Last weekend the Kansas Jayhawk football team took to the field under a new head man in Coach Turner Gill. For the Jayhawks to turnover a head coach in football isn't all that unique an event. In their 119 seasons of recorded history the Jayhawks have seen 38 different head coaches, including a one season stint by a name familiar to Kansas basketball fans, Phog Allen.
Of the 38 coaches that have held the title of head coach for the University of Kansas, few have walked away having left an indelible mark on the program. Kansas coaches have often seen success, only to move on or fail to maintain it and eventually leave. Since 1950 only two coaches have been able to boast a winning record for their careers, while the four others who were arguably the most successful all left for other schools.
So what makes this time any different? What is it about this Kansas recovery that's different than the other rebuild projects of the past? Fortunately the answer is plenty. The Kansas Jayhawks have reason to be optimistic, reason to hope and reason to believe a fresh start might really be the best thing that could happen.
Last November when news broke regarding an internal investigation into the conduct of Mark Mangino many fans and college football followers were a bit stunned. Mark Mangino was approaching history at Kansas as the most successful coach in the schools history. The Jayhawks were just two seasons removed from a record setting 12-1 Orange Bowl season and despite the puzzling struggles of 2009, the future appeared bright in terms of recruiting and talent filtering into the program.
Clearly that was the view from the outside. On the inside it turns out, the environment was fairly toxic. Players who spent most of their lives devoted to the sport of football were burning out at a uncontrollable rate. Just three months into the season a freshman on the football team described his football experience as being "used to it". Players were going through the motions getting through the day and the end result on the field reflected it.
Obviously you can't deny what Coach Mangino accomplished. In his defense, several players stepped forward and credited his techniques with turning the tide of the program and making better players out of them. Still, the overwhelming sentiment of the players in the program appeared to be quite the opposite. Playing with fear, playing without passion and playing tight was the norm. Which is why this recovery is so different.
Exit staqe left for Mark Mangino and enter into the picture an optimistic, charismatic coach who is as passionate about people as he is about the game. From the moment he stepped foot on campus, Turner Gill has cared about players that were hardly his own. Gill spent the early weeks holding one on one meetings with players, getting to know them as people and discuss his background and beliefs. Gill recruited on those same principals and was able to put together a very respectable class in a very short time. Now two months later a new era begins in Lawrence.
Remember, before from the outside looking in, everything was fine. Coach Mangino and the staff were successfully bringing better talent to Lawrence immediately following the Orange Bowl season of 2007. The fans were turning out in record numbers, the athletic department and donors were supporting the program like never before.
Therein lies the difference between this recovery and every other recovery in Kansas' past. This one comes on the heels of a successful era, with momentum still behind it. In the past coaches had been fired for failure or moved on with success. Kansas wasn't a program where a coach could succeed and because of that, every time there was turnover, it meant starting over.
Coach Gill takes the keys to an engine in need of a slight tune up, but not an overhaul. The program is in better shape from a support standpoint than it's ever been. The talent pool is far from depleted. Most importantly, hope rings eternal with Kansas players. Those who lost their way, have a fresh start. Players battered and bruised are now mentally healed. There's much to be said for a renewed hope, a fresh start and a different look. The Jayhawks have that.
Kansas might find themselves picked at or near the bottom in the Big 12 by most. The rest of the country probably believes Kansas is in just another rebuild. However spirits are high in Lawrence and most within the program are likely viewing this one differently.