In December 2011, Kansas was strongly considering tabbing Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to be its next head coach. The Turner Gill experiment had failed after just two seasons, leaving the Jayhawks desperate to reclaim the magic from the improbably successful Mark Mangino era.
Malzahn had never been a college head coach, and neither had Mangino before he arrived in Lawrence. Yet Malzahn was the O-coordinator for Auburn as the Tigers stunningly went 14-0 and won the 2011 national title, and Mangino coordinated Oklahoma’s national championship offense shortly before landing the Kansas job.
For Kansas, the Malzahn match made too much sense. But in a defining decision, the Jayhawks changed course in the final moments and opted to go with the biggest name they could get.
That happened to be Charlie Weis.
Next weekend, Kansas will open its season with the goal of placing the utterly ruinous Weis era firmly in the past. For first-year head coach David Beaty, that won’t come easily or quickly.
Since the turn of the millennium, 20 major-conference teams have won just one game or fewer, including Weis’ 2012 Jayhawks. Beaty faces a herculean task to keep the 2015 Jayhawks from joining that ignominious club.
After all, thanks to Weis, the Jayhawks will be operating under the most staggering of short-handed circumstances this season.
Due partly to bad luck and largely to Weis’ shortsighted recruiting practices, the Jayhawks have just four returning starters from last season's 3-9 squad -- by far the fewest of any Power 5 program. Weis was fired last September after a 2-2 start. Kansas also went 3-9 in 2013 after the 1-11 mark in Weis' first year in Lawrence.
While the Jayhawks are short on proven quality, they are far shorter on quantity.
Coming out of the summer, Kansas had just 64 players on scholarship. The FBS limit is 85. The FCS limit is 63, meaning the only time the Jayhawks will be on a level playing field in scholarships will be in the opener against FCS foe South Dakota State.
"We never look at what we don’t have," said Beaty, who, along with his young staff, has infused the Jayhawks with a dose of energy they desperately craved after three years of malaise under Weis. "We’re really excited about what we do have.
"What a great opportunity."
The Jayhawks missed such an opportunity when they passed on Malzahn four years ago. Malzahn instead took the head-coaching job at Arkansas State, and then returned to Auburn as head coach a year later. That season, he took an Auburn team that had gone winless in the SEC the year before all the way to the national championship game, losing to Florida State.
Meanwhile, the summer after his first season at Kansas, Weis famously referred to his team as "a pile of crap" before turning the program into, well, just that.
Kansas gave Weis a five-year deal worth $12.5 million, a bill it will continue to pay through next year. Weis, in fact, will make more not to coach the Jayhawks this year than Beaty will to coach them.
The financial destruction, however, pales in comparison to the on-field ruin.
Gill’s final recruiting class actually included a host of signees who would prove to be quality players. All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney and cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, along with running back Tony Pierson, defensive end Ben Goodman and quarterback Michael Cummings, provided the foundation for interim coach Clint Bowen's squad after Weis' firing last season. The Jayhawks defeated Iowa State in October to give Bowen as many Big 12 victories (one) as Weis netted. The next week, Kansas nearly stunned third-ranked TCU.
This season, Weis' roster gambles finally caught up to the Jayhawks.
During his first season, Weis dismissed 29 players from the program, including the likes of cornerback Tyler Patmon, who had been a three-year starter. Patmon went on to become a key defender for Oklahoma State and is now with the Dallas Cowboys.
With the roster ailing after such an overhaul, Weis signed 16 junior college players -- a move that proved to be calamitous. Last fall, only eight of those transfers were still on the team. This preseason, not one remains. As a result, Kansas faces a roster crunch that could take Beaty years to overcome.
Since taking over, Beaty has done his best to compensate. In his two months between taking the job and signing day, he picked up 18 commitments so the Jayhawks would have a full 25-man class. Beaty has since added a host of immediately eligible transfers, including linebacker Marcquis Roberts (South Carolina), defensive tackle Corey King (Miami), and receivers Quincy Perdue (UAB) and Joshua Stanford (Virginia Tech).
But along the way, Kansas has endured significant attrition. The team's top returning defender, safety Isaiah Johnson, transferred to South Carolina. The top returning receiver, Nigel King, declared for the NFL draft (but wasn’t drafted). Beaty dismissed the team's other two key returning skill players on offense, running back Corey Avery and receiver Rod Coleman. Top returning tackler Jake Love retired for health reasons.
If all that weren’t enough, Beaty lost Cummings, the projected starting quarterback, to a freak injury when a walk-on crashed into his knee while making a tackle in the spring game, even though Cummings was wearing a no-contact jersey.
Since fall camp began, two starting linemen have bolted the team.
"There’s going to be a lot of opportunities," Beaty said, "for new [guys] to come in and play."
Unfortunately for Kansas, those opportunities will be around for a while.
But at least Weis no longer is.