While things have gone about as well as he could have hoped during the first four games of his second year in charge of the program, Kansas football coach Lance Leipold still remembers a time when he was a little awestruck by the challenge he was facing.
That came during the 2021 season, when the Jayhawks arrived at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa, for their game against the Cyclones last October.
KU went on to lose that game 59-7, but, the way Leipold remembered it this week, the mismatch showed up well before the teams took the field.
“That was one of the biggest games (where) they looked a lot different than we did,” he said Tuesday at his weekly press conference previewing Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. matchup with the Cyclones in Lawrence. “Also, when we pulled up to their facilities, (I remember) how much different that was. That was an eye-opening, humbling 30-some hours.”
Iowa State has done a lot to renovate its football facilities and rebuild its football program in recent years and the Cyclones have reaped the rewards of that work. Under the guidance of head coach Matt Campbell, Iowa State averaged seven wins per season during Campbell’s first six years in Ames, including a 9-3 mark during the 2020 season.
They’re riding a streak of five consecutive bowl games and are off to a 3-1 start this season. But Leipold has always looked to ISU as a sort of model for what could be done at Kansas and has talked openly about that since arriving in Lawrence.
Leipold referred to Campbell’s ability to establish a clear culture and benefit from player development and retention from year to year as “all the things you strive for.” And he said ISU’s recent success in those areas — and others — has been a big part of the reason the Cyclones have emerged as a Big 12 contender.
“When I talk about my respect for Matt Campbell and the staff and the program and what they’ve done, you can see they didn’t have to go out and add a lot to keep themselves going in the (right) direction,” Leipold said.
He added that, seeing that, along with the shiny facilities and product on the field, “helped set my expectations for what I need to do here as the head football coach.”
Very few people expected Leipold to make this much progress this quickly on his path to bringing Kansas back to respectability. But now that he has, the goal, he said, is to sustain it and to carry on as if nothing has changed.
That may be easier said than done. With each victory, the spotlight on Kansas football has become brighter. ESPN’s College Gameday was in town this week to film a special segment on KU for its Saturday preview show and there has been all kinds of local and national chatter this week about how Kansas, which sits in the No. 26 spot in the Associated Press poll, deserves to be ranked in the Top 25.
Leipold hears all of that. His players do, too. But their goal is to block out the noise and continue to focus on the work that needs to be done. Leipold said he never has thought or worried much about rankings an accolades, other than to appreciate them when they arrive.
“National recognition, recognition as a whole, is something that obviously we strive for, but we don’t control,” he said Tuesday. “If you spend a lot of time worrying about if you should or shouldn’t (be ranked) you probably won’t be (in that position) long anyway. So as far as chatter goes, I am not in that group text.”
KU quarterback Jalon Daniels, who has received as much individual attention for KU’s 4-0 start as anyone not named Leipold, said the players have followed their head coach’s lead on that topic.
“When it first came out, we were just like, ‘OK. Looks like we have to keep doing more,’” Daniels said of this week’s poll. “It’s not something that we really harp on (or) think about in the locker room. That just means that we have to keep on doing what we’re doing. Keep getting better. Keep trying to win games.”
The idea of staying locked in on the process is exactly what the coaches have emphasized since Day 1, and Leipold is hopeful that, even with greater attention and new distractions, the Jayhawks are able to keep their minds on the work that needs to be done.
“I want to keep this team in a good mindset, stay focused on Iowa State,” Leipold said Tuesday. “We left a lot things out there Saturday (versus Duke) that we have to get better at. Those things stack up on you over time.”
Added Daniels, when asked if he had allowed himself to think about what it might look like around here if KU does keep winning: “i don’t really look too far down the line. I like to play week by week, game by game, day by day, especially with my preparation. I just am hopeful that we’re able to keep on doing what we’re doing, keep the same mindset, keep the same mentality through the whole season.”