Kansas Jayhawks are winning at football, but will coach Lance Leipold hang around?
After more than a decade of losing seasons, the Kansas Jayhawks football team seems to have turned a corner. But open coaching jobs at two high-profile football programs have some fans wondering how long the good times might last under the current head coach.
For the last eight years, Lawrence resident Michael Monroe has tailgated near the corner of 11th and Mississippi streets every time the University of Kansas Jayhawks football team has a home game. Up until recently, it was often a lonely affair.
“There’s been times when there’s only eight or 10 cars in this parking lot,” Monroe said before the week-six matchup with an unbeaten Texas Christian University team.
More fans have been turning out recently, though.
With a 5-2 record and five games left in the regular season, the Jayhawks have already exceeded expectations. They’ve also garnered three straight sellout crowds.
With just one more win, the team would become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008 — a feat some would have thought not achievable in recent years.
Now, in head coach Lance Leipold’s second year at KU, and with the team breaking into the Associated Press national rankings for the first time since 2009, Monroe said another question is circulating among the Jayhawk faithful.
“Just as much as people are talking about how good the team is doing, they’re talking in that same conversation (about): Are they going to be able to continue this? Is he going to leave or is he going to stay?” Monroe asked.
For his part, Leipold has said he’s focused on the Jayhawks, not a hypothetical next job.
“We’re extremely happy here,” said Leipold on Oct. 4. “We have no plans of going anywhere.”
Longtime fans like Monroe have heard this before.
In 2000, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams tinkered with the idea of leaving for the University of North Carolina, but told fans he was staying put. Three years later, Williams took that job with the Tar Heels.
Past ties could potentially lure Leipold away, too, as two high-profile programs are now looking for new head coaches.
One is at the University of Wisconsin, just west of where Leipold grew up, in Jefferson. After graduating from and beginning his coaching career at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold became an assistant coach with the Badgers. He also knows Paul Chryst, the coach the Badgers fired at the beginning of October.
“That’s a good family, a good man,” said Leipold referring to Chryst, who helped earn the Wisconsin program a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl in 2021. “It’s just unfortunate (that) guys who average nine wins a year get let go.”
Leipold has seen it more than once. In the late 1990s and early 2000s at University of Nebraska, Frank Solich averaged nine wins a year for six seasons before he was fired. Leipold knew Solich, too, having worked under him for three seasons until 2003.
The Huskers head coaching vacancy opened up again in September, after Scott Frost was fired three games into this season.
Leipold’s short time at KU, and the six years he spent coaching at the University of Buffalo, has made him an appealing prospect on the coaching market
Four years into Leipold’s tenure with the Buffalo Bulls, they achieved their first 10-win season in school history.
And while KU finished 2-10 last year, Leipold’s first, they jumped out of the gate this season with five straight wins. Even Leipold could not have envisioned such a quick reversal.
“I knew a year ago that we were a ways away,” said Leipold. “To say that I can imagine that at this time? No.”
Though much of KU Athletics’ national reputation has long been built around the men’s basketball team, the football program is incredibly important — and not only for the revenue it brings in. Just ask men’s basketball coach Bill Self, who has two NCAA tournament championships to his name.
“Nothing sets the energy or enthusiasm on a college campus more than a good football team does in the fall,” said Self, on the eve of Late Night at the Phog, which marks the official beginning of the basketball team’s 2022-23 season.
KU football got national attention leading up to its Oct. 8 home game against TCU, when both teams were unbeaten. ESPN College Gameday, which has made multiple appearances at Allen Fieldhouse for epic basketball matchups, was in Lawrence for the first time in a football setting. The national pregame show drew thousands of fans outside the south end of Memorial Stadium.
The day before the show, KU Athletics Director Travis Goff announced improvements in and around the stadium, at an estimated cost of $350 million.
Though Goff said he hopes the upgrades will be enough to keep Leipold around, he acknowledged that a long-term plan for Memorial Stadium had to be thoroughly examined anyway.
Those improvements will transform the corner of 11th and Mississippi streets, where Michael Monroe and others gather before home games to tailgate, and could include construction of new entertainment and retail areas.
If Leipold sticks around long enough and continues to be successful, it’s almost certain fans would support him overwhelmingly.
Ahead of the TCU game, Jayhawks fan Kevin Lee of Little Elm, Texas, outlined his ideal scenario: “Keep him!”
“He can be the version of Bill Self, of Kansas football,” Lee said. “That’s what we want.”
The Jayhawks haven’t had a football coach who made a permanent home in Lawrence since Don Fambrough, who, in the 1970s and 80s, had two stints as head coach. In his eight seasons, Fambrough’s teams lost more games than they won, but Fambrough still has a street named after him, right next to the football stadium.
For the moment, at least, Leipold is relishing the attention his program is getting, both locally and nationally.
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s probably a moment you’ve got to pinch yourself a little bit.”