The college football world won’t be paying too much attention to Lawrence, Kan., Saturday. With the season beginning in earnest this weekend and big-time matchups dotting the schedule across the nation, Kansas versus Southeast Missouri State won’t be but a blip on the radar.
But, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed something happening at Kansas. People talk about things coming full circle, and right now the Jayhawks are maybe halfway back around.
This season marks the 10th anniversary of Kansas finishing 12-1 with a victory against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. With it comes a celebration Saturday honoring that team, placing its All-Americans Aqib Talib and Anthony Collins into the program’s ring of honor, and bringing back Mark Mangino.
Mangino had a 50-48 record in eight seasons at Kansas, and made the Jayhawks relevant on the gridiron. His teams were bowl eligible five times in six seasons and fans were packing into Memorial Stadium with enthusiasm usually reserved for Allen Fieldhouse.
It was a fantastic period for Kansas football, but it also ended badly. Mangino was forced out after the 2009 season amid allegations of verbal abuse.
Opinions on the end of Mangino’s run vary wildly. A handful of players spoke out about the way they were treated. Many defended the coach and plenty of people inside the program say his ouster was undeserved, and there was never an issue until the egos of Mangino and then athletic director Lew Perkins got too big to coexist.
Kansas won its first five games in 2009, then lost the next seven. Some point to that as proof the program was sinking with terrible seasons to come even if Mangino stayed. Others say the Jayhawks were well on their way to another bowl game before the AD started stirring up trouble.
It’s a debate that will never be resolved. Mangino surely did have a temper and it got him in trouble more than once. But he was also a coach who genuinely cared and his teams always played hard and with enthusiasm, something that couldn’t be said about his predecessor Terry Allen or for Turner Gill and Charlie Weis who came after.
As a Kansas native and KU alumnus, two memories of the Mangino era stand out. The coach wasn’t always the greatest fan of the media. But one day in 2003 I showed up to practice and asked Mangino for an interview, a one-on-one beyond the standard group session with the local beat writers.
He predictably said no. I said I understood, it was just that I was working on this project for my reporting class and…
He cut me off right there. “It’s for a class? Come with me, but I have a meeting in 15 minutes.”
For whatever faults he had, a head football coach who hadn’t lost sight of the university’s true purpose was refreshing.
A couple years later I had graduated and moved to the East Coast. In early November I finished up work late on a Friday night and Saturday morning flew out of Raleigh-Durham to watch KU play Nebraska.
When I switched planes in Chicago, the gate to Kansas City was packed with Jayhawks fans. We all knew this was the day the 36-year losing streak to the Huskers would come to an end.
The energy in that O’Hare terminal was unfathomable. If you didn’t know any better you might have guessed this was a traveling party on the way to the national championship game. When I say Mangino made people care about KU football, I mean it.
Since the day Mangino packed up his office, Kansas football has been nothing short of terrible. The hiring of Gill was one of the biggest blunders the athletic department ever made, and hiring Weis was even worse.
But Saturday could be symbolically huge for for the Jayhawks. It’s a reminder that winning football is possible at Kansas, and a subtle hint the current staff knows how to get there. Head coach David Beaty was an assistant under Mangino, as was defensive coordinator Clint Bowen.
Mangino left a blueprint for how to succeed at Kansas, Beaty is the first coach since with the sense to follow it. The Jayhawks won two games last year, the same as Mangino’s first season.
This year Kansas brought in a quality JUCO quarterback in Peyton Bender, reminiscent of Bill Whittemore who got Mangino to his first bowl game in 2003.
Beaty has reconnected with high school programs in state and found under the radar recruits in Texas and Louisiana. And scheduled winnable games in the non-conference. It’s all right out of the Mangino, which adapted from Bill Snyder’s style at Kansas State.
The talent level has increased in the two-plus years since Beaty took over, Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot is a legit playmaker at wide out and preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Dorrance Armstrong anchors a solid defense.
Kansas is a long, long way from getting back to the Orange Bowl. But the Jayhawks and their fans keep getting more and more reminders of what’s possible.