You’ve heard the old saying: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Ask Gary Patterson and Mike Gundy — two Big 12 coaches who have put a good chunk of emphasis on commitment over the course of the 2018 season — something about that, and you’ll probably get an earful. And it doesn’t just apply to players who now have new freedom to move around the college football landscape amid revamped NCAA redshirt rules.
After a 2017 season that ended with zero head coaching turnover in the Big 12, the conference is now set to usher in three new faces for the upcoming 2019 campaign after one retirement and a pair of firings.
The end result: Kansas football — who hasn’t won multiple Big 12 games in a season since 2008 — now owns just one of six active head coaches to win a national championship at the FBS level. Former LSU and Oklahoma State head coach Les Miles was introduced as David Beaty’s replacement in mid-November.
It was a splash hire by first year athletic director Jeff Long, no doubt, and one bound to get Jayhawks fans excited from the get-go — even if Miles hasn’t coached for more than two seasons and will turn 66 next season. Regardless of whether or not Miles can free Kansas of its perpetual misery on the gridiron, the hope is bound to at least maintain plenty of smiles in Lawrence before Labor Day Weekend arrives.
And maybe it was that precedent that left both Texas Tech and Kansas State fans underwhelmed this month when Matt Wells and Chris Klieman were both introduced as the new head coaches, respectively, this month in Lubbock and Manhattan.
It’s a shift for both Red Raiders and Wildcats fans, no doubt. Wells, fresh-off a 10-win season as head coach at Utah State, doesn’t have the same Texas Tech lineage and Johnny Manziel hype that Kliff Kingsbury brought in 2013. Klieman, though leading North Dakota State to three FCS national titles from 2014-2017, hasn’t coached at the FBS level since serving as an assistant at Kansas in 1997. Factor in the reality that Kansas State has had little to no success without Bill Snyder at the helm, and a dose of uncertainty is at least warranted.
Less warranted may be the immediate blow-back from fans — from season-ticket cancellations to wishes of failure on social media — in wake of the two hirings of men who have yet to make a name for themselves at the Power 5 level.
It goes without saying that change had to be made. Kansas couldn’t win, period. Snyder — after already overcoming a battle with throat cancer — turns 80 next October. And Kingsbury — despite the offensive genius he is — could never lead Texas Tech to more than eight wins despite once having Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes to work with on the windy plains of West Texas. Beaty, Snyder and Kingsbury had to go, and somebody had to replace them.
Fans in Lawrence may have got their wish for — a hire that seems sexy, at least for now. Even the resumes for Wells and Klieman aren’t too shabby for guys that haven’t won SEC west titles and national championships throughout their careers. And yet Gene Taylor and Kirby Hocutt have a much harder task than it should be when it comes to selling their hires.
If you want instant gratification and nothing else, Kansas State and Texas Tech may not be the places for you to invest your fandom right now. Barring some meteoric rise, Wells and Klieman are both entering rebuilding situations. There will in all likelihood be a “process” en route to success, and who knows how long that will take.
It’s why its important to take a step back. Texas Tech, despite the mind-boggling numbers the Red Raiders have put up on offense over the years, is not Oklahoma or Texas. The Red Raiders simply weren’t going to hire a Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops. You may have forgotten that even Mike Leach was only able to lead the Red Raiders to one 10-win season — the magical 2008 campaign — during his decade in Lubbock. Bill Snyder did that nine times at Kansas State, in comparison.
And let’s not forget that Snyder’s rescue of the Wildcats — a program who was on the brink of losing its Division-I status upon his arrival in 1988 — wasn’t an overnight process either. Kansas State only won a single contest in 1989 before finally hitting the 10-win threshold in 1995. Legends aren’t built in the blink of an eye — much less to the caliber that Snyder achieved through not one but two tenures in Manhattan.
It’s understandable that K-State fans may be a bit gun-shy over a new hire, considering Snyder has been a fixture for an entire generation and that success has been hard to find in Manhattan outside of his time with the program. Certainly, the Ron Prince experiment only invokes poor memories. But the time came for the arrival of simply a more innovative, energetic figure, and those who have been faithful to K-State since the 1980s should know from experience that greatness takes time to be fully realized.
Winning matters today in college football — arguably more-so than ever before. Like it or not, it’s national title-contender or bust, at least from a mental perspective. But a blockbuster hire simply isn’t the lone path to achieving that status. As for Les Miles, maybe it will save Kansas, but it was as recently as six years ago that the hire of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis — seemingly a home-run — ended disastrously for the Jayhawks. Namesake doesn’t guarantee national championships.
Only one team can have Nick Saban. Only one team can have Jimbo Fisher. And even they had to begin somewhere, whether it was the role of a graduate assistant at Kent State or a different look.
Gary Patterson bounced around in assistant roles for 15 years before becoming the defensive coordinator at TCU in time for 1998 season. It wouldn’t be until more than a decade later that the Horned Frogs won the Rose Bowl and ultimately achieved Power-5 status.
Lincoln Riley — though inheriting a program largely built by Bob Stoops — had never been a head coach in his career prior to taking the Sooners to back-to-back Big 12 titles, Heisman Trophies and playoff appearances out of the gate? Would it have happened it somebody else, outside of Norman, had been hired to take the helm?
It might not be possible to change the new paradigm that is emerging in the sport that so many fans hold near and dear. But then again, is it not possible to at least embark on a bit of a reality check?
Give the new kids on the block, a block that is the Big 12, a chance. Then the evaluations — accurate evaluations — can come.