The Lance Leipold era of Kansas football officially started with a joke. Leipold had very little time for watching the NFL draft during his first weekend as the head Jayhawk, but he was able to absorb some of the good natured ribbing some players got over the pace of their walk from the green room to the stage in Cleveland, and so he was mindful not to approach the podium at KU’s indoor facility too quickly or too slowly. (Hey, no one said it was a great joke.)
With that out of the way, Leipold looked up at the audience before him, down, and then back up again. There, his 34-year climb from Division III to the Power 5 hit him all at once, and Leipold needed a moment to collect his thoughts.
“If words could really express in any way, shape or form how truly humbled and honored I am to have this opportunity,” he said. “When you’re a small town guy in the Midwest that plays Division III football, it’s a day at a time. Dreams are one thing and reality’s another. Somehow those two things have meshed today.”
That right there summarizes the unique package Leipold represents for Kansas.
Every head coaching hire is a risk, typically made in one of two directions. A school like Kansas can hire a young coach with little to no head coaching experience, a guy who has great ideas about to win at the Power 5 level and someone who may have ridden shotgun for a proven head coach or two, but has never had his own finger behind the trigger of the major decisions required of a head coach. The school bets that the traits that made the coach a successful assistant and/or coordinator will scale up to the highest level and that his hunger to prove himself will cover for his lack of experience in his first few seasons. Think Shane Beamer and South Carolina.
Or, the school can go the other way and bet on a proven coach who has won consistently before but happens to be available because he’s between jobs or because he hasn’t done it in a while. The coach’s previous success doesn’t necessarily guarantee success at the new stop, but past success is still the greatest indicator of future success. That’s the wager, at least.
Not every school has to make this gamble, mind you. Alabama with Nick Saban, Ohio State with Urban Meyer, Florida with Dan Mullen — a handful of coaches allow their schools a cheat code out of this wager.
But everyone else has to take one of the two risks. Most schools gamble on the younger guy with the traits, the potential and the hunger. Georgia with Kirby Smart, Oklahoma with Lincoln Riley, Florida State with Mike Norvell, Texas with Steve Sarkisian. Plenty others go the other way: North Carolina with Mack Brown, Illinois with Bret Bielema and, yes, Kansas with Les Miles.
In Leipold, though, Kansas gets the rarest of coaching commodities. They get a coach with 146 career victories and a .789 winning percentage who’s also hungry as a man 20 years his junior to prove he belongs as college football’s highest level. In embarking on college football’s most ambitious rebuild in decades, Leipold can draw upon a decade and a half of experience, a library’s worth of tactics — good and bad — in every aspect of team building.
At the same time, this is Leipold’s one and only shot to prove himself at the Power 5 level. If Kansas doesn’t work, there won’t be another opportunity around the corner.
“His demonstrated track record of sustained excellence is exactly what we need as we embark on our new chapter,” AD Travis Goff said. “That’s going to attract exceptional young men to this program, and his leadership will create a winning football program.”
Of course, there’s a reason this happened now. Leipold isn’t just the only former D3 head coach running a Power 5 program, he’s also the only active FBS head coach hired externally (i.e., not an internal promotion) between mid-February and mid-November.
A campus-wide scandal at LSU swept both Miles and former AD Jeff Long out of their jobs at Kansas, so not only does Leipold inherit the Power 5’s worst program, he’ll do it without the benefit of 2021 recruiting and 2021 spring ball heading into his first season.
The timing is what it is, and Leipold and Goff started their working relationship in a great place. “When this job opened, the athletics director job was not (open), I was interested,” Leipold said. “When the athletics director job opened, I was more interested.”
Kansas is 7-98 in Big 12 play since 2009, and this is not a “night is darkest before the dawn” situation, at least it wasn’t under the previous regime. The 2020 team was outscored by more than 32 points per game en route to a winless season, the second-worst scoring differential over that span.
Because of that, Leipold is putting the expectations for this 2021 season as low as they can be — as he should.
“We want to stay in the moment. Be where you’re feet are at. We’ve got to find ways to get better here today. This is a unique situation, we all know that,” he said. “As we get ready to work with these young men, I’m very confident that you’re going to see consistency and improvement throughout the season.”
But Goff said Monday that Kansas is willing to do what it takes to turn this worm, and for that matter the administration put its money where its mouth was by giving Leipold a 6-year contract with a 70 percent buyout. “The University of Kansas is fully committed to building a winning program and doing it over the long term,” Goff said.
On his end, Leipold said “continuity and consistency” will be the priorities in filling out his staff. This means hiring assistants and staff members who are familiar with seeing the Leipold Way work over multiple years, and people who make sure the players are getting the same message from the top down. In addition to his time at Buffalo, where he went 13-23 in his first three years and 24-10 in his last three, Leipold said his favorite period in coaching was his first three years at Nebraska-Omaha, when the staff went from one win to 10. This, from a coach who won six national titles in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater, his alma mater.
This tells us Leipold approaches coaching not with the destination in mind, but the journey. And the journey of a lifetime is now upon him.
“The goal is to win championships, pure and simple. One day at a time. Become a consistent winner, attention to detail, and do it with great energy, passion and effort,” he said. “It’s not overly complicated, and it’s going to take some work.”