'Don't Mess with Happy'
If there’s one area of football in which Tim Grunhard has demonstrable proficiency, it’s turnaround projects. As a player and coach, he should have a master’s degree in the subject.
In Grunhard’s first year of college football at Notre Dame, which was also legendary coach Lou Holtz’s first year, the Fighting Irish labored through a 5-6 season. By his junior year, they were national champions.
As Grunhard recalls, many people were disguised as empty seats in the Arrowhead Stadium stands in his first of 11 seasons with the Chiefs as the residue lingered from a decade of bad football in the 1980s.
But that team would finish the season 11-5, and by Grunhard’s fourth year, coach Marty Schottenheimer led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game.
That same scenario repeated itself when Grunhard was hired as the head football coach at Bishop Miege High School in 2006. The Stags were 3-7 his first season, but by 2009 they hoisted the trophy as 4A state champions, their first since 1977.
And now he’s made the transition to the college ranks in his second year coaching the offensive line for head coach Charlie Weis at the University of Kansas.
The Jayhawks have won only two Big 12 games in four years, so for Grunhard, it’s another rebuilding project at a football program that’s seen its share of peaks and valleys.
“I believe that Coach Weis can do the same thing here,” Grunhard says. “If I didn’t believe that, there’s no way I would’ve come here. I love the challenge. I love when people say you can’t do something. I love when people say, ‘That can’t be done.’ Because I know that motivates Coach, and we’re very similar with that personality trait.”
Grunhard and Weis developed a friendship while Weis coached at Notre Dame and Grunhard worked at some of his camps. Weis offered him a job on the Irish coaching staff, but first, there needed to be a family vote with him, his wife, Sarah, and their four young children.
The vote was 5-1 against the move to South Bend.
During Weis’ one season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, Grunhard was one of the people he knew who could help get him acclimated to Kansas City. Then when Weis was the offensive coordinator at the University of Florida for a year, Grunhard didn’t hear much from him. But they reconnected when Weis became the head coach at Kansas.
“He asked me if I wanted a job,” Grunhard says, “and we took that family vote.”
The vote was a unanimous 6-0 in favor of joining KU.
In the conference room of KU’s Anderson Family Football Complex, Grunhard says he had a few apprehensions about making the jump from high school to college, and when he arrived he was the
Jayhawks’ third offensive line coach in four years. But the players increasingly took to his teaching, and he hopes the toughness he developed as a player is being transmitted to the offensive linemen at Kansas.
Sometimes he’s an echo chamber of the pearls of wisdom he’s learned from his famous coaches. The guys have heard about the “six inches between your breastbone and backbone,” how the heart is the true measure of a player. That’s classic Schottenheimer. Grunhard also cites Holtz’s P.R.I.D.E. acronym, Personal Responsibility In Daily Excellence, as something he tells his players.
“If they have a good offensive line of good people that are unselfish and work together as a team, you’re going to have a good football team,” Holtz says. “Tim Grunhard is that type of person, and he’ll help build that type of team. In four years, the only time he was ever in my office was when I wanted to compliment him on something. Tim was never a problem, not one single time.”
Part of Grunhard’s responsibility this season is to decide who will replace three starters on the offensive line — Tanner Hawkinson, Trevor Marrongelli and Duane Zlatnik — who were fifth-year seniors. During spring ball, he’s liked what’s he seen from the new kids.
“Obviously we don’t have the luxury of having guys with experience, but we also have a bunch of young guys that are hungry,” Grunhard says. “They’re working real hard, and they’re trying to make their place in Kansas football history. You can’t replace time on the field, and you can’t replace reps in games, and you can’t replace being in certain situations, but the one thing that you always get with new young guys is you get that sense of they’re really excited to be involved, and there’s an adrenaline rush that goes along with being new.”
Grunhard’s so focused on what his football team has on Fambrough Way that he says he’s not too worried about what the other teams in the Big 12 have. What the Jayhawks have that he’s most encouraged by this offseason is leadership, starting with Weis and trickling down to players like quarterback Jake Heaps, a transfer from BYU, and defensive newcomer Marquel Combs.
“Last year, I didn’t think we had some guys who were willing to put their necks out and be that guy,” Grunhard says. “We’ve got plenty of them this year, and most good teams that I’ve been on, you’ve got guys that lay it on the line and say, ‘I’ll be the leader.’ And I think we have some of those guys this year.”
Living the Dream
Grunhard was one of those leaders when he played 169 games for the Chiefs, and it’s just a reality of college coaching that he doesn’t know as much as he’d like about them. One thing he does know is that he’s loved Chiefs head coach Andy Reid since working at camps with him when Reid was the offensive line coach at the University of Missouri. Andy Heck, Grunhard’s Notre Dame teammate who played tackle for three NFL teams, is Reid’s offensive line coach.
“Anything that Andy Heck and Andy Reid get together and do,” Grunhard says, “has got to have success.”
As the Chiefs try to rebound from a 2-14 season, Grunhard makes the K-10 commute from Lawrence to Kansas City, envisioning a win against Kansas State in the Sunflower Showdown and an invitation to a prominent bowl game that would help turn around the program.
“Lou Holtz used to say this to me all the time,” Grunhard says, “and I’ve asked him different times about different jobs, and I think this is a great line and great advice. He said, ‘Tim, is your wife happy in Kansas City?’ ‘Yeah, I think she’s happy.’ ‘What about your kids? Are your kids happy in Kansas City?’ ‘Well, I think they’re happy. They like their school. They like their friends.’ ‘Don’t mess with happy!’ So I didn’t.”
photos: Jeff Jacobsen / Kansas Athletics