It takes more than a stopwatch to determine who would make the best fireman to run into a building when everybody else is running out of it.
It takes a man who has the courage to do a job that puts him in harm’s way, a man who is driven to run faster the higher the flames fly.
Same for football.
Coaches sometimes lose sight of that though and let numbers make their decisions for them.
And that could help to explain why Kansas struggles to get better. The coaching staff might have erred on the side of not looking beyond tangible qualities enough to find football players who will their ways to making plays.
“There are a lot of guys out there who have measureables and stars who just don’t really want to do it,” offensive coordinator Doug Meacham said. “So I kind of favor guys who want to do it and love football.”
Players who look great getting off a bus, running on a track or pumping iron but don’t respond well to the brutality of the sport can get coaches fired.
“You watch kids on film and you’re going to get what you see,” Meacham said.
“Even if they’re really tall and fast but don’t make a lot of plays, they’re probably not going to make a lot of plays, even though they’re 6-4, 200. You get a guy who’s 5-11, 185, makes a ton of plays, he’s going to make a lot of plays.”
If a player who doesn’t fit physical prototypes fails, a coach doesn’t have any safe answer as to why he recruited him. If a big-and-fast player fails, the recruiter can always fall back on his size and speed making him a desirable prospect who couldn’t be bypassed. It’s a safer way to recruit. But safe doesn’t always equate to wise.
“I think in this day and age of recruiting and all the websites and all the crap there is so much put on a 40 time and a measurable we kind of get away from the fact, can they play football?” Meacham said. “Because if it was all about just that stuff, we’d just recruit track teams. Somewhere in there you’ve got to see a guy who can play football.”
Meacham, an undersized offensive lineman who blocked for Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, was one of those players.
So was Clint Bowen, who played for Glen Mason at Kansas.
Willie Pless was too small to be as great a linebacker as he was for Kansas. Ditto for quarterback Todd Reesing. They were football players.
Both of KU’s coordinators at various times have uttered the same sentence in interviews: “Football is a tough sport to play for someone who’s not tough.”
So how do you identify tough guys?
“For me it comes down to this: You grow up your entire life, you shake someone’s hand and pretty much within three or four seconds you pretty much have a feel for what that dude’s all about,” Bowen said. “It’s just my gut feeling it’s how you grow up living your life in your neighborhood.
“Then you watch a dude walk around a little bit. You watch him practice a little bit and if you have your eyes open and you have any ability to judge other humans you kind of know real quick whether you’re getting a dude or whether you’re getting a pretender.”
And if you’re at Oklahoma you select players who have toughness, speed and size. Kansas coaches don’t have that luxury. They must make decisions on whether to surrender a little physical ability for intangibles or recruit the fast guy and talk yourself into believing he’s tough too.
“I think sometimes in the pressure in recruiting you end up hoping a little bit on some guys who you maybe didn’t have that great a feeling about to begin with,” Bowen said. “Or a dude’s super fast so you overlook some things. Dude’s super big so you overlook some things. But the reality of it is pretenders are pretenders and ballers are ballers and I think by the time you talk to the high school coach and watch him practice if you know what you’re doing as a recruiter then you know what you’re getting.”
Neither Bowen nor Meacham came right out and said it, but I inferred that they both would like to coach more players who bring exceptional toughness to battle and will put extra emphasis on that quality in evaluating recruits this season.
“I think you have to look at guys who love football and how do you assess that? Well, you look at attendance records in school and transcripts,” Meacham said.
“How many classes did they miss? What kind of kid is he that way? Then you go to practice. You watch him practice. Does it look like he’s loving practice, and enjoying the process? You have to dig in a little more than just watching tape.”
Guys who love football. We all love watching football, but playing it against huge men flying around at high speeds? It can’t be easy to find those prospects.
“You’re wearing 30 pounds of gear and you’re getting the crap beat out of you and it’s 100 degrees,” Meacham said. “There aren’t a lot of kids today who sit around and play video games who really enjoy that as much as when we were kids. It’s a tough sport and you’ve got to be a tough guy to play this game. If you’re not a tough guy, you get exposed really fast.”
If you are a tough guy, Kansas just might have a scholarship for you.