It should have been obvious by his third, maybe fourth national championship that Lance Leipold really knew how to coach. But as each hiring cycle went by, with massive contracts being given out to the latest hot recruiter or overhyped coordinator, you never heard his name come up for any job at the Division I level.
Leipold wasn’t a secret. At Wisconsin-Whitewater, he won 109 of the 115 games he coached including six Division III titles in eight years. And yet, it tells you something about how lower division success is perceived in big-time college football that it took Buffalo — historically one of the worst Bowl Subdivision programs — giving him his big break in 2015. Even then, knowing Leipold would be just like every other failed Buffalo coach if it didn't work out, plucking a guy out of Division III was often characterized as risky, bold or outside-the-box rather than just a sound, solid football move.
And perhaps that explains why the college football coaching carousel is an annual self-fulfilling catastrophe.
This weekend, Leipold led undefeated Kansas — yes, that Kansas! — into a nationally televised matchup against 3-0 Duke. The Jayhawks have already beaten West Virginia on the road and won by 18 at Houston, which was the preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference.
In just his second season at Kansas, things are turning around so quickly that Leipold is now being discussed as an attractive candidate for more prominent jobs including the opening at Nebraska.
“My wife, Kelly, and I, we came to Lawrence, Kansas, not to move at this stage of our career,” Leipold said this week on Ryan Leaf’s The Straight Line podcast. “It’s flattering. … But our focus is trying to build the Kansas Jayhawks into a winner and a consistent winner for the long haul.”
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Time will tell if Leipold is serious about spending the rest of his coaching days at Kansas or gets the itch to rescue a fading blueblood.
But his journey to becoming an overnight sensation at age 58 says a lot about the coaching landscape and why so many “can’t miss” hires end up leaving school administrators and boosters holding the bag, which is usually filled with millions upon millions of dollars in buyout money.
As one veteran of the coaching space told me this week: “They all say it’s about winning games, but (athletics directors and university presidents) put too much emphasis on getting their fans and boosters excited. Everybody wants to win the press conference.”
And the reality is that fans and boosters will only be excited about what they have seen or what they think they know.
It’s easy to sell an offensive coordinator at Alabama or Ohio State who have put up video game numbers and been talked about breathlessly on national television. It’s a lot harder — and potentially career suicide for an athletics director — to convince people that great coaching can come from some place like the University of Sioux Falls.
But that’s exactly where you would have found Kalen DeBoer during the early 2000s, winning three NAIA national championships in four years. DeBoer, who seems to have woken up Washington after the brief but failed Jimmy Lake era, would not have been on the radar of any search firm or listed by college football reporters as a guy who should be in the mix for jobs. But it became clear pretty quickly after he got the offensive coordinator job at Southern Illinois, then Eastern Michigan, then Fresno State and Indiana, that he knew what he was doing.
Even Willie Fritz, who has been well known for a decade now because of the success he had at Georgia Southern and Tulane, spent 13 years winning at Division II Central Missouri before getting the call-up to Division I at Sam Houston State.
Ultimately, these guys found their way to big-time college football. But how many dozens of really good coaches ended up stuck in the lower levels because nobody paid attention? Given how many sure-thing hires end up imploding, perhaps the entire college football industry needs to broaden its horizons a bit.
Search firm executives spend a lot of time doing research and talking to people throughout the football industry about potential candidates, so that when a school hires them to facilitate a search they have a ready-made dossier of information on people who might be a good fit.
But as one person in that business acknowledged this week, their familiarity beyond FBS extends to maybe a handful of FCS coaches. Looking into candidates at Division II or III schools just isn’t practical, not merely because of the time it would take but because the athletics directors they work with aren’t going to risk their own careers on someone from that level.
“I’m here to mitigate risk,” the person said. “You want to take out as many variables as you can.”
And maybe there is risk given the massive differences in off-field responsibilities, dealing with boosters, media commitments and the general spotlight on every aspect of the job. Not everyone is built for the big stage.
Typically, though, the biggest concern about hiring from a lower level is recruiting. Coaching matters, but player procurement has long been the coin of the realm in college sports. How someone like Leipold can adapt from a Division III model where schools don’t even give scholarships to the ultra-competitive marketplace of Division I recruiting is a huge variable that boxes so many lower-level coaches out from these jobs.
Perhaps that mentality will evolve as schools rely more and more on name, image and likeness to aid their recruiting efforts. But it will always be easier for a school to sell Marcus Freeman, who can put Notre Dame immediately into the top five of the recruiting rankings despite no track record as a head coach, over someone who has been grinding it out at a no-name university in West Texas.
Danny White, who hired Leipold at Buffalo, could absorb that risk in his previous job. If he were in the same situation now as the athletics director at Tennessee, he might face a fan mutiny.
What we know, though, is the current model of hiring coaches doesn’t work most of the time. Just look at Kansas.
Turner Gill had years of experience as a Nebraska assistant and won just enough at Buffalo (ironically enough) to look like an up-and-comer. He went 5-19.
Kansas then went to the big name looking for redemption in Charlie Weis, whose nosedive at Notre Dame turned out not to be a coincidence. He went 6-22.
The Jayhawks then swung the other direction to the elite recruiter in David Beaty who was well-connected in Texas. He went 6-42.
Then Kansas tried Les Miles, the former national championship coach at LSU who was clearly past his prime. He went 3-18.
There were on-paper reasons to think any of those four might work — well, maybe not Weis — but it turns out the right guy to rebuild that program was hiding in plain sight.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who dominated in Division III, where nothing comes easy, is having success on a much bigger stage. But it’s hard to find the next Lance Leipold when nobody’s really looking for him in the first place.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lance Leipold's Kansas success shows lower-division coaches can thrive