LAWRENCE, Kan. — Lance Leipold has gone from quite possibly the lowest rung of college football to the highest.
Well, sort of.
The new coach at Kansas learned the finer points of coaching at wayward football outposts such as Doane, an NAIA school in Crete, Nebraska, and Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II school that later cut its program entirely.
Sure, there were brief stops as an assistant at Nebraska and Wisconsin early in his career. But until making the leap to the Division I level with Buffalo in 2015, Leipold had spent many more seasons at places such as Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he won six national titles and compiled a 109-6 record during eight seasons as the head coach.
“When you’re coaching lower levels, any new job, there are new things — new ways to do it — but there’s still core things,” Leipold said Monday during an introductory news conference three days after he was hired by the Jayhawks. “Expectations and direction and how you’re going to go about it are always the same.”
What’s not the same? The magnitude of the job ahead of him.
The 56-year-old Leipold has reached the pinnacle of college football’s hierarchy with a Power Five job in the Big 12, but it happens to be at arguably the worst program in the nation. Kansas has been to four bowl games in the past 26 years, hasn’t had a winning season since 2008 and has won seven conference games total over the past dozen seasons.
The Jayhawks also are coming off a winless COVID-19-shortened season, losing all nine games and most in lopsided fashion. It was such a debacle that the results alone probably warranted the firing of then-coach Les Miles, who wound up parting with the school instead amid accusations of sexual harassment from his time at LSU.
The on-the-field results are daunting enough. There is also the long shadow cast by the Jayhawks’ powerhouse basketball program, the general apathy among fans that has set in over the past decade and the decrepit football stadium that serves as a reminder of just how far behind the program is right now.
These are all obstacles that Leipold did not have to overcome at Wisconsin-Whitewater or Buffalo, even though he took both of those programs from mediocrity to heights unknown before his arrival.
“Everyone should know a little bit about history,” Leipold acknowledged, “but you can’t spend time worrying about the past. The biggest thing I’ve been able to research is the potential and what a great place this is.”
Some of that research came through conversations that Leipold had with Mark Mangino, who took the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl, and Glen Mason, who also had success as their head coach.
“They said, ‘This job fits you on so many different levels,’” Leipold said with the kind of aw-shucks Midwestern attitude that should certainly resonate with the fan base. “I don’t know if I’m overly flashy in a lot of different ways. I just believe your work and the people you surround yourself in 30-plus years in this profession, that kind of builds your resume.”
The Jayhawks have tried the flashy hire (Miles and Charlie Weis are two examples) and it ended in failure.
“We’re not looking in the rear-view mirror. We’re all about what’s out in front of us in the much larger windshield,” said Travis Goff, the new Kansas athletic director whose first order of business was to hire the new head coach.
“We’ve got the right guy. There’s no question,” Goff said, “and that’s based on who he is and that’s based on an incredible track record of program-building and the care he has for the young men he leads.”
Goff believes so much in Leipold that he gave him a $16.5 million, six-year contract that pays him $2.2 million this season with annual $200,000 increases. Leipold also would earn $50,000 for finishing in the Top 25, earning Big 12 coach of the year or winning seven regular-season games; $75,000 for reaching a certain academic benchmark; $100,000 just for qualifying for a bowl game; and $500,000 if the Jayhawks would play for a national title.
The contract, made public late Sunday, represents a substantial raise from the $624,300 he made each year at Buffalo.
Then again, Leipold has a substantially bigger job ahead of him.
“We’re going to stay in the moment. We’re going to talk about with our players, ‘Be where you’re feet are,’” Leipold said. “We have to find ways to get better here today. That will translate. When we get through the daily process of improvement and establish what we want to be, the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”