You don’t have to suck forever. Seven of the eight people who coached Stanford between 1979 and 2006 finished .500 or worse, and the Cardinal had five straight losing seasons (including a 1-11 year) before Jim Harbaugh’s tenure began. Now, Stanford is a year-in, year-out contender built on the back of America’s strongest nerds. Wisconsin went 0-19-1 over 1967 and 68, and Don Morton went 6-27 over three seasons prior to Barry Alvarez’s 1990 arrival. Now, Wisconsin has had 16 straight winning seasons. Northwestern is historically the worst team in college football, including a 34-game losing streak and a 3-62-1 stretch spanning three head coaches from 1976-81. They’ll play for the Big Ten championship next week. Since I applied to college in 2008, Northwestern has had a better record than Michigan.
Which brings us to Kansas. Kansas sucks and has done so for a really long time. One Jayhawks coach has had a winning record since 1967. They sucked more than ever under their most recent coach, David Beaty, who went just 6-41 in four years in Lawrence for a .128 winning percentage, the worst in an already dismal program history. And the overall record doesn’t do it justice: The Jayhawks lost 11 games by double digits last season. They weren’t even coming close. They also sucked under the previous guy, Charlie Weis, who Kansas hired in spite of his tenure at Notre Dame that ending with the school paying a $19 million buyout to fire him. (Kansas eventually paid $5.4 million to fire Weis, a relative bargain.) The Jayhawks also sucked under the previous guy, Turner Gill, going 1-16 in Big 12 play over two seasons. They surprisingly didn’t suck under the guy before that, Mark Mangino, who stunningly made Kansas nationally relevant in 2007 with a 12-1 record. But don’t worry: They sucked under the guy before Mangino, and the guy before that, and the guy before that.
Kansas was better this season than it had been in some time, winning three games—as many as Beaty had won in his first three seasons combined. But still, winning three games means you’re bad, and, admirably, Kansas has decided it would one day like to be good. The school announced Beaty would not be retained nine games into his best season as head coach and hired Les Miles, who might end up being the biggest hire of this coaching carousel. Kansas announced the hire Sunday with the message “Break the Cycle,” as if the cause of its misery is a centuries-old curse brought upon the Jayhawks because a Jayhawks football player once caused a powerful shaman in the old country to step on a Lego.
Miles has a record of success—two SEC titles and a national championship at LSU. He was fired in 2016 because he couldn’t consistently beat Nick Saban’s Alabama; to be fair, few can. But perhaps more importantly, Miles has the allegiance of many casual college football fans, because he is an extremely weird person. His most famous eccentricity is his passion for eating grass from the field during games to, in his words, “let me know that I’m a part of the field and part of the game.” (He claimed LSU’s stadium had the best-tasting grass. Unfortunately, Kansas’s field has artificial turf.) He has also given a variety of confusing press conference monologues, including ones about the differences among various U.S. holidays and the difference between a beach and a “beach location.” I would say that Les Miles talks like a person who learned English by reading thousands upon thousands of books without ever hearing a human being engage in conversation, but Miles emphatically said that he does not read books. My personal favorite Miles memory is his artfully produced mixtape of him dominating his own children in backyard basketball, featuring multiple dunks on an 8-foot rim. He’s so charismatic that he outmaneuvered the richest people in the state of Louisiana by being popular. He has no idea how clocks work.
Miles is the exact opposite of the coach he is replacing. Beaty was an unflashy hire, a relatively unknown position coach with years of experience in the region (he’d coached exclusively in the states of Kansas and in Texas, at college and high school levels). Kansas presumably hoped it could build its way out of permanent irrelevance discreetly, with a low-profile coach catered to the program’s fits and needs. Instead, we just went ahead and ignored Kansas for a few more years.
Beaty’s hire created no splash, like a perfect dive. Hiring Miles is a cannonball off the high board. On the surface, Kansas and Miles seem like an odd fit. He’s an Ohio native who went to college at Michigan and coached there for eight years and spent a decade-plus in Louisiana, a place thoroughly unlike Kansas or anywhere else in the country. Miles will attempt to succeed in the Big 12, the hotbed of offensive football innovation for the last decade-plus, with an offensive mind-set that was repeatedly deemed too archaic to succeed in the defense-first SEC. (Miles’s offenses in his final three years at LSU were ranked 68th, 43rd, and 76th in the country, despite a glut of top recruits. In college, Leonard Fournette was virtually unstoppable, and LSU still couldn’t move the ball.) Miles did coach at Oklahoma State, going 28-21 over four seasons, but that was 15 years ago.
Few thought Kansas could swing a hire like Miles, who was the most high-profile candidate available. This isn’t the route I would’ve taken if I were in charge of the Jayhawks. It’s an expensive path, and it’s not guaranteed to work. After all, Miles couldn’t put together a coherent offense at LSU with some of the most talented players in the nation. Why would we expect him to win in Lawrence with slightly better players than Kansas usually recruits? If I were in charge, I would’ve hired someone who could do one thing and do it well—a coach who runs the triple option, or Air Raid, or anything unique that would have allowed Kansas to operate in a different lane from everybody else.
Instead, Kansas has chosen to take a big-ass bullhorn and scream to the world that it does not want to suck forever. Stunningly, in this sport, that’s worth something. This will mean something to recruits who do not want to play for a team that sucks and boosters who do not want to donate money to a program that sucks. Kansas will have nicer things and better players, which can go a long way. Whether this works will depend on what Miles does next: What assistant coaches will he hire? How will a coach who steadfastly refused to change his philosophy adapt to a conference with different offensive schemes? What will the identity of the new-look Jayhawks be? So much of the change will come merely from getting as many people as possible to drink Miles’s FieldTurf Kool-Aid smoothie.