The University of Kansas football team finished with a 3-9 record this year — the same record as its 2018 season, which cost head coach David Beaty his job.
But there’s a different feeling about the program this year after Beaty’s successor, Les Miles, completed his first season.
Beaty was fired after four years as the head coach with a record of 6-42. In 2015, Beaty’s first season, the Jayhawks were one of two major college football teams in the country — the other was Central Florida — without a win.
Miles, one of five active coaches this season with a national championship to his credit (2007 with LSU), was named the new coach just over a year ago. And already the sense of change is palpable.
“Coach Miles brings so much culture and new change to this program,” said Jayhawks junior wide receiver Stephon Robinson. “I’m just happy to be a part of it. Getting to a bowl game would be one step closer to reach even bigger goals.”
Bowl game talk seemed far-fetched early in the season, especially after KU absorbed an uninspiring home loss, 12-7, against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 7. But KU rebounded from that setback with a shocking Friday night road win, 48-24, at Boston College, a team eligible for a bowl game this season with a 6-6 record.
Picked by the Big 12 media in the preseason to finish last in the conference standings, Robinson said the team was aware of the critics’ grim outlook.
“Hearing that is hard because they don’t know what’s going on inside the program,” Robinson said. “We kept our heads down and just worked because we knew that we were going to break through. We see that stuff, but we ignore it.”
After a 61-6 loss to Baylor in the season finale, the Jayhawks finished last in the Big 12, as the pundits predicted, with a 1-8 conference record. But there were some moments this season that gave the Jayhawks hope that their record would’ve been different, and Miles didn’t stand pat after the slow start.
KU lost three games in a row after the win at BC, but Miles shook things up by firing offensive coordinator Les Koenning. The shakeup seemed to spark KU and the Jayhawks nearly knocked off 15th ranked Texas in Austin before losing by two points, 50-48, in the final seconds of the game.
When asked during the season about the team’s direction under Miles, starting quarterback Carter Stanley, a senior, cited two things that were encouraging.
“He’s all about toughness (and) preparation,” Stanley said.
Then KU had another heart-stopping game a week later on Oct. 16, against Texas Tech.
KU kicker Liam Jones had a 40-yard field goal blocked, but on the return the Red Raiders fumbled the ball away. With another chance as time ran out, Jones kicked the game-winning field goal in KU’s 37-34 win.
A couple days later, Miles was still giddy about what Jones had done.
“He stepped up to kick for his team. He did a great job,” Miles said. “The final one was the important one.”
With three wins and four games left, there was a buzz about KU’s first possible bowl game since the 2008 Insight Bowl, if KU could beat cross-state rival Kansas State. KU had not beaten the Wildcats since Ron Prince was the K-State head coach in 2008.
It also inspired fans like CJ McTizic of Lawrence to return to Memorial Stadium and count himself part of a sellout crowd for the first time in years.
“Just being around this environment, you can’t have anything better than this,” said McTizic, who hadn’t been to a KU home game in a decade.
But a victory against K-State remains elusive. By the time the Jayhawks scored their only touchdown against the Wildcats in the game’s final minute, the stands were mostly empty.
Still, after the game, Miles wanted to put a stamp on what he saw in the grandstands before they emptied out.
“I did not notice a lot of purple,” he said in his opening remarks to the media after the 38-10 loss.
Miles directed LSU to the national championship in the same season, 2007, KU had its greatest football season ever en route to winning in the Orange Bowl. The Jayhawks were 12-1 that year under Mark Mangino and led by sophomore quarterback Todd Reesing.
“The 12-1 Mangino team, with what they did with that quarterback, I thought was really special,” Miles said during his introductory news conference last year.
With four more years to go on his $15 million-plus contract, Miles' charge to turn things around arguably is one of the toughest assignments in major college football. But after going toe-to-toe with some of the tougher teams in the Big 12 during his first season, things are looking up.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.