In 2008, the University of Kansas played in the Orange Bowl. Sure, it didn't really have many implications—had Virginia Tech won, the Hokies might have been ranked No. 2 overall at the end of the season—but Kansas, a punchline program for most of its existence, won the game with a team of under-recruited, undersized guys and an excessively mean, excessively corpulent Coach of the Year, Mark Mangino. It was a beautiful time to be a Jayhawks fan.
That seems like forever ago. Kansas enters this season ranked No. 124 out of 128 teams. The closest powerhouse conference team is fellow also-ran Iowa State, ranked No. 100. Division I college football teams are allowed 85 scholarship players, and the Jayhawks will only have 60—not because they've been sanctioned but because they flat-out can't attract enough players to fill out a competitive roster. Perhaps more than any other team in the country, Kansas seems doomed to fail.
It's certainly not for lack of funds. In 2008, the program built a $31 million football complex; in 2014, a $34 million renovation began at Memorial Stadium. This largesse, however, came while other Kansas sports—tennis, swimming, men's soccer—were being axed. The football team's inability to make a return on the school's investment has turned Kansas into a cautionary tale for modern big-time college sports, in which football is king and, more important, cash cow.
Football revenue rolls in at a volume that no other sport can touch, not even powerhouse basketball programs like Kansas is known for. And I'm not just talking about television money: when a team is good, home games become a daylong event—the stadium is packed, and people are buying shit. After the best year of football the Jayhawks ever had, in 2008, Lew Perkins, the athletic director at the time, rolled the dice and it has cost everyone involved heavily ever since.
Perkins hated Mark Mangino: he didn't hire him, and the two had been at odds for years. When a former player came out of the woodwork and accused Mangino of mistreatment, Perkins was quick to send the coach packing. A year later, Perkins himself resigned under the black cloud of a ticket scandal, and things have been mediocre since.
The new regime, under Sheahon Zenger, has so far been unable to dig the football program out of the mess Perkins left it in. Perkins's replacement for Mangino, Turner Gill, was an attractive hire—a former star at Nebraska, popular with players and Midwesterners—but he was unable to navigate the ins and outs of a major Division I program. Zenger fired him in 2012 and brought on Charlie Weis, a "splash" hire in the sense of the turd hitting the bowl. A $2.5 million turd.
Weis's idea of rebuilding was to import a "Dream Team" of JuCo players, only a handful of whom are still with the program. Ballyhooed transfers recruited by Weis—Notre Dame's Dayne Crist, BYU's Jake Heaps—never made an impact, largely because Weis had them throw out of deep drops that a ragtag offensive line was unable to consistently block for. The team went 1-11 in his first season. By the following year, Weis had reluctantly adopted a spread offense, which demands an accurate arm behind center. Of course, Weis chose his best running QB, Montell Cozart, to run the system. For a glimpse of how that went, revisit the Jayhawk's 41-3 thumping by Duke. Cozart completed 11 out of 27 attempts for 87 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Weis was out less than two weeks later. Interim head coach Clint Bowen—a former Jayhawk player who was enthusiastic, if somewhat unequipped for the job—finished out the season.
Which brings us to Kansas's latest baton pass: David Beaty, a former KU position coach who was most recently the wide receiver coach at Texas A&M. There's reason to think Beaty might be a great hire—at the very least, he's only costing the school $800,000 in salary, not millions—but there's also reason to think this guy is way out of his league. Even if he did preside over a number of record-breaking A&M offenses with Mike Evans and Johnny Manziel, he never called a play. But seven years after KU won the Orange Bowl, Beaty was the only one who wanted the job. God help us all.
The revolving door of coaches and the rapidly diminishing product they have put out on the field has effectively scared everyone away. KU is losing recruits to smaller schools, not to mention to other schools in Kansas. The Jayhawks are also hemorrhaging fans: in 2007, Mangino's heyday, average attendance of home games was around 42,000; now it's around 34,000. Last year, Kansas's total reported athletic revenue was $97 million, fifth in the Big 12; a little over $23 million of that came from football (basketball brought in $18 million). By contrast, the University of Texas led the conference with $161 million in revenue, with over $112.5 million of that coming from football.
Increased football spending was supposed make more money for the entire Kansas athletic department. It has not. Instead, there has been a domino effect of failure: Kansas is second to last in the Big 12 in the number of men's and women's teams it fields. An initiative to add more sports has all but stalled out, and the teams the school has cut aren't coming back anytime soon. There are some bright spots at Kansas—women's track and field is one of the Big 12's best; last year the women's soccer team made the NCAA tournament—but they don't bring in the money. Even Kansas basketball, one of the biggest earners in that sport, doesn't make up for a weak football program.
This fall, Kansas fans figure to have a front row seat to the worst college football team money can buy—and a up-close view of how everyone else loses in the process.