Torture On The Plains
Whereas Kansas alums and fans enjoy great success in basketball, the universal opposite is Kansas football. Imagine crawling through the desert, encountering someone who gives you a drop of water, then yanks away the canteen and disappears. That is Kansas football, years of torture with occasional sunny days. And when we do get it right, we can't get out of our own way. One step forward, five steps back, that is Jayhawk football.
I attended my first KU football games in the 1980s. It's funny, because Lawrence High School dominated football in Kansas in those days, yet the Jayhawks looked incapable week after week. In the 1980s, most teams used power running formations or option football. KU took the field always appearing 20 pounds lighter, three inches shorter, and two steps slower than their contemporaries. Nebraska and Oklahoma often roared to huge margins of victory, often just running the football.
As part of my Boy Scout duties, I sold concessions during the infamous 1987 and 1988 seasons, in which KU won just one game. While I would walk the stands in the first half, I often staked out the exits after halftime to persuade fans to have one soda for the road. It's a decent strategy when the team is losing 56-0, but the concession managers didn't like it. KU didn't win a single game in 1987. Neither did K-State. Appropriately, the two teams finished in a tie when they played in Manhattan that year. The media called it the toilet bowl. In 1988, KU hired a coach from Kent State named Glen Mason. In fact, Mason had beaten KU during the infamous winless season of 1987.
Glen Mason recruited heavily from his home state of Ohio, as well as junior colleges. Surprisingly, KU began to improve. Kansas remained two steps below the good teams, but we started beating the lesser teams. We actually put a few players in the NFL. By 1992, KU played well enough to earn its first bowl game in more than a decade. At that time, college football teams needed to be legitimately good to reach a bowl game. We played in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas, and won. KU looked competitive and repeated the Aloha Bowl trick in 1995. But as I mentioned earlier, KU could not get out of its own way.
Glen Mason left for Georgia, changed his mind, spent another year at Kansas and left for Minnesota. In that chaos, KU hired a coach from I-AA Northern Iowa named Terry Allen. I'm sure Allen could coach, but he had no idea the organization required to run a Division I program, nor the level of players he needed. Allen recruited the kinds of players he would have recruited at UNI, and brought his coaching staff too. Predictably, KU faltered. The Jayhawks lost embarrassing games to San Diego State and at Southern Methodist. Allen was your classic "nice guy" coach, the opposite of Glen Mason. Allen had no control over his players. Dion Rayford, a defensive lineman, infamously got stuck in a Taco Bell drive-thru window in an attempt to correct a mistaken order. Two more players, Mario Kinsey and Reggie Duncan, stole a woman's credit card and ordered a pizza for delivery-- to their apartment. KU fired Allen with a few games left in the 2001 season.
The early 2000s had been a tumultuous time at KU. The university dropped a couple of men's sports to save money, leading to the athletic director's resignation. The new A.D. had fired Terry Allen and replaced him with the man who ran the offense for national champion Oklahoma-- Mark Mangino.
Mangino brought the tough guy mantra back to KU. He recruited heavily in Oklahoma and Texas, looking for the C-list players to coach up. As bowl games increased in number, KU began to take advantage. Finishing .500 in 2003, KU landed in the Tangerine Bowl, where they promptly got blown out by Phillip Rivers and North Carolina State. For the first time in a while, KU looked promising. The Jayhawks returned to a bowl game in 2005, this time winning the Fort Worth Bowl, the first bowl win in a decade. In 2006, a non-bowl season, KU burned the red-shirt of a short freshman quarterback named Todd Reesing. Losing to Colorado, Reesing made his debut in the second half, ripping off a 50-yard run on his first series. He led the team to victory, and played here and there the rest of the season. This set KU up for a remarkable 2007 that no one saw coming.
KU set up 2007 nicely. They started Reesing at quarterback, moved Kerry Meier to wide receiver, and had NFL talent on both sides of the ball. The staggered Big 12 schedule allowed KU to miss Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech that year. Furthermore, Coach Mangino had installed a new no-huddle offense in which players looked to the sidelines for the play, and potentially a change in the play based on how the defense reacted. The fluidity of play shocked even the most blue-sky KU fans. In the first game, we jumped out to a huge lead on Central Michigan, a team with its own NFL-caliber quarterback en route to an easy victory. Yards and points accumulated in a hurry. KU even beat Nebraska 76-39, a game I will never forget. KU ultimately finished with one loss and a trip to the Orange Bowl, which I attended. I said to myself "I may never see anything like this again in my life." I'm likely correct.
KU played in the Insight Bowl in December 2008, then the bottom collapsed. At the time of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, KU decided to fire Mark Mangino for being mean to players. They hired, against all good sense, Turner Gill, and gave him a guaranteed contract. Gill opened his tenure by losing to FCS school North Dakota State 6-3. Fans wanted to fire him on the spot, and Gill never recovered. So we bought out his contract after two years and hired Charlie Weis. We're spending a lot of money on bad football, and that doesn't even account for the stadium situation. In an arms race, KU is playing with sticks and stones, heads completely buried in sand regarding the importance of winning football to a university's well-being. Just ask Kansas State. The school nearly fell apart, but more than 20 years of winning football has KSU winning the t-shirt battle off the field, the games on the field, and now the infrastructure battle. The stadium is so open noise disappears into thin air. KU just removed the track around the field in 2014. I weep for KU's football future.
KU fired Charlie Weis in 2014. Weis won six games in three seasons, including three against non-FBS opponents. Clint Bowen finished the remainder of the season, with the Jayhawks looking somewhat competitive. In the offseason, KU hired David Beaty, a man with no coordinator experience. Beaty is energetic and puts faith in relationships. How he coaches on the field remains to be seen. But Beaty starts in a huge hole. Through graduation, transfers, knuckleheads and general apathy, KU began 2015 spring football with around 45-50 scholarship players. It will take at least three years just to reach 75 (the annual limit is 85). Beaty will be an underdog in every game.
I can't stand college football
Saturdays are rotten when your team looks inept week after week. It's a commitment just to attend a game, an all-day affair, and no one wants to be smacked in the face watching a barely-capable team lose by 40 points. College football is a full-time job, and for kids who don't have the talent, I can't see how they continue to play. The more successful schools take kids who have no business being in college, transform them into battering rams for four or five years, and set them free. Maybe they have a degree. A handful can play professionally. Most suffer debilitating injuries, especially head trauma and knee problems. If you fall behind because of injury, the coach will suggest you leave so a healthy pawn can take your place. It's vicious Roman theater, and yet we watch week in, and week out.