‘Team over me, cause over comfort’
Leipold and coaches push players to 'strain' for excellence
Still more than an hour shy of high noon, day five of training camp chugged mercilessly toward 95 degrees, or 148 on the misery index. Special teams coordinator Jake Schoonover, one of many new faces around the KU football complex since the arrival of coach Lance Leipold, has just bounded out of a two-hour practice bright-eyed and cheery—and bathed in sweat.
So, coach, why the hoodie?
“When I was a volunteer, the equipment guy where I was at didn’t want to give me anything,” Schoonover begins, adding that the position coach he reported to offered up shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. When he earned a full-time gig, a year and a half later, Schoonover was still wearing the same hoodie and shorts and the miffed equipment manager wanted to know why he wasn’t sporting the official team gear he’d been provided.
“And I was like, don’t worry about it,” Schoonover recalls. “Kind of a spite thing, and it kind of stuck. So now I get kinda sweaty at practice.”
Schoonover shared the anecdote with a smile and a laugh. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t showing anybody up, shoving success back in the face of a distant memory. It was more about, hey, no matter how far he might rise, where he came from matters. No need to dwell on it, but no need to entirely forget it, either.
So it goes for much of the KU coaching staff, from Leipold on down. Schoonover, in fact, came over from Bowling Green; the rest of KU’s coaching newcomers followed Leipold from Buffalo, and many from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater before that. Fall camp 2021 really is all about fresh starts, for all involved.
When asked how he’s helping his players recover from the trauma of their recent seasons of few wins and much drama, Leipold replied, “Trying to work toward the future yet recognizing the past isa balance for all of us.”
Of course, moving on for Leipold, offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki and defensive coordinator Brian Borland is not about shedding a losing culture. The exact opposite, in fact. Moving on means replicating a winning program: fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 100 wins; a 109-6 record at Whitewater, including six national championships; and 37 wins, including two bowl-game victories, in six seasons at Buffalo, after the program won 25 games over the previous six seasons.
“I think each and every day, each and every week, we try to prove ourselves in what we’re doing. That’s the competitive nature in each and every one of us,” Leipold says. “We wouldn’t have taken this opportunity if we didn’t think we were able to get the job done and show it in the Big 12 Conference.”
As Kansas Alumni went to press, the Leipold era still awaited its Sept. 3 debut against South Dakota. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that a complete transformation is underway. The evidence is, in some ways, obvious: Training camp practices started at 8 a.m., and once they really got rolling around 8:30, the tempo was quick, quicker and quicker yet, until breaking for the day at 10:30.
At Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold had to get training-camp film on rosters of 147 players, so he created a two-huddle system, under which one offense is breaking its huddle as the other returns from the line of scrimmage, with defenses switching in and out every three or four plays. He carried on the high-paced program at Buffalo and now KU.
“It’s coming fast,” Leipold says. “We’re not a no-huddle team; it’s just a different way of going about it.”
As evidenced by his “mic’d up” video clips at kuathletics.com, Kotelnicki, a bearded ball of energy who in 2013 joined Leipold at Whitewater after stints at three previous schools, bounds across the practice field, his constant stream of chatter a metronome for the cadence he wants to see from his players. The instruction is invariably positive, and sometimes even fun, evidenced by praising a receiver for his “nice ’stache game!” When another receiver tries to call his teammate out for actually combing his mustache, Kotelnicki happily bellows, “We need more of that!”
Kotelnicki found inspiration for his “wide zone run scheme” from the Denver Broncos of the late 1990s, “Terrell Davis and all those cats.” The scheme is designed to “distort and get some stretch against
the defense,” and he sees running plays within what he calls “the stretch package” as big-play opportunities.
“There’s potential for us to be explosive with it,” he says, “so it’s something we’re majoring in, for sure.”
As with others around the program, however, Kotelnicki insists he and his philosophies are less about on-field schemes and more about creating a culture of discipline, finish, effort, physicality and, most of all, the concept of strain—as in, demand excellence of yourself in all things, from showing up early for workouts to exiting the field after drills.
“We have a series of objectives that we’re trying to accomplish through fall camp, but there’s no timeline on it,” Kotelnicki says. “It takes whatever it takes to play winning football.”
“The way we finish, the way we take the field, the way we come off the field, the way we go to workouts, everything is just raised a level,” says super-senior safety Kenny Logan Jr.
Borland’s scheme incorporates four down linemen; multiple coverages in the secondary, including both man-to-man and zone defenses; and blitzes. “Once you learn the basic core of it,” he says, “the other things we branch off into are pretty easy to grasp.”
The culture that Leipold directs his coaches to teach is, at its heart, as simple as football could possibly get. As described by Schoonover, “Team over me, cause over comfort.” They divide the work into “process goals” and “outcome goals”—proper preparations that eventually lead to scoring more points than their opponents on fall Saturdays—and insist, as a mantra, to strain toward personal excellence. Prepare yourself even harder than a coach will push you, as Leipold told one player during fall drills, and all of your football dreams can soon fall into place.
“I remember he sat down with a lot of players,” Logan recalls, “and said, ‘What’s something we need to get better?’ I said, ‘Discipline.’ That’s what we wanted. That’s what we asked for. And that’s what we’re receiving right now.”
Photo of Coach Leipold by Chris Lazzarino. Other photos courtesy of Kansas Athletics.