Will Kansas hang on to Lance Leipold? Offensive explosion, 4-0 start will have Jayhawks warding off suitors

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Lance Leipold knows what’s coming. With every game Kansas’ coach wins, his appeal increases and his horizons broaden. But first things first.

One-third of the way through the season, a red-hot coach of a red-hot program doesn’t want to lose his offensive coordinator. That’s Andy Kotelnicki, a little-known 42-year-old whose schemes are behind one of the most innovative offenses in the country.

“Don’t write anything about him,” Leipold pleaded following Saturday’s 35-27 win over previously unbeaten Duke. “He needs to stay right here. Don’t give him some $2 million [coordinator’s] job.”

Too late? Kansas is 4-0 for the first time in 13 years, and there are many reasons beyond the nation’s fourth-highest scoring offense (tied with Tennessee, just above Alabama).

Leipold is what they call a grinder, blend-in-the-woodwork developmental type who has won everywhere he’s traveled. With three Power Five coaches already fired in September, that also makes him a desirable candidate elsewhere in only his second season at Kansas.

Leipold is one of several coaches who reignited their programs one-third of the way through the season. You shouldn’t have to be told Kansas has hovered around bottom 25 lists for years. The program cycled through coaches like changes of clothes. There was no continuity, even less talent.

The most valued coaching ability these days is turnaround ability. Scott Frost didn’t have it at Nebraska. Neither did Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech. Arizona State treaded water under Herm Edwards. All three were fired this month.

Leipold is that turnaround coach. Six Division III championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater got him the Buffalo job in 2015. In those six seasons, the Bulls played for two MAC titles and won 10 games in 2018 for the first time.

“I really would like a month’s worth of just focusing on our football team,” Leipold said late Saturday. “We’ve got to try to get this thing in good [shape].”

Leipold’s name has already been attached to the Nebraska opening. More may request the coach’s phone number in the coming weeks.

“We’re not going to sit idle,” Kansas athletic director Travis Goff said. “We’re not going to take things for granted. We’re going to keep building this thing. Basically, we’re not going to let some other situation dictate what’s best for the University of Kansas.”

Goff was not specific, but he understands what’s ahead. An undefeated start makes his coach a commodity and therefore a candidate for a raise and extension even if Nebraska never comes calling. Goff already extended Leipold for a year earlier this month as a show of support and way of restarting his original six-year contract.

It was going to take that long to revive Kansas football. Leipold has sped up the timeline. Kansas shocked the world by winning at Texas last season. While it was a 2-10 campaign, it felt like progress. There have been 31 transfers added to the Jayhawks since Leipold arrived in April 2021.

The $3.5 million Leipold will earn in the final year of his contract (2027) doesn’t seem like a high hurdle for an interested suitor.

Even getting representation wasn’t considered an urgent necessity. For years at Whitewater, he operated on a year-to-year contract. Leipold hired his current agent sight unseen. That was years ago when Leipold determined his career was becoming successful enough to necessitate representation.

“Some things were starting to happen. We talked on the phone,” Leipold said. “We had enough common links. There was trust there.”

Things just got a whole lot more complicated. Not between Leipold and his agent, Bryan Harlan, but between Leipold and a fawning college football world. The 58-year-old coach has accomplished plenty, including becoming the fastest in NCAA history to reach 100 wins. But little has prepared him for being the accidental next top model of coaching.

Goff was a deputy AD at Northwestern when Harlan negotiated a 10-year deal for Pat Fitzgerald in January 2021. No one is saying Leipold is getting a 10-year contract just yet, but there is a level of comfort among all the parties at KU in keeping him long term.

The chatter is certainly not going to die down. Former Kansas players flocked to town Saturday to witness the turnaround. Former record-setting running back Tony Sands was the first to shake the coach’s hand at a private donor event following the game. Sands held the NCAA single-game rushing record for eight years (391 yards), setting it in 1991 at KU. (Playing for Leipold in 2020, Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson reset the record — since surpassed — of 409 yards vs. Kent State.)

Leipold and Kotelnicki are not married to a single offensive philosophy. There are pistol concepts, but the ball seems to go everywhere. Fourteen players have caught a pass and just as many have scored.

Kansas is tied with Ohio State for most touchdowns scored this season (27). Quarterback Jalon Daniels threw four touchdowns against Duke, accounting for more than 400 yards in total offense. Just as valuable was backup RB Daniel Hishaw Jr. who contributed 61 yards in relief of injured starter Devin Neal.

Kansas Memorial Stadium was sold out for the first time since 2009. That year was also a cautionary tale that could have time traveled to the present. Those Jayhawks won their first five games, lost their last seven and saw coach Mark Mangino fired.

“If we give away some things like this in the next eight weeks in conference play, we’re not going to win anything,” Leipold said. “We’d be 4-8 and people will be talking about us being overconfident or I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

Iowa State comes to town this week adding to the coaching search intrigue. The Cyclones’ Matt Campbell is said to be interested in the Nebraska opening.

Leipold himself has deep Nebraska roots. He treasures his time there as an analyst for Frank Solich and Nebraska and as an assistant at Division II Nebraska-Omaha. What he worries about are outside distractions that were never around in Whitewater.

Nebraska is better resourced than Kansas and in a bigger, richer conference, and … well … what else do you need to know? Asked about the opening twice last week, Leipold said he wants to see through what is turning out to be an amazing turnaround. Despite being on campus for only 18 months, Leipold has the Jayhawks on the cusp of being ranked nationally for the first time in 13 years. (Kansas is already No. 23 in the CBS Sports 131.)

Nebraska certainty needs Leipold’s steady hand and developmental abilities. No less than Duke assistant Trooper Taylor — an SEC recruiting legend — went out of his way to congratulate Leipold on the win after the game.

“This place has been starving for so long,” Leipold said. “I was like, ‘We can’t [mess this up].'”

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