnderson says.

The emphasis on physicality was just part of Mangino's plan.

In recruiting, the coach understood he had to do things differently. He searched for the best players in the Big 12 region, but also looked specifically for guys he labeled as "hidden gems" or "overachievers."

Mangino took quarterback Bill Whittemore even though he showed up to his campus visit with his throwing arm in a sling; the coach simply said he wanted to know the doctor's name, so he could look up through the AMA if he was a good surgeon or not. 

Nick Reid was a blond-haired high school quarterback who turned into Big 12 defensive player of the year at linebacker. Aqib Talib, a future All-American, came to KU with talent but not much publicity.

It all led to the crescendo of 2007. KU started 11-0, reached No. 2 in the AP rankings before a loss to Missouri, then finished with an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech to cap a 12-1 season.

"I'm proud of the fact that we were able to do some things that Kansas football had never done before," Mangino says.

The downfall started shortly after.

KU won the Insight Bowl the next year, but in 2009, media reports surfaced that Mangino had previously mistreated players. KU athletic director Lew Perkins launched an internal investigation, and after a 5-7 campaign -- one that featured five straight wins to open the season followed by seven straight losses -- Mangino resigned as part of a buyout.

McAnderson, who now is a TV analyst for KU games, believes that started a string of "non-football decisions" with KU's program.

Perkins hired Buffalo coach Turner Gill, who was the antithesis of Mangino with his reputation as a players' coach. Though there were some embarrassing moments on the field -- including a 66-24 loss to Georgia Tech in which the Yellow Jackets racked up 768 yards -- the real problems were off it, where a lack of discipline along with academic issues threatened the program's foundation.

New KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger fired Gill after two seasons before hiring Charlie Weis, and again, the Jayhawks appeared to be searching for the exact opposite of what they;d had before.

Weis was a disciplinarian. Defensive lineman Ben Goodman remembers Weis chewing out players in his first team meeting, then having a quick trigger when it came to pushing players off the roster like incumbent starting quarterback Jordan Webb.

"He instilled fear in people," Goodman says of Weis.

After booting so many players, Weis relied on junior college transfers to fill the gaps, and most of them didn't work out. He also didn't always have the players' respect. Midway through the 2013 season, Goodman says some teammates went to strength coach Scott Holsopple to tell him they were tired of listening to their coach.

Before the team's next home game, Weis left the locker room early, saying he wanted the players to handle the pregame speech themselves. Goodman spoke, as did linebacker Ben Heeney and running back James Sims.

"We came out so fired up and motivated, and it showed," Goodman says.

KU beat West Virginia that day, 31-19 -- the only Big 12 win of Weis' tenure.

The coach wouldn't make it another year. Zenger fired Weis the next September after a 2-2 start, replacing him after the season with the high-energy Beaty.

That was December 2014. And the worst was yet to come.

How Do We Get Out of It

Beaty knew he was inheriting roster problems after accepting the KU job, but he didn't fully understand the challenge until he arrived in Lawrence.

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He explains the situation with an analogy.

"Let me take 35 to 40 guys off that Oklahoma sideline in the national semifinal this year, and make them disappear. How do you think that season went?" Beaty says. "It doesn't matter if it's us or anybody else. When you're playing with that type of a deficit, it's going to affect you."

Beaty doesn't like to discuss specifics when it comes to how many recruited scholarship players KU started with in 2015, but he does say that the Jayhawks were down "almost a third -- 30 percent of your roster" when he began his tenure.

That required a creative plan for KU to rebuild.

For example, Beaty says his staff has researched every military base in the country. Sons of military parents get in-state tuition at any college, so there might be someone with an FCS or Division II offer who would consider walking on at KU for two years in hopes of getting a full ride after that.

"Those are things that most people aren't having to think about," Beaty says, "that I'm having to really put a lot of time into to try to find a way to recover these numbers in less than eight to 10 years."

Part of Beaty's optimism for 2018 -- and the future past that -- is KU's continued building of depth.

"If everything plays out the way we expect it to, we should be above 70 in scholarship numbers (this year), which is huge," Beaty says.

The roster shortcomings still don't explain all of KU's issues.

Baylor, for example, also had a dip in 2017 scholarship players following the aftermath of a sexual assault scandal. That team came to Lawrence and defeated KU, 38-9, for its only victory of the season.

There were other lowlights. KU set a new FBS record against TCU with its 44th consecutive road loss, a mark that was originally set by Western (Colo.) State a few years before the United States entered World War II. In that TCU game, KU also mustered just 21 yards on 49 plays, the worst offensive output by an FBS team since at least 2000.

Through all the misery, those around the program continue to believe in Beaty while hoping he can halt the negative momentum.

Goodman, during his senior season, saw Beaty make an effort to give the team more ownership, which included the creation of a players committee that had a say in practice routines, uniform selection and even facility improvements.

The Jayhawks also have made recent strides in recruiting. Beaty signed a pair of 2018 Rivals top-250 players in cornerback Corione Harris and running back Pooka Williams. That's significant, as it matched the number of top-250 Rivals high school recruits KU had signed in its previous 12 classes combined. 

On-field results will likely have to come soon if the current staff wants to remain employed.  Beaty is just 3-33 in his three seasons, which includes a 1-32 record against FBS opponents.

So will things improve in 2018?

Only this much is certain: A former coach in Pennsylvania will be among those interested.

Written by Jesse Newell (@jessenewell) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 Big 12 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.