LAWRENCE — Still wearing the pain of his team’s season-ending defeat — and perhaps the disappointment of its 3-9 season — on his face, Kansas football safety Mike Lee wasn’t quite ready to turn the page on these Jayhawks.
“We so close. We fought hard every game, competed with every team,” Lee said Friday following his team’s 24-17 home defeat to then-No. 11 Texas, the Jayhawks’ third defeat by one score or less on the season. “It’s just emotional right now.”
A standout junior on a team in transition, Lee was in a slightly awkward position in the postgame availability, fielding questions on both the disappointment that was and the excitement to come. While Lee’s tone was dictated by that sense of loss — of the game, of the season, of a senior class full of mentors, of departing head coach David Beaty — the interview nevertheless featured several moments of optimism, if not unabashed confidence.
“I’m all in with it,” Lee said, responding to a question about undertaking more of a leadership role next season. “If I’ve got to get this program to a bowl game, that’s what I’m going to do. Whatever it takes I’m gonna be here.”
KU, which just completed its 10th consecutive losing season, hasn’t appeared in the postseason since an Insight Bowl berth at the conclusion of the 2008 campaign. In the years since, that particular bowl has changed sponsors to Buffalo Wild Wings, TicketCity, Motel 6 and, most recently, adopted branding as the Cheez-It Bowl.
So yeah, it’s been a while.
Still, a newfound confidence has accompanied the arrival of new head coach Les Miles, who himself has said he thinks the Jayhawks “will win in the first year.” Lee — who, along with freshmen and fellow New Orleans natives Pooka Williams and Corione Harris, was featured on a recent promotional graphic advertising 2019 season tickets — expects the team’s “Louisianimals” to set the tone from a leadership standpoint.
“I can only speak for myself,” Lee said, “but I’m ready to go into next season working my butt off, dedicated to everything I do, at least to get this team to a bowl game, or more.”
The 5-foot-11, 181-pound Lee will spend his offseason trying to get “bigger, faster, stronger,” prioritizing speed while also bulking up to “195 pounds, at least.”
Lee hadn’t discussed the subject of improving his leadership with the likes of graduating captain Joe Dineen, though a subsequent interview Friday provided that very answer.
“Well now, Lee, it’s your team,” Dineen said. “Him, Bryce (Torneden), even a guy like Pooka, it’s their team now and they’ve got to take it over in the locker room. Other than that, I’d just say stay together. Throughout my career here there’s been a lot of changes just in general, and the one thing you can control is your commitment level to the team and how hard you work.
“You can choose to waver or you can stay strong. My advice would just be stay strong and stay committed.”
Here is a Pick Six of defining moments from the Jayhawks’ recently completed season:
1. Nicholls State 26, Kansas 23 (overtime) on Sept. 1
First-year athletic director Jeff Long labeled KU’s season opener against FCS-level opponent Nicholls State as the time “we will really start to know the progress of the program,” and obviously, Beaty and the Jayhawks didn’t put their best foot forward.
The Colonels outgained KU by 74 yards in the contest they controlled from the outset, winning on a 4-yard touchdown run by quarterback Chase Fourcade in overtime. KU, which got the ball first in the extra session, could only muster a field goal as backup quarterback Miles Kendrick came in cold off the bench and was dropped for a 3-yard loss on the team’s final offensive play.
Miles’ cameos represented the first of a half-season of juggling at quarterback for the Jayhawks, who also utilized junior Carter Stanley before settling on senior Peyton Bender.
“I’ll tell you this: The sun is going to come up tomorrow,” Beaty said after the defeat, which dropped his record against FCS opponents to 2-2, “and this team is going to continue to work towards the goals that they have set.”
2. Kansas 31, Central Michigan 7 on Sept. 8
The Jayhawks’ major college football-record 46-game true road losing streak — a skid that dated back to Sept. 12, 2009, and one that predated iPads, Uber and Justin Bieber — finally ended, and emphatically at that. Making his season debut, the Jayhawks’ freshman sensation running back Williams rushed 14 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns, including electrifying 20- and 41-yard dashes that put KU up 21-0.
No longer would players have to answer questions about a streak that began when many of them were in grade school.
“That (clock) wouldn’t wind down fast enough,” Beaty said. “I mean, it really wouldn’t.”
3. Beaty fired on Nov. 4
Nine games into his fourth season, Beaty ran out of good will for the dire situation he inherited.
A hapless 27-3 home defeat to Iowa State — a contest attended by just 15,543, mostly Cyclone fans — predated Long’s decision to clean the slate in his mission to “break the cycle” of ineptitude for a program that has now gone 18-97 since Oct. 17, 2009. Beaty, who completed the season, finished 6-42 at KU, his first college head coaching stop.
“We haven’t won enough games,” Beaty said the day after his firing. “At the end of the day, it’s a production business on wins and losses. That’s a measuring tool you can’t escape. You’ve got to be able to win games, and I get it.”
4. Kansas State 21, Kansas 17 on Nov. 10
Perhaps rallying around the departing Beaty, KU put more of a scare into its in-state rival than at any point since coach Bill Snyder’s return to the Wildcat sideline.
The Jayhawks held a 17-14 lead until K-State quarterback Alex Delton’s 21-yard scoring run with 2:46 remaining, which was set up by a fourth-and-2 conversion from running back Alex Barnes near midfield earlier in the drive and made possible by a consecutive holding penalties on KU that wiped 50-plus-yard runs on the Jayhawks’ penultimate possession.
Driving for a potential game-winning score in the final minute, an untouched Bender fumbled, the ball simply slipping out of his grasp and ending up in the arms of K-State defensive end Bronson Massie.
Beaty said the KU locker room featured “a lot of tears.” The normally even-keeled Bender sported red eyes and a quivering voice in his postgame interview.
“It hurts,” Bender said.
5. Williams piles up 312 all-purpose yards against Oklahoma on Nov. 17
The brightest moment from Williams’ brilliant freshman campaign came against the Jayhawks’ toughest opponent, the former four-star recruit rushing for 252 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 15 carries in a 55-40 defeat at then-No. 6 Oklahoma.
Williams finished that contest with 312 total rushing, receiving and return yards — and added a 9-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Jeremiah Booker on a trick play.
“The runs that he was makin’, he was breakin’ hella tackles out there,” Lee said of Williams, who finished the season with 1,120 rushing yards, 294 receiving yards and nine total touchdowns. “He broke a couple tackles then scored. I was like, this guy is the real deal.”
6. Miles hired on Nov. 18
It didn’t take Long, well, long to fill the Jayhawks’ head coaching vacancy, and in terms of name recognition, he made a home-run hire in the former national championship-winning coach Miles.
Widely viewed as the frontrunner for the opening due to his time with Long at Michigan in the late-1980s, the former LSU head coach signed a five-year contract worth an annual base salary of $2.775 million on Nov. 16 and was introduced two days later to much fanfare.
“I went to a great job here,” Miles said. “I think the fan base has reached out in any number of ways to make it clear this is a special place. I would like to finish a career with championships. The guy sitting to my left (Long), that’s who he is, and that’s who I am. So we would like that opportunity to continue to play championship-style football.”