Les Miles’ biggest challenge at Kansas is just getting people interested

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Les Miles has been on the job at Kansas now for just over a month. He filled his coaching staff this week and secured 10 prospects in the early signing period to be pioneers at the outset of his attempt to rebuild the Jayhawks.

“I’m having as much fun as anybody should be allowed to have,” the 65-year-old coach told ESPN.

For about 2 1/2 days last month — from a Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse as students seated around the basketball court chanted Miles’ name, to the Monday morning watercooler talk in the wake of his introduction — the new coach and his program were hot.

But the task ahead of Miles after five weeks in Lawrence appears as daunting as when he was hired on Nov. 18. Since athletic director Jeff Long tapped Miles to serve as the face of this beleaguered program, buzz generated by his return to college football has faded amid a relatively low-key season of coaching hires.

Miles drew little notice with his selections of Chip Lindsey from Auburn as offensive coordinator and D.J. Eliot, formerly of Colorado, to run his defense.

The head coach left town quietly ahead of Thanksgiving. Kansas closed the gridiron season, its ninth straight with three wins or fewer, on Black Friday by losing at home to Texas before a largely empty stadium. And KU football, even within the borders of its state, slid back to its customary spot in the large shadow of basketball.

The challenge at Kansas is simply to get people interested. Out of the game since his September 2016 firing at LSU, Miles said he understands the landscape. He was surprised, he said in his initial weeks, at the amount of talent available in Kansas.

To harvest it remains his priority, Miles said.

On Wednesday, the Jayhawks signed two Kansans, safety Jayden Russell and tight end Mason Fairchild, in a class that featured six junior college transfers and four prospects from the SEC footprint so familiar to Miles.

But even as he talked of quarterback Thomas MacVittie, a juco catch originally from Cincinnati whom Miles liked at LSU two years ago, rival Kansas State yanked a rug from underneath the Jayhawks.

The Wildcats, with new coach Chris Klieman in place since Dec. 10, signed a pair of prospects from Free State High School, 4 miles west of the KU campus. Among the duo was fullback Jax Dineen, the brother of Jay Dineen, a second-year Kansas linebacker. Their older brother, Joe Dineen Jr., recently earned All-Big 12 honors at KU as a senior linebacker and led the FBS in solo tackles this season.

The Dineen family is rooted deeply at Kansas. The great-great-grandfather of Joe, Jay and Jax played basketball for Phog Allen.

All of it underscores the enormity of this project ahead of Miles.

“If you look behind the scenes, we haven’t had a strong commitment to football,” said Long, the former Arkansas AD hired at Kansas in July.

Talk about an understatement. Memorial Stadium in Lawrence barely serves a suitable Power 5 venue.

Fans standing outside peered through a fence at the south end of the facility as the Jayhawks hung tight with the Longhorns in the 24-17 loss on Nov. 23.

At halftime, Long conducted an interview in an empty suite. To the west of the stadium stands the shell of an indoor facility set to open for practice usage in the spring. Long said he plans to back the assistant coaches on Miles’ staff with analysts and recruiting staff.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the Big 12,” Long said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that, stating that and going after that.”

Miles, meanwhile, remains his old, quirky self. He had hoped to get back into coaching more quickly, he said, but had an idea it would happen this year, even before Long announced his decision on Nov. 4 to fire three-year Kansas coach David Beaty.

So Miles attended Louisiana high school football games with his daughter, Smacker, a sideline TV reporter. He met up with old coaching acquaintances and always tried to watch the action from the end zone — long his preferred vantage point to spot talent on the field.

Immediately upon landing at Kansas, Miles regaled the fans with the story of how he learned to eat grass as a high school baseball player. He joked that he might want a small pad of natural turf installed on the Jayhawks’ artificial surface.

He has talked only in nonspecific terms about his plan for Kansas on offense in the high-octane Big 12. Miles said he wants to mix spread with power and feature a mobile quarterback.

Of the anticipated recruiting progress, Miles said, “It’ll mushroom.”

On Wednesday, the results weren’t yet explosive.

“The time could not go fast enough until I had my staff,” Miles said. “As soon as I had my staff, we played catch-up, but we caught up very effectively.”

In addition to MacVittie, Miles signed quarterback Torry Locklin of Rockdale, Texas, the son of an accomplished coach and former NFL tight end.

Miles said the Jayhawks plan to sign three to five more prospects in February, as the KU roster remains limited by departures connected to previous coaching transitions.

He must deal also with running back Pooka Williams Jr., the Jayhawks’ all-conference freshman who was suspended this month after his arrest on suspicion of domestic battery. Miles said Wednesday he could not comment on Williams’ status.

The climb is steep at Kansas, perhaps more steep than Miles knew when he first took a call last month from Long.

“We’re hoping that people will sit up and take notice,” Long said last month.

At Kansas, such movement would represent a major victory.

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