Kansas gambles on Weis to rebuild football program
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)
Charlie Weis could have spent the rest of his career basking in the Florida sun, then ambled off into retirement with a bunch of Super Bowl rings and a reputation burnished over two decades as one of football's great offensive minds.
Instead, he ambled to a lectern on a crisp December day, using a cane to help him along as he awaited hip replacement surgery. He smiled and grimaced, sometimes simultaneously.
''I am not the greatest coach in the world,'' he said. ''I've made a lot of mistakes, but I have learned how to show humility and I have never lost my passion and drive to win.''
With that, Weis set about the monumental rebuilding task at Kansas.
There's no aura of Notre Dame's golden dome in Lawrence. Touchdown Jesus doesn't stand with arms outstretched over Memorial Stadium, one of the smallest venues in the Big 12. Fans don't pack Allen Fieldhouse before home football games like they do the Joyce Center on campus in South Bend, where Weis was once feted as a native son and then run out of town with equal zeal.
But it's on the hilly campus of Kansas, one of college football's wayward outposts, where Weis has chosen to make one more stand. He wants to prove he can build a winning program, and that five mediocre seasons at Notre Dame would not define his legacy.
''Anyone who is goal-driven in anything, whether it was starting up a business that was doing bad and turning it into something good - it's no different,'' he said. ''It's what I do.''
He's wasted little time getting started.
In the hours after Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger hired him to replace Turner Gill, Weis set about constructing a coaching staff heavy on NFL experience. He reeled in a trio of high-profile transfers and embarked on the recruiting trail with the passion of a man decades younger.
The fruits of those labors will be revealed Wednesday, when high school prospects make their intentions official on national signing day.
The school has followed Weis' lead, putting together a marketing program with him as the new face of Kansas football. Advertisements in newspapers, billboards scattered across the Midwest and TV and radio spots remind fans that even in the heart of basketball season, football has become a priority for a school that's had a mere three winning seasons in the past 16 years.
''As I look back over 25 years in this business, the few things I know about football are: It begins with hard work, tireless hard work and attention to detail,'' said Zenger, who spent time as an assistant coach at several colleges before getting into athletic administration.
''That's what I found first and foremost in Coach Weis,'' Zenger said, ''that relentless pursuit of excellence and a passion for the game and for the kids. If you talk to people who know his teams, he's a disciplinarian, and they love him. To me, there's a magic in that.''
There's been magic in Lawrence before.
Mark Mangino took over a moribund program and returned it to respectability, going to a pair of bowl games in his first four seasons. Then a breakthrough in 2007, when Kansas went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl, the lone loss coming against Missouri in its regular-season finale.
Many fans thought that would be a watershed moment.
It turned out to be the high-water mark.
The program regressed the following year, and went 5-7 in what turned out to be Mangino's final season. After an investigation was launched into allegations that he physically and verbally abused players, Mangino agreed to a $3 million buyout.
Gill was brought on and given a five-year, $10 million deal, all of it guaranteed. But when he managed just five wins over two seasons, Zenger decided it was a better investment to fire Gill and pay his remaining salary than watch ticket sales and fan interest continues to wane.
Several high-profile candidates rose to the forefront when Zenger sets out on his coaching search, but one by one they fell to the wayside. Finally, after clutching his cards closely to his vest, Zenger let it slip that Weis was his guy.
The 55-year-old Weis will receive $2.5 million annually over the course of his five-year deal, with incentives that could push the total to over $3 million.
''I don't think it's realistic to think we can compete on a regular basis for a national championship or go to a BCS bowl, but I'd like to think we can finish in the upper 50 percent of the league,'' said Dana Anderson, a real estate executive and perhaps the school's biggest donor.
Anderson's family pledged gifts that helped build the strength and conditioning center and a new football facility, along with supporting academic programs and even the band.
''I cannot help but be impressed with where we are at this point,'' he said. ''I know the tools are there, the facilities are there. Everything that you need in the way of tools are in place.''
Now, Weis just needs to get the players.
Realizing he would get a late start recruiting, Weis took advantage of a relatively new rule that allows players who have graduated to transfer and be eligible immediately. His first trip was to South Bend, where he got former Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist to come aboard.
Crist has already been anointed the starter heading into spring practice.
''I think the relationship I had with him was the biggest thing,'' Crist said. ''The honesty you get from him on a daily basis was huge in my eyes.''
The same day Crist announced his intentions, former BYU quarterback Jake Heaps agreed to join the Jayhawks. The former top-ranked quarterback recruit will have to sit out next season.
The third high-profile transfer is Justin McCay, a wide receiver from suburban Kansas City who began his career at Oklahoma. He is appealing to the NCAA under grounds of personal hardship to be eligible next season, which would give Crist someone to target downfield.
''We all wanted the same thing. We all knew what we wanted, and why we came here,'' McCay said. ''We just want to try to help Kansas football.''
Not everything has been rosy.
Weis has already been involved in a public spat with former quarterback Brock Berglund, who requested a release from his scholarship and intends to transfer. Weis denied the release without giving a reason, prompting Berglund to seek legal representation.
The school's student-athlete appeals board ultimately ruled in Berglund's favor on Friday, though Weis announced the decision in a blistering press release: ''I believe no individual should be more important than the team,'' he said. ''Brock did not see it that way.''
Still, Weis' hiring already appears to be paying off.
The school is approaching 4,000 new season-ticket accounts, which would represent a minimum of $400,000 in revenue - possibly as much as $1.2 million. That's a significant bump for a program that averaged 42,283 per home game in 2011, ahead of only Baylor in the Big 12.
Fans have formed long lines to get Weis' autograph when he's attended basketball games at Allen Fieldhouse, and football merchandise has been popular at the bookstore and around Lawrence.
There's a renewed interest, to be sure.
Now, it's up to Weis to sustain it. It's something he wasn't able to do at Notre Dame, and something a number of coaches haven't been able to do at Kansas.
It's a challenge he appears to relish.
''I want to win. I'm a bad loser,'' Weis said. ''I am sometimes a bad winner, according to my family, but I am certainly a bad loser. I would expect anyone else to be the same way.''