As the calendar turned to October, the slate was wiped completely clean at the University of Kansas.
Interim coach Clint Bowen was in charge and the program he had taken over was not going to look the same as it did when he replaced Charlie Weis in late September.
“We just wanted to take a new approach,” Bowen said. “Not that what we were doing was wrong, just that what I wanted to do was different.”
Although things have been different, highlighted by KU's 34-14 win over Iowa State last weekend, Bowen and the Jayhawks still have their work cut out for them as they try to shock the world with an upset of No. 4 TCU on Saturday.
Bowen's promotion brought a wave of changes through the program, from personnel to practice habits to the general atmosphere in the halls of Anderson Complex. Things are different with Bowen in charge.
“When he initially took over the atmosphere around the facility changed, the mojo of the team changed,” quarterback Michael Cummings said. “It was like a 180, in a positive direction.”
The surface changes were the most apparent. KU began utilizing its personnel better, with Cummings replacing Montell Cozart at quarterback, Tony Pierson shifting back to the running back spot, Joe Gibson replacing Keyon Haughton at center and tight end Jimmay Mundine becoming a bigger part of the offense. To cap it off, Eric Kiesau took over as the play-caller on offense, bringing an uptempo style that was a better fit for KU’s personnel.
“This is a personnel business,” Kiesau said. “You’ve got to have the right players and put them in the right spot.”
Kiesau’s uptempo attack rose to the forefront against ISU as the Jayhawks ran 91 plays for a season-high 514 yards, averaging 5.65 yards per play. Cummings has brought production and stability to the offense with his Adjusted QBR against Baylor (73.3), Iowa State (67) and Texas Tech (58) ranking among the top five single-game Adjusted QBRs from any Jayhawk quarterback since 2011. Pierson has returned to his playmaking ways as a running back against the Cyclones with 17 carries for 101 yards and one touchdown. Mundine has 22 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns in KU’s last four games after recording 11 receptions for 124 yards in his first five games.
In addition to those personnel changes, Bowen’s work underneath the surface began immediately. Practices changed as excitement and energy became commonplace.
“I think we saw a difference in that first practice,” Cummings said. “He’s high energy. His practice methods are a bit different than the former coach’s were. We reacted to that in a positive way. and we’ve been running with it ever since.”
"He made practice and meetings fun again with a lot of energy and guys enjoying themselves,” Kiesau said.
The Jayhawks needed the boost.
“That very first week we set out to create an identity and let our players know what our identity had to be,” he said.
Three core principles are the goal: Play hard, play physical, and play smart.
When Oklahoma State escaped Kansas with a 27-20 win in Bowen’s second game in charge, many focused on Tyreek Hill's late kick return that won the game for OSU. But Bowen noticed a potential building block, pointing to fundamental breakdowns that piled up into an obstacle that proved too much to overcome.
“We played hard, we played fairly tough, but we didn’t play extremely smart,” Bowen said. “So we played close to our identity but yet we still lost, so the point was we played poorly fundamentally.”
So the coaching staff went to work, showing the players each missed step, bad route or poor hand placement that turned inches into yards and yards into points or missed opportunities.
“It wasn’t the obvious things that lost us that game,” Bowen said. “It was the little things, every single play, that cost us that game.”
Even before that OSU loss, Bowen and the Jayhawks were starting to see the fruits of their labor, but those positive vibes remained under the surface until last Saturday, when they burst into the open in the form of KU’s first win under its interim head coach.
“We were seeing little things as coaches throughout [the process],” Bowen said. “We could see it on film, point it out to the players, they see it happening and as long as kids feel they’re improving it keeps them motivated to keep going.”
Now everyone sees the improvement, and Bowen’s changes are paying off.
“I think that’s why you saw our players' reaction after that game,” Bowen said. “It was a culmination of a lot of hard work on a lot of people’s part. When you invest your emotions and energy into something, when you lose it hurts more but when you win it feels a lot better. I think that’s why they had such a reaction to that win.”
In the span of a month and a half, Bowen has changed the program for the better. And in doing so has made a strong case to be considered the guy to permanently replace Weis and lead the program into the future.