One recent Saturday, a handful of University of Kansas alums sat at a table drinking cans of Miller Lite and chomping cheeseburgers and fries at the Wheel, one of KU’s most popular game-day college bars. They had returned to Lawrence to celebrate the Jayhawks’ homecoming. Half a mile away, at Memorial Stadium, the KU football team was battling Colorado. The Jayhawks’ sensational junior-college-transfer quarterback, Bill Whittemore, had staked his team to an early 15-14 lead.
Playing on the jukebox was U2’s “With or Without You.” One of the alums asked the female bartender to replace it with the radio play-by-play of the football game.
“But wait until this song is over,” piped up one of his companions. “This is a good song.”
They might as well have kept the music on. By the end of the afternoon, the Jayhawks would be defeathered, 53-29.
In fact, the season ended at midnight that same Saturday, when Late Night with Roy Williams tipped off the Jayhawks’ basketball season. On October 12, nearly 16,300 berserk basketball fans crammed into Allen Fieldhouse just to watch a practice. When Oklahoma State’s football team visits KU on November 16, there won’t be that many people in the stands at Memorial Stadium.
In the past twenty years, the Jayhawks have had only five winning seasons (none in the past five years). Stumbling toward November, they stand 2-6 this season.
How bad is it in Lawrence? After KU fell to lowly Baylor, one Dallas TV station rated the Jayhawks football team in its high-school top ten. Baylor’s last win in the Big 12, four years ago, was also over the Jayhawks. You’d have to book passage with Captain Nemo to get lower than losing to Baylor.
Chronic losing creates a stench that repels all but the hardiest fans. Athletic Director Al Bohl hired Coach Mark Mangino in December of 2001 not just to stop the losses but also to put people in the seats and money in the athletic department’s bank account. Mangino has accomplished neither.
What he has brought to the KU football program is concern. His handpicked offensive line coach, Ken Conatser, was spotted arguing with Mangino on the sideline when KU played the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Conatser resigned after the game.
Mangino also made headlines when Lawrence High School took punitive action against him for violating Kansas State High School Activities Association sportsmanship and conduct rules. Mangino allegedly berated and cursed at the referees of his son’s high-school football game in Olathe, prime hunting ground for local college-football recruits. You have to wonder how Mangino answers a potential recruit’s parents who ask, “Aren’t you the fat guy I saw acting like an idiot at the Olathe East game?” Mangino at first refused to apologize for his behavior but later offered watered-down contrition on his radio show.
Mangino says things are fine in Lawrence. “If anybody is waiting for us to wilt and die, it’s not going to happen,” he said at a press conference after last week’s game. “The wheels aren’t going to come off.”
The problem is that the wheels have been off for quite some time. Mangino was supposed to replace them.
By winning his next two games, Mangino could make everyone forget the first two months of the season. The Jayhawks travel to Mizzou on Saturday and then are home against Kansas State the following week. A win over either hated rival would be a huge accomplishment for a first-year coach. Two more losses, though, will put Mangino and Bohl on the endangered species list in Lawrence.