The first thing I heard about the Kansas football coaching search was, down to the specific words, exactly what I expected to hear:
“A lot of their influential people don’t want to run the triple option.”
The option in question belongs to Army head coach Jeff Monken, one of three names tied to the search since KU hired new athletic director Travis Goff. The other two are Tulane’s Willie Fritz and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold.
I’ve encountered this sentiment in the wilds of college football gossip before. Whenever I do, I ask a booster or A.D. or power broker to play a hypothetical game, wherein their school runs the triple, wins games, eventually wins more games, and is deemed a successful, winning program … that runs the triple.
“Nope. Still don’t want it,” is always the response.
This is my real issue with triple-option loathing: No one can explain exactly why they hate it in football terms. And when they’re unwilling to accept its success, even in a hypothetical, it means they’re preoccupied with outside perception, not with winning football games.
As far as I can tell, this reaction is bespoke to the triple. And for context, I’d add that yes, I’m not having conversations about hypothetical triple-option offenses at good football programs. These schools are usually ass, consistently enough for the question to be raised that just maybe, a unique and fundamentally different route should be taken to close whatever gap they’re facing.
I’ve never seen such a complete rejection of an offensive scheme by fans and boosters quite like this, honestly. Did anyone complain when Nick Rolovich brought the Run & Shoot to Washington State last year? Did anyone notice? It’s the first time the offense has been used outside of Hawaii since June Jones – Rolovich’s old boss – ran it at SMU in 2013 (unless you count the highly enjoyable Houston Roughnecks XFL season in 2019, another Jones product).
Ironically, the only thing I’ve experienced that comes close is the zealous adherence to the triple option at Georgia Southern, the program I grew up rooting for: Put your quarterback in the shotgun, or pass on first down too much in Statesboro, and they’ll run your ass north of the gnat line. Other FBS programs run under-center, “old-school” triple option due to personnel restrictions. The Eagles do it because delivering their visitors a four-yard car crash every 40 seconds in godforsaken humidity is the kind of cruel fun that wins games and keeps your defense fresh. Voice any concerns regarding style where I’m from and the ghost of Erk Russell will headbutt you. To wit: I have a bias.
This reaction also creates a feedback loop — “We don’t want the triple” becomes “Where has the triple worked successfully?” as a justification for its rejection. Now we’re in something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where anti-triple decision-makers can justify their bias by pointing at the absence of the scheme in the wider landscape of the sport.
Dumb, monied people with football decision-making power but no actual football acumen are always a safe bet to blame for this, but there’s plenty to share: God love him, but Paul Johnson, the last man to run the triple at Power 5 school, didn’t make many friends at Georgia Tech from 2008-’18. He also didn’t iterate much, another issue plaguing the perception of the triple option: The operation that Gus Malzhan and Cam Newton won a national title at Auburn with has far more in common with the triple option than the Air Raid. Same for Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer.
Johnson, just like the Georgia Southern program he came from, didn’t care and didn’t change. That’s fine, considering Tech won the ACC and the Orange Bowl under his banner, but a scheme that looks like a “run-only” offense polarizes the entire perception of the triple option. Case in point: Fritz, who broke into the FBS at — you guessed it — Georgia Southern. Fritz ran what you could roughly call a “gun option” offense, taking the fundamentals of the triple and doing radical things like lining up in the gun and running out of different formations.
In 2018, Fritz fired his longtime offensive coordinator, Doug Ruse, despite the Green Wave posting a 7-6 record to mark that staff’s first winning season. Tulane then hired Will Hall, who installed an up-tempo offense that was a schematic anathema to the triple or any of its iterations. To date, Fritz has never won more than seven games in a season at Tulane, but he’s a popular candidate for the Kansas opening. When I asked the same people who rejected the idea of the triple about perceptions of Fritz at KU,, they were enthusiastic.
There’s also the larger, unspoken issue of who runs the triple successfully right now, and why. Putting dogmatic Southern aside, the pure triple is run at Navy and Army, both by former Paul Johnson assistants, because of the personnel deficiencies related to both admissions standards and physical requirements of the academies. (In short, it’s really hard to get into West Point and Annapolis, and once you’re there, life isn’t conducive to building the body of a typical football lineman in the FBS.)
However, it’s not the only offense the Army and Navy staffs are willing to run, nor is it the only version. Just like the many iterations of the Hal Mumme Air Raid, the triple can branch and curve and morph — take a look at Coastal Carolina, for instance — it just probably can’t do those things at the academies, which are far-flung outliers in the college football landscape. It’s my opinion, having spent time around both Jeff Monken and Ken Niumatalolo, that both coaches and their staffs understand and respect the unique weight of their positions – relative to the United States military – that they choose not to engage in the kind of off-the-record politicking and messaging that other college football coaches employ to advance their careers. That’s noble, but it’s also a hindrance, not only to Monken and Niumatalolo but to their coaching trees as well.
At Kansas, Monken is about to face the problem Niumatalolo did with Arizona in 2018. Then-star quarterback Khalil Tate purposefully attacked Arizona’s interest in Niumatalolo, and the school ended up hiring Kevin Sumlin instead. Tate, whose success to that point had come as a mobile quarterback in Rich Rodriguez’s offense (another scheme with heavy option influence), would go on to languish in Sumlin’s Air Raid, but the damage to both Niumatalolo and any coach working in the triple was done.
The sad part is that had Tate known that an Arizona offense under Niumatalolo would’ve been a lot closer to Rodriguez than Johnson, because Navy coaches are capable of and willing to expand their scheme when they have the personnel to do so, he could’ve likely maintained what was, to that point, a Heisman-trajectory career. But rank-and-file athletes don’t know that because, and I’m just throwing this out, those coaches don’t make their flexibility and creativity known loudly enough, lest it look like job-shopping, and convey a disrespect for the armed forces that they don’t actually hold.
Monken believes Army’s overtime losses at Oklahoma in 2018 and Michigan in ‘19, combined with a truly remarkable renovation of a West Point program that was abysmal when he was hired in ‘14, should suffice as enough of a resume for a gig like Kansas. It should, but it won’t, because college football as an industry doesn’t share the same logic as college football as an actual sport.
If it did, there’d be no debate that applying a system with a tendency to chop entire possessions out of the hands of America’s highest-scoring, fastest conference would be a no-brainer, particularly in a Plains state that cannot win by running the same schemes as Oklahoma or Texas with inferior talent. Counterintuitive logic built Bill Snyder’s Kansas State then and Matt Campbell’s Iowa State now. Chasing a marketing campaign gave us Les Miles in Lawrence. Kansas’ issues extend so far beyond football schemes that it’s sort of absurd to discuss this on any kind of granular level, but that any of their stakeholders would object to hiring any winning coach based on the system they bring to the table is even more so.