Less than two weeks after Jake Schoonover joined the Kansas football staff as an assistant coach earlier this year, the man who hired him, Les Miles, was out of a job. Schoonover didn’t know in March who would become the team’s next head coach, but between his ties to the area and his belief in what the program could become, the new assistant knew he didn’t want to go anywhere.
So once KU hired Lance Leipold to lead the Jayhawks and the new head coach began meeting with holdovers from the old regime, Schoonover said he prepared “to come out guns blazing” in his interview with Leipold to prove he was a good fit for the revamped staff.
“It was a weight off my shoulders once that conversation started and I could get the feeling it was going the right way,” Schoonover recalled recently, after Leipold decided to keep the special teams coordinator and four other KU assistants on board.
When Leipold began discussing with Schoonover during their first sit-down conversation the need to put an emphasis on local recruiting, the assistant coach knew they would see eye to eye.
For much of his time as a college assistant coach, Schoonover, who worked previously at Illinois Wesleyan (2010), Illinois State (2011-18) and Bowling Green (2018-21), has recruited the Kansas City metro area as well as the surrounding region. It’s a part of the country with which Schoonover was plenty familiar, having played high school football in Fairfax, Mo., before continuing his career at Missouri Western.
It was during Schoonover’s college football days that the KU program peaked. While he was playing linebacker for the Griffons in St. Joseph, Mo., Schoonover couldn’t help but notice the Jayhawks taking off across the border in Lawrence.
“Seeing how much electricity was around (the program) it was fun to watch,” Schoonover said while praising the job former KU head coach Mark Mangino did at that time.
Schoonover is convinced part of the Jayhawks’ rise under Mangino — the team went 38-24 in his final five seasons, highlighted by a 12-1 2007 campaign that culminated with an Orange Bowl victory — was tied to how the staff at the time made sure to pull in as many recruits and walk-ons as possible from the Sunflower State and the Kansas City area.
“You could see a culture that was invested in a brand,” Schoonover said of KU football’s status at the time and the Jayhawks playing “for KU” not just “at KU.”
Of course, the program’s success fell off a cliff once Mangino was forced out following the 2009 season. The Jayhawks won more games combined in the former coach’s final three seasons (25-13) than they have in the 11 seasons since (21-108).
As Schoonover’s coaching career began in 2010, after Mangino left KU, he noticed a lot of high school players who he thought should have ended up at KU never did, whether those recruits “slipped through the cracks” or “maybe got under evaluated.”
When Schoonover was at Illinois State, he said he successfully recruited 24 players out of Missouri and Kansas to the FCS program in Normal, Ill.
“About half of them should’ve been Jayhawks,” Schoonover said.
Notably, during his time at Illinois State, the program signed Davontae Harris, a cornerback from Wichita who would eventually became a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Schoonover said Harris didn’t have a KU offer, nor much interest from any Power Five programs out of high school.
“So knowing that, seeing that and over the years hearing the same sentiment from all the local coaches, I just feel like there’s a great opportunity here. There’s a niche here,” Schoonover said of KU’s potential to build up the program with players from Kansas, Missouri and the region.
“KU’s a developmental program that needs to develop kids and needs to find those hidden gems and find those diamonds in the rough,” he said, “and three years later everybody’s wondering, ‘Hey, where did that guy come from?’”
As the KU roster stands this summer, there are 19 players from the state of Kansas and seven from Missouri.
“That’s not enough right now,” Schoonover said.
In order to rectify the situation, the KU assistant said once Leipold was hired they began having Zoom calls with local coaches, from the Kansas City area, Wichita and the entire state of Kansas.
Schoonover said he wanted the area high school coaches to get to know Leipold and hear the new head coach’s plan even before the KU staff could start getting out and meeting prep coaches in person.
“There’s a lot of ground to make up in the local connections, the local relations with recruiting,” Schoonover said.
That’s why the new KU assistant who hopes to remain with the Jayhawks for years to come thought those Zoom calls in the spring and laying the groundwork for a change were so important.
“I want KU to be Kansas City’s hometown college football team,” Schoonover said. “If a kid in Kansas City grows up, wants to play big-time football, then KU’s going to be one of the first things they think about.”
His roots in the region lead the assistant to have such high hopes. Schoonover said he has three brothers and a sister, and now that he’s at KU he lives within two hours of all of them, as well as his parents. He considers it a luxury to be in such close proximity to his family, especially with he and his wife, Katherine, having two young children of their own.
As Schoonover said during a recent special teams meeting at KU of his desire to be with the Jayhawks, “I worked 13 years as a coach to get into the seat I’m in, and I’m going to fight until somebody takes it from me.”