Kansas great John Hadl reflects on position switch


An All-American running back, John Hadl obviously didn’t let that get to his head. He had enough humility to look at two running backs on his team and figure they could beat him out. So he paid a visit to coach Jack Mitchell’s office.

Sitting in a leather chair in his Williams Fund office, where he holds a job as closer extraordinaire with the big-ticket donors, Hadl explained how that visit went: “I just walked into his office and said, ‘You’re looking for a quarterback. Why not give me a try? We’re running the Oklahoma split T so I’ll be like a running back anyway.’ He said, ‘OK.’ Then of course when he talked about it he said that the coaches had discussions about it and decided this would be the best option.”

Hadl became an All-American quarterback and had a great career at the position with the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Rams and also played with the Green Bay Packers and Houston Oilers.

What motivated Hadl to take the bold step of visiting his coach, the same coach who convinced Hadl’s father it was in the best interest of his son to switch his commitment from Oklahoma to Kansas?

“Curtis McClinton and Bert Coan were flying past me in practice every day,” Hadl said. “I figured I better change positions because those guys were so much faster than I was.”

Hadl said he never regretted turning down Oklahoma and legendary coach Bud Wilkinson.

“They would have put me on defense and nobody ever would have heard from me again,” Hadl said.

At Kansas, he played some defensive back, returned punts and once led the nation in punting with an average of 45.6 yards. He had a knack for big plays long before he made so many for the Chargers. At KU, he returned an interception 98 yards and had a 94-yard punt.

Hadl also has the distinction of having been Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young’s first professional head coach with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL in 1984, and Hall of Fame QB John Elway’s first professional quarterbacks coach with the Denver Broncos in 1983.

On the topic of position switches

For a man who weighs 218 pounds, fullback Brandon Bourbon runs so swiftly and exhibits so much agility that it’s tough not to picture him playing linebacker. Excluding quarterbacks, Bourbon ranks fifth on the team in rushing attempts (11 carries, 38 yards), behind James Sims, Tony Pierson, Taylor Cox and D.J. Beshears.

Couldn’t Bourbon help the team more at linebacker? One of the nice things about KU first-year coach Charlie Weis is you can ask him a question like that and he’ll give an honest answer. So I asked and he answered.

“If Brandon Bourbon were good on defense, he’d be playing defense,” Weis said. “OK. I love when people say, ‘God, he looks like he’d be a great linebacker.’ Well, come to practice and you’ll get answers to some of those questions.”

The early segment of Tuesday and Wednesday practices were open to the media this season, so I went out to Wednesday’s practice. Man oh man, you should have seen Bourbon get low and hit hard during a running back drill in which the players blast what looks like a boxing heavy bag.

“Those are the type of things you don’t do during the season,” Weis said of switching positions. “Those are the type of things if you’re going to give it a shot you do it in the spring time when you can do it full-time. I don’t think in a week or two, you can transfer a player from one side of the ball to the other. You can, if you see a guy buried in the depth chart, where there is no end in sight.”

Weis sounds as if he believes Bourbon will help Kansas carrying the football before he graduates.

“Remember, the kid’s only a sophomore and he’s got a lot of time left here,” Weis said. “OK? But the kid’s a natural runner and he’s playing at a position where there are a lot of good players. But if you’re buried in the depth chart and it’s the spring time and you want to take a look, that’s the time to do that. But based off the evidence I see I think he’s playing the position he’s best suited for.”

Must an athlete want to play defense to become a good defensive player?

“Well there’s hitting and then avoiding hitting,” Weis said. “So offensive guys are trying not to get hit. Defensive guys are trying to hit. So when you’re spending your whole life trying not to get hit and then have to go start hitting, it’s not usually a good match, in case you’re wondering.”


hawk316 5 years, 6 months ago

Tom, I had never heard that story before about Hadl's visit with Coach Mitchell. What a turning point in John Hadl's career! And by the way, this man should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (I know you agree).

Hadl's story was a nice intro to the Bourbon "situation," as well. Hopefully, Brandon will yet make his mark on KU a running back.

Thanks for the interesting article.

Reuben_J_Cogburn 5 years, 6 months ago

Bourbon needs to do something. The kid has been a huge disappointment.

And it would appear he's too frail to play running back. Very injury-prone. That may change if he were to switch to defense, but who knows.

Jim Stauffer 5 years, 6 months ago

You must be kidding. Move an injury prone guy from RB to LB where he hits on every play? Give him time. Often guys have a couple of injury years and then settle in and do well. If he is always injured at RB he would be as well at LB.

Mike Auer 5 years, 6 months ago

Give it up with Bourbon changing to linebacker. It is getting ridiculous, tired and old. There is nothing wrong with where Bourbon is at running back right now.

Running back is Bourbon's best position, and he is good at it. He is currently fourth on depth chart, but he still gets to play some. He is not fourth because of a lack of talent on his part, but he is fourth because the other three guys are very good. Four good running backs is a good thing because that position gets beat up a ton and requires a great deal of depth. One injury and the whole situation looks totally different. Also, after next year Bourbon will move up to number two on the running back depth chart for his senior year and he will get a whole bunch of playing time and carries both in relief of Pierson and along side him as well.

Also, our young linebackers are playing better and better all of the time. What makes you think that he would be better than them? Oh yeah, I forgot that you are a better judge of talent than our coaching staff.

hawk316 5 years, 6 months ago

Agreed. I love our depth at running back.

Reuben_J_Cogburn 5 years, 6 months ago

Two years...two injuries...4th on the depth chart for a reason my friend.

Cox proved he was the better running back, and Bourbon has not produced when given the opportunity.

Do I think he should be moved to defense? Not at all. But if you have a guy who isn't producing in his position, you have to try and find any avenue to utilize his athletecism.

And Bourbon is an athlete...just mediocre, if that, at running back.

Robert Brock 5 years, 6 months ago

I'd like to see Bourbon play more and have the QB throw to him a bit more. Bourbon is good at receiving out of the backfield. He can make up for the complete lack of WRs on the KU squad.

amatxjayhawk 5 years, 6 months ago

The 94 yard punt was a quick kick from the half back position against OU. The low trajectory kick hit about the OU 40 and rolled and rolled. The Sooners were caught completely off guard.

John Randall 5 years, 6 months ago

John Hadl and I were classmates ('62) and he did a lot of quick kicks from the left half, even a few from QB, but that record setter wasn't one of them. I still remember listening to that broadcast from my dorm room at JRP. Max called it this way:

"Fourth down, KU backed up to their own four, Hadl inches from the end line, OU returner near the 50. It's a good snap. He gets away a high kick. Over the head of the safety, IT'S A HOME RUN! high bounce at OU 40, good roll past the twenty, past the ten, finally dead at the two. That has to be the greatest punt I ever saw!

Stan Unruh 5 years, 6 months ago

Many forget that Hadl is around and KU is very fortunate to have him. We see him at many events on campus. He was a tremendous athlete. I remember his brief time coaching the LA Express. I still have some of their giveaways. Thanks for the article. Good stuff.

kugrad93 5 years, 6 months ago

Not mentioned is the part where Hadl helps get the football team put on probation in the 1980s. Those sanctions influenced the NCAA's severe decision to come down hard on the basketball program when it was under investigaiton a few years later. But at least once a year the J-W has to write something about how great he is. Um, OK.

Reuben_J_Cogburn 5 years, 6 months ago

Who brought the Good News Bear? Someone get him some freakin' honey.

Boouk 5 years, 6 months ago

I think we have to keep Bourbon at RB because we'll be deep at LB next year with Heeney, Samson Faifili, Marcus Jenkins-Moore, Love, Tharpe, Miles, and Prinz Kande.

Displayhawk 5 years, 6 months ago

Can he kick??? We REALLY need a kicker!

Boouk 5 years, 6 months ago

We recently offered Ben Grogan, a field-goal kicker from Texas, whose other offers are from Oklahoma State and Memphis. I think he's the only kicker we've offered so far, but expect that to change soon. We should be fine next year on kick-offs with Eric Kahn, a transfer from Nazareth. Weis said almost all of his kick-offs result in touchbacks.

Displayhawk 5 years, 6 months ago

I would think we could also offer the 2 kickers that Auburn has committed. With the coach that recruited them gone, they might be looking elsewhere. They are both Rivals 3-stars.

Mike Barnhart 5 years, 6 months ago

Weird note on kicking. During kick and punt warm-ups this season (1 hour before game time) BY FAR the best punter was Dayne Crist. No shi... kidding!

KGphoto 5 years, 6 months ago

I don't really like the idea of switching a guy in the middle of his college career, the exception being McDougald because he was going back to what was so obviously his strongest position. If you switch with two years remaining, you end up reaching your potential right before you graduate, or maybe never. Seems like a waste.

The other exception, I suppose, is when you take over a team and you change the system like Weis is doing. Hopefully from next year on we won't have too many position switches after the players first year. I can see players coming in who could play either/or and take the RS to bulk up and get used to the speed of college ball, then be placed in the "other" role. Jordan Smith is a good example. Recruited as a TE, but that spot is pretty stacked for the foreseeable future, and from his highlights he looked like a natural and ferocious DE in high school. I just want to get players established early at a position and let them get better. I can't imagine how good Opurum could have been if he'd played either RB or LB/DE for four entire years.

That said, we cannot switch Bourbon now. It's a shame about his injury problems and the mountain of RBs ahead of him, but he is going to continue getting better as a RB, especially with Reggie coaching him up, and he could be a real surprise in a couple of years. I would love to see him pick up 20-30 carries in a game. He seems like the type who would get rolling after the 10th or so carry, and start breaking big runs. In fact it's fair to say ANY running back needs a few carries to settle in, and he's never had more than that.

It is kind of funny that Weis threw that one back at Keegan like he did. Also cool that Keegs can laugh at himself a little for swinging and missing on BB to LB.

Bourbon's situation is a bummer, but imagine how Marquis Jackson feels. He's another gifted athlete Buried behind even BB. I certainly thought he would have more of a chance at WR than he did.

David Meredith 5 years, 6 months ago

Sounds like something my dad would say about switching someone to linebacker. He used to always want Christian Okoye to play middle linebacker.

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