LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The goal posts had been torn down and dragged up the hillside by hundreds of jubilant Kansas students, and Memorial Stadium had largely emptied after the win over Iowa state.
Inside the nearby football complex, linebacker Ben Heeney said something an underclassman might be reticent to make, the kind of bold statement in support of Clint Bowen that could go a long way toward helping his interim coach secure the full-time job.
“Even though I’m not going to be here next year, I’d love for Coach Bowen to get the job. I think he’s the best choice,” Heeney said. “He just connects with us, man.”
To prove his point, Heeney recalled an impromptu game of whiffle ball that broke out in the locker room the other day. It was the kind of goofball stuff that might irk a coach whose team had won just twice on the season, but also the kind of thing that binds teams together.
“He kind of got mad at us first,” Heeney recalled, “and walked out. But then he walked back in and said, ‘Man, let me see that bat.’ He’s just different than any other coach I’ve played for.”
His future ultimately resides in the hands of athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who has secured the services of former interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas to assist in his search. But it has already become evident that Bowen has the support of his players, and increasingly, the Lawrence native and Kansas alum has been gaining the support of influential boosters.
It helps that he has proven he can win.
The Jayhawks improved to 3-6 with their first Big 12 win of the season, a 31-14 rout of the Cyclones on Saturday. It was the most complete game they’d played on both sides of the ball, their offense finally clicking under co-offensive coordinators Eric Kiesau and John Reagan, and their defense — coordinated by Bowen — shutting down whatever Iowa State attempted.
Along with the victory, perhaps the most tangible sign of progress was the sharp play of quarterback Michael Cummings. Even though Bowen is a defensive-minded coach, he was astute enough to switch quarterbacks after Charlie Weis was fired four games into the season. Cummings had his best performance of the season coming against Iowa State.
“He’s off the charts,” Cummings said, when asked why he likes playing for Bowen. “He’s an enthusiastic leader, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and we love playing for him.”
That was clear when they doused Bowen with Gatorade as the final seconds ticked away.
“It’s a lot colder than you think,” Bowen said later, a big grin on his face. “Honestly, it’s the greatest feeling in my life, as far as this coaching thing goes.”
Bowen played for the Jayhawks during the days of Glen Mason, who had the program flying high in the early 1990s. He returned as an assistant coach under Mark Mangino, helping the Jayhawks to arguably the greatest stretch of sustained success in school history.
After a couple of seasons at Western Kentucky and North Texas, Bowen returned to Kansas on Weis’s staff a couple years ago. He was made defensive coordinator this season, and was the choice to carry the program through a shaky season when Weis was dismissed.
He lost his first four games in charge, but the win over Iowa State looms large. After all, former coach Turner Gill was given a four-year, $10 million contract and managed one conference win before getting fired two seasons into it. Weis was given a five-year, $12.5 million deal, and was likewise able to secure one Big 12 victory before he was fired. Bowen was making less than $500,000 as defensive coordinator, and already has matched his predecessors in conference wins.
Bowen isn’t campaigning for the full-time job. He is focused only on his three remaining games this season: fifth-ranked TCU, Oklahoma and No. 15 Kansas State.
Besides, everyone already knows that Bowen views Kansas as his dream job.
“Like I’ve said from the beginning, we have an unbelievable athletic director that understands football, understands this program,” he said. “When this is all over, he’s going to make the decision that’s best for Kansas, and we’re all going to respect it.”
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