I don't mean to throw dirt on Turner Gill's head coaching coffin. A lot of people already are, and they don't need my help.
Nevertheless, there's not much standing between KU athletic director Dr. Sheahon Zenger and his first coaching search. He has all the on-field evidence he needs: with seemingly no winnable games left on Kansas' horizon, Gill is likely to have racked up a record of 5-19 overall in his two seasons as Jayhawks head coach, just 1-16 in the Big 12.
The go-to reason not to fire Gill is the big buyout for the remaining three years on his contract. In January 2010, former athletic director Lew Perkins gave his new hire a five-year, $10 million guaranteed contract. Don't read it again or think about it too long or blood will shoot out your eyes.
What needs to be remembered here is that Kansas money – that is, boosters who care about KU Football – had a taste of success under former coach Mark Mangino. Four bowl games in eight years? That was pretty cool.
Maybe the most important thing to remember, however, is that if the results on the field aren't there, money for a buyout always is, especially when there are good candidates available who are receptive to hearing from Kansas. With the Big 12 of a mind to poke Missouri in the eye for dragging out their decision to leave the conference, a good chunk of the buyout money could fall in Dr. Zenger's lap soon.
A quick look at the available candidates and some casual conversation with people a lot smarter than I am have led me to think that there are three candidates that Kansas will take long, serious looks at. Two are proven head coaches, one of whom has won at a very high level. The third is a coordinator at a high-profile program who's shooting up the charts with a bullet.
Plan A: Mike Leach
Mike Leach is the first, second and third call Dr. Zenger should make, according to KU money, for a ton of reasons.
He'd make it fun to go to Memorial Stadium again. His wide-open, pass-happy game would breathe new life into a moribund program. Even when he was getting started at Tech, they were scoring 142 points a game. They couldn't play a lick of defense, but at least you know they were going to be great to watch. Once he did get a little defense, Tech was awfully tough to beat.
His personality wouldn't hurt the program, either. The man's insane – like, favorite-crazy-uncle-up-in-the-attic insane. If you don't believe me, go to YouTube and search for "Mike Leach weathercast," "Mike Leach fat little girlfriends" or "Mike Leach dating advice." Mike Leach likes pirates. And grizzly bears. And collecting Civil War militaria. He's goofy. If Turner Gill was the anti-Mangino, Leach is the anti-Gill.
There is no doubt Leach could recruit to Lawrence. Why? Go to Lubbock sometime. I spent a month there one weekend. It's awful. Roy Williams had no business referring to Lawrence as "out there." After all, he'd been to Lubbock. Once you've seen the Buddy Holly statue and eaten at the grocery store salad bar where Bob Knight almost punched the Texas Tech chancellor in the nose, you're done. Go home. If he can get kids to Lubbock, he can recruit to Lawrence.
Supporters believe that Leach will work for about as much as Gill is making, maybe even less. Remember: he wasn't exactly getting rich in Lubbock. It might cost less to land Leach that you would think.
Finally, I'm told that Leach would really like to stick it to Texas Tech, and the best way to do that is to coach in the Big 12 again. He was fired not for losing but for embarrassing a player who happened to have a daddy who's on TV. Leach was still winning when he was let go.
After the Jim Harbaugh mess and the Gill snoozefest of 2009-2010, Mike Leach is a proven head coach and would be the home run hire boosters want to see. It's also one they say they are willing to pony up for.
Plan B: Larry Fedora
Fedora's name came up early and often in the last KU coaching search and I have been led to believe that he was very hopeful of a phone call from Lew Perkins. That call never came. If Leach isn't biting, I don't think Dr. Zenger will make the same mistake.
Fedora is the head coach at Southern Miss. Yes, the same Southern Miss team that slapped KU around last season, 31-16, in a road game the Jayhawks were never really in.
Larry Fedora is 49, so he's got plenty left in the tank. He's also interested enough in the Kansas job that he'd likely stay awhile and bring much-needed stability.
He grew up in College Station, Texas, home of Texas A&M University. He got his start as a head coach at Garland High School in Texas. He has worked hard to maintain good relationships in the Lone Star State. As dependent as Kansas is on Texas players, that's a huge plus.
He's viewed as one of the top offensive minds in the college game today. He served as O-coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, run game coordinator under Ron Zook in his final year at Florida and helped Okie State coach Mike Gundy assemble the high-powered offense for which the Cowboys are now known. Along the way, he received coordinator offers from LSU and Alabama.
He's been at Southern Miss since 2008 and has a record of 30-18, 18-11 in Conference USA. He's won seven, seven and eight games in his three seasons there and has been to bowl games all three years. He's well on his way to a fourth with an 8-1 record so far in 2011.
Yes, he's moved around a lot, but upon further review, each position he's taken is a logical move up from the one before it. There's no feeling that he leaves just a step ahead of an angry mob.
Friends of the KU program will get behind this hire. Fedora, like Leach, is a proven head coach. He may not be as flashy or as entertaining as Leach, but his relationships in Texas and genuine interest in coaching at Kansas would make this a good hire. He would make Kansas competitive and put a good product on the turf, week in and week out.
Plan C: Manny Diaz
Let me tell you a story about a rising star you've probably never heard of.
In 1996, a young journalist fresh out of Florida State named Manny Diaz was working at ESPN, a job he'd been pursuing all his life. He broke down film and assembled feature packages for The Big Show. He knew so much about football that former all-pro and ESPN on-air analyst Sterling Sharpe said if he ever went into coaching, he wanted Diaz on his staff.
In January 1997, ESPN was in New Orleans, covering the Super Bowl XXXI between Green Bay and New England. Part of that coverage was an interview with Pats' coach Bill Parcells. Diaz watched the interview and realized he was working at ESPN, the top of the sports broadcasting profession.
He also looked at The Tuna being interviewed and realized that coaching in a Super Bowl was the absolute pinnacle of the coaching profession. Diaz – who didn't play football in college – decided then and there that he wanted to coach. He landed a grad assistant position at his alma mater a few months later, and he hasn't looked back since.
He moved on to a GA position at North Carolina State in 2001. In 2002, he got a full-time job, coaching Wolfpack linebackers, and in 2004, he coached defensive backs.
In 2006, he was hired as defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State. After four seasons there, Mississippi State came calling and hired him as their D-coordinator. He didn't waste any time in his one season in Starkville: he took a defense that had ranked 71st in scoring defense, 62nd against the run and 89th in tackles for loss in 2009 and improved them to 22nd, 17th and 17th.
When Longhorns coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp bolted Texas to take the head coaching job at Florida after the 2010 season, Diaz replaced him. Texas currently sits at #15 nationally in total defense, #9 in rushing defense.
Again, Diaz's quick ascendency isn't because he's insecure or running from the cops; it's because he keeps getting offered better jobs. That's because he's really, really good at what he does. He's the ultimate student of the game, an absolute film room freak. Guys don't move up the line this quickly unless they're something special.
Would Diaz use KU as a stepping stone to a big-time job? Maybe. He's only 37. It's hard to imagine an ambitious, successful young guy not wanting to coach someplace like Alabama or USC or Texas if the opportunity presented itself.
Some boosters may be skittish about hiring a coordinator; they want a proven head coach. This guy is a terrific head coach waiting to happen, though. If Leach and Fedora aren't available, Kansas could do much, much worse than to hire Manny Diaz. He has done an amazing job everywhere he's been and that appeals to supporters. Even if he moves on, he'll leave the program much better off than how he found it.