LAWRENCE, Kan. — It has been more than a decade since anybody paid much attention to the Kansas football program this time of year, the interest in the Jayhawks having long since shifted to basketball.
Les Miles has changed all that.
The national championship-winning former coach of LSU was introduced as the Jayhawks' new head man on Sunday night, and the buzz around campus remained palpable on Monday. Fans and students were waiting to see who Miles would hire to his staff, and what kind of recruiting class he might be able to lure to Lawrence given a condensed timeframe over the next few months.
"I think everybody that supports us should be excited," said Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self, whose second-ranked team heads to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off this week. "I certainly think it is not just a good choice, it's a home run hire."
Athletic director Jeff Long needed to hit one.
The program has gone through three head coaches and an interim since its last winning season, and things have bottomed out this year. The announced attendance for the past couple home games has barely eked above 15,000, and vast swaths of empty seats have been embarrassing to the university. It was not surprising when coach David Beaty was told a couple weeks ago that this season would be his last.
It was mildly surprising that Miles was willing to take on the job.
The 65-year-old coach was considered the front-runner given his close relationship with Long, whom he worked with in the 1980s and '90s at Michigan. But Miles had also been out of coaching for a couple of years, and given his age, the expectation was that his next coaching job would be his last.
Would a coach with such a track record of success be interested in such a rebuilding job?
"Even though I knew Coach Miles, in the end you don't know until they sign on the dotted line," Long admitted. "You have a number of coaches you're talking to because you have to talk to them. You don't know who is going to jump in the boat with you to tackle this project until they do."
Long spoke to former Arizona State coach Todd Graham and former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, among others, but never steered too far from his initial target. He ultimately hammered out a five-year deal with Miles this week that will guarantee him more than $15 million by its conclusion.
"When Jeff went to (Kansas), I knew I could communicate with him," Miles said. "We're cut from the same cloth, two Ohio boys, and he's a tremendously competitive man. Noon basketball with him — he was just terrible. Terrible. But he competed awfully hard. So I knew this place would have a checkmark, and I told Jeff, 'I'm not going to make a mistake taking this job.'"
Long has spoken for months about "breaking the cycle" when it comes to a football program that has won just six games over the past three-plus seasons. And the hiring of Miles has certainly raised more eyebrows than any football coach in recent memory.
Mark Mangino was considered a coup when he was hired from Oklahoma, but nobody knew that he would be so successful. There was quiet optimism when Turner Gill replaced him after building Buffalo into a winner, and Charlie Weis was mostly greeted with head shakes and eye rolls when he was hired. As for Beaty, few people outside the program had even heard of the career assistant.
Miles is different. He provided the long-suffering program with credibility the moment he was hired, and made Kansas the only school in major college sports with basketball and football coaches that have each won national championships.
"Les's credentials are off the chart," said Self, who spent some time with him Sunday. "This guy is competing with Alabama each and every year for the right to play for an SEC championship.
"I think that's terrific," Self said. "He brought home the gold before. I mean, there's not many guys out there, recruits, that get a chance to play for a national championship coach. I don't know how many there are, but there can't be more than 10 or 12 at the most, maybe not that many. So I think it's a great hire. I think it'll energize our fan base."
Self has long supported the football program, arguing it makes his own job easier when it has success. It gets the entire school more publicity, and visits by his basketball prospects in the fall are a little more fun when a competitive football game is on the schedule.
Well, Miles is already creating the publicity. Now he needs to build the competitive program.
"Maybe there were some young men that were aware of our program through basketball," Long said, "but now they're aware we have a national championship coach in our football team, and they will take a closer look. We hope people will sit up and take notice."