LAWRENCE, Kansas — It’s called “Perfect Discipline,” and it’s one of the most stressful things I’ve witnessed at a football practice. It’s part calisthenics, part memory game, part Simon Says, and every Kansas practice this spring ended with it. A coach would communicate a specific set of commands — always slightly different — to a player of the staff’s choosing, and the player would have to communicate it to his teammates. Everyone would have to do a certain number of them correctly within a certain time, or the entire team had to do extra conditioning.
It’s a drill that encapsulates everything about Lance Leipold and his coaching style. The six-time Division III national champion maintained a top-notch culture at Wisconsin-Whitewater and built one from scratch at Buffalo. Now, he’s trying to do the same in one of the toughest jobs in college football. I visited Lawrence this past spring to discuss the task at hand — bringing Kansas football back to respectability after years in the wilderness — and to uncover the secret sauce of Leipold’s program-building approach.
A former UWW quarterback who spent time as an assistant at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Nebraska-Omaha, Leipold took over at his alma mater in 2007, thinking he had found a reasonable and exciting end point for his coaching career.
“I’m like, you know what? That’s a good Division III life,” he said. “I’ll keep plugging along, and maybe I’ll go into administration somewhere along the way.”
Winning changed those plans. His Warhawks won four national titles in five years, and after a brief step backwards in 2012, Leipold hired Andy Kotelnicki as offensive coordinator, and UWW won 30 straight games and two more national titles. The time seemed right for a new challenge. He landed the Buffalo head coaching job in 2015 and took Kotelnicki, defensive coordinator Brian Borland and other assistants with him.
They found they had a few lessons to learn.
“The context matters because Whitewater, I mean, [Leipold] took them to a new level of consistency, but they had been good,” Kotelnicki said. “It’s a good job. I guess you would call them a blue blood of Division III football. When you are at a program like that, there is already a culture, an expectation. Kids go there because they want to win, and you get competitors there.
“At Buffalo, there were Division I athletes and Division I work ethic, but there wasn’t a culture. There wasn’t any kind of tradition. The first 18 months, candidly, I think we made a lot of mistakes.”
After a 5-7 debut, Leipold’s Bulls went 2-10 in 2016 and a number of players transferred.
“We get done with that 2-10 year and we start talking about culture more and researching it more,” Kotelnicki said. “We became very intentional that spring about what culture is — how we install it and, more specifically, how we define it.”
How do you define it?
“It’s when the locker room leads itself,” Leipold said.
“Player-led culture,” strength coach Matt Gildersleeve said.
“Culture is behavior,” Kotelnicki said. “We try to install it with our kids, kind of like a playbook.”
“Go back to when Lance and I worked for Coach [Barry] Alvarez at Wisconsin,” general manager Rob Ianello said. “The buzzword ‘culture’ was not what you used — it was, ‘This is how we do things. This is how we’re gonna win.’ We’ve done a really good job of defining what our culture is to our team, teaching it to them and demanding it.”
With proper expectation and accountability in place, Buffalo began to win. The Bulls rose to 6-6 in 2017, then to 10-4 with a MAC East title in 2018. Despite losing quite a few key pieces, they won eight games and scored the program’s first ever bowl win in 2019, and in the pandemic-shortened 2020, with experience levels again high, they went 6-1, won another MAC East title and finished ranked in the AP poll for the first time.
“When you say ‘player-led culture’ … it takes time,” Gildersleeve said. “You have to get those guys comfortable doing what you ask, but it’s also getting teammates comfortable hearing it from a peer, not a coach. That’s a whole ‘nother layer of complexity. But [by 2020] it was to the point where I was almost bored — I was just coaching technique and stuff, and I wasn’t coaching culture because before I could ever get a coaching cue out of my mouth, there were six seniors doing it for me.”
“If it was easy to leave Buffalo, it was because we had such good upperclassmen leading the program,” Leipold said. “My wife said it to me in probably February , she goes, ‘I think it’s time for you to look hard because you seem bored.'”
When Kansas called, he listened.
There’s really no kind way to put it: It’s been about 13 years since Kansas football had a pulse
In late 2007, the Jayhawks made a run to 12-1 and briefly ranked second in the country — in retrospect, it was maybe the most shocking story of a season filled with them — but a steep cliff awaited. They fell to 8-5 in 2008 and after they began 2009 with five straight wins, they lost their last seven. At the end of the season, the school parted ways with head coach Mark Mangino.
What followed was maybe the worst stretch of hires ever seen, hires that seemed questionable in real time, then ended up worse than imaginable. First came Buffalo coach Turner Gill, hired for his program-building prowess despite his four-year Bills’ tenure, including only one winning season and no SP+ ranking above 97th. He went 5-19.
Then came former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, he of the professed “decided tactical advantage,” whose Florida offense had ranked 57th in offensive SP+ in 2011. His teams went 7-29, and in his impatience, he loaded up on junior college transfers and handed his successor a ticking time bomb of a roster.
That successor? David Beaty, a well-intentioned former Kansas offensive co-coordinator who was regarded primarily as a strong recruiter, but he never had a chance of bringing many four-stars to Lawrence. Dealing with massive player shortages and incapable of developing what he had, he went 6-42.
After all of this came maybe the most inexplicable hire yet: Les Miles. Dismissed from LSU for failing to keep up with the times (his offenses were prehistoric, and he didn’t update them even as Nick Saban and others did), he went 3-18 in two seasons with KU and was fired in March 2021 after accusations of inappropriate behavior at LSU were unearthed. The school went through spring practice under the guidance of interim coach Emmett Jones, then officially hired Leipold on April 30, maybe the single most awkward point on the calendar for bringing in an outsider.
“I started meeting with players, and guys started going home [at the end of the semester],” Leipold said. “And then you’ve got a dead period, and you got the Covid part of life and where everyone else was at, and you’ve still gotta give guys a little time to charge the batteries. It was very unique. It might be in a book someday.”
“Coach and I met with almost every single player and we asked them, ‘What does this program need?'” Gildersleeve said. “By far the two words were discipline and structure.”
Which was great news to Gildersleeve and Leipold since it’s the backbone of their identity.
“It reinforced that it was a good plan to come here,” Leipold said, but early growing pains were unavoidable.
After a narrow win over FCS’ South Dakota to start the 2021 season, the Jayhawks lost their next five games by an average score of 49-17. They put up a stiff and surprising fight against Oklahoma before losing by 12, then lost to Oklahoma State and rival Kansas State by a combined 90-26.
Late in the season, however, came a spark. Sophomore quarterback Jalon Daniels threw for 202 yards and three touchdowns against Texas, while freshman Devin Neal rushed for 143 and three more scores as the Jayhawks pulled a classic 57-56 upset in Austin. They followed it with ultra-competitive losses to both TCU (31-28) and West Virginia (34-28).
“Guys needed to see some fruits of their labor,” Ianello said. “After we beat Texas, we didn’t come back and beat TCU, lost by a field goal, and there were some long faces and tears. I think that was a big positive. That means it’s important to them and that they are invested.”
Kansas goes for the win after its touchdown and converts the 2-point conversion to knock off Texas.
The culture accelerators
During his redshirt freshman season at Buffalo in 2020, Trevor Wilson didn’t need many touches to make an impression. He caught 16 passes in seven games, but five of the receptions gained at least 24 yards, and three gained more than 50. A mid-three-star prospect from Tallahassee, Florida, Wilson’s contributions were immediately noteworthy and attractive. But it took a lot of growth for him to see the field at all.
“Trevor Wilson’s a guy that, honestly, I’ve been as hard on him as any player since I’ve been an FBS head coach,” Leipold said.
“Trevor Wilson used to live in my dog house,” he said. “He and I didn’t get along for a really long time — I always call him on s— you know? It took us a long time to develop the relationship we have now, but now Trevor comes over to my house and plays with my kid. He’s one of the closest guys to me.”
When Leipold and company left for Lawrence, six Buffalo players, including Wilson, eventually elected to enter the transfer portal and come along.
Center Mike Novitsky had turned into one of the Big 12’s better centers by the end of his first year in town, and right guard Michael Ford Jr. allowed only one sack all season. Linebacker Rich Miller, a backup at Buffalo, developed into a playmaker, taking part in seven tackles for loss and nine run stuffs. Defensive tackles Ronald McGee and Eddie Wilson each logged over 200 snaps as part of the rotation up front.
Wilson caught 27 passes for 364 yards, each the second-most on the team. He made the SportsCenter Top 10 for an acrobatic catch over a defender against Duke, and he set an example off the field as well.
— Trevor Wilson (@TrevorLWilson) September 26, 2021
“When I’m getting after some of our freshmen who just aren’t getting it, it works really well to have Trevor here to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is how it goes,'” Gildersleeve said.
“When I first got to Buffalo, it was a huge culture shock for me,” Wilson said. “It was something I’ve never experienced. But Coach Leipold, Coach ‘Sleeve, they’re like father figures in my life. I lost my dad [in September 2020], so just me having them as another father figure, that’s huge. It’s their heart — not just Coach Leipold, his whole staff. I’ve learned a lot, off the field, just being here in this program.”
When Leipold’s father passed away in February 2021, Wilson reached out to him just as Leipold had to him.
“You don’t really see many 20-year-olds go, ‘Coach, I’m here for you, just like you were here for me,'” Leipold told the Lawrence Journal-World last year. “It’s a neat thing.”
The Buffalo players ended up serving as contributors on the field and culture accelerators off of it. And with a season under their belt and an actual set of spring practices available to them, Leipold, his staff and his players set off on the ultimate quest: figuring out how to make Kansas football competitive again.
Bringing Kansas back
Everything that happened in spring practice had a purpose. Perfect Discipline was designed to emphasize the importance of mental sharpness and focus, even at times of extreme physical fatigue.
Mach-speed practices — an entire unit would run onto the field for a single practice snap, then run off while 11 new guys came on — were designed to keep everyone dialed in and give every player the maximum number of reps in the shortest amount of time.
“It’s chaotic,” Leipold said, “but it gets everybody on film, it helps morale, it helps build some depth in time.”
Then there was the weekly presence of the 1-to-101 rankings, where anyone who isn’t going beyond what’s asked of them finds out in the harshest way possible — and everyone on the team knows where their teammate ranks.
“We truly create an environment where if you are not willing to do it, we’re gonna subjectively show you, ‘This other guy is willing to meet the standard.'” Gildersleeve said. “We have a point system. It entails everything. It’s their academics, it’s their community service, it’s the extra work they put in outside the voluntary stuff, it’s film, it’s training room. They even get a supplemental nutrition score. We do it weekly. If you’re that [No.] 101 guy, life ain’t so good for you.”
“We want a culture of competition,” Leipold added. “Programs that have that — when you’re locked in on Tuesday and Wednesday to practice because if not, someone else is getting the reps instead — you have a focused, determined football team.”
Perhaps before anyone else on the staff, Gildersleeve came to quickly understand the tall task at hand last summer. He pointed to a paper on his desk.
“This is the Big 12 [size] averages of positions for their top 22 players and ours,” Gildersleeve said.
Kansas offensive tackles were 35 pounds lighter on average. Defensive tackles: 33 pounds. Even cornerbacks: 15 pounds.
“That’s what we were going out there and playing with last year, but we also had 76 underclassmen, you know?” Gildersleeve said. “When we do this again this year, that’ll look a lot different.”
A scroll through the roster certainly reveals progress. Right tackle Earl Bostick Jr., a potential pro prospect, is listed at 315 pounds, 25 heavier than last year. Tackle Bryce Cabeldue is up 19 pounds, and backup tackle De’Kedrick Sterns is up 36. On the defensive front, sophomore Caleb Taylor is up 47 pounds. Redshirt freshmen D.J. Withers and Tommy Dunn Jr. have put on 47 and 29, respectively.
So the beef is coming along. What about the talent?
By the end of 2021, a few players had begun to play at a true Big 12 level. Daniels and Devin Neal set a pretty high bar in the offensive backfield in November, and Daniels’ Total QBR after Nov. 1 ranked 21st in the nation. Wilson and fellow slot man Luke Grimm combined to average 14.6 yards per catch and 2.1 yards per route run. (Generally, anything over 2.0 is quite good.) And towering offensive line coach Scott Fuchs, a North Dakota State product — successful small-school guys stick together — crafted a line that, anchored by Novitsky and Bostick, was very much holding its own by the end of the year.
“We couldn’t see our quarterbacks in person until our first fall camp,” Kotelnicki said. “All we could see is evaluation on film from spring and last fall. There was Miles Kendrick and Jaylon Daniels, and then all of a sudden, there’s Jason Bean [a North Texas transfer] that’s going to be here too, walking on. So all of those reps that you need to evaluate people, you’re dividing by three. It affects how much you can install.”
Bean began the season atop the depth chart, but Daniels surpassed both Bean and Kendrick late in the year.
If there’s reason for genuine optimism for KU’s offense in 2022, it comes from both Daniels and the level to which Kotelnicki has proven he can make the most of the talent at hand.
“Everyone says they recruit to a ‘system,'” Kotelnicki said, “but the system, the scheme, is ultimately your best players. If we’ve got a bunch of good receivers, we’re gonna put ’em on the field. If we’ve got a bunch of good tight ends, we’ll put ’em on the field. If we’ve got a good offensive line, we’re gonna do the things that magnify their abilities.”
Indeed, when Buffalo had quarterback Tyree Jackson and star receivers Anthony Johnson and K.J. Osborn in 2018, Jackson went deep often and threw for 3,131 yards and 28 touchdowns. When they had running backs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks and a lot of turnover in the passing game in 2019, they leaned on the run and Patterson and Marks combined for 2,934 rushing yards.
“At a place like Kansas, candidly, we want to just get the best guys that we can and find creative ways to utilize them,” Kotelnicki said. “We’re multiple enough that we don’t have to pigeonhole ourselves in a certain silo.”
There were fewer bright spots for Brian Borland’s defense. The Jayhawks blitzed well, but rarely had an opportunity to do so, as opponents were typically staying on schedule and holding a healthy lead. Kansas finished 126th in defensive SP+, and the most positive spin you can give is that a lot of young guys saw plenty of snaps. In all, eight returning linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs were on the field for 100-plus plays, and nine of those 17 guys were freshmen or sophomores.
“I knew we were behind going into things, but it became apparent after a few games that, you know, we need to upgrade our talent level,” Borland said. “But we had the same consistent message every week — we’re not gonna panic, we’re not gonna blow this thing up and go find some other miracle cure, we’re just gonna keep fighting, we’re gonna keep paying attention to detail and sticking with things, and eventually we’re gonna play better.”
There was a bit of a positive late trend, even if it was harder to notice than on offense.
First nine games: 15.1 points per game, 4.9 yards per play, 38% success rate, 10% explosive play rate*
Last three games: 35.0 points per game in regulation (+19.9), 5.9 yards per play (+1.0), 43% success rate (+5%), 11% explosive play rate (+1%)
First nine games: 42.8 points allowed per game, 7.3 yards allowed per play, 55% success rate allowed, 17% explosive play rate allowed
Last three games: 38.0 points in regulation (-4.8), 6.9 yards per play (-0.4), 53% success rate (-2%), 15% explosive play rate (-2%)
* As defined by Sports Info Solutions, explosive play rate is the percentage of plays that gain either 12 yards (rush) or 16 yards (pass).
“It didn’t always show up on the scoreboard, and we still gave up a lot of yards and points, but in a 60- or 65-play game, we were playing more and more of those 65 better,” Borland said. “We just didn’t have any margin for error. If it wasn’t just right, something not good was probably gonna happen. But I give our players a lot of credit. They’ve been through a lot here, and it would’ve been very easy just to say, ‘Hey, this is just more of the same, so whatever.’ But they didn’t, and I think that’s a credit to Coach [Leipold]. It’s a consistent message — here’s who we are, here’s how we’re gonna do things. It’s not gonna change if we win, if we tie or if we lose. Once guys understood that, we got a better sense of ourselves.”
Leipold dipped into the transfer portal to improve both depth and overall talent levels this year, bringing in 11 transfers to date. They include Miami (OH) star pass-rusher Lonnie Phelps and Big Ten defenders like safety Marvin Grant (Purdue), cornerback Kalon Gervin (Michigan State) and linebacker Craig Young (Ohio State). He also tried to supplement the offense with players like sophomore running backs Ky Thomas (Minnesota) and Sevion Morrison (Nebraska) and another couple of former Buffalo linemen (Deondre Doiron and Nolan Gorczyca).
From the perspective of recruiting rankings, the Kansas roster is still bottom-of-the-barrel within the Big 12. It might always be that way — even as Leipold was building a winner at Buffalo, the Bulls’ recruiting rankings were among the lowest in the MAC. But while the portal could help in that regard, and improvement on the field can help the staff land more of their first-choice targets, any success Leipold has in Lawrence will come from development. They all know it.
“It’s gonna be redshirting guys, strength program, nutrition program. It’s still gonna be doing things right off the field and understanding the accountability piece of it,” Ianello said.
Nag them until they succeed
Leipold laughed as he obsessively arranged the papers on his desk into neat, right angles and told a story he felt described his coaching style.
“I asked [safety] Kenny Logan, one of our best players, ‘What do you like best about what we do?'” Leipold said. “He said, ‘You hold us accountable. The structure, the check-ins that we have to do.’ Then I asked Kenny what he likes the least. ‘The structure, the check-ins, all the things we’ve gotta do.'”
It’s both impossible and unhelpful to compare a coach to Bill Snyder, the wizard who turned around a Kansas State program that was, upon his arrival, in similar or worse shape than what Leipold inherited at KU. Snyder crafted a national title contender within a decade and ended up winning 215 games in Manhattan, setting an impossible bar for all future coaches embarking on ambitious rebuilds.
I’m not going to declare Leipold the Next Snyder — there might not be another one of those for a generation or two. But Leipold’s story above reminded me of something Snyder said about his early KSU days in an interview a few years ago.
“I’d go in there after every practice, and I’d corner every guy, and I’d put people at the door so they couldn’t leave,” he said. “I’d ask them what they tried to work on and what they were doing and whether they improved. They thought it was tedious, I’m sure, but persistence is one of those intrinsic values. Over a period of time, they became a bit better because they realized, ‘This guy’s not going to give up on this.'”
Persistence, bottom-to-top development, slow and steady growth. There aren’t many ways to properly rebuild a program that has sunk to the hopeless levels that Kansas has over the past decade, and even if Leipold ultimately fails — hard jobs are hard for a reason — he understands the blueprint as well as any college coach in America.
“We talk, you know, ‘1% better,'” he said. “Everybody’s got the little clichés. We try not to be over-redundant in those, but 1% goals: This is what you’ve gotta try to get done today to get better. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas, but if you give each guy something that he can feel good about, we’re going to get better. I think that’s what we showed last November.”
“I’m just so confident in Lance and his plan,” Borland said. “I’ve seen it work since 2007. Different scenarios and different places, but I know it works. We just need to develop the players, and the wins will start coming.
“Lance is a good dreamer, but he’s got a really good way of making those dreams become reality.”